Meditation on John 20:19–31
First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY
Pastor Karen Crawford
April 16, 2023
Link to a recording of the live-streamed service, with the message:
I was outside working in the yard yesterday morning. I was planting! That’s my favorite thing to do in the yard. Kathleen and Margaret Cowie gave me a hydrangea on Easter. I shared with them during fellowship after worship how, when I garden, I lose track of time. And I forget my worries and my long to-do-lists.
Though it’s a little early to plant, the hydrangea wasn’t doing well in the house. So, on impulse, I broke up clods of earth with my shovel and my bare hands. I wrestled the root-bound hydrangea from its plastic pot and placed it in a freshly dug hole. As a misty rain began to fall, I smoothed over the soil.
While I was digging and planting, I remembered how during the first months of the pandemic—when there was so much fear and sadness—I spent a great deal of time outside with a shovel, digging, weeding, and planting new flower beds. My next-door neighbor, Renate, an experienced and gifted gardener, served as my mentor and encourager.
She saw how happy I was when I was digging and planting and started leaving me little plants she dug up from her yard. Solomon’s Seal. Creeping Jenny. Vinca. Forget-Me-Nots. Rose of Sharon. Burning Bush. Hollyhocks. Lemon Balm. As my yard came to life with beautiful, healthy plants, hope and peace grew in my heart and soul.
Our gospel reading starts on Easter evening. The disciples are hiding behind locked doors; this is the first gathering of the believers since John 13. The risen Christ comes to them in their fear—passing right through locked doors and standing in their midst. He greets them with the traditional Jewish greeting, “Shalom,” or “Peace be with you!”
He had shared this gift of peace in John 14, when he warned them of his death and that where he was going, they could not come. But that he would come again and take them to himself. In John 14:27, Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
What will prove his identity to those who loved him, but had deserted him in the end? He shows them “his hands and his side.” Do you know that none of the other gospels talk about Jesus being nailed to the cross? That detail only appears here, in this one passage in John. Thomas, who isn’t there with the others when Jesus comes to them the first time, will say, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
But if God raised Jesus from the dead, why does he still have marks on his hands and side from the crucifixion? Why isn’t he completely healed? Jesus could have been risen with an unscarred body. But this is the way of our God, who was willing to become fully human, like us, to save us when we were perishing. The shame and humiliation of the crucifixion has become his glory. The risen Christ, the Son of God, is known by his scars!
Jesus in John 20 breathes on them the power of the Spirit promised in chapter 14, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him because he abides with you, and he will be in you.I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.”
I have questions about Thomas. Do you wonder where he has been? Why he hasn’t been with the others? And why does he come back? Does hearing about the resurrection appearances rekindle a tiny flame of hope?
Thomas makes his declaration about the only way that he will believe, and then, a week later, Jesus reappears, entering, once again, through locked doors, and then he does exactly what Thomas asked him to do. He invites him to touch his wounds, if it restores his faith. “Do not doubt,” Jesus tells him and us, “but believe.” Thomas responds with the highest form of praise–that Jesus IS God. “My Lord and my God!” he says.
For Thomas, seeing and touching IS believing. With all that we know today about learning differences and special needs, it makes me wonder if Thomas had some learning differences or special needs that the Lord knew about. I have heard much criticism of Thomas, but he WAS different than the others. He was the one who was confused with all the abstract language Jesus was using in John 14, when he told the disciples how he was going to the Father and was going to prepare a place for them. Jesus says, and you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas says, “Lord, we don’t know the place you are going, so how can we know the way?”
I have heard teachings about Thomas being the unfaithful one or the only one with doubts. We should always ask ourselves when we read Scripture, “why is the writer telling us these things?” John will even admit at the end of this passage that many other things happened, but he chose not to tell us everything. So, why does John tell us the story of Thomas—struggling to believe in the resurrection? Could it be because all of us, at one time or another, may have doubts? And yet, Christ can and will still use us!
What better witness to the Risen One than someone like Thomas who has returned to the faith, overcoming fear and doubt? But he does it by returning to his faith community. He doesn’t come to Jesus alone. The other disciples are with him to support him in his growing faith. They are in this together, seeking the Risen Lord.
On Saturday, April 29, I will be leading a one-day Women’s Retreat at the church. It’s a busy season, but this is an important ministry opportunity. I have seen and experienced women helping other women on their journeys of faith. What is needed is a safe, intimate space and time for sharing and seeking the Risen Christ together.
My neighbor, Renate, stirring in me the joy of gardening during the pandemic—bringing me her own plants to plant in my yard—is a good example of this kind of spiritual and emotional encouragement. We spent many hours talking and walking together in our gardens, and yet, it felt like only a few minutes. I miss her so much! But I thank God for the time we had together and all that she taught me.
Thomas would go on to do great things with the Spirit of the Lord. Today, the St. Thomas Christians or Syrian Christians of India trace their beginnings back to the apostle’s evangelistic activities in the First Century. He baptized many families and founded numerous Christian communities and may have traveled with the news of the Risen Christ to Indonesia and China.
My favorite part of today’s passage in John 20 is at the end, when the gospel writer reveals his purpose for the entire book. He hasn’t shared everything that has happened, he says, “But these are written, so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
He is talking about abundant life, guided and powered by the Spirit, with the gift of Christ’s everlasting peace. This is a life that really is life—not giving in to fear.
We and the generations who follow us are the ones who are “blessed,” says the God who became human to suffer for us and our salvation. “Blessed are those,” he says to Thomas and to us, “who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
The Holy Comforter invites us to touch and see and find healing for wounds of body, mind, and soul. The One known by his scars says to us lovingly, “Do not doubt, but believe.”
Let us pray. Holy Spirit, breathe on us now. Blow away any traces of anxiety or fear, as you did for the earliest disciples in the hours, days, and weeks following the news of the empty tomb. Thank you, Almighty God, for raising Jesus after he suffered death on a cross and for the promise of our forgiveness and resurrection with him. The One who is known by his scars encourages us to walk by faith and not by sight. You send us out to make disciples and to heal wounds of body, mind, and spirit. Give us courage and strength to let go of doubt and live the life that really is life, in His name. Amen.