April 27, 2014
What a meeting for the apostle Thomas to miss!
On the evening of Easter Jesus appears to the disciples. He offers them his peace, sends them into the world to carry on his mission of New Creation, breathes the Holy Spirit into them, like the Lord God breathing into the clay figure of the first man in Genesis 2, and then he gives them the power to forgive sins: all of these gifts are given so they can create communities of reconciliation, not of revenge, of self-giving, not self-protection. So they can live Easter lives in a Good Friday world. (I read this line somewhere but can’t remember where)
In John’s gospel this is the birth of the Church—and Thomas misses it!
The disciples tell Thomas they have seen Jesus, but he’s not buying it.
–Because the word “resurrection” means something very specific for Jews living in the first century.
I’ve known a number of widows and widowers who told me that shortly after their spouses died they felt their presence and heard their voice in the house at night.
This is a known experience in every culture. It is called a vision or a spiritual visitation or sometimes a hallucination.
Jews had this experience, too, but no first century Jew would call it resurrection.
Also, most Jews of that time believed that when a person dies their soul separates from the body and goes to wait with God for the general resurrection at the end of the age.
No first century Jew would call the soul going to God resurrection, either.
For many Jews, including the Pharisees, but not the Sadducees, resurrection is the word used to describe God’s mighty act at the end of the age in which all the righteous dead would be brought back to bodily life and placed in a new earth under the reign of God.
The disciples don’t tell Thomas they’ve seen and heard Jesus’ spirit. They don’t say that Jesus’ soul is with God in heaven.
Rather, they tell Thomas that the crucified Jesus of Nazareth has appeared to them in a resurrection body, what has been called a trans-physical body see N. T. Wright The Resurrection of the Son of God, that could be seen, heard, and touched, and yet could also appear and disappear in rooms with locked doors.
And by claiming that Jesus has been resurrected it means God has vindicated Jesus’ mission, overcome the power of death which is the result of sin, and established a beachhead of the Kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven.
So Thomas has to overcome at least three hurdles if he is going to join his brothers and sisters in believing that Jesus has been raised from the dead
First, Thomas has to overcome his traditional belief that resurrection would happen at the end of the age, not now.
Second, he must overcome his belief that resurrection would happen to all the people at once and not just to one.
And third, and most importantly, he must be convinced that the experience the disciples are claiming is a physical experience of the crucified Jesus and not just a vision.
So he says to his fellow disciples, “I won’t believe, I can’t believe, until I am convinced this is the resurrected crucified Jesus and not just his ghost.
Until Thomas has that experience he won’t believe their testimony, but notice what he does do–he stays with them. I think he is beginning to recognize that these men and women are changing—that whatever happened on that night is transforming them.
One example is that his friends have had a shattering experience yet they are still willing to keep the disbelieving Thomas in their community.
They are willing and able to forgive his unbelief.
So a week later they are all together and Jesus shows up and addresses Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
Please notice something most artists have failed to notice: Thomas does not actually touch Jesus: Rather, his disbelief crumbles the moment the Risen Jesus calls his name and offers to answer his doubts. Thomas cries out: My Lord and my God.
Now Thomas’ worldview has been shattered:
One moment he thinks the Roman Empire has all the power. The next moment he proclaims Jesus as Lord and not Caesar.
One moment he thinks death always wins, but the next he knows God is bigger than death and death’s acolyte, sin.
One moment he thinks he has backed the wrong horse, but in the next he knows Jesus has been vindicated by God, and that as Paul says, “In Jesus every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes’.” 2 Corinthians 1:20
One moment his chief concern is organizing his life around his own needs for protection, meaning, and happiness, but in the next his life is radically re-centered. Again, Paul would say 20 years later to the baptized in Colossae: “You have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Colossians 3:3
It would be fairly easy for us to believe the disciples had some sort of spiritual experience of Jesus, just like with what happens to those who grieve today.
We’d also have no problem if all that is being asserted is that Jesus’ soul now lives with God in heaven. We believe that about loved ones less holy than Jesus.
But this is not what is being presented to us. We are being presented a resurrected Jesus, with a trans-physical body.
This is why the tomb is empty. If someone could have produced the corpse then whatever was going on would not have been called resurrection.
The apostolic witness we are being presented is the working out of the incarnation: in John 1 we are told the “Word that was God… became flesh and dwelt among us” in the old creation. On Good Friday the “Word become flesh” is killed by the powers of evil that rule the old creation.
Now, we are told the “Word become flesh” is raised from the dead, overcoming evil, sin and death, and calling ordinary women and men, broken, sinful people like us to be filled with the Spirit of God in order to continue Jesus’ ministry of the New Creation.
We are being presented the Risen Christ which means we are being presented the victory of God over all empires, including our own: as Will Willimon puts it, “…the risen Christ is …the one who rescues us…today from having to live with no hope beyond America.” Undone by Easter, pg 42
In short the resurrection of Jesus presents us with a shattering personal crisis of decision: Thomas could have walked away from his friends and their outrageous report. He could have gone back to his old job, his old worldview, back to the old world with its certainty that even a holy man like Jesus can’t break in and turn everything upside down.
He could have but he didn’t.
Instead he chooses to stay with his Spirit-filled, forgiving, mission-minded friends to see for himself if what they report could be true.
It is a huge risk, because if you stick around such believers then there is a good chance your life is also going to be radically transformed by the Incarnate and Risen One who is Lord and God.