Today’s Gospel tells of Jesus’ appearance on two successive Sundays. Since today correlates with that second appearance, let’s focus mostly on it. There are two surprises there. The first is that Jesus shows up again. The first appearance looked like a one-off event: Jesus gave them the promised Spirit and gave them their marching orders. But here he is.
The bigger surprise is that Thomas is present. It would have been so easy for him to be absent. Imagine: eight days of the others celebrating Easter & Thomas still observing Good Friday. Altar Guild: what liturgical color would you use to keep everyone happy? Thomas could have written them off as gullible; they could have written Thomas off as faithless.
But there they were, together. Given all the issues over which we Christians have split, whether Jesus is alive or dead sounds like it’s at the serious end of the spectrum. But there they are—together.
Why did they stay together? Perhaps simple garden-variety virtues like faithfulness, patience, humility. Perhaps Jesus having washed their feet, told them to love each other, and then all of them abandoning him in the garden: perhaps those shared experiences had something to do with it. The Evangelist doesn’t explain it; I suspect we’re supposed to wonder about it.
There’s an additional element we might consider. Recall the beginning of today’s reading, “and the doors…locked for fear of the Jews.” Particularly during Holy Week we struggle with this language because of the ways it’s been used to encourage hatred and violence directed towards the Jews. How might we better hear it? Among the various possibilities here’s one I wonder about.
Consider these elements in John’s Gospel: In the prologue we read “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” In that long dialogue with the Samaritan woman Jesus himself affirms “salvation is from the Jews.” Later, toward the end of the story of the healing of the man born blind:
Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
Being chosen (elect) and owning that identity carries its own danger: the temptation to coopt that identity, to weaponize it, to make God a prop in the unending quest for security and status. Something like this is at work in the misuse of the practice of qorban: “But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father” (Matt. 15:5).
Back to John’s prologue: “But those who did welcome him, those who believed in his name, he authorized to become God’s children” (CEB). So now those who believe are also at risk. Those who believe are now also Jesus’ “own people.” That’s Jesus’ choice, not ours. Recall Jesus’ words: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” The image of God that comes with our shared humanity involves its own dangers. Built to lower specs, we’d be far less dangerous to ourselves and those around us. How much more self-identifying as the elect!
Now, while “chosen” and “elect” are not common Episcopal self-designations, the substance is there in our worship. At baptism: “We receive you into the household of God.” At the Eucharist: “you have graciously accepted us as living members of your Son.” And the line from the hymn “The Church’s one foundation:” “Elect from every nation…”
If something like this is right, then the anti-Jewish reading is disastrous not only for the Jews, but for us, blinding us to the Gospel’s clear warning. Many of John’s uses of “the Jews” carry an implicit warning: we who believe are equally vulnerable to misusing our calling. Many of John’s uses of “the Jews” reverberate with the divine pain: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”
So, if we wish to paraphrase the text, we might use “the elect” in place of “the Jews,” for instance, “the doors…locked for fear of the elect.” That might keep us on our toes. That might remind us of Paul’s counsel to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”
And, returning to the main thread of this sermon, an awareness of their vulnerability qua believers would not have been a bad reason to stay together during that strange week.
This choice to stay together has consequences. Consider the beginning of our reading from Acts:
32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.
The whole group “of one heart and soul.” That doesn’t come out of nowhere; the decisions that led to the apostles being together that second Sunday prepared the ground. And here’s the thing: Luke moves from that to “With great power the apostles gave their testimony.” Does Luke want us to wonder about the connection between being “of one heart and soul” and the persuasive power of the testimony?
Sometimes we’re more or less comfortably among the other believers, wondering what is wrong with Thomas. Sometimes we’re channeling Thomas, wondering what is wrong with our community. In both situations today’s Gospel challenges us to hang in together: who knows how we might together encounter the risen Jesus?