When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:19–31 – NRSV)
We find a similar account in Luke 24:36–42.
This is a proclamation of Jesus’s victory over death and his ongoing presence in the community of disciples. It takes us from the dusty pathways of Palestine to the highways and byways of the world, from a limited geographical, historical and cultural context to an unlimited cosmic context. The life death and resurrection of Jesus goes to the very heart of existence – all existence.
the doors …. were locked: A limited even tiny world – symbolized in the locked doors – is transcended by the risen Lord. Jesus cannot be contained here or there. He belongs to everyone, everywhere. Furthermore, the kinds of motives that create tiny worlds – like fear – are to be transcended in him and through him and with him.
Peace be with you: The greeting is repeated. This is not the ordinary šâlōm ‘ālêḵem – normally used then as now by Jews. It is rather a proclamation to his disciples that the promised kingdom is among them. In John 14:27 and 16:33 Jesus had promised this peace as part of the kingdom he was ushering in.
he showed them his hands and his side: Like the peace greeting, this is a proclamation of the kingdom. Jesus has definitely risen, the victory of God can and must now be proclaimed by the disciples! It is also a reminder to the disciples and us that the Cross – symbolized in the wounds – is central to the victory. One scholar cites a beautiful poem: “Temple (p. 366) reminds us that Jesus’ wounds are his credentials to the suffering race of human beings. He cites the poem of Edward Shillito, ‘Jesus of the Scars’, published shortly after the savage butchery of the First World War:
If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow,
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.
The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars, we claim Thy grace.
If, when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know to-day what wounds are, have no fear,
Show us Thy Scars, we know the countersign.
The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
(D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 647.)
As the Father has sent me, so I send you: Carson puts it succinctly: “(Jesus’) mission continues and is effective in their ministry” (D A Carson, op cit, 649.)
He breathed on them: We are reminded of one of the creation stories, where God takes up the soil of the earth, breathes into and humanity comes into existence – see Genesis 2:7. See also Ezekiel 37:9-10 and Wisdom 15:11. The Gift of the Holy Spirit is a new creation. Whether the gift of the Holy Spirit as spoken of here in John is to be identified with Luke’s Pentecost is a matter of considerable debate amongst scholars.
If you forgive …. if you retain: Like the gift of the Holy Spirit, this text also attracts considerable debate. In the Catholic tradition it is interpreted as a restricted ministry for the forgiveness of sins. In the Reformed tradition it is generally interpreted as a general ministry to the community. There seem to be good arguments for both interpretations.
Thomas …. was not with them: It is easy to imagine that the disciples who were there when Jesus stood in their midst, would have been elated. Imagine how Thomas felt? At the very least he might well have felt like he had missed out. Could there have been a little bit of disappointment in his reaction? In any case, he had not arrived at the same level of faith as the others. There is good evidence to suggest that in those first days, there were multiple journeys into the fullness of faith. Francis Moloney writes: “The faith journeys of the Beloved Disciple and Mary Magdalene looked beyond the characters in the story to further generations: the readers of the story. They believe on the authority of the Scripture, including the word of the Gospel itself, that Jesus rose (cf. v. 9), and they are the recipients of a holiness made possible by Jesus’ commissioning fragile but peace-filled and joyful disciples (v. 23). There is a generation of believers reading the Gospel for whom the physical Jesus is absent. Their faith is based upon the Scriptures, including the Johannine story (v. 9), and the holiness administered by the Christian community (v. 23). Addressing the last of the foundational figures from the story who have stumbled to faith, Jesus says: ‘You have believed because you saw me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe’ (v. 29). As the Gospel closes Jesus points to two different eras. Some, not without difficulty, have made their journey of faith in the physical presence of the risen Jesus: Mary Magdalene and Thomas; but the experience of these disciples is past history for the readers of the Gospel who have been summoned by the narrative to believe that Jesus is the saving revelation of God. How are they, a new generation, to believe in the absence of Jesus? With the Scripture and this Gospel in hand (v. 9), and blessed with the holiness that only God can give (v. 23), they are to regard their situation as equally privileged to that of the foundational disciples.” (Francis Moloney, SDB, The Gospel of John, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998, 538.)
The Gospel writers and St Paul – reflecting the belief of the first Christians – bear witness to two convictions: first, Jesus, having been crucified, rose bodily from the dead; second, Jesus was seen by a number of people after he had risen. “We can historically verify that between 35 and 40A.D., the first generations of Christians were using a variety of formulas to confess the belief they all shared, which spread rapidly across the Roman Empire: ‘God has raised Jesus from among the dead’.” (José Pagola, Jesus: An Historical Approximation, Convivium Press, 2007/2015, 462.)
We may choose to argue that those first Christians were mistaken in their convictions or that they were proclaiming something merely symbolic when they said Jesus rose from the dead. If we make those kinds of choices, then we must gather the evidence to support them. It is not reasonable to simply reject the witness of those first Christians, for example, on the assumption they did not really mean it, that they were just speaking figuratively.
Many of us today choose to accept the claim of those first believers, that Jesus rose bodily from the dead and was seen by a number of them. We believe Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, died, was buried and that “God has raised him from among the dead”. In that case we join those Jews and the millions of believers down the ages who believed that the Anointed One – the Messiah – has come.
We stake our lives on that belief. Thus, we shape our days around the conviction that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection holds the key to the transformation of our world. More particularly, it holds the possibility of the freedom for each of us to become who and what we are. Without him, the world cannot be transformed and we all remain trapped in our broken humanity.
Of course, faith does not absolve us from seeking to understand what all this can mean for us today. Nor does it absolve us from admitting that we do not understand when in fact we do not understand! It is entirely reasonable to say: “I cannot prove it, I cannot comprehend it, but I do believe”. So, when Peter recommends that you “should always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope you all have” (1 Peter 3:15), we need not attempt rational “proofs” for our faith in the resurrection. Your “answer” is your presence as someone in whom Jesus Christ himself is present.
Resurrection means presence. It is the presence of Jesus Christ, beyond history and culture, beyond politics and ethnicity, beyond our control and our comprehension. It is hard to beat St Paul’s concise statement: “I live now, not I but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:19).