Speaker: The Rev. Dr. Robert W. Prichard
- In last week’s Gospel Lesson we heard the story of our Lord’s resurrection—the very heart of the Christian faith. Jesus Christ who had died has arisen from the dead. As St. Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 15: 13, 19-20: “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain . . . . If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. . . But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead.”
- It is good news that demands to be shared. But how do you share the news about something that has never happened before? How can talk about something that exceeds even our deepest hopes?
- Marcia and I have a nephew who was very verbal as a young child. He read his first words before his second birthday. It was wonderful to see him as a toddler; you could almost see the wheels turning in his head as he figured out how to see and to name things. His parents remember the first time that he was aware of seeing snow, probably before his third birthday. They held him near a window, and he looked outside in wonder at the new fallen snow and declared, “Cheese.” He did not have a word for it, but he did his best, taking what he did know—cottage cheese—and using its name for what he saw on the ground.
- As we work our way through Easter season we see ways in which early Christian authors tried to explain the good news of the resurrection, something unexpected for which they did not have sufficient language for explanation. They needed to reach to other parts of their experience to find analogies and parallels.
- The earliest written account of the resurrection is that written by St. Paul in the 15th chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians. It was not one of our lessons today, but it sheds some light on what we have read. Paul draws on an earlier source that explains the resurrection in terms of a Roman witness list. Something happened that was wonderful, and we can produce witnesses who will tell you all about it. He wrote: I handed on to you as of first importance what I had in turn received: that Christ . . . was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephus [Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then all the apostles. (1 Corinthians 15:4-6) Then Paul, acting rather like the most recent participant in a chain letter, added his own name to the list of witnesses, because of his vision of the risen Lord on the Damascus Road. Notice that the efforts by modern translators to be more egalitarian—as in the New Revised Standard Version that I have just quoted, which speaks of 500 brothers and sisters—miss the point here. The Greek says brothers intentionally, because in Roman law only males were eligible to appear in court as witnesses.
- In time, however, many of the witnesses on Paul’s list died and his claim about availability gave way to a second strategy; the Gospel writers spelled out some of the testimony that such witnesses would have provided had they still been around. One advantage of this approach was that they incorporated the female witnesses that were lacking in Paul’s list. We can read in the Gospels of Mary Magdalene (all four Gospels), Mary the Mother of James (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Joanna (Luke), and Salome (Mark) finding evidence of the resurrection. The evangelists may have had some lingering concern about female witnesses, however, because in each case that a woman comes to the tomb, one or more angels also appear. It is as if the evangelists are saying to the readers, “You should not have problems with these female witnesses, because they report of what they learned came from angels.” The angels do not appear to the male witnesses.
- Today’s Gospel lesson is from the 20th chapter of John and contains two resurrection appearances. The witnesses are disciples and no women or angels are mentioned. The first of the two appearances takes place on the evening of Easter Day. The disciples are behind closed doors for fear that they too will be arrested, when suddenly Jesus appears among them. This change in geographical location is another way that New Testament authors try to portray the resurrected Lord. Jesus seems to be free from normal geographical limits. Here he appears in a locked room. In Matthew and Mark the women are told that he will somehow show up to the disciples in Galilee. In Luke he shows up to two travelers on a road outside of Jerusalem and disappears in the midst of eating with them in Emmaus.
- There is something both familiar and strange about the appearance of the resurrected Lord. When Mary Magdalene sees the risen Lord a few verses earlier in John’s Gospel she thinks he is a gardener until he calls her by name; then she recognizes him and calls him Rabboni, which means teacher (John 20:16). In Luke’s Gospel those two who are on the road talk with Jesus but do not recognize them until he says the blessing over a meal. (Luke 24:31). In today’s account, the disciples do that initially recognize Jesus until he shows them the marks in his hands and the javelin mark in his side. Then the disciples rejoiced, but they may still have not quite trusted what they saw, because a week later they are still in hiding and have not told anyone else what they have seen, except Thomas.
- Thomas, also called the twin, had been absent at the time of the appearance on Easter evening. When he rejoined the disciples they did share the news of what they had seen with him, and he reacted exactly as they had done; he said that he would not believe unless he saw and touched the wounded hands and side. And then the risen Lord was in their midst again. He addressed Thomas and showed his hands and side, and Thomas reacted with the declaration that the earlier disciples had not made by saying, “My Lord and my God!”
- I want to make a brief aside here about Thomas and church music. Early Christian writers referred to Thomas as believing Thomas because of this declaration of faith that he made in this passage. John, for example, holds him up at the end of this passage as a model of what it is to believe. Jesus asks Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” Sometime in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, a period when many wrestled with doubt, preachers and teachers gave Thomas a make-over. He became “Doubting Thomas,” a stand-in for those who later struggled with doubt. The famous English hymn translator, John Mason Neale, helped to make that point in his translation of a 16th century Latin hymn, to which verses had been added over time.[i] Neale’s end product, “O sons and daughter, let us sing”—number 206 in the current Hymnal 1982--popularized the image of Thomas as one who doubted: “When Thomas first the tidings heard, how they had seen the risen Lord, he doubted the disciples’ word. ” John’s Gospel, however, is more focused on the faith to which Thomas came than upon the doubt that he shared with his fellow disciples.
- There is another element in this passage from John that is common in Biblical accounts of the resurrection. John links the story about what happened to Jesus with the story of what will happen to those who believe in him. The attempt to make connections was already evident in Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians 15. There he explains that Jesus Christ’s resurrection is the first fruits of a harvest in which we also will be included. Matthew links the witnessing of the resurrection to evangelism; those who whom Jesus appeared will carry the Gospel to all the world. The long ending of Mark links Jesus’ resurrection to the power to act in miraculous ways, and Luke’s account in Act of the Apostles links the risen Lord to the outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Here in John the risen Lord gives to the disciples the power to forgive. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
- John assures that the news of Easter is not just about one person, it is good news for the many, good news that fills those who grasp it to overflowing. I find this Easter, in the year after a significant death in the family, that reading of the Easter accounts sinks homes and brings tears to my eyes because of the good news that it holds. Death is not the last word; in Christ we have hope. As we heard it said in a collect in the Good Friday service: Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had gown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all this were made, . . . Jesus Christ our Lord. (BCP, 280)
And Thomas said, “My Lord and My God.”