is (to me) underrated, as it’s one of the truly remarkable passages in all of Scripture. A high-minded yet utterly realistic sequel to the opening of the Gospel of John, which also hearkens back to the “beginning.” The Word that was “made flesh and dwelt among us” is testified to here: “what we heard, saw, touched.” Is this eyewitness testimony? From people who were in literally physical contact with him? Richard Bauckham’s hugely important book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, his painstaking, detailed explanation of how our stories of Jesus most clearly derive not from novelists or fantasy-mongers, but real people who saw, heard and touched.
It’s not OK, he was real, but his mission and theirs is “the word of life,” and the ultimate goal, “so you may be in communion with us.” The Greek koinonia is narrated in Acts, where the first Christians held their possessions in common, and cared for the needy all around. Way more than “fellowship,” the kind church people rightly enjoy where they delight in seeing one another – the big loss during the pandemic! It’s welcoming the stranger, friendship among the unlikely, sacrificial sharing – in short, our relationships being mirror images of God’s with us, and the only meaningful result of God having koinonia with us. Isn’t Psalm 133 the perfect lectionary fit for today?
Quotable, this Epistle text! “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” Switch on a light or a candle and see how the darkness flees. Less cherished are other quotables, like “If we boast to be in communion with God while walking in darkness, we are liars.” Verse 1:9 explicates forgiveness, and we needn’t bother with the fineries of what is expiation vs forgiveness vs cleansing, as we’d best first and lovingly persuade our people that it isn't so much that they have a problem, like Apollo 13 hurtling without fuel or air in space – but rather, they are a problem, savable not by human ingenuity though but only by divine intervention. The rescue is the death of the person we saw, heard and touched – and the Calvinists’ TULIP will struggle to explain away the seemingly unLimited atonement in 2:2: “not only for our sins but also for the whole world.” That’s worth quoting, and pondering. We yearn for – and can expect! – forgiveness, not for me, or those I love, but the whole world?
John 20:19-31 has a liturgical feel. They gather, a blessing is uttered. To fearful people behind locked doors (pandemic-like?) Jesus speaks Peace into their fear – and hopeful and hard-to-believe word for us obsessed with locks, security systems, urban anxiety, even the proliferation of guns). There’s even a civilizational kind of fear well described by Walter Brueggemann: all people fall into 2 categories, those who fear the world they treasured is crumbling all around them, and those who fear the world they dream of will never come to be. I have found in declaring this that people, even if for a moment, find some common ground.
There is no fear near Jesus – but this doesn’t mean you can relax. Elie Wiesel famously said “If an angel ever says, ‘Be not afraid,’ you’d better watch out: a big assignment is on the way.” Jesus comforts with one hand and then shoves them out into hard labor and danger with the other. These disciples, and ours today, have work to do, requiring courage, and some peace.
How lovely and fitting that Jesus doesn’t criticize or judge them for their fears and doubts. He loves. He reassures, turning their confusion into friendship, their fear into trust. His wounds are his love. Every time I work at this text, I go to Rachel Hollis, TV personality and author of Girl, Wash Your Face, who posted an Instagram photo of herself that went viral with this caption: “I have stretch marks and I wear a bikini… because I’m proud of this body and every mark on it… They aren’t scars, ladies, they’re stripes and you’ve earned them.” Earned scars, earned through the enfleshing of love.
I’m fond too of the insight Graham Greene shared in The End of the Affair. A woman notices what used to be a wound on her lover’s shoulder, and contemplates the advancing wrinkles in his face: “I thought of lines life had put on his face, as personal as a line of writing – I thought of a scar on his shoulder that wouldn’t have been there if once he hadn’t tried to protect another man from a falling wall. The scar was part of his character, and I knew I wanted that scar to exist through all eternity.”
The scars in Jesus’ hands and side, earned when he gave life to all of us, were not blotted out by the resurrection (John 20:27). Caravaggio painted it graphically. I love that Jesus shows up, not as powerful but as the wounded one. The wounds are his glory. What do we sing in "Crown Him with Many Crowns”? Behold his hands and side. Those wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified.
Jesus breathes on them. Fascinating – especially after the pandemic. Of course we are to think of God’s breath giving life to the first humans (Genesis 2), and the reviving of the dead nation during the exile (Ezekiel 37), not deadly with the Coronavirus, although deadly perhaps to sin, self and a vapid life. I like to ponder that, for Jesus to breathe on them or anybody, they’ve got to be standing close, right next to him. Is discipleship just sticking as close to Jesus as possible, to feel his breath?
I’m wary of sermons that get fixated on “doubting” Thomas. It’s a thing; I’m unsure if it helps parishoners if the clergy say “I have doubts too!” At most I’d want to celebrate doubt, which isn’t a failure of faith but asking darn good questions. Mark Helprin, in Winter’s Tale, writes “All great discoveries are products as much of doubt as of certainty, and the two in opposition clear the air for marvelous accidents.” Robert Penn Warren wonderfully said “Here, as in life, meaning is, I should say, often more fruitfully found in the question asked than in any answer given.And then Simone Weil: “One can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth… Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”
My doubts are less about the existence of God or the resurrection of Christ, but rather about the possibility of forgiveness or the reality of miraculous transformation! – which seems to be what this text is ultimately about, and what Easter in the Bible is entirely attentive to. Jesus is risen, so therefore – you are forgiven, and you go forgive. Startling. If I tell stories of forgiveness, the Amish at Nickel Mines, Pa., or Corrie ten Boom and her sister's executioner, will anyone believe?