Three Kinds of Doubt: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Easter 2
Easter 2 (Year C): John 20:19-31
1) This is the second week of Eastertide (there are seven such weeks, poetically one more than the six weeks of Lent). Our primary guide for this season will be the Gospel of John: this week and next are stories of the risen Jesus appearing to his followers, and the following four weeks will explore Jesus’ teachings about faith and intimacy with God.
2) A recurring theme in the resurrection appearance stories is how early Christian communities struggled to perceive and believe. For starters, the risen Jesus isn’t recognized at first. Mary Magdalene thinks he’s the local gardener, and as we’ll see next week, the disciples don’t recognize him on the beach (John 20:15; 21:4). Likewise, in Luke, two of Jesus’ followers have an extended conversation with him (and about him!) without realizing who he is (Luke 24:13-27). In this way, both John and Luke go out of their way to suggest that resurrection means something more mysterious than simple resuscitation: Jesus has risen, and at the same time he is somehow different. Part of what’s going on here is early Christian communities wrestling with the fact that great crowds didn’t notice Jesus' return (as they did, for example, in the case of Lazarus’ resurrection (see John 12:9)). Jesus is back, but only a few have eyes to see that it’s really him; even his closest followers need help.
3) John organizes his Gospel around seven astounding wonders that reveal Jesus’ identity and mission. John’s name for these events - “signs” - is a clue to their purpose: they’re supposed to catch our attention (even catch our breath!), drawing us toward what for John is the whole point: life with and in God. But amazement doesn’t always work that way. It’s only too easy to get caught up in the miraculous “signs” and miss the larger mission - pulling the car over, so to speak, to ooh and ahh at a road sign pointing us toward our destination… instead of moving on to the destination itself!
4) And as it turns out, this tension is a running theme throughout John’s Gospel. Jesus repeatedly scolds the crowds (and his disciples) for focusing too much on signs, urging them to move on to higher, more important matters. In the scene featuring the second sign, Jesus is exasperated: “Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe” (John 4:48). A little later, he calls on those around him to take another step: Don’t fixate on how I fed five thousand with a few loaves; shift your understanding into a higher gear, and see how I’m offering you the bread of life itself - indeed, see how I am that bread! (John 6:26-35). This tension between dazzling signs and genuine faith runs through the whole Gospel, culminating in this week’s passage, the risen Jesus’ encounter with Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29).
1) It’s the evening of “the first day of the week,” a day of new beginnings, and Mary Magdalene has just declared to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18). But as night falls, the disciples cower nevertheless, holed up in a locked house for fear of the religious authorities (throughout John’s Gospel, “the Jews” effectively means “the Jewish authorities,” since Jesus and most of his followers are Jewish as well). Thus the story begins with the first kind of Easter doubt: fear that all is lost.
2) Somehow unhindered by the locked doors, Jesus arrives and stands among them, saying, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19). It’s an astonishing greeting - these are the same supposed friends who denied and deserted him just a few days ago, when it mattered most!
3) Why does Jesus immediately show them all his wounds? Does he look so different that the wounds act as identifying marks? Or does he look more or less the same, but the wounds prove he is the person they saw crucified, rather than a doppelganger? Or is he trying to assure them that torture and death have indeed been overcome - that he has somehow, like Lazarus, come out the other side? Whatever the details, Jesus’ actions seem designed to allay a second kind of Easter doubt: suspicion that death still has dominion, that physical resurrection is impossible, that no one can die and rise again.
4) But there is another possibility, a third kind of Easter doubt. This one isn’t focused so much on confirming that it’s really Jesus, or on resurrection’s plausibility - after all, the disciples have only recently witnessed Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead (the very reason, according to John, that the powers-that-be mobilize to have Jesus killed (see John 11:38-54)). No, this third kind of doubt focuses on whether Jesus is truly the messiah: for the messiah, this thinking goes, would not arise from death in triumphant, invulnerable splendor, but rather as a suffering servant still marked by vulnerability, by fragility, by wounds. In short, the true messiah, acting on behalf of a wounded world, would rise as a wounded savior. As a sign of authenticity, then, Jesus immediately displays “his hands and his side” (John 20:20). God’s Beloved comes not as a military conqueror without blemish, but rather as a strong and peaceful shepherd bearing the wounds of the world, a child of God and a child of Humanity. He is the Word made flesh (John 1:14) - and “flesh” means vulnerability. Flesh means wounds.
5) All of which brings us to the disciple often called, “Doubting Thomas,” as if he demands more tangible proof than his comrades. But in fact, he doesn’t: he just forthrightly asks for what the others have already received, including the opportunity to inspect Jesus’ wounds. Which kind of doubt drives him? The first - fear that all is lost? The second - suspicion that resurrection is impossible? The third - wariness that mere resurrection isn’t enough, that only a wounded-and-risen savior is the genuine messiah? Some combination of all three? Whatever the answer, his companions may well have had the same doubts, and when it comes to Jesus’ return, Thomas isn’t any more willing to take their word for it than they were to take Mary Magdalene’s. In this sense, Thomas is no different than the rest of the disciples. On the contrary, he’s a representative icon for their doubts, and for their dependence on “signs and wonders” in order to believe.
6) In this way, a key tension in John’s Gospel comes to a head: “Have you believed because you have seen me?” Jesus asks Thomas, and by extension, the whole group. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29). The disciples themselves refuse to believe on the basis of testimony alone - but a new chapter is now beginning in salvation history, a chapter in which the movement will grow and the church will be born, all on the basis of testimony! Indeed, what’s really going on in this story is that Jesus is continuing the departure he began in Jerusalem: he breathes the Holy Spirit upon his followers and commissions them, sending them out to announce the good news, to persuade on the basis of testimony, of hearing-but-not-seeing.
7) It’s as if Jesus says, I understand your need to see and touch my body in order to believe, and I will oblige - but there’s an even deeper form of faith and trust, an even higher gear of understanding, that isn’t dependent on “signs and wonders,” or even on the presence of my physical body, but rather has the ears and eyes to discern me within you and among you and throughout creation. And I call you and commission you toward that deeper faith, that higher understanding. Now I give you the Holy Spirit, and send you out, away from my physical body, into an even deeper, blessed intimacy with me. Even my resurrection, the sign of all signs, isn’t the end of the road for you: with the Spirit’s help, go, climb still higher! There is a more blessed faith beyond signs and wonders: the trust of those who have not seen!
1) Since this passage is one of three resurrection stories this Eastertide, this may be a perfect week to name and explore what resurrection means in our lives today. Resurrection comes in many forms in these stories, and the penumbras of mystery around them can help open our eyes to the manifold ways God raises up new life. In fact, one way to interpret stories like this one is to emphasize how they narrate the resurrection (literally the “standing again”) not only of Jesus but also of the community of disciples, moving them from inward-focused, locked-up fear to outward-focused, liberated witness. Jesus’ resurrection gives rise to the disciples’ resurrection - and in turn, they are sent out to proclaim, with their lives and words, the good news of new life for the world.
2) “Doubting Thomas?” More like “Seeing-Is-Believing Thomas” - and Jesus calls him, and all the disciples, to step out beyond a faith that depends too much on “signs and wonders,” to grow beyond a “seeing-is-believing” form of Christian life. The seven signs around which John’s Gospel is organized - and the eighth sign, Jesus’ resurrection - are meant to point beyond themselves toward creation as a whole, toward God’s love for that creation, and toward the ways we are commissioned to declare and enact that love in everything we do.
3) Why would Jesus teach and encourage the disciples to move beyond “signs and wonders” dependency? The heart of faith, as the author of Hebrews puts it, is “conviction of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1). Signs and wonders have their place, but Jesus wants to lead his followers into a faith that can flourish even when what can be “seen” is dispiriting. Faith discerns beyond the visible, beyond the surface of things - and so lights a candle in the darkness, sings a song of hope in the valley of the shadow of death, even and especially when “signs and wonders” seem nowhere to be found.
4) Some may say (or think), “OK, but do I have to believe in Jesus’ physical resurrection from the dead?” Many people struggle with variations on this question, and so this is the perfect week to name, affirm, and explore the role of doubt in the life of faith. Do you have doubts? You’re in good company, both in scripture and in church! Do you believe? You’re in good company, too, though much of scripture warns against letting our believing become too settled, rote, or domesticated. As the Swiss theologian Karl Barth has pointed out, miracle stories (and resurrection stories most of all) are designed to astonish - and astonishment, after all, is a blend of belief and disbelief. Accordingly, Christians should neither merely “believe” miracle stories (for that would mean we aren’t truly astonished by them) nor merely “disbelieve” them (ditto). Rather, these stories should leave us continually “taken aback,” help us call into question our assumptions about what may or may not be “possible” and “impossible,” and thereby invite us into an open-minded, open-hearted posture of Easter faith, Easter doubt, and Easter joy.