Seeing and believing and living

We do have a habit of chunking Bible passages, taking familiar stories or sections and looking at them in isolation, rather than getting a sense of the whole flow and placing them in context. Last week on Easter Sunday the Gospel reading was John 20.1-18, the story of Mary Magdalene at the tomb. This morning we heard John 20.19-31, and the sermon pivoted to ‘Doubting Thomas’. But having heard Mary’s story many times through Lectio recently, it was still in my mind, and what struck me was the flow through the two passages. So here is another in my very irregular series of ‘were I to have preached‘…

To recap the first story…

Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb early on the first day of the week, sees that the stone has been removed, and runs back to to tell the disciples. This itself is worth noting; Mary makes two announcements to the disciples. Peter and ‘the other disciple’ run back. Mary is with them, although John does not tell us this directly. The disciples look in and go into the tomb, and see the burial wrappings lying there. John then tells us that “the other disciple… saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture” (v9). Interesting. Belief, or faith, comes before understanding. Then they go home, while Mary Magdalene stays weeping. She looks into the tomb and sees two angels, then she looks round and sees Jesus. In her grief, she does not recognise him until he calls her by name. He tells her not to hold on to him in this moment, but to go to the disciples and give them a message. So we read in verse 18: “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’” … ‘I have seen the Lord.’

Now we come to this morning’s reading.

It is the same day, in the evening. Even though “the other disciple… saw and believed”, and even though Mary tells all the disciples that she has seen Jesus alive, they are still afraid – still locking their doors “for fear of the Jews”. Even so, Jesus comes to them, speaks peace to them and shows them his hands and his side. He meets them in their need. Then he sends them out, and breathes on them the Holy Spirit to empower them.

For some reason, Thomas is not with them that day. (I like to think of him as more courageous than the others and willing to run errands.) So, in verse 25 we read that: “the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord’” … ‘We have seen the Lord.’ Other than the change from first person singular to plural in the verb, the phrase is identical to Mary’s earlier announcement.

Thomas replies that he wants to see what the other disciples have seen: Jesus’ hands and side. He has to wait a week, and imagine what a week that would have been! Yet even though the disciples have seen Jesus and received the Spirit, they are still locking their doors “for fear of the Jews”. (“Locked” in v19 and “shut” in v26 are the same word in the Greek). Even so, Jesus comes once more. He again speaks peace to them all, and then he turns to Thomas and shows him his hands and his side.

Because Jesus says to Thomas “Do not doubt but believe”, we have given him and him only the label ‘Doubting’. But running the two stories together, it is clear that he was not the only one. The other disciples tell Thomas ‘We have seen the Lord’, and he needs to see in order to believe. Yet although Mary has already told the other disciples ‘I have seen the Lord’, they also still need to see Jesus and his hands and his side before they can rejoice.

Moreover, the other disciples may have seen and rejoiced and received peace and the Holy Spirit, but their continued fear did not speak of belief. Their attitudes and actions betrayed their lack.

Thomas’s response to Jesus goes further than the other disciples. More than rejoicing, he gives himself over completely to Jesus as “My Lord and my God!” (v28). And Jesus? I imagine a loving half-smile, a breathed “Ah Thomas!” John tells us that Jesus has a parting semi-rebuke for him, and a reminder to remain humble: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (v29). The reminder is not necessarily just for Thomas. It could also be for Mary Magdalene, who needed to hear her name spoken before she recognised Jesus; and for all the disciples, in their continued fear and in their subsequent failure to recognise Jesus by the Sea of Tiberias (John 21.4).

It is a reminder for all of us that belief by itself is not enough. Nor is speaking out about our belief or our encounters with Jesus. Belief and speaking need to be backed up with an open attitude of life, one that seeks to recognise Jesus wherever (and we would say today in whomever) he appears, and to honour belief in others.

Jesus says: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” John adds: “these [signs] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

Blessed are we who did not live at that time, who did not see the hands and the side of Jesus, but who have been blessed with hearing and reading these stories, and even though we may not understand them fully have come to believe. Now through believing, may we have – and live – that life in Jesus’ name.