Commentary on John 20:19-31
This reading is one of four post-resurrection stories in the Gospel of John. The first is the Easter morning narrative, in which Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb and finds the stone removed. She notifies Peter and the Beloved Disciple, who then come but leave for their homes (20:1-10). The second story in John’s Gospel relates the appearance of the risen Jesus to Mary Magdalene (20:11-18).
The next two stories make up the reading for the Second Sunday of Easter. The first takes place on the evening of Easter Day, an appearance of Jesus to his disciples, when Thomas is absent (20:19-25). The second narrates an appearance of Jesus to his disciples a week later when Thomas is present (20:26-31). These two scenes can be treated separately and then together.
The first of the two scenes (20:19-25) opens with the disciples gathered at a house in the evening of Easter Day in or near Jerusalem. The reason for the disciples to meet behind locked doors is fear, but the effect upon us as we hear the story is that we anticipate a miracle. We are not disappointed. The resurrected Jesus appears miraculously.
No explanation is given for the gathering of the disciples. But in the previous verse (20:18) the evangelist says that Mary Magdalene had reported the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the disciples. Both Peter and the Beloved Disciple had come to the tomb in the morning, but it was only the Beloved Disciple who had actually come to believe in Jesus’ resurrection (20:8). Peter had not yet come to believe, nor had the other disciples. But in the sequel (20:11-18) the risen Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene. She recognizes who he is, and she tells the disciples that she had seen the risen Lord.
The scene unfolds in 20:19b-23 with a series of four events.
(1) Jesus appears in the midst of the disciples and gives them the common Jewish greeting: “Peace” (“Shalom”). He identifies himself by showing his hands and side. The reaction of the disciples is one of rejoicing.
(2) A commissioning follows (20:21). Jesus says that he had been sent by the Father. That is a common affirmation in the Gospel of John (41 times). Jesus was sent into the world to reveal the Father, teach, and gather disciples. Furthermore, he declared that after his return to the Father, he would send his disciples to continue his ministry (17:18). Now that is being fulfilled.
(3) The “Johannine Pentecost” follows in 20:22. According to the Fourth Evangelist, the gift of the Spirit was bestowed on the evening of Easter Day itself, not on Pentecost some seven weeks later, as Luke has it. The disciples are immediately commissioned and given the Spirit as a power that will enable them to witness to Christ.
(4) The authorization to forgive sins completes the series of events on Easter Day (20:23). The passage is similar to those in Matthew 16:19 and 18:18.
Important as the foregoing scene is, the interest of the preacher and the congregation will probably focus more on the second of the two scenes in our reading.
That scene (20:26-29) opens with the disciples gathered again in the house on the following Sunday, but this time Thomas is present. Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds and to believe. We do not know whether Thomas actually does that or not, but he confesses his faith: “My Lord and my God!” In making that confession, it is not likely that he is expressing a full-blown ontological Christology, as presented in the creeds and christological formulas of the fourth and fifth centuries. What he says, in effect, is that he has encountered the presence of God in the risen Jesus.
The final verse of the scene (20:29), a punch-line, is a bit tricky. One could take it as a rebuke of Thomas, whose faith is dependent upon seeing Jesus, in contrast to those who believe without seeing him. But that reading is not the only possibility. His coming to faith through seeing is not discredited. After all, in that regard he is no different from the others, for they too believe only on the basis of the appearance of Christ to them. It is better to discern another contrast. That is a contrast between two ways of coming to faith. The one is through seeing; the other is through a means apart from seeing. And that is through hearing and believing the gospel proclaimed by Jesus’ witnesses.
Jesus’ beatitude (“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”) puts Christians of all times and places on the same plane before God as that of the original disciples. The latter, to whom the risen Jesus appeared, were bound by time and place in first century Jerusalem. But others have come to believe far and wide without that originating experience. The beatitude is addressed to the reader or hearer of the Gospel of John. We who have come to faith are declared blessed as we hear the gospel being read.
The most obvious reason for assigning this reading for the Second Sunday of Easter is that the Thomas story falls chronologically on the Sunday after Easter. But there is another reason for using it as a basis for preaching, and that is to emphasize its two ways of coming to faith.
First, what did it take for persons to become believers in ancient times? We might assume that faith came easily to the disciples of Jesus. But our story shows that it did not. It took an appearance of the risen Jesus to them. Thomas, like the other disciples, insists on more than hearsay. He is thoughtful and discerning, and in that way he is a good model for us.
Second, what does it take for persons to become believers in our time? It is impossible to establish the facticity of the resurrection to everyone’s satisfaction. As with the affirmation that God created the world, so too the affirmation that God raised Jesus from death to life goes beyond the usual rules of evidence. But what is clear is that the twin claims are consistent with one another (both speak of creation out of nothing), and they are consistent with the kind of God who is revealed in the Scriptures. Faith is not a certainty based on physical perception, but is trust grounded in insight into the reality of God, what God is capable of doing, and how Jesus fits into the larger drama. One should not believe all religious claims that come to us, but the story of Jesus continues to engage us and calls us to belief in him as risen Lord. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”