Commentary on John 20:19-31
Here we are again.
Don’t we kind of feel like this every year, the Sunday after Easter? If you are fortunate enough to have a seminary intern, do you decide that it’s her turn to preach? Or, if you are in a multiple staff situation, do you draw straws for who gets this Sunday? Doubting Thomas. Every year. Every Second Sunday of Easter in Years A, B, and C. And, if we had a Year D — a year for John, well, I guess logically it would be there, too.
Of course, the working preacher could bypass Thomas altogether and focus on John’s Pentecost (20:19-23). But then you wouldn’t have John to preach on for Pentecost Sunday and my Brainwave co-host Matt Skinner has written a fine commentary on that part of today’s text. So, we are stuck with Thomas.
Is there a way to get unstuck from our first reactions to this text? Maybe all we need is a few reminders to remove the “ho-hum” from this disciple. For example, let’s start with the name we have assigned to Thomas for all of these many years — Doubting Thomas. Of course, the word is not “doubt” but a very Johannine word, “unbelieving” (apistos). While that doesn’t have the same ring to it as the usual moniker, it is certainly more true to what it means to believe in John’s Gospel.
Always a verb, never a noun, believing for John is a statement of abiding in Jesus. To believe in Jesus is not an assertion of certain doctrinal commitments, nor is it something that is strong one day but wavering the next. To believe in Jesus is the same thing as saying “I abide in you and you abide in me.” It is a creedal assertion only insofar as it affirms the existing relationship between Jesus and the believer. Believing in John’s Gospel is certainly a confession that Jesus is the Word made flesh, but the existential, ontological reality of the incarnation intimates that a confession of faith is more so a confession of a relationship.
Another reminder that might dislodge our tenuous reactions to Thomas can be Thomas’s own confession. His seemingly simple words, “My Lord and my God,” essentially summarize the entire Gospel. One should capitalize, bold, or italicize the “and” in his statement. Jesus is Lord, our Lord, but Jesus is also God, the “I AM,” the dwelling of God in the flesh.
And notice the pronoun — “my” Lord and “my” God, not “the” Lord and “the” God because again, confession is not assent to dogma but a claim about relationship. To what extent does Thomas need to see this flesh again in order to know John 1:14? There is a sense that Thomas’s request brings the Gospel full circle. Thomas’s confession takes us all the way back to the beginning of the Gospel. In the beginning was the Word, the Word was God, and the Word became flesh. We are reminded that for this Gospel, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and the ascension are all one event, interchangeably a part of the Word made flesh.
A final note that might succeed in loosening our mired and misinterpreted Thomas is the ending of the chapter ends. These words are written for a purpose: so that you may “come to believe/continue to believe.” For those working preachers out there who anxiously await references to text critical issues, here’s your moment. There is equal textual evidence, both internally and externally, to read an aorist subjunctive or a present subjunctive for “believe.” This Gospel is for those who are yet to believe in Jesus as well as for the current believers to be sustained in their faith.
If we have been successful in getting ourselves unstuck from centuries of giving Thomas a bad rap, we now find ourselves behind closed doors. Twice Jesus will meet the disciples as “I am the door” from chapter 10. Our typical readings of John 10 locate “I am the gate” exclusively in the context of shepherding and sheep or with the phrase “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” But the word in chapter ten is door, again used here in chapter 20.
Jesus as the door is the life giving image, providing pasture, protection, and provision. Jesus was also the door in chapter 18, standing between the disciples who safely in the garden and the 600 plus soldiers who stand outside of the garden ready to arrest him. The provision that Jesus gives is fully realized in that locked room when Jesus breathes into them (emphusao) the Spirit. Thomas is not there for that first giving of the spirit. The story of Thomas reminds us once again of the grace upon grace through Jesus. Jesus comes back for Thomas because he will not lose a single one of those whom the Father gave him (18:9).
Seeing is Not Believing
Well, it just depends. This is a full sensory Gospel. Sometimes it’s tasting (John 6), sometimes it’s smelling (John 11), sometimes it’s hearing (John 10), sometimes it’s touching (John 13:23), and sometimes it is seeing. This is what it means to be human and to experience relationships as human beings. A full, intimate, meaningful relationship will encompass the entirety of who we are and what it means to be human. God wants nothing less than this kind of relationship with us.
We tend to forget that the disciples who did happen to be in the room when Jesus became “I am the door” once again also needed to see for themselves. Jesus’ first resurrection appearance is for Mary in the garden, to which she responds by going to the disciples and saying, “I have seen the Lord!” Now, the disciples do not say “Great! That’s amazing! We believe you!” There is no response to her announcement. Instead, Jesus finds them (as he did the blind man who had been thrown out) huddled somewhere with the doors locked for fear that they too would be thrown out of the synagogue — their families, their community.
They have to have their own encounter with Jesus. He appears to them and they rejoice when they see the Lord (20:20). The disciples then say the same words of Mary to Thomas, “We have seen the Lord,” but Thomas has to have his own encounter with the risen Christ. When the Samaritan woman at the well goes to her town to tell of her encounter with Jesus, they go to Jesus and “abide” with him, saying to her, “It is no longer what you said, but we have heard for ourselves.” This is not a slight against her but confirmation that believing in Jesus is not about believing in someone else’s experience of Jesus, but having your own encounter with the Word made flesh. It’s a belief system that makes sense if incarnation is taken seriously.
On this first Sunday after Easter, these words are for us. You can believe in the resurrection all you want, but in the end that’s not the point. The resurrection is not only just the resurrection, as incredible as that is, but that Jesus is the Resurrection and the life. Belief and life are synonyms in the Fourth Gospel, as promise for our future, but even more so as grace in our present.