Witnesses

Today’s reading is John 20:19-31Open Link in New Window

Here is today’s reflection by Helen.

Our reading this morning starts with verse 19; let’s set the scene by rewinding to verse 18. Mary Magdalene has initially mistaken the resurrected Christ for the gardener—and then hears him calling her name and realises who she is. At Christ’s command she rushes to tell the disciples that she has seen him.

According to all 4 gospels, women were the first witnesses of the resurrection; a fact that no one would make up. It would be a terrible piece of strategic planning, unless it were true. Jewish courts at the time did not accept the testimony of female witnesses. So, it’s not surprising that the disciples don’t believe Mary Magdalene. There is no rejoicing. Here they are, cringing in a locked room, terrified that there will be a knock on the door and that the same thing that happened to Jesus will happen to them. Too afraid to attend Jesus’ burial, they had left it to a group of women.

But them that evening, grief turns to joy as Jesus appears to them. This appearance of Jesus follows the pattern of most of the resurrection appearances. Jesus visits small groups of people in a remote area or closeted indoors. And the appearances in the six week period after the resurrection also lack the glamour of Christmas: no angels in the sky singing choruses, no kings bearing gifts. A private dinner, two men walking along a road, a woman crying in a garden, men working a lake, or, as here, a group of disciples in a locked room. But Thomas isn’t there when Jesus makes his appearance in verse 19. Verses 24-25 tell us:

Now Thomas, one of the twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. When the other disciples told him that they had seen the Lord, he declared: ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it’.

Thomas represents the one last bastion of unbelief. He was devoted and loyal. He had begged Jesus not to go up to Jerusalem. He had known that Jesus’ life was in danger. He had been right all along. Jesus was dead. We don’t know why he wasn’t there—a need to be alone, an ‘I told you so’ attitude, confusion, frustration, anger? But Thomas refuses to believe the ten faithful men with whom he had lived for three years, who told him that Jesus had stood among them and showed them his wounds. Thomas persisted stubbornly in unbelief.

But Jesus loved Thomas—he returns to meet the level of this disciple’s scepticism. Verses 26-28:

A week later the disciples were in the house again and this time Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you’ Then he said to Thomas: ‘Put your finger here, see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe’. Thomas answered: ‘My Lord and my God’.

Can we imagine how startled Thomas must have been by the fact that Jesus know the exact nature of his unbelief, down to the very words he had spoken? But he is as direct and forthright in his belief as he had been in his doubt. And Jesus speaks a message down through over 2,000 years to those of us who were not able to be there at the time: verse 29—‘Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe’.

Jesus knew that very soon his personal appearances would come to a halt and the years would pass, leaving only those who had not seen. The church would stand, or fall based on how persuasive those eyewitnesses would be. Jesus had six weeks to establish his identity for all time. And what can help us to believe, we who have not physically seen the resurrected Jesus? In part, surely, it is that something changed a miserable bunch of frightened followers into fearless evangelists, many of whom became martyrs. It is that these few witnesses managed to release a force that would overcome violent opposition first in Jerusalem and then in Rome. The disciples would not have laid down their lives for a cobbled together conspiracy theory. It would have been so much easier to honour a dead Jesus as one of the martyr prophets whose tombs were honoured by the Jews. Theologian C.H. Dodd explained how the resurrection is not a belief which grew up within the church, but rather the belief around which the church grew up.

Thomas turned to Jesus and said: ‘My Lord and my God’. This wasn’t just an expression of belief, but an expression of worship, a heartfelt recognition of Jesus as his Lord. This passage reminds me that when Jesus talks here about belief, it goes beyond head knowledge; we have to take the next step. In his book ‘The Case for Christ’, the author and journalist Lee Strobel describes the journey which he undertook, painstakingly studying the evidence for Christianity. And he says this: ‘After nearly two years of investigating the claims of Jesus, I knew he had unique credentials and credibility. And based on what he said, I knew I couldn’t save myself. I had to act on it by letting him put his arm around me and lead me to safety’. ‘So, what about you?’ he says. ‘Maybe you’ve decided that the case for Christ is conclusive. What’s next’?

This passage challenges me about the level of my belief. I hear Jesus asking me some questions through it. If you believe in me, how much do you really love me? If you believe in me, how much time do you want to spend with me? If you believe in me, how important is my word to you? If you believe in me, how much desire do you have to tell others about me? Maybe we recognise this morning that our belief has never gone further than an intellectual acknowledgement. Maybe it has gone lukewarm, or cold. If this is the case, I feel that Jesus invites us to kneel in humility and pray for a renewed and transforming belief. And I believe that Jesus, as he did with Thomas will meet us where we are and honour our prayer.

There will be a video version of the service.

Share this on Facebook