Our gospel story for today picks up right where the Easter gospel ended. In the last verse of that gospel, Mary Magdalene did exactly as Jesus told her to do. She went to the other disciples and told them “I have seen the Lord!” and shared with them all the words he had spoken to her. We hear the news that “I have seen the Lord!” as a message of hope, the possibility of new life, of an unlimited future. When the other disciples received the news of the risen Jesus from Mary, their response was to doubt her words and remain together behind locked doors. But Jesus meets them where they are. He comes to them, huddled together in their fear, and offers the greeting of shalom, “Peace be with you.” He wants them to be at peace instead of living with fear.
Jesus shows them the marks of the wounds on his hands and his side. From a theological point of view, this tells us that Jesus was truly human. It is clear that he doesn’t look exactly the same – Mary did not recognize him right away, nor does anyone else to whom he makes a post-resurrection appearance. It seems that he needs to speak to them in order for them to truly know who he is. For Jesus, being fully human was just as important as being fully divine. God’s intention to come into the world was fulfilled not just through the Spirit, but in human flesh. This resurrected Christ was the same man they knew as their rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth.
Once again Jesus offers them peace, and as he does he commissions them. His mission has become their mission. They are told they are being sent and he gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit. The story of Pentecost, the gift of the Holy Spirit, is only found in the Book of Acts, written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke. Here, in John’s gospel, the author describes a Pentecost experience for the men and women who are gathered together behind those locked doors on the very day of Jesus’ resurrection. They are also given the authority to offer God’s forgiveness to those who repent of their sins. Today we call this the “Office of the Keys” and it is given in ordination to ministers of Word and Sacrament. As I read this familiar story it struck me for the first time that the men and women present that day were, in effect, ordained to ministry by Jesus.
The second part of this story has led to the disciple Thomas getting a bad rap. He was not present at the time Jesus appeared to the other disciples, but afterward when they see him they offer him the same proclamation Mary shared with them: “We have seen the Lord!” Because Thomas does not believe them but insists on seeing Jesus for himself, he has been given the name of “Doubting Thomas.” How ironic, because he was no different than the other disciples who did not believe Mary when she told them the same thing. In reality Thomas is just like everyone else, yet he is condemned to be forever known as the one who doubted.
When we last heard of Thomas he was urging the others to go with Jesus to Bethany to attend to Lazarus, who had died. Thomas boldly stated, “Let us go and die with him (Jesus) if necessary.” Before that story, when Jesus was trying to explain eternal life to the disciples, Thomas was the one who honestly said, “I have no idea what you are talking about.” Thomas was a no-nonsense kind of guy who wasn’t afraid to ask the right questions. Jesus understood that doubt is part of faith, and he was willing to appear to Thomas just as he did for all the others. When Thomas encounters the risen Christ, he immediately understands and believes, and makes a total proclamation of faith – “My Lord and my God.” No hesitation there. Yet Jesus also reminds them – and us – that in the future, people will have to take this incredible story of his resurrection on faith alone. He will not be able to appear in person for all people throughout human history.
There is a reason that this story was included in the gospel, and I don’t think it was to denigrate Thomas. Most of us have times of doubt. The Rev. Karen Bates Olson is the pastor of Resurrection Lutheran Church in Tacoma, Washington. Several years ago, during Advent, she suddenly suffered a major seizure. Tests indicated that it was an anomaly, the medical professionals were sure it would not happen again. Yet in spite of that good news, she went through a period of doubt on her spiritual journey. Even though she had always felt “saved by grace through faith” and felt Christ to be a source of love, grace, mercy and peace, all that went away in the months following her seizure.
She felt as though she was in “some kind of spiritual time warp.” She no longer sensed God’s presence. She couldn’t pray except for the public prayers she led as pastor. She did not find hope in scripture, preaching was an ordeal and pastoral care became difficult. But then, as she puts it, Lent arrived. It was the year of Matthew and she was confronted with the texts we heard this year during Lent – the Samaritan woman at the well, the man born blind and Lazarus rising. Gradually, through the 40 days of Lent and the turn towards Easter, she heard the good news once again. God is for us, not against us. God wills life, not death, God draws near us in Christ, to the point of death on a cross. God is salvation, water, light and hope. Like Thomas, she had become a doubter but now was restored to faith once again.
The Gospel of John is a narrative of faith being shared from person to person. One person has an encounter with Jesus. They share it with another person, who may be reluctant. Then they experience Jesus for themselves, and encourage the next person to meet him. John the Baptizer points his followers to Jesus. Andrew brings his brother Peter to Jesus, Philip brings Nathanael. The Samaritan woman at the well brings the people of her town to Jesus. The constant refrain is “come and see.” In the case of the resurrection, Mary brings the good news to the other disciples, who don’t necessarily believe her. Then Jesus himself comes to them, meeting them where they are. They try to share it with Thomas, who doesn’t believe them. Once again Jesus meets Thomas where he is, and this time he tells them that it will be up to them to bring the good news to others, who will not have the opportunity to see the risen Christ for themselves.
Jesus is always willing to meet us where we are, whether we are strong in our faith or having doubts. Jesus wants us to have faith in his story so that we can have life in abundance. Then we will naturally share the story with others, often just by how we choose to live. We become witnesses to these things, just as those first disciples were. In the end, it doesn’t matter that Thomas doubted, but that he came to know fullness in faith. May we accept the commission given by Jesus on that day, to grow into that fullness of faith and bring others to encounter the risen Christ.