Text: John 20:19-31 (the doubting Thomas) * Video of complete service
In last week’s sermon, I talked about why I reflected on the story of the empty tomb as found in Mark instead of the reading suggested by the Revised Common Lectionary. Every Easter, the Lectionary prefers the story from John in which Mary Magdalene mistakes the Risen Christ for a gardener.
Today I have returned to the Lectionary, and so we just heard the next verses from the Gospel of John. This is the story called “The Doubting Thomas,” and it includes the end of that Gospel:
“Jesus performed many other signs — signs not recorded here — in the presence of the disciples. But these ones have been recorded to help you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Only Begotten, so that by believing you may have life in Jesus’ Name.”
Next Sunday, which will be my last one here, I will reflect on a text also suggested by the Lectionary, and which is from the next chapter of John. Like the 20th chapter, this 21st chapter ends John’s Gospel after a flurry of details about a fishing trip, a breakfast, and an interrogation of Peter by Jesus; and it concludes with a final sentence which I find evocative, and which happens to be the only thing I like from the 21st chapter.
“There are also many other things that Jesus did; but if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
This 21st chapter of John is clearly not written by the anonymous evangelist known as John; and so it is usually called The Appendix to John; and the bit that we heard this morning is clearly the original ending.
But next week’s story in which the Risen Christ tells his friends to fish on the other side of their boat fits well with my theme. So we will hear this story, just not from John 21. We will hear its original version, which is from the fifth chapter of Luke. In Luke, the story is from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and not from after his resurrection.
Frankly, I wish the Lectionary never suggested readings from the Appendix to John — its so-called 21st chapter — just as it never suggests any readings from the bogus addition to the Gospel of Mark, verses 9-20, and to which I made mention last week.
But does this really matter? Perhaps not.
Being born from above or born of the Spirit has been true in my life in moments of grief followed by joy; and this would have been the case regardless of my knowledge of, or beliefs in, the various stories of the resurrected Christ.
As a partisan of the church, I find sustenance in Paul and Mark, but not in the endings of Matthew, Luke, or John, all of which are based upon Mark’s original version of the empty tomb, and all of which add some spurious tales of Jesus as a resuscitated corpse.
Today’s reading is one of the passages that annoys me. In John’s tale of Mary Magdalene and the gardener, the Risen Christ tells Mary not to touch him. But in the next verses, which we just heard, the Risen Christ tells the skeptic Thomas to touch his wounds so that he can believe.
But regardless of whether these verses have helped or hindered people to follow the Way of Jesus and the Way of Cross over time, the inability of Jews in the First Century to be freed from Roman tyranny by a new King, and their inability to find a new god like Jehovah to worship remained. Jerusalem really was destroyed by Rome in the First Century. Jehovah’s beautiful Temple really was taken apart stone by stone; and so for these reasons, the stories of the execution of Jesus the Christ had relevance to Jews like Mark and Paul in the First Century; and they still have relevance to us today since we continue to live with too much violence, too much destruction, and too much human fallenness.
For the past 11 years, I’ve been an ordained minister of the United Church; and for all those years, I’ve given thanks for the work of the church, the stories we retell every Sunday, and the enlightenment we try to glean from our work and from these stories. It is true that the sliver of texts that speak to me is narrower than most members of the church; but I cherish them; and I have tried to preach from them.
So, I feel gratitude for the United Church of Canada, and for the people of the communities of faith I have been called to serve — particularly the people of Mill Woods United. But I have been disappointed that the church has been unable to fully live into the path of death and resurrection it helped to open for me.
Today is a challenging time to be a Christian. Mainline and liberal denominations like the United Church of Canada have declined for many decades and are a tiny sliver of their former state; and fascist politicians keep making gains among greater sectors of the population, with terrible effects from the official spread of deadly disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic, to the burning of the Amazon Rain Forest in Brazil, to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
I wish the United Church had been able to feel the grief associated with a sober assessment of its prospects and so had helped it and other religious and spiritual institutions find new ways of living into faith, hope, and love. I wish that radical activists had been better able to stand against those who support cancer-like economic growth, environmental destruction, and attacks on human rights and democracy.
But the church and the world are as they are. And so I try to accept them.
Do I doubt the tales of Jesus’ resuscitated corpse from Matthew, Luke, and John? Yes! Do I doubt the ability of the church to admit its own death and so rise to something new? Yes! Do I doubt the ability of humanity to find a way out of climate disaster or war? Yes!
But I don’t doubt new life. I don’t doubt that the experience of being born of the Spirit gives us a taste of the eternal Love from which we have all come and to which we all return.
Did Jesus’ body suddenly appear in a locked Upper Room on the day that his tomb was found empty? No! Did he briefly appear there again on the eighth day to show Thomas his wounds? No!
At the same time, do we want to build communities of faith, hope, and love with which to care for our wounds and those of our neighbours, and with which to proclaim that Love is all, and Love is everything! Yes!
And this is something I am sure we will continue to do for as long as we have breath and for as long as God’s Spirit of Love continues to move amongst us.
And so for this glorious Easter truth, I can only say “Thanks be to God.”
Amen, Amen, and Amen.