A sermon drawn from John 20:19-31
Why do we read this text every year?
Actually, full disclosure, we wouldn’t have to read it every year. It’s the gospel text for the second Sunday of Easter in the Revised Common Lectionary every year. The Revised Common Lectionary is the schedule of texts for reading in churches that was prepared by the ecumenical, scholarly group known as the Consultation on Common Texts, which has been in use in lots of churches since 1992, but in an earlier version since the 70s, and that’s published in our new Presbyterian Book of Common Worship.
But there’s no law that says we have to use the Revised Common Lectionary. It’s a tradition, and a fairly recent one. And there are some extremely good arguments for NOT using the lectionary, or at least for being flexible with it. On the other hand, I know some people feel like this is a have to thing, because – true story – I was sitting in a Session meeting once, when we were discussing the possibility of inviting someone to be our interim pastor, and this was someone who’d talked about how she didn’t always use the lectionary, and had had some experience using the Narrative lectionary – an alternative – at another church, and the Session member sitting next to me whispered to me – which people do in meetings, sometimes, “I don’t like that she doesn’t use The Lectionary.” And I said, “well, the Lectionary isn’t the Bible …” and this person said, “Oh, I don’t know about that.”
Anyway – whether or not we actually follow the lectionary, why might we want to come back to this gospel text every year, on the second Sunday of Easter?
And one obvious answer to that question is … because, this is the story in the gospels about the second Sunday of Easter. About something that explicitly happens on the Sunday after the first Easter Sunday. So … today is the anniversary of what happens to Thomas, and what happens to Thomas seems to have been really important, and we like to celebrate anniversaries of important events … so, today, the second Sunday of Easter, is a really good day to do that.
And I don’t know whether anyone else is a “calendar nerd” – someone who’s interested in calendars, how they work, how different calendars line up with each other, stuff like that … ? [for instance, that last Sunday was Easter AND Passover AND Ramadan? That’s pretty rare …]
OK, I’m a calendar nerd. I love that we Presbyterians follow a liturgical calendar, that has Advent and Epiphany and Lent and an Easter season that ends with Ascension and Pentecost, and that we celebrate these anniversaries of sacred time that we find in the Bible, and pay attention to the significance of dates …
And we see something happening with the calendar in this text, as a matter of fact, see the way the Christians, the first Christians, are taking their familiar calendar, and modifying it, and starting to create new traditions around sacred time …
And here’s where we see it:
In v19, when this story first begins, it’s evening on “the first day of the week,” which would be a Sunday, the day after the Jewish Sabbath, which would always fall on the 7th day of the week, as we probably know, and that hasn’t really changed any in several thousand years …
Which all these people had faithfully observed, again as we know, from our gospel stories about this first Easter Sunday …
Because we know how this dovetails with Christian stories, and Christian worship practices, too, hopefully – that Christians first experienced the resurrection of the Lord, of Jesus Christ, on “the first day of the week,” the first day after the Sabbath, a Sunday, and that’s why we still gather for worship to celebrate on Sundays, week after week after week, which we’ve been in the habit of doing that since the earliest disciples …
Because this is the day! This is when it happened! This is the day Jesus came back, from crucifixion and death, and announced to us, in effect, that as desperate as our circumstances had been, that desperation was done. The power of sin, that had held us in perpetual bondage, like an extortioner, forcing us to do whatever it said, giving us “no choice,” that’s smashed to smithereens; the death that was the predictable and unavoidable consequence of all that, was defeated – death has no power to hold down God, obviously, which is who Jesus is, and so, no power to hold down any one who’s united to God – Jesus, the Christ, or anyone else who’s in Christ.
So, Hallelujah, “free at last!!” We’re free, as if we’d been … released from prison, or a trap, or whatever dire circumstances metaphor resonates with us. We are people who have been freed from those desperate circumstances by the work of Jesus Christ. That really IS something to celebrate, which is why we DO celebrate it, still, every time the first day of the week rolls around.
Although we probably celebrate it other times, too, whenever we think about it.
[So as an aside, I know there’s a trend these days for people to worship more often on times that aren’t Sunday mornings, like Saturday nights, and I have known people who really like that, because it fits into their schedules better, and the rhythms of their family lives … and no, there’s no law that says we have to gather for worship on the first day of the week, and there’s no law against gathering for worship at other times, but being the calendar nerd I am, I’ve always thought to myself, yes, but, Sunday is the Lord’s Day, the day of Resurrection, so what happens to all that meaning if we worship on Saturday night, it’s like it’s still … waiting for Easter … but then, on the other other hand, is there really any day of the week, now, when we can’t celebrate the risen Christ? So over time … I’ve accepted, intellectually, that Sunday morning worship is not one of those “essential tenets of the Reformed faith” and that if Saturday evening worship makes a difference in getting a family to church … ]
But … the disciples in this story start off being together on Sunday evening, the first day of the seven-day week.
And that seven-day cycle of the weekly calendar is no coincidence, either, as we probably also know – we see it inscribed in creation itself – in the Biblical timeline of creation we get in Genesis 1, that begins on the first day, with God saying “let there be light” and culminates with God’s own sabbath rest from the creative endeavor of making the light and the heavens and the earth and the living beings, and finally humanity in, or perhaps as, the image of God.
And we see that important cycle of 7’s repeated in the Hebrew Bible, in the 7 year cycle of planting and harvesting and then rest that at least theoretically was supposed to govern the agricultural calendar of the ancient Israelites …
And then, in the “7 weeks of 7 years” that again, at least theoretically, was supposed to get everyone to that Jubilee year, the first year of a giant liberation, in which all the debts were cancelled and all the alienated lands came back to their original tenants and everyone was “free at last” again, to enjoy God’s shalom and take advantage of a new, fresh beginning …
So there’s an old tradition of meaningful time that’s at play as soon as John begins by telling us that it’s evening on the first day of the week … with the first day of the week being about creation, and the work of creation, in a condition of freedom,
… and especially because, in that ancient tradition, the new day begins in the evening … again, as it says in Scripture, “it was evening, and it was morning, the first day …” so, a new day is already about to get under way …
And then, in v20, it’s a week later … and let’s just notice that “a week later” has, almost intrinsically, a double meaning.
Because in one way, it’s just the repetition of the first day. We’ve come back around to Day 1. It’s “the first day of the week” – again. And we think of the week as a cycle … it repeats over and over and over … endlessly, the same, again and again.
But in another way, it’s a new beginning … it’s the “eighth day,” which is an impossible day if time is nothing but an endless repetitive cycle, but what if it’s not … what if it’s actually going somewhere … what if this new day is the first day of the new creation … of something unprecedented, that hasn’t ever been before, that’s not just a repetition, not just a variation on a familiar theme, but contains something brand new … ?
I think John, the evangelist, is well aware – and wants us to be aware – that “a week later” is always at least potentially one or the other of those things – that what people do with that day matters, decides … whether this day is a repeat of the same, or is that riskier step into a new reality …
And it’s on this momentous day, this potentially new day, that Thomas is actually in the room, with the other disciples.
Clearly, this is the important thing. We wouldn’t have this story if Thomas had never been in the room. And as far as that goes, why wasn’t he with them, in the room, on the first first day of the week?
We really don’t know – although there may be a clue in that almost throwaway line, at the beginning of the story, that the doors were “locked for fear of the Jews.”
Because of course, again as we all know, Thomas would have been one of them, in fact. As would all the disciples. If they’d had to fill out a census form, and the categories were “Jewish, Greek, Roman, other,” they’d have marked the Jewish box. Scholars who study this gospel have spent a lot of time on the way John uses this term “the Jews,” and many think it points to the way the early Christians for whom John was writing were having something of an identity crisis, were struggling over what religious traditions to hang on to, what it meant to affirm Jesus as the Christ, and that term “the Jews” was kind of like saying “them,” “the outsiders,” “the people who aren’t us.”
Which makes Thomas’ absence that first time around really suggestive. Because we would know from reading this gospel that Thomas has a penchant for asking uncomfortable, even a little tactless questions and blurting out uncomfortable truths. For being a little bit … we might say, edgy or even inappropriate? Socially unacceptable? Someone who might not be everyone’s favorite person, I think that’s safe to say. It may not be a complete coincidence that he’s the very one missing, the very one on the other side of the doors.
Not that we know anything about how that came to be. Whether he’d tried to get in, or hadn’t gotten the message that they were meeting up, or whether the other disciples hadn’t quite gotten the message to him, maybe hadn’t exactly gone out of their way to find him …
We can probably imagine all kinds of real-life possibilities, and it would be wrong to imagine any one thing in particular. The text leaves that part of the story out for a reason.
But the point of reminding ourselves about this is that – being absent from the company of the disciples makes a difference for encountering Christ, the risen Christ. And that encounter makes a huge difference for Thomas, for Thomas’s sense of the reality of what the disciples are telling him.
It’s hard to believe the news is real, unless you’re there, for the event; there, with the body of Christ.
The eighth day – the first day that isn’t simply a repeat of what’s always already happened, but the first day of something really new, that’s never happened before – is the day when Thomas – the person who was missing – doesn’t just “hear about” it, but gets fully included, brought in, and so encounters the living Jesus.
And it’s not simply an “eighth day” for Thomas – though it is that, because clearly, this is the beginning of something really new for him – it’s also an “eighth day” for the disciples, because the group that includes Thomas is not the same group it was before, it’s new, too, with new possibilities that weren’t there before.
Our tradition tells us that Thomas is the one who, eventually, travelled to India and spread the gospel to people there – there is, in fact, a church today in Kerala, India, that traces its roots to the mission of the apostle Thomas …
Maybe that’s why we continue to read this story in church every year, on the second Sunday of Easter – to remind ourselves to look around for Thomas, for who’s missing – and to remind ourselves that it’s still up to the disciples who aren’t missing – that is, to us – to take the somewhat risky steps that turn the first day of the week into the eighth day. The risk of invitation, of meeting, of opening the doors to “them,” whoever “they” are. Making possible the momentous meeting between “them,” the ones who haven’t gotten the message yet, and the risen Christ – who, these days, mostly shows up in the person and lives of the real life disciples who are still here … still gathering to celebrate … the reality of encountering Jesus … alive, here, in our world … on that very first day of the new creation … that thankfully, graciously, includes us.
Image: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons