This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on April 3, 2016.
In a number of ways, this text serves as the pinnacle of John’s gospel. Themes which run like threads through the fabric of the gospel find their culmination in this text. If one views chapter 21 as the epilogue of the gospel, then this text serves as the conclusion to the core narrative. Its location in the narrative and its theological density demand that the preacher interpret this text against the overarching Johannine narrative.
The disciples were huddled behind closed doors. At this point in the story, they are no longer hiding from the horrors of crucifixion but the wonders of resurrection. The preacher might want to pause and illustrate ways in which resurrection upsets the status quo as much as crucifixion does. The resurrection says, “The world doesn’t work the way you’ve always thought it worked.” Many find it easier to huddle up and retain whatever normality remains rather than live into the subversion of resurrection. However, in this text, Jesus sends his followers out rather than blessing their huddle. Followers of Jesus cannot stay in our huddles, largely because he did not stay in his tomb.
John is explicit about the prevailing sentiment behind the closed doors. They were behind the doors because of fear, one of the most powerful human emotions. Fear shuts all sorts of doors in our lives. It shuts the door to anyone who is “other” because it sees them as a threat more than a friend. Fear causes us to live out of reptilian fight or flight rather than the deeper virtues of faith, hope, and love. Fear causes us to react to what we fear rather than reflect the one we worship. When one lives in a constant state of fear, it can actually rewire the brain so that everything looks like a threat. Fear had the disciples behind locked doors.
Despite the pervasiveness of walls and locked doors, however, Jesus walked right through them. And his greeting to them was one of peace. Jesus spoke extensively about peace earlier in chapter 14. He promised peace that was something other than the peace known in the world. He promised the sort of peace that is more received than achieved. He promised the sort of peace that dispels fear. The preacher might want to connect Jesus’ teaching on peace in chapter 14 and his pronouncement of peace in chapter 21.
One of the most central themes of the Gospel of John, the relationship between faith (which is always in the verb form of believing) and evidence (seeing, hearing, etc.) reaches its apex in these verses. The very first sign of turning water into wine in Cana was meant to reveal Jesus’ glory and evoke faith in the disciples (John 2.1-11). They believed because they saw. Midway through the gospel, however, faith is less based on signs than the necessary predisposition for seeing them. “I believe because I see” becomes “I see because I believe.” Chapter nine recounts the ironic tale of a blind man who can see and the crowd which is blind. At the conclusion of this text, John reveals this theme in his purpose statement for the entire gospel, “I have written these things so that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in his name” (20.31). This important Johannine theme is personified in the character of Thomas, who bears the misnomer “doubting.” Thomas refuses to believe the disciples’ testimony because he lacks the evidence. He has not seen, and therefore, he will not believe. However, when confronted with the evidence, Thomas responds with the great confession of the gospel, “My Lord and my God” (20.28). Jesus responds by affirming those who have believed without seeing.
Thomas’ confession would have sounded extremely subversive in the ancient world. The phrase, “Lord and God” was a common phrase used in reference to Caesar. The participants in the imperial court frequently hailed Caesar as Lord and God. To use these terms in reference to Jesus is to subvert the status quo of the Roman Empire. If Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord and God, then reality has been radically reimagined. When preaching this text, this subversive political dimension must not be underestimated.
The preacher must address the peculiar action of Jesus breathing on his disciples before sending them out. The “Johannine Pentecost” is distinctive from the others. The same breath which animated Jesus in the tomb is now breathed into the motley crew of disciples huddled in fear. The Spirit transforms them even as it transformed the body of Jesus. Jesus sends the disciples out in the power of the same spirit which empowered his work from beginning to end. The disciples share both Jesus’ purpose and Jesus’ power as they continue his work in the world. Since chapter 14 of John, Jesus has been teaching his followers about the ongoing witness of the Spirit. This teaching finds its culmination in Jesus breathing on his disciples.
Perhaps a sermon lies in the theological reflection of Jesus – even the resurrected Jesus – revealing himself through his wounds. One might think that the resurrection would erase any hint of Jesus’ woundedness, especially in the high Christology of John. However, Jesus is recognized by his wounds. The potency of this revelation isn’t only in what it says about Jesus, but what it indicates about God. God is not a stranger to human suffering. In fact, God experiences the fullness of the human experience, agony and ecstasy not withstanding.
This text serves as a culmination of the Johannine plot. The rich symbols, theological trajectories, and poignant pronouncements provide the preacher a number of places from which to proclaim the gospel, walk through walls of fear, pronounce peace, and send the church out to continue in the purposes and power of Jesus.
Dr. Preston Clegg
Second Baptist Church, Little Rock, Arkansas
Tags: Thomas, wounds, resurrection, signs, Spirit