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Visions from The Catacombs, Week Before April 3, 2016

John 20:19-31

19When 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.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So 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.”

26A 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.” 27Then 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.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But 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.

What I Am Learning:

Every year we read this text the Sunday after Easter.

Thomas’ doubt stands in for our own a week after the celebration of Easter, with all its flowers and trumpets.

The most common understanding of what Thomas doubted goes like this: He doubted the physical resurrection of Jesus.

I doubt this interpretation.

First century people did not live in our scientific, rationalistic worldview. Their understanding was that the earth and its people constantly interact with and are affected by the forces we would call “supernatural.” We call them “supernatural” because we think that “natural” is defined and determined by scientifically understood “laws of nature.” Everything outside of those laws are “super” or beyond what we understand as nature.

People in our time generally understand Jesus’ resurrection from the dead as not only supernatural, but impossible, a fable, a farce, a fairytale. For most of us, the word “supernatural” really means that anything beyond nature’s laws is super-doubtful.

But this rationalistic, scientific worldview that we live in (even if we resist the more limiting parts of it) is still a worldview. It is still just one way to understand life and our part in it. Typically people in a worldview think that theirs is the only or best worldview. Our ecosystem might not agree, if it had a voice, that ours is the best. For the vast majority of human history people lived in a worldview of magic and mystery and the influence of the gods.

Thomas did not live in our scientific worldview. People in the first century mostly did not question that a resurrection could happen. In the gospel of John, Lazarus is raised from the dead by Jesus. In that passage, Mary says that she believed that the messiah would bring resurrection as a part of God’s healing of the world. Then Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.

The disbelief in that section was not that resurrection was a possibility. They didn’t see it as “supernatural.” They saw it as a possibility in a world interacting with God or the gods.

What they doubted about Lazarus’ resurrection was that Jesus was the one capable of it, or that God would listen to him.

So if Thomas didn’t doubt on the basis of a scientific worldview, what did he doubt?

The true Messiah was supposed to bring resurrection to those that had died under occupation so that they could live in a society of justice and equity.  The true Messiah was supposed to conquer the occupying army and bring healing and justice to the whole world. The true Messiah was supposed to get the whole job done. The true Messiah was supposed to resurrect other people, not die and be resurrected!

Perhaps Thomas doubted that Jesus could be the Messiah without finishing the job as expected.

A true Messiah that was killed and then raised from the dead meant that his followers would need to continue the Messiah’s work.

Perhaps what Thomas doubted was that he had the courage, faith and capability to continue Jesus’ work.

Perhaps Thomas doubted that he and the disciples would ever leave the locked room for fear that they would be rounded up and crucified next by the Roman-collaborating Chief Priests.

But Thomas already displayed great trust. He stayed in the room. The rest of the disciples displayed great trust. They welcomed him Thomas in the room.

The true miracle of the text is that they trusted each other in that time of fear, and later left that room to continue the Messianic ministry of Jesus. With this seed of faith they were able to follow Jesus’ call: “as the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

As the days and nights wore on, they realized the meaning of the resurrection: that we can love our selves, our neighbors, our neighborhoods and the earth without fear trusting that just as God raised Jesus from the dead, God will raise us, too.

With Thomas we doubt. Most of the time we doubt that we can join Jesus in his Messianic work of healing all creation and all humans, including ourselves. We doubt that our small lives can make any difference at all amidst the great machineries of death we see working around and in us. We stay locked in the room of our churches for fear.

The faith that keeps us together, like the faith of Thomas and the disciples, can lead us out of our rooms to find our place of meaning and community alongside the True Messiah, still at work in the world.

Still calling us in to the world. Still sending us into the world as he was sent.