First Look: John 20:19-31

Note: A sermon I’ve written on this text can be found here.

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.

“Peace be with you.”

What comes into your mind when you hear that phrase?  Are the words a greeting?  Or a farewell?

“Peace be with you.”  Is it a wish for the chaos and the turmoil in your life to become settled?  Or is it a declaration of certainty and assurance for the future?  In other words, is it a prayer for things to get better?  Or a promise that they will?

“Peace be with you.”

These were the words that Jesus used to greet his disciples in the upper room that night.  It may have even been the same room in which they had all gathered for the last supper.  There they were, together, just like they had been many times before.  However, it would be a mistake to think that this was a typical gathering.  Jesus, their master, was no more.  The man whom they had followed, whom they had learned from, whom they had joined without question when he called to them, was dead.  Not only that – he had been crucified.  He had been called a criminal and been convicted and put to death by the state.  It was no hero’s death that fell upon him.  It was not the death of royalty.  It was the death of an outlaw.

These disciples, these followers of Jesus, now gathered together after the arrest, after the trial, after the gruesome crucifixion, in fear.  We are told that the doors where they were are shut, and you can bet that they were locked and bolted as well.  If any of you have seen any horror movies lately, you may be able to identify with the frightened disciples somewhat.  I can still remember the first time I saw the movie “Jaws”.  I was young and on vacation with my family – at the beach!  I don’t think I went near the water the whole week.  I felt much more secure behind the closed doors of our hotel room.  Scary movies can stick with you for a long time, too.  Lasting fear from a traumatic incident can alter your behavior, give you nightmares.  We can only imagine the level of fear in the minds of the disciples that night.  This was no movie they had just seen.  It was no mechanical shark that caused them to lock the doors.  It was death…  horrific, terrible, and unforgettable.  The disciples now lived in chaos in the shadow of the cross.  The dream that they had followed for so long without question was now dead.  They sought security behind locked doors, refuge from the tide of violence and unrest that had claimed the life of their master.

It would be interesting to know what the disciples were talking about that evening.  Were they discussing what to do next?  Were they making plans to get the heck out of town as soon as possible?  Were they just huddled together in fearful silence?  We don’t know – but whatever the mood was in that room at that time, it was all certainly about to change.  Very suddenly, Jesus comes and stands among them, speaking those familiar words, “Peace be with you.”

Now if the disciples were in shock after Jesus death, if they were huddled together in fear in that upper room, then they were certainly shocked, amazed, and spellbound at his appearance to them.  Was it some kind of a trick?  Had the stress and fear of the moment caused them to hallucinate?  Did they dare believe that their master was no longer dead?  Did they dare believe that he was alive, and he was standing right in front of them?  Would you?

Our response would likely be similar to that of Thomas when the disciples told him what had happened.  “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  Maybe Thomas was expressing something felt by all of the disciples.  Maybe they didn’t want to believe that Jesus was alive.  After all, these disciples had failed him, all of them!  They had abandoned him when he was arrested, denied him when he was crucified, and run away from him when he died.  The dream had died, they thought, and now the only future that awaited them was a life of despair and disillusionment, behind locked doors, in the shadow of that terrible cross.

But it is Jesus who breaks in upon their fear and their despair.  In that moment, Jesus reclaims them.  Despite the fact that they had abandoned him, he trusts them.  Despite the fact that they denied him, he calls them.  Despite the fact that they had run away from him, he draws them near, and breathes upon them.  That breath is a sign of life.  The language of the text recalls the creation narrative in which God breathes upon the waters and gives them life.  Jesus’ appearance to the disciples is a sign of new life. Those who nailed him to the cross and tried to snuff out that breath could not do it.  Christ has risen.  His breath continues.  The dream is alive.

Jesus is calling his disciples out of the shadow of the cross and into the light of a new life.  “Just as my Father sent me,” he says, “so I now send you.”  Not only is the dream still alive, but it is alive within you, his followers.  I think we have to forgive the disciples for not seeming a little more active and overjoyed at Jesus’ words, but the move from death to resurrection is not an easy one to make.  The shadow of the cross is not easy to leave behind.

Maybe that’s the message that Thomas speaks to us.  After being told by the disciples that Jesus is alive and the dream has been passed to them, he basically says, “That’s a good message, but I’m going to need some proof.  I need to see it with my own eyes.”  And so Thomas ends up being a lot like us.  In those dark times, those times of despair, disillusionment, and fear in our lives it’s like we can’t see the light of hope.  Maybe we spend too much time focusing on our failures and all the ways that we’ve let Christ down, the ways that we’ve failed to keep the dream of Christ’s love alive.  Maybe we spend more time behind locked doors in fear of death than we spend out in the world, embracing the life that Christ has breathed into us.  That move from death to resurrection is not an easy move to make for us, either.

It does seem that we all play the role of Thomas.  It is often times easier to let fear and uncertainty direct our lives than it is to embrace Jesus’ presence with us.  It is easier to dwell in the shadow of the cross, the shadow of death, than it is to believe the dream and be a part of it.  In fear and doubt, we can close the doors and lock them; we can find nothing that compels us to take the chance of walking out our doors and doing the work that Christ calls us to do.  Doubt is much easier than faith.

Carl Rogers, the famous American psychologist, was 22 years old when he entered Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1924. While there, he participated in a seminar organized to explore religious doubts. Rogers later said of the group, “The majority of members…in thinking their way through questions they had raised, thought themselves right out of religious work. I was one.”

Doubt is easier than faith.  A few years ago one of my friends remarked to me, “I am getting to the point that I won’t be able to say the Apostles’ Creed.  I do alright until I get to the ‘rose again from the dead’ part.  When we get to that part of the creed, it’s easier for me just to stay silent.”  Moving from death to resurrection is incredibly difficult.  Sometimes it is very hard to believe without a doubt that Jesus lives on, even today, even after he was put to death on the cross.

But the truth is that when we find ourselves doubting, when we find ourselves afraid of death, when we find ourselves unable to move from Jesus’ death on the cross to his real presence in our lives even today, Jesus treats us just as he treated his disciples, locked away in that room of fear and uncertainty.  “Just as my Father sent me,” he says, “I now send you.”

As it turns out, Jesus does not care that we have abandoned him in the past.  Jesus cares not that we deny him in the moments of truth.  Jesus chooses us for what we are…  children of God – fears, doubts, and all.  Jesus looks to us with confidence, and sends us just as the Father sent him.  “Do not spend your time behind the locked doors of fear and doubt,” he says.  “Go into the world bearing the good news.  There you will find the signs of hope, the signs of life that you seek.”  The story of Jesus has not ended in crucifixion and death, nor does our own story ended in doubt and fear.  The dream is alive in us.  Christ is alive in us.

And so we are called to rise above our past, to rise above the times we have failed Christ as fear and doubt assailed us.  Christ has looked to us all with confidence, because he lives.  Our times of doubt and fear are no match for Christ working within us and through us.  In those times, when we feel like just locking the doors and hiding under the table until this entire world passes away, Jesus suddenly appears in our midst and offers words which are both a prayer for our present doubts and fears, and a promise for our future faith…  “Peace be with you.”

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First Look is a weekly commentary on the upcoming lectionary gospel text written by Rev. Lee Koontz.  It is usually published on Mondays.

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