So here we are, hidden away in the upper room with the disciples, uncertain and fearful, as they try to make sense of their Easter experiences. According to the gospel of John, it has been quite a day for them, beginning with Mary’s discovery that Jesus’ body is not in the tomb where they’d left him. As Peter and the beloved disciple rush to go to see for themselves, they encounter the burial cloths, cast aside as if by someone who no longer needed them—who could not be held by linen bandages and who has overcome the confines of the grave. Peter doesn’t know what to think; you can almost hear the wheels turning in his head—“what has happened; how did this happen; now what will we do?” In contrast, the beloved disciple upon the discovery of the wrappings and empty tomb, instantly recognizes and believes that their friend has done what he said he was going to do. Mary left behind, as the two men make their way back to town, gives over to the grief of one who has experienced the loss of everything good in her life. While in tears, she meets a person who she thinks might know what has happened to Jesus’ body. As she relates her sad tale to this person, she is named and comforted by the very person she grieves. Mary’s realization of this amazing miracle spurs her to hurry back to the upper room to share and testify to the reality of the risen Jesus.
But, as our text for today opens, the disciples remain in that upper room, trying– it seems– to determine how they will return to business as usual…or more importantly what business as usual will be for them. In spite of Mary’s revelation, the disciples at this point are letting the world control their actions and attitudes, rather than the risen Christ. Jesus, however, breaks into their locked up fearful lives and bids them peace as fulfillment of his promises given to them before he is crucified. He then empowers them to receive the Holy Spirit and commissions them with the work of ones who have witnessed the risen Lord. As UCC pastor and Bible commentator Kate Huey says: “At creation, God breathed life into us humans, a tender, intimate, up-close and personal moment, and here we are again, with Jesus not holding his disciples at arm’s length but re-creating this sorry crew of weak disciples, giving them the gift of new life, the gift of grace, and commissioning them to share that gift, that good news, with the world. However, he does not give them the gift of a personal, “private” faith, a just-you-and-me-Jesus faith that has nothing to do with the world that God loves so well. Instead, these weak and overwhelmed disciples, now Spirit-gifted, are Jesus’ gift to the world.
One week later, even after having received this first hand experience that answers their every concern and question, as well as changing the direction and focus of their lives. Where are these guys? Read verse 26 –they’re back behind closed doors! They certainly haven’t changed much—it is in fact back to the old routine for them. Often when this scripture is used in worship, we choose to focus on Thomas who, not being present for that initial interaction with Risen Jesus makes a pretty strong statement. And what name has the church given to Thomas as a result of his demands? Doubting Thomas!
One of the gifts of the seminar I attended several years ago about the gospel of John was the correction of a wrongly translated and interpreted phrase is this passage. Most importantly, the Greek word for “doubt” never appears in this scripture from John.
In verse 27 where many translations say “do not doubt but believe” a more accurate rendering is “Be no longer unbelieving, but believe.” In other words Thomas doesn’t DOUBT anything; in fact what he says in response to the other disciples’ report of having seen the Lord up in verse 25 is a definite and emphatic conditional statement:
“If I do not see the mark of the nails, and put my hand in his side, then I will definitely NOT BELIEVE.” And, as the seminar speaker, Dr. Rick Carlson, put it, rather than “DOUBTING Thomas”, the text presents “Conditional Thomas”
And the 64, 000 dollar question is of course; “what does this all mean for us?!”
Well, I wasn’t merely using a illustrative technique at the beginning of this message when I said “Here we are in the upper room with those scared, uncertain disciples.”
We are, in truth and reality, in exactly that same place, at that same time. Here we are, one week after Easter day, back to trying to re-establish and re-enter our lives as “Business as usual.” The regular grind has started or will start tomorrow, if you’ve been on Spring break all week.
After a nice, well attended worship last week, it’s time to dig in and get back to the work of the church, and a large part of that work, we often perceive, is based on conditions: “If we come to worship, we’ll get the week started off right.” “When we give our time, money, and effort to our faith community, we will be a successful community.”
Dr. Carlson remarks: “How often do we approach our faith relationship as a legal contract in which we seek to establish the terms by which we will respond with faith? ”If I have historical proof…If I have a sign…If near-death experiences can verify…If God would do…If Jesus would cure…Then I will believe in Christ…Then I will know that God exists…Then I will know that there is life after death…Then I will make a commitment of faith.”
We replicate the folly of conditional Thomas each time we establish for Christ how Christ needs to operate in our lives and each time we ground our faith in what we demand from God, rather than in what God does in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.”
The beautiful truth of this passage from John is that Jesus knows what we need. AND Jesus gives us what we need before we even have to ask. Time and time again, just in chapter 20, Jesus appears, and re appears, and re-appears to those who are scared, uncertain, grieving, frustrated, or just trying to make it through another day…. “With no questions asked, Jesus offers himself and gives the repeated gift of his presence and his peace.”
I was caught by the following article one of my colleagues posted on Facebook earlier this week and I offer it as a way to illustrate living beyond a conditional response to our resurrected savior’s ongoing reality.
Denying and Affirming the Resurrection by Peter Rollins:
“At one point in the proceedings someone asked if my theoretical position led me to denying the Resurrection of Christ. This question allowed me the opportunity to communicate clearly and concisely my thoughts on the subject, which I repeat here.
Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think…
I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.
However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.”
SO, how will we live on this side of the Easter miracle? I would like to challenge and encourage us to act without pre-conditions, in contrast to our culture, our sense of purpose, and our egos… To do the simple, but hard work of living as Jesus’ gift to the world, speaking and enacting the Good News. To just try to see and receive Jesus present and active wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, no ifs, and or buts about it…