Monday, April 25, 2011

Impossible Faith

I can't read the words of John 20:19-23 without thinking of this blog post by my friend and fellow pastor, Jeremy Scott.  While I'll repeat some of the same ideas in this post, his post is worth reading in its entirety.

In this passage, we are given a picture of the disciples on the evening of the same day in which Mary Magdalene discovered Jesus' tomb to be empty.  Peter and the beloved disciple have seen the empty tomb as well.  Mary Magdalene has even seen and spoken with the risen Christ himself and reported this conversation to the other disciples.  In spite of that, John tells us that the doors were locked where the disciples were "for fear of the Jews".

This is a confused and scared group of people.  They don't yet know what to make of their friend and teacher's death, much less of these reports about the empty tomb and of Mary speaking with him.  An empty tomb could mean a lot of things, least likely of all Jesus being alive.  And could Mary's report really be trusted?  After all, women weren't considered to be reliable witnesses for legal purposes in the ancient world.  And besides, Jesus had delivered Mary from demon possession.  Maybe now that Jesus was dead that demon had come back to her and caused this hallucination.  Either way, there simply wasn't enough evidence to suggest that it was safe to be openly milling about in the streets or the markets.  The same people who had crucified Jesus might decide it was a good idea to get rid of his closest followers too, especially if rumors started to spread about Jesus being a live again.  So the disciples lock themselves in a room "for fear of the Jews".

Then Jesus appears in the midst of that fear-filled, locked up prison of a room and says to the disciples "Peace be with you."  On one level, this is exactly what any good Jew would expect.  Peace, shalom was and often still is a customary Jewish greeting.  It was so customary that Paul uses it along with "grace" in everyone of his letters.  Perhaps, we are also to imagine that it was so customary that the disciples may not have even noticed it, simply dismissed it as a "hello" or "hey guys".

"When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet."   I imagine at this point in their encounter with Jesus, the disciples would be like a parent reunited with a kidnapped child.  The first reaction is "Oh, thank God you are OK." or in this case "I can't believe it, Jesus.  You are really alive."  But that thought of thankfulness for safety would quickly to turn to the anger and revenge of "Now lets punish the monsters who did this to you."  As the disciples, observed the wounds of their Lord and savior, their thoughts would have naturally turned to the pain and rejection he had experienced.  As Jeremy so aptly says in his post:
Again, let’s pretend we’re the disciples. We’re fearful and angry that our savior has been killed. And he shows up, alive, breathing, right in front of us. He has risen from the dead, conquered death. This guy’s alive and now I definitely know that nothing can take him down! What’s my response?!?
…Let’s go find Pilate.
…Let’s go find the chief priests.
…Let’s go find the guys that held the hammer and spear.
We’ve got something to settle. Let’s go get ‘em.
But before that thought can go any further Jesus says again "Peace be with you." as if to say "Hang on, my greeting was more than a greeting.  It's your mission.  I'm not just wishing you peace and well-being.  I am bestowing the very shalom of God upon you and you are to live it out in everything you do."  As if to hammer this point of mission home, Jesus continues "As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you."  Then Jesus breathes on them and says "Receive the Holy Spirit."  The God whose breath gave life to the first man and woman, the God whose breath raised up an army of an audience from a valley of dry bones, now fills these disciples with new life, with a new Spirit so that they might carry out the radical mission that Jesus has given them.  And just so we don't miss the point, Jesus says "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld."  In other words, this new Spirit that resides among the disciples empowers them to forgive the Pilates, the chief priests, those who seem to be unforgivable.  Jesus has not been resurrected to revenge.  He has been resurrected to bestow on these disciples a Spirit of peace and forgiveness so that they might carry out the mission of Jesus in the world.

In v. 24-31, we find that Thomas, one of the twelve disciples, was not present when Jesus appeared this first time.  The other disciples reported to Thomas "We have seen the Lord".  But Thomas responds to them "Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe."  As a result, most have come to know this disciple as "doubting Thomas".

But what if that's an unfair moniker for Thomas?   We often hear Thomas's words as a willful refusal, a rejection of the other disciples' report without evidence.  We see Thomas as the rigid empiricist who won't accept anything without proof.  But what if we are hearing him incorrectly? Maybe these words from Thomas aren't so much refusal as they are confession; more admission of weakness than demand of evidence.  Perhaps they are like the man in Mark 9 who says "I believe.  Lord, help my unbelief!"  Perhaps Thomas isn't saying "I won't believe" but "I want to believe but this is simply too much for me to handle.  Not only am I supposed to believe that a crucified man was raised from the dead but also that he now wants us to forgive the people who did that to him?!.  That is humanely impossible!  I can't possibly believe that, much less be faithful to that belief unless I encounter the living Jesus myself!"

If that is indeed what Thomas is saying, then he could not have uttered a more correct understanding of himself and the whole human predicament.  We can not possibly believe, we can not possibly forgive the unforgivable, we can not possibly be faithful to the mission of radical peace that God has called us to in this world, if we have not had an encounter with the risen and living Jesus.  It is simply too difficult.  It is simply too much to ask of mere human beings to live out this kind of peace and forgiveness...unless....unless the resurrected Jesus shows up among us in the midst of our fear-filled and locked-door prisons where we have barricaded ourselves in to shield us from all the pain and dissapointment of life and he breathes new life into us and gives us his Spirit and allows us to see that the crucified Lord who still bears the mark of his torture and death is alive, is victorious, and will reign in us if we will only let him.  Eight days later, Jesus appears to Thomas and gives him the faith that he knew he couldn't possibly muster up for himself and Thomas answers with what is probably the greatest and most accurate confession of faith in the entire Gospel of John, "My Lord and My God!"

But it doesn't end there.  Jesus says to Thomas "Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."  So often we hear this as a reprimand of Thomas as if Jesus were saying that Thomas should have had enough faith to just believe without seeing Jesus.  But I don't think that is what Jesus is saying here.  I think Jesus is saying that encounters with him didn't stop with those who could see him in his physical body.  Jesus is saying that it is still possible for us to come to know him in all of his life and fullness, to receive that same Spirit which was breathed on the first disciples, even though we can not see Jesus as Thomas did.  We can still encounter the living Christ.  And just to make sure we don't miss the point, John, the writer of this gospel, inserts himself into the story in v.30-31 and says the same thing.  John interrupts the narrative flow of his literary masterpiece to make sure we can't miss this point.  He says all of this was written "so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name."  Through the presence of the Spirit and the scripture that witnesses to Jesus, we can still have an encounter with the risen Lord and have this impossible faith and have life in his name.

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