Sunday, April 19, 2009
Faith Over Fear
The celebration of the Resurrection isn't just limited to one Sunday. Since New Testament times the Lord's Day has been a weekly celebration of Jesus' rising, a sort of mini-Easter. The Book of Common Prayer pointedly refers not to Sundays "after" Easter, but Sundays "of" Easter.
John the Evangelist's account of the Resurrection centers primarily on the reactions of three people: John the Beloved, Peter, and Mary Magdalene. None of the three, in so many words, acknowledges the reality that Jesus is, indeed, risen. Apparently, that was a typical reaction of many in that first community. It was as though the Resurrection was too good to be true.
John, therefore, writes his Gospel in the context of a church which feels abandoned and is lonely and afraid. Born in Judaism, the followers of Jesus are now being put out and rejected. Fear, John indicates, is getting in the way of discipleship. Joseph of Arimathea, for example, keeps his discipleship secret out of fear. In Jerusalem no one speaks openly in support of Jesus for fear. The blind man's parents at the Pool of Siloam fear to tell the truth because of their fear of repercussions. And now (John 20:19-31), on the first day of the week, Jesus' closest followers gather together behind locked doors in fear. When people or groups lose hope and become fearful, Christian confession can weaken. Confusion and doubt can begin to creep in and erode faith.
It's in the midst of such hopelessness and fear, John tells us, that Jesus is suddenly there with the disciples on the first day of the week. His first words are "Shalom: Peace to you." Far more than a greeting, it's the declaring of a revelation: "Look, it's me, the One who died; look at my hands and my side. It's me, the One who now lives in my Father's power, as I said I would." The disciples, undoubtedly breathing a sigh of relief, rejoiced, sagging spirits replaced with smiles. They're reassured now that Jesus' Resurrection is a fact; it's really him, here before them. "Peace to you," he repeats, as if savoring the pronouncement of a further revelation: "As the Father sent me, I send you." (He had prayed in similar words to his Father at the last supper.)
Jesus then actualizes this prayer and revelation with an important visible action: he breathes on them, "breathes into" them, saying, "Receive a Holy Spirit." To "breathe into" means to set God's creative power into action. In Genesis 2:7 God breathes spirit, life, into humankind. In Ezekiel 37:9 the prophet is commanded to "breathe spirit into" the dry bones strewn about the valley. So here, the risen Jesus sets into action the work of the life-giving, creative Spirit of God within the community of believers, as he had promised he would. The Spirit is released, however, not to do some sort of "spiritual pyrotechnics" -- fantastic miracles or babbling in tongues --but to carry forward, through the changed hearts and lives of these followers, the message and work of Jesus the Word.
John comments that the sin is unbelief: and now this community, through the Spirit, is to forgive sin and and hold it fast. That is, they're now empowered, through God's Spirit, to isolate, repel and negate evil and sin, both for old and new followers of Jesus. Easter is Jesus' Resurrection, his exaltation as God's Son, and the giving of the Spirit all rolled into one. By finally understanding it in this way, John's community is enabled to shed its fear and to realize that, in fact, it is not abandoned or alone. Jesus' followers are now energized by the Holy Spirit as companion, power, and co-worker.
Someone has said: "A person who has never doubted is a person who has never thought." The apostle Thomas wasn't with the others that night when Jesus came to them. For John, Thomas personifies the attitude of fearful doubt of the the first Christians. He's characterized earlier in John's Gospel as misunderstanding, not fully accepting, what Jesus was about. At the disciples' enthusiastic report of what they'd seen and heard, Thomas reaffirms the need for him to see and to feel, to prove, to have it all tied down: none of which is really adequate belief.
Eight days later, Thomas is with them. Again the doors are locked, for fear dies slowly. Again, Jesus is there with them. Again, his declaration: "Peace to you," and then the revelation which would change Thomas forever: "Reach out your finger...reach out your hand. And don't show yourself unbelieving, but believing." Note that John doesn't tell us that Thomas actually did that.
Without implying that Thomas doesn't believe at all (because he does!), Jesus challenges Thomas to change his attitude, to think deeper. The disciples, upon first seeing Jesus, had confessed him as Lord. Thomas, however, wants to concentrate on and probe the miraculous. But in that moment when Jesus generously invites him to reach and touch, Thomas is led to acknowledge real faith, even without actually probing Jesus' wounds, and Thomas voices his faith in an ultimate confession: "My Lord and my God!" Perhaps he was influenced by Psalm 35:23: "...arise...to my defense, my God and my Lord!", or by the custom of addressing the Roman Emperor Domitian as "Lord" and "God". Whatever motivated him, Thomas makes it clear that one may address Jesus in the same language with which Israel addressed God: "Yes, it is Jesus and he is God!"
Jesus then observes: "You believe, Thomas, because you see; happy those who don't see, yet believe." Jesus means to contrast two experiences: that of seeing Jesus, and that of not seeing Jesus. Thomas is no longer the doubter, but the believer. Like the disciples, he has seen and believed. He, too, is blessed with the joy of the Resurrection. John seems to be trying to tell us that it isn't eyewitnesses alone who, in a markedly higher way, possess the joy and blessing of the risen Jesus. Those who do not see are equal, before God, with those who do see. Contrary to what most preachers commonly say about this passage, John isn't contrasting seeing and believing. Both truly believe. The point is that there are two kinds of reactions to seeing signs, and both are valid evidence of the call to believe. Thomas' kind of belief, the kind that will believe if it sees tangible proof of the marvelous and the miraculous, is inadequate, yet it's still faith. The other kind of belief, like that of the other disciples, is adequate, for it sees beyond the miraculous to Jesus himself and to what he reveals of his Father and of himself.
It's not that Thomas' approach to belief discards the sign of the risen Jesus. As long as Jesus stood among people, they came to faith through the visible. But with Jesus' release of the Spirit into the community of the Church and with his ascension, another way of believing now becomes possible and necessary. The era of signs and appearances gives way to the era of the Spirit and the invisible presence of Jesus.
John concludes by saying that he has narrated these signs, only a few of many, many signs which Jesus did, so that you and I may believe and that, through faith, through deeper thinking and acceptance, you and I may have life. "A person who has never doubted is a person who has never thought."
Frederick Buechner says: "...if you don't have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving."
"...This is the victory which overcomes the world [of fear, of doubt, of our petty attachments to the spectacular] -- our faith."