Commentary on John 20:19-31
“So that you may come to believe . . . “
As our Easter celebrations continue we hear of further encounters with the risen Christ. And it is with the two scenes in today’s reading, Jesus’ appearance to the disciples and Thomas’ experience, that scholars believe John’s gospel came to an end; the final chapter being a later addition.
With this conclusion, unlike Luke who opened his gospel with the explanation for his writing of his “orderly account,” John, the author and narrator, finally steps into the scene to explain why he has written his gospel. The risen Jesus, John explains, did many other things, but he, the gospeler, has written down these stories and joyous news of Jesus’ resurrection so that future readers and generations to come may read and “come to believe that Jesus is the . . . Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
From the soaring poetry with which John opened his gospel — sending the reader back to the “big bang” of the creation of the universe, to this final intimate moment of comfort and assurance, John wants us to know that we did not have to be there in person. We did not have to walk the paths with Jesus. We did not have to witness the miracles first hand. We did not have to be locked in that upper room. Through the reading of John’s message we may hear the stories and come to believe. And, in believing, we may have life eternal.
When the Gospel messages are read on Easter morning and the Sundays that follow, choruses of joyful hymns reverberate. Likewise, banks of flowers greet our senses. We are celebrating the good news that has been passed down through the generations. Therefore, it is difficult for us to enter into the moments of fear and uncertainty in which John places us. In the darkness of that first day of the week, Mary, Peter, and the beloved disciple did not know what had happened. Had the body of their teacher and friend been stolen? It began a day that would be filled with an empty tomb, heavenly messengers, and the news that the man they had watched hanging on a cross; the man whose dead body they had laid in a tomb, was now walking and talking to their friend. How could they make sense of what was happening to Jesus; to them?
Now we find ourselves again in the dark. These are the people who heard the news from Peter that the tomb was empty. These are the friends and followers of Jesus to whom Mary brought the message that she had met the risen Christ. She gave them Jesus’ message. But what are they doing this night? They do not seem to be celebrating. They have locked the door for fear that the same thing that happened to Jesus will happen to them. Into that locked room Jesus appears.
John seems to be telling us that everything has changed. Into that moment of fear and surprise, Jesus comes with a message of comfort, “Peace be with you.” In fact, he offers that message to them twice. First, when they first see this figure suddenly appear before them. Then, he repeats this message once again after they realize that they, like Mary before them, have finally met the risen Christ. But it is important for us to notice that they neither recognize him nor rejoice until Jesus shows them his hands and his side. We should not chastise Thomas for later asking for the same manifestation.
All was coming to a fulfillment. Jesus had assured them earlier that he would bring them comfort and joy (John 17:12-13). He would give them an advocate, “the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father” (John 15:26). And with that Spirit, he would send them into the world to continue the work and spread the message so “that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23). Now, in their presence, Jesus breathes on them. They are all touched with the Holy Spirit. In John’s gospel, unlike Luke’s which separates the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit by fifty days, these happen on one day.
The disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit so that they would become messengers of the good news of what God had done in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And they were to proclaim God’s love for the entire world. Strengthened by the Holy Spirit they were to fling open the locked doors of fear. To Thomas they brought their words of comfort. He demanded what they had experienced — to see the wounded hands and the pierced side of his Rabbi.
John tells us that a week later the disciples, once again, had gathered together. (But notice that this time the doors although shut, are not locked). Thomas is now with them. Again they are given the gift of peace and again Jesus offers his hands and side to a disciple Thomas. He does not seem to chide Thomas for his skepticism. Rather, Jesus asks Thomas not to be apistos — unbelieving. It is then Thomas who declares what Gail O’Day describes as the “high point of the Gospel’s Christological confessions,”1 “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)
Finally, in the end, John once again returns to one of the earliest encounters with Jesus at the opening of the gospel. Here, Jesus asks Thomas if he believes because he had seen Jesus. When Jesus first met one who was to be a disciple, Nathanael, Jesus challenged him, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” (John 1:50) And what would Nathanael see? What did Thomas see? What do we see — “heaven opened and the angles of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (John 1:51)
Do we come to this Easter message in the dark? Do we come, like Mary and the disciples with fear, misunderstanding, and uncertainty? In the end, this is not a story of absence and doubt. It is the amazing message that the good news of Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is able to break through locked rooms, through the limits of time and space. We are all, John is trying to tell us, like Thomas. We were not in that upper room on the “evening on that day, the first day of the week.” But that does not matter.
Like Thomas, we all depend upon disciples and gospel writers to bear witness to the news that brings life. And Jesus has empowered that witness. So, whether it is Mary telling the disciples that first morning, Peter joyfully telling Thomas what happened to them when he was absent, or you, the preacher, standing before your community in 2012, we all have been given the message and the power to invite people into the reign of God.
1Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 850.