Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these 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. (John 20:29-31)
Today’s Gospel text comes from the Gospel according to John. John is the longest and latest-written of the four Gospels, and arguably the most complicated in terms of material, authorship, and dating… and I freely admit it’s the gospel that I’m least comfortable with. It differs in many ways from the other three Gospels, the books of the Bible that tell the events of Jesus’ earthly life. John’s Gospel covers some of the same terrain, the author was clearly familiar with the other gospels. But he also introduces other characters, and tells of other events, not included in Mark, Matthew, or Luke.
The author of John’s Gospel uses language in distinctive ways, rich, strange, symbolic, philosophical, sometimes paradoxical. The introduction to the Gospel of John in my trusty Harper-Collins study bible notes that in John’s Gospel, “instead of speaking in parables and short sayings [as he does in the other gospels], Jesus speaks in long, difficult monologues about himself, his relation to God, and the need to believe in him.” The lectionary will bring us some of those speeches later in the Easter season.
John’s Gospel is also notable for having the strongest sense of hostility between Jesus and the Jews, perhaps because it was written in a context in which the Christian and Jewish communities were in the process of splitting apart, painfully and acrimoniously.
John’s Gospel has a strong strain of dualism – drawing stark distinctions between spirit/flesh, light/dark, heaven/earth, above/below, of this world and not of this world. That’s one of the aspects of John’s Gospel that I struggle with, since my sense of the teaching and mission of Jesus has a lot to do with transcending those dualisms, reconciling heaven and earth, insiders and outsiders, spirit and flesh.
I know some of you visited the St John’s Bible, the contemporary hand-written and illuminated Bible project, while it was on exhibit at the Chazen earlier this year. The main image for the Gospel of John is a striking one: a figure all in gold stands against a dark, murky background. It’s hard to make out any details of the figure, to resolve it into clarity – partly because the outlines of the figure are roughly-scrawled, not precise; and partly because the figure is gilded with real gold, which, under the lights of the gallery, makes it almost dazzlingly bright. In that combination of brilliance and obscurity, the artist has really captured something of the character of the Gospel according to John.
Why does the gospel bear the name of John? Throughout the gospel, it refers often to “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” This nameless character pretty clearly fills the space occupied in the other Gospels by John, son of Zebedee, one of Jesus’ closest friends. Long tradition assumes that the special language used for that disciple in this Gospel, means that he was also its author – or perhaps that the book was composed from traditions about Jesus that were passed on by John to the early Christian community that crafted the Gospel.
To be honest, this is another aspect of John’s Gospel that I struggle with a bit: this sense of there having been a BEST disciple. Here’s an example I noticed during Holy Week: in Mark’s Gospel, the earliest gospel, Peter is the only disciple who follows Jesus after his arrest; he follows him all the way to the High Priest’s courtyard – you know the story.
Here’s John’s version: “Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard;… Peter was standing outside at the gate, so the other disciple spoke to the woman who was guarding the gate, and brought Peter in.” In other words, according to John, Peter only gets into that courtyard because John knows some people. Moments like this can make the voice of John’s Gospel come across as pretentious rather than profound, like that guy at the graduate student party who throws around a lot of big words to make sure you realize how brilliant and special he is.
But even though I struggle with John’s Gospel, I don’t dismiss it, and I don’t want to suggest that you should. The lectionary always brings us a lot of John’s Gospel in Easter season – because John has such a keen sense of Jesus’ divinity and cosmic nature. Remember how John’s Gospel starts: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” John has the strongest sense, of the four Gospels, of Jesus as a divine personage or being who existed before and exists beyond the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth. And the many theological discourses in John provide rich material for reflection about who Jesus was and is, what his life and ministry mean, and what God is doing in and through Jesus, for the world. So in the season when we celebrate the risen Christ, we receive John’s words to help us see Jesus not just as a wise teacher, a compassionate miracle-worker, a courageous advocate, but as God incarnate, the eternal Word become flesh.
Today’s Gospel passage always comes to us on the second Sunday after Easter… which means it’s one of those passages that the preacher has to find something fresh to say about, year in, year out, for two or three or four decades. There are several reasons this Gospel story always follows on the heels of the Resurrection. First and maybe most familiar, this text includes what is generally know as the “doubting Thomas” story. Widely preached as a reminder to us not be doubtful, like that skeptical jerk Thomas. I have some issues with that interpretation, but that’s not this year’s sermon.
A second reason this text is important for the church is that this is John’s account of the bestowing of the Holy Spirit, the gift of God’s spirit to the disciples and the Church – his equivalent of the Pentecost story. Six chapters earlier, in John 14, in what’s known as the Farewell Discourse, Jesus’ long final speech to his disciples, Jesus told them that God would give them the Spirit: “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” And here in John 20, Jesus himself gives the gift of that Spirit, breathing on and into the disciples.
That verb, “breathing on”, turns out to be pretty interesting. The author of John’s Gospel, who wrote in Greek, would have known the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Septuagint. In the Septuagint, that somewhat unusual verb is used a couple of places – in Genesis 2, when God breathes the breath of life
into the first human being, and in Ezekiel 37, the story of the Valley of the Dry Bones, as God instructs the prophet to call the breath of life into the dead bodies scattered before him: “Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live” (Ezekiel 37:9). I’m sure the author of the Gospel of John was intentionally evoking those scriptures in using that verb here; so when you visualize Jesus breathing on the disciples, it’s not just a little *huh*. This is power and purpose. This is the breath of life, a divine wind, a gust of holiness, filling their lungs and giving new life to their weary and fearful spirits.
The third reason this scripture comes to us every year, I think, is that this scripture addresses us. Listen again to John 20:31 – “These things 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.” The “you” in that sentence is YOU. And me. John is speaking to all the Christians in other times and places who are removed, in geography and time, from the immediacy of the first community of believers and their first-hand knowledge of Jesus. In a sense, this verse boils down the whole purpose of John’s Gospel: to encourage readers and hearers to believe and trust in Jesus, the Messiah and Son of God. The authors of the other gospels, known to us as Mark, Matthew, and Luke, are conscious of those who will come after; that’s why they’re writing gospels.But in these verses, John is the most direct about it. He does what’s sometimes known as breaking the fourth wall.
The fourth wall is an idea from theater. Visualize it: the setup of the stage has three walls, the back and sides, and the audience is positioned as if we were looking through an invisible fourth wall. We watch through that fourth wall, seeing everything, moreso even than the characters in the story, but separate, outside the story, looking on. The fourth wall is the invisible barrier that forever separates the audience from the stage, or, making the jump to literature, that separates the reader from the narrative. And most of the time it stays intact: we watch or listen or read, and the story maintains its integrity and separateness, until the curtain comes down or we close the book and walk away.
But sometimes, the fourth wall is intentionally broken. The actors or the author address us, the viewers or readers. They speak from the stage or the page or into the camera, cross the invisible boundary that separates us, and involve us in the story. It’s a move that brings into the open what has previously been understood but unstated: that the text – be it story, play, or film – is an object that will be circulated, performed, read, viewed; and that there are readers and viewers out there, who are receiving and responding to the text.
One famous example familiar to many comes from J. M. Barrie’s story, Peter Pan. In both the book and the play, there’s a moment when Tinkerbell, Peter’s fairy friend, is dying after having drunk poison; and all the children of the world are asked – called – to clap their hands if they believe in fairies, in order to save Tinkerbell. Peter addresses all the children who might be dreaming of Neverland, and shouts to them: “If you believe, clap your hands; don’t let Tink die!” It’s a sweet moment – and if you’ve had the blessing of reading this story to a child young enough to respond to Peter’s call, you’ve seen the intensity in their face, the conviction in their eyes, as they clap fervently for Tink’s life.
At the risk of likening the Gospel to a fairy story, John’s move here is not entirely different. He’s inviting, even challenging, his readers to respond, and not just to respond, but to believe. He’s saying, I can’t give you an encounter with the risen Christ; but I can give you the testimony of those who knew him, who loved him and followed him and came to see him as Master, Messiah, Lord and God.
Here as he approaches the end of his gospel, his account of the life and significance of Jesus of Nazareth, John breaks the fourth wall, looks straight into the camera, and says: This story is about you too, and it’s for you, too. Its challenges and puzzles, they’re yours as much as ours. Its promise, its hope: they’re yours too. Read, and let the story enter you, like that breath of life; wonder, and pray, and believe: so that you may join us, across time and space, in the fellowship of those who follow and trust in Jesus Christ, and so that you, too, may receive the fulness of life in God.
And that’s why, ultimately, I don’t really see John as the pretentious jerk at the campus party. Yeah, he uses a lot of big words, and he seems to think he’s got hold of something that nobody else really understands. But I think he wants us to understand.
Because after he’s been holding forth for an hour, there’s this moment when he actually looks at you, really looks at you, and says, Listen, this thing I’m talking about: it’s just been really life-transforming. It means everything to me. It’s given me purpose and hope and joy, even when things are really hard. And I just want to share it. I’d like you have it too.
So, this first Sunday after Easter, let’s meet John’s eyes, take his hand. Bust through that invisible wall, and share, across two thousand years, the wonder and struggle and joy of the life of faith.