A sermon on John 20:19-31 more or less as preached at the Corydon Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday of Easter.
How would we summarize this story? If our English teacher had given us an assignment to write a short synopsis of the story, for instance, what would we say?
Would we say something like: “The disciples are all huddled together, when Jesus appears, alive, the risen Christ! He greets them, they rejoice, he breathes out the Holy Spirit, and it’s wonderful. But Thomas isn’t there; Thomas is missing. Of course, his friends tell him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But Thomas, being Thomas, won’t accept their story without …” … what?
Do we say “… without proof?” Or “… without personal experience, without seeing Jesus for himself?” Or “… without evidence that the disciples are for real?” Any of those might fit. I’m tempted to say, they’re all “true.” That it’s a case of “more than one right answer.”
But they’re not exactly the same. And it probably matters which one we decide on. It probably matters more than we might think it does.
We might not think of that decision as “interpreting Scripture.” But that’s exactly what we are doing when we attach a word, a label, an explanation to what Thomas is going through in this story. When we make that decision, we’re interpreting Scripture. And how we interpret Scripture matters – for us, and for others. For one thing, that interpretation, that way we tell the story, shapes our thinking. That has an impact on how we hear other stories, and how we understand them, and on down the line. In the specific case of this particular story, what we decide Thomas needed here, in this story, is going to influence what we think other people, who are like Thomas, need to see and to hear in real life to “become believing.”
If we say “doubting Thomas wouldn’t believe without proof,” we might be like Thomas Aquinas, and develop five proofs of the existence of God. Or like the legion of apologetics bloggers on the internet, who are constantly presenting arguments and evidence to prove, according to them, various Biblical claims.
If, on the other hand, we think Thomas needed compelling personal experience, or needed convincing that the other disciples were “for real,” we’ll probably pour our energies into something different. We might invite our neighbors to church, or get involved in Repair Affair or in organizing a community meal, or even get up every morning with fresh resolve to “speak the truth in love” and not to interrupt people in the process. I mention that last one from personal experience, I’m afraid. That is, we might think we ourselves need to be, or to become, the “for real” disciples that people in Thomas’s position need to encounter. Even if we are less impressive and a lot less perfect than Jesus.
I admit, that second way is how I tend to interpret this story. I suspect that’s how many people at Corydon Presbyterian Church interpret it, too, based on personal experience here.
Still, The Church [in the form of the ecumenical committee that prepares the schedule of texts we read in church on Sunday] tells us we need to read this particular story again, and again, EVERY second Sunday of Easter. Why is that? Possibly, because even after we interpret it in one of those ways, there is still much more to see and hear and feel from this story. When we begin to unpack this story, we can begin to see that. There is way too much going on in this story for a single sermon. Maybe more like a whole series of sermons, or a multi-week Bible study, honestly.
For instance, we could spend a long time on what Jesus says to the disciples on that first day of the week that was the first ever Easter Sunday. On what it means that he says “peace be with you.” On what it means that he gives them the Holy Spirit. On what it means that Jesus’s disciples can forgive sins.
[As an aside, I can still remember sitting in the back section of the old church on the square and hearing Pastor Dave preach a sermon on exactly that. That would have to have been the first ever second Sunday of Easter I personally experienced in Corydon, because the second ever second Sunday of Easter would have been here in this “new” building. Many people here still remember that old church on the square, no doubt, and would have their own stories to tell about it, and about things that happened there.]
We could spend another long time on what John the evangelist has encoded into this story about the life of the early Christian community! Like the rhythm of worship. We learned in seminary that the first day – that’s Easter – and the eighth day – that’s the second Sunday of Easter – are a continuing rhythmic reminder of God’s new creation. Because the eighth day is another “first day,” and every “first day” is another re-enactment of God’s first words in God’s big story: “Let there be light.” And another re-enactment of the announcement of the new creation: “Christ is risen!” “The Lord is risen indeed!” “We have seen the Lord!” It’s why sometimes Christians say “every Sunday is a little Easter.”
We might have noticed that the author makes a point of mentioning that the doors are closed and locked. It’s not only to show that Jesus can walk through walls. The early Christians would have understood this as a reference to worship. Specifically, to “the liturgy of the table,” the part of the worship service where the Christians celebrated communion, also known as the Lord’s Supper, or the eucharist. [“Eucharist,” by the way, is a Greek word that means “thanksgiving” or “blessing” or “good gift.” This is why we call our “eucharistic prayer” a “Great Prayer of Thanksgiving.”] In the early days of The Church, reading the Bible and talking about it and praying – that’s the “liturgy of the word” – was for everyone, but communion was not.
So, when the liturgy of the word was over, everyone who was not yet baptized left the room. Remember that people enter The Church through baptism, through that sacramental dying and rising with Christ. So at this point in the service, the seekers would leave, the doors would be shut, and The Church would share a meal that was, for them, the very real sacramental presence of the risen Christ in the midst of that community of disciples.
[And as an aside, it was not just two little bites, it was an actual whole meal. More like a church potluck than what we think of as communion these days. They called it an “agape meal,” a “love feast.” It really, literally was “the joyful feast of the people of God.” Knowing from personal experience what it takes to make a church potluck happen, our Worship and Christian Living committees probably feel the love more these days when we don’t ask them to produce one of those meals every time we have communion.]
In other words, this story, in which the disciples tell Thomas about the risen Christ, and then he comes be part of that group that gathers and then once again sees and touches and experiences the reality of the risen Christ – this story points right at the worship practices of the early church. Those practices are still part of our own worship life. The sacrament of communion, and much of what communion means for us, are things we have inherited from those very early Christians.
There is more in this story; these are just a couple of examples. We could spend a long time unpacking and studying the meaning of this one story.
And then – look at this audacious thing John says right at the end of this story! “Jesus did many more signs!” In other words: “Oh, there was a lot more, that I didn’t write down.” This jam-packed story, which is almost the very end of a jam-packed gospel full of jam-packed stories like it, leaves things out. “Many” things.
And once again, as usual, we are all forced to interpret Scripture. Because John does not tell us whether he wrote down “the most important stories,” or “the best stories,” or “the stories I thought would be most likely to convince people I’m telling the truth,” or what. We may have some ideas about which choices he made. But John himself does not tell us anything about why he passed on the particular stories he did, except to say he did it so that his readers – we – might come to believe.
Whatever we might think John was doing, his admission reminds us that there are many, many stories about encountering the risen Christ. Memorable stories. Personal stories. Real stories. As we saw from the Acts reading, there were many disciples, more even than the ones we think of as “the twelve.” There were all those women, for instance. Each of them had stories. Then, in short order, there were many more early Christians. Then, there were all the historic Christians who came after them.
Those people all encountered the risen Christ, too. They may not have met Jesus “in person,” that individual about whom these stories in the gospels are told. But they encountered the risen Christ, nevertheless. A few, like the Apostle Paul, reported mystical visions. But most of those Christians encountered the risen Christ in the person of the saints – that is, other members of their churches. They encountered the risen Christ in the life and behavior, in the friendship and example, in the kindness and generosity and wisdom and heroism and conversation and common life of the specific people they came to know as fellow Christians in real life. The real life of “The Body of Christ,” here and now, that invited them in, welcomed them, made a place for them, taught them what it meant to be Christian – that is, in the most real way possible, interpreted Scripture for them, in the day to day life of the community.
Here is one of those stories: It happened here in this sanctuary, a long time ago. It was youth Sunday, or else the Sunday after work camp at PYOCA, or both of those things happened on the same day that year. But for whatever reason, all of the youth were sitting in the choir loft. And I remember sitting in the back, right opposite the stained glass window and the choir loft, about where the Millers usually sit these days. The light was streaming in, these young people were sitting there, and it was a communion Sunday. Pastor Dave began to pray our Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, and got to the part of the prayer where we say “Pour out your Holy Spirit upon us, and upon these our gifts of bread and wine …” Suddenly everything came together. I understood, very clearly, that “our gifts of bread and wine” included these flesh and blood young people. They included us, our flesh and blood selves, the flesh and blood selves Jesus came to be one of. We were praying to God to pour out the Holy Spirit on us and our lives and make us the body and blood of Christ for the world.
Those words are actually right there in our Great Prayer of Thanksgiving. But that experience, and that memory, interpreted those words for me, and have shaped the way I understand those words ever since. It is a very vivid memory, something beautiful and true that I learned about communion from the Corydon Presbyterian Church.
I cannot doubt that every one in this room has stories like this – stories that have brought home to us the reality of the presence of Christ in our midst, and the meaning of that presence.
These are exactly the kind of stories that John included in his gospel. Real people’s real stories of their real personal experiences with Jesus Christ. They are exactly the kind of stories included in Acts, too, real people’s real stories of their personal experiences with the disciples, the members of The Church, the Body of Christ, the real presence of Christ in the world.
[One last aside: I suspect that many of us might think – I know I think – that claiming to “be the Body of Christ” sounds like too much, most days. We think of the Apostles, and certainly the real live Jesus, as being a lot better than we are. And yet: there are at least moments when Christ does, indeed, live in us. In those moments, at least, we rise above ourselves, and these, our real life, flesh and blood, gifts of bread and wine really do communicate the real, living presence of Christ in the world. In those moments, at least, the Thomases of the world – people who have been missing from the gathering, from the feast – find themselves invited in, and welcomed, and come to believe themselves part of this larger story, and rejoice at finding this life in Christ’s name, too.]
One difference between our individual stories and the ones John tells is that the stories John tells are ones we share with more people. We share John’s stories with the whole community gathered around the risen Christ, with “all the faithful of every time and place.” Whatever inspired John to include those particular stories, they have proven especially good at bringing together the words and images and meanings that help us connect our own smaller stories to the larger story of the Body of Christ, and in that process to come to believe the deeper truth of God’s even larger story.
The more we unpack this story of Thomas, and the longer we follow it into that larger story of the people of God, the more we realize that there really is no end to it. It keeps getting deeper and deeper, richer and richer, better and better, forever. I often feel I am still just at the beginning of the story; I suspect many of us, maybe all of us, feel that same way. But wherever we are in this story, as long as we are among the disciples gathered around the risen Christ, we will find life in it.
Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; entrance to the Corydon Presbyterian Church, April 28, 2019 (?), own work