Easter 2: 3 April John 20:19-31
A lot happened on resurrection day according to John. The opening scene of today's passage shares some similarity with Luke 24:36-43. There, too, Jesus appears before fearful disciples gathered behind closed doors and greets them with the words, 'Peace be with you!' In Luke's account the disciples fear they are seeing a ghost. Jesus proves his materiality, showing them his hands and feet, suggesting they feel him and then, to clinch the proof, eats a morsel of fish.
It is hard to believe the writer of the fourth gospel is unaware of the story in some form. Our passage appears to be a creative extrapolation. Now the words of peace are repeated and followed by a very Johannine portrait of Jesus giving the Spirit and commissioning the disciples. The matter of proof has been attached to the figure Thomas who insists on materiality. This spawns, in turn, a further meeting a week later where his concerns are satisfied and he acclaims Jesus, Lord and God. In keeping with John's modification of the crucifixion scene, the elements of proof now include the wounded side. We probably have before us a very creative reworking of an old story. The power of the event and the experience in the life of the community spilled over into new ways of celebrating its meaning. Understood in this light the passage has much to say to faith.
'Peace', 'Shalom' is a standard greeting, but here it probably echoes the promise of peace given in 14:27, just as the events to follow recall the promise of the Spirit given in the same chapter. John's disciples are glad at Jesus' appearance, not afraid as in Luke. They become models for believers. The negative trait is attached to Thomas. The result is that the scene becomes a celebration of the Church, its constitution and its task.
Jesus sends the disciples, just as he was sent. This is the premise for discipleship. It sets our agenda by directing us to what Jesus did, especially as he is portrayed in John. Jesus offered light and life and truth through relationship with himself, through relationship with God. Our role is also to offer light and life and truth through a relationship with God. This does not equate us and Jesus, but the task is the same. As he was God's representative, so his disciples are to be ambassadors, to use Paul's image from 2 Cor 5:20. Like the Jewish 'shaliach' (envoy) and in keeping with the major vehicle of communication before the days of telecommunication, the message bearer often needed to be able to act for and on the authority of the one who did the sending. It is authority to offer the relationship in which is life.
Heard at a single sitting, the gospel would be recalling for people at this point the promises Jesus made to his disciples in John 14, even more impressive at the stage where the text was without chapters 15-17. Already Jesus' words to Mary (20:17) recall 14:1-4. Jesus is going to the Father. 'Peace' recalls the promise of peace in 14:27. The sending recalls the promise of mission in 14:12-15. Then the giving of the Spirit recalls the promise of the Spirit/Paraklete on 14:16. John has woven the great commission and Pentecost into a single scene.
Breathing belongs to the image of the spirit which in biblical languages means wind and breath and spirit. John plays with the range of meanings already in 3:9 (the spirit/wind blows where it wants to ...). Perhaps the image is evoking God's breathing upon human clay in the creation story. Here is a new beginning. The Spirit, the helper, will help the disciples lay the claim of Jesus before people. 16:8-11 explains how: the cross becomes a mirror in which to become convinced about sin (which is killed), goodness (which is vindicated) and judgement (because evil is disempowered). 20:23 gives them the power and authority to give structure and discipline to the community. This is to be ministry and community with accountability.
Thomas is not only a doubter; he is also a dubious figure. Some see him as a saint, once he reaches the point of acclaiming Jesus, Lord and God. I am more inclined to see typical ambiguity here, as with many other characters in John. They get it right, even though they are hardly exemplary (like Nathanael). John is not anti-miracle, but he is critical of the focus on the materiality of miracles and Thomas surely approaches that stance. Blessed are those who believe who did not need the proofs (20:29). Such miracles and proofs (affirmed by John in 20:30) only make sense if they lead to the real faith which consists in a relationship with God of which 20:31 speaks.
An alternative view would see the author using the story to emphasise the materiality of Jesus over against those who saw both his earthly and resurrection existence as only apparently material and not really human flesh and blood. This is a concern at 19:34-35. Some see this as the agenda of the final edition of the gospel only when such ideas were beginning to develop. May be. Thomas then becomes a hero; he proves Jesus was real; but, if so, that is a secondary development.
20:31 returns to the central focus of the gospel of John and the Christian gospel as a whole: life! It defines salvation, the agenda of mission and its context. Ultimately John's celebrations in narrative of the Easter message point to life as its message. Before and after Easter it is still that same life. The change is that now there are new bearers of that life and the Spirit given without measure to Jesus (3:34) now operates without measure among the disciples and makes Jesus' presence real to them (14:22-26). Thomas needs to get there and until he does (if he does), he remains on one of the roads of religious distraction which robs him and others of life but keeps them very busy, saying even the right things.
First Reading: Easter 2: 3 April Acts 5:27-32
Epistle: Easter 2: 3 April Revelation 1:4-8