The Second Sunday of Easter
12 April 2015
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
Isaiah 26:2-9, 19
Acts 3:12a, 13-15, 17-26
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our Gospel text today is an old friend; we seem to return to this place every year. Today, however, I am less concerned with the skeptical Thomas and whether or not he stands for every Christian, and more concerned with how to read this text. And I take this posture for several reasons. Here is the most fundamental of these, at least for me. There is a kind of writing that is used to “make” something, “create” something, do something other than list details, or describe assembly instructions, or the purely descriptive writing peculiar to the hard sciences, or recipes. The kind of writing I have in mind invites the reader or hearer into a world of ideas, emotions, feelings, decisions, new possibilities. Such texts are “poetic,” not because of meter or rhyme, but because they create space for something new to be thought and experienced. Poetic texts never produce the meaning they seek to make in and of themselves. They are a part of a larger tapestry, a longer narrative—the poet’s lifetime of writing, the entire collection of a novelist’s multiple novels and stories; and so too when the “writing” is the painting of artists, the music of composers and musicians, and the movements of dancers. To take any single, enclosed part of a larger whole as an expression of meaning complete in itself is misguided—or at least so I believe. The other side of this proposition is, I think, equally true. No human being can ever say with precision and finality exactly what he or she means to say. Language does not work that efficiently; and God knows human beings are anything but efficient when it comes to making meaning. And this is also true for the biblical texts and their authors—a fact that does not impinge on the authority of the Scriptures, but which insists that human language simply cannot finish the task of describing divine redemption.
The point of all this for today is that in John’s most poetic of Gospels, no story stands on its own; today’s stretch of Gospel is the dramatic retelling of two of Jesus’ resurrection appearances to the gathered disciples. But it cannot tell this story on its own.
As John shapes the story of resurrection appearances, first comes Mary Magdalene. She expects to find a body to prepare for burial, but is confronted with absence. Once Peter and “the beloved disciple” have come and gone, carrying away whatever conclusions they’d come to, we are left with Mary, standing outside the tomb weeping. She stoops down and peers inside. She sees two angels, one where the corpse’s head would have been, one where the feet would have been. They ask her, “Woman, why do you weep?” As she explains to them the dilemma of the absent body, she turns and sees someone she takes to be the gardener, thinking he has moved the body somewhere. Like those on the Emmaus Road, Mary does not recognize the risen Lord until he does something to reestablish the connection.
As we enter our lesson for the day, from the first salutation of peace through to the “seeing and believing” discussed with Thomas, each comment, each resonance directs us to “see above,” to revisit some earlier eposide in this Fourth Gospel. Jesus appears mysteriously in the midst of the disciples gathered in a locked room. He reestablishes the connection with them by showing them his pierced hands and side. Then, in tight compression we have John’s version of the Great Commission and a graphic prefiguring of the gift of the Spirit—each reference a flash back to that long Farewell prayer in chapters 14-17. This text is not self-contained. As the story continues, we discover that Thomas, who is called the Twin, was not present in the locked room. His skepticism is emphasized but not to admonish him or rank him lower than the other disciples; it is rather to set up the next appearance of the resurrected Jesus to Thomas and through this “Thomas vignette” to attempt the impossible, to try to describe in the limits of human language something of the meaning of resurrection and Christian existence. But John’s Gospel has been about this task from chapter one. At this climactic stage of the Gospel, where Thomas worships his Lord and God, our text again curves back on itself and sends us to other places in the larger story. What John has been doing from the beginning has now reached a new point of clarity—to answer the difficult question: “What do we do when God goes back into hiding?” When the creator God reassumes glorious, shocking invisibility? When God in the flesh, through death and resurrection, so transforms human existence that it is no longer recognizable solely within the ordinary bounds of the five human senses? When locked doors pose no barrier? When those left behind must nonetheless attempt the undoable, to describe with human language what language cannot fully articulate and human intelligence cannot fully understand. It is here, precisely at this point of conundrum, where the openness of poetic language serves its purpose—not to finally finish the saying of resurrection, but rather to continue the saying, so that with each orbit we make, some new, additional nuance of this resurrection reality might somehow be comprehended.
I might wish that the Thomas story leads quickly to a conclusion that is final, but those flashbacks I mentioned, two of which we will consider shortly, are literary trapdoors that send us elsewhere in the story before that conclusion (even a provisional one) can be reached. First, Thomas is called “the Twin.” The tradition has a good time with this bit of information—in the Syriac tradition, it emerges that Thomas is Jesus’ twin brother (make of that what you will). But more importantly it is John’s of all the Gospels that alone mentions this nickname—three times, in fact which should get anyone’s attention. Mention of it here, sends us back to the story of the death and raising to life of Lazarus in chapter 11 where we first meet “the Twin.” There, in a rather startling object lesson, Jesus has purposely chosen not to go and heal his sick friend, but rather to let him die. To ease his disciples’ anxiety or, perhaps, to keep them guessing, Jesus has disguised his description of Lazarus’ condition by using the euphemistic language of sleep. Finally, when the disciples are clearly not getting the point, Jesus says plainly that Lazarus is dead, adding that he is glad(!), for the situation will be one which will deepen the belief of the disciples. Of course they have no idea what this means, or what Jesus intends to do. But when Jesus says, “So, let’s go to him,” it is Thomas, who is called the Twin, who then says to his fellow disciples, “Yes, let us also go, so that we might die with him.” Whether this is an expression of courage and solidarity or resignation, the point is that one cannot navigate the story of Thomas, his skepticism and his bodily handling of the risen Jesus and his eventual declaration of faith without the Lazarus story. For in the Lazarus episode—which Jesus carefully choreographed and performed—God in the flesh allows, embraces, and imbues with deep meaning, the tragedy of human death. This must be understood if we are even to begin to grasp Jesus’ resurrection and the transformation of human life it depicts, which is precisely what the resurrection appearance stories are struggling to express.
But the text has not yet stopped moving. The very mention of “seeing and believing,” and the twist added by Jesus who places the stress on “not-seeing,” ricochets back to multiple spots in John, for not only are these two concepts thematic for John, but he has been redefining them from the start. Keep in mind John’s need to address the problem already mentioned: what do you do when God goes back into hiding?
Seeing and believing are at the core of the story of Nathaniel’s calling in chapter one. Jesus tells him “before Philip called you, I saw you sitting under the fig tree.” But what kind of “seeing” is this? Nathaniel responds, “You are the son of God, the king of Israel.” Jesus asks, “because I told you I saw you under the tree, have you believed? Greater things than these you shall see: You shall see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” A case, like Thomas’s, in which Jesus’ other-worldly seeing brought Nathaniel to the point of belief, and prepared him for another kind of seeing (of the resurrection reality) altogether.
In chapter nine seeing and believing are turned on their head. In a way similar to the Lazarus story, as the disciples discuss the plight of this man born blind—was the cause of his blindness his own sin, or his parents’ sin?—Jesus declares that the situation is rather a stage for God’s glory to be revealed; and the Light of the World gives sight to this man. The story continues, when some of the Pharisees want to know who healed him on the Sabbath. In their straitjacketed minds, anyone who would heal on the Sabbath is disobedient to God and a sinner. The healed man was to admit this. But he says, “whether he is a sinner or not, I do not know. This I know, I was blind, but now I see. Guys, you do the math.” After he is excommunicated from the synagogue, Jesus finds him. “Do you believe in the son of Man?” Jesus asks. And the man responds, “Who is this son of Man”? Jesus says, “You have seen him, and you are speaking with him.” The man had already seen, already believed and acted by faith when told to wash the mud from his eyes. But here, as this story ends, John redefines seeing as something more than the physics of refracted and reflected light, as a more profound sensibility able to apprehend divine truth.
Everything is affected by resurrection, raised to a different order. The five senses acquire heightened meaning in John’s vocabulary of Christian existence in the light of resurrection, as natural seeing and touch are transformed into metaphors of the sensibility of a reality that bursts the seams of the mundane world. Now sight, a “seeing” generated by faith peering through the lens of hope, perceives the invisible, the grace of God still under construction; it apprehends not absence but the fulsome contours of God’s redemptive story as believers, you and I, enact it, bringing it nearer to completion. Because if God has gone back into hiding, he is hiding in us in the Holy Spirit who indwells God’s people—a revelatory hiding in which God’s redemptive presence in the world now, after the fashion of incarnation, is to be made manifest in and through the Body of Christ, each member making Christ visible. Thomas’s showdown with the resurrected Jesus is an open story that sends us back into John’s ever-spiraling narrative of the redefinition of reality, not to bog us down in the here and now of human existence, but by that retracing of our steps to enable us to better grasp what incarnation and resurrection together have done to us and for us as we engage fully in Christian existence, and to endure the hard parts of life that still cause us grief. John’s story does not have an end; it begins with incarnation, when God takes on human flesh; it begins again when God takes up residence in his church. May God grant us faithfulness and strength to be the visible body of Christ in our world.
© 2015 Philip H. Towner