What is the opposite of faith? Not doubt, John tells us, but certainty! To be certain of something – to have “proof” – leaves no room for faith. It reduces “Truth” to a series of propositions and facts about the universe and God. And even when these propositions are indeed “true” (ie factually accurate), they do not result in Life.
Or, to put the same point differently, Truth is demonstrated to be true when it results in transformation, discipleship and Life in the Spirit. Because that, says John, is the whole purpose of his gospel (v31). He has written “these things” not to produce “experts” about Jesus, fluent in deep theological concepts, but in order that his readers might discover for themselves the Life that is to be found in Jesus, who is the Messiah and the Way, the Truth and the Life (14:6). This Life – Life in all its abundance (10:10) – is the central theme of the gospel and the purpose for which the Father sends the Son into the world (3:17).
Thomas – a special case
That is why Thomas appears clouded in such ambiguity in John’s resurrection story. He’s missing the point! After all we might ask, why is it Thomas who has lent his name to doubters? What does he do that is any more sceptical or incredulous than the other disciples? Poor man – he only doubts for longer because he happened to be absent when Jesus appeared on the day of resurrection! He demanded no more “proof” than they had, did he? He just happened to be a week behind them – and that’s nothing to criticise him for!
Now to be fair to Thomas – and indeed all the disciples – coping with the resurrected Jesus is no easy matter! Quite apart from the sheer shock factor (the reappearance of someone they’d seen crucified on Friday), there is clearly something spooky about the risen Jesus. The risen Jesus is not a ghost. John is at pains to tell us that. He’s definitely the same person who died – and now he’s risen. But he’s wounded. He can be touched. He eats and drinks. No ghost then, but definitely not immediately recognisable. Mary meets him in the garden and supposes him to be the gardener. The disciples gathered in a locked room don’t immediately say, “Look! It’s Jesus!” when he appears (and that’s another strange thing – this “apparating” into locked rooms!): it is only once they have been shown the wounds that “they rejoiced when they saw the Lord” (v20). There’s that double sense of suddenly seeing Jesus and seeing that it is Jesus (ie recognising him). And then, on that mysterious occasion when Jesus gives them breakfast on the beach, they realise who he is because of what he did and how he behaved, but they don’t recognise him (21:12).
So what is different about Thomas? Firstly, he’s not there with the other disciples on Easter Sunday. He misses the first appearance of the risen Christ. Crucially (bearing in mind that this is John’s version of both Pentecost and the Great Commission) he misses out on the giving of the Spirit and the commissioning. Thirdly, on Easter Sunday Jesus shows the disciples his wounds. It is Jesus’ initiative. A week later, it is Thomas who effectively demands not only to see but also to touch. Lastly, the disciples on Easter Sunday rejoice, whereas Thomas worships.
So what’s going on here? Something subtle and ambiguous, I suspect, but important. John is sending out some strong narrative signals. The most important one seems to be that the resurrection makes everything different! Jesus relates differently to the disciples, and they to him. In fact, Jesus relates differently to the world! This has to do with his imminent “return to the Father”, but it also has to do with the presence of the Holy Spirit (which we’ll look at in greater detail below). Primarily, though, it has to do with witness and testimony. Those who were with Jesus during his lifetime got to know Jesus in a different way to those who came to faith after the resurrection. In other words, John has the Church firmly in his sights here. The Church is the community of those who “have not seen [Jesus] and yet have come to believe”.
We need to keep in mind that John’s gospel was written much later than the Synoptic Gospels, and is far more “theological” in the sense of presenting the content of Christian faith rather than the journey to faith. There is little sense (to John) in trying to recreate the journey of faith that the first disciples made, because our mode of knowing Jesus now has altered radically. We – the Church – are those who respond to the testimony of the witnesses – those who “declare what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with out eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life” (1 John 1:1). We cannot get any closer to the original Jesus than via the testimony of those who have themselves “come to believe” and to know the Life that Jesus comes to bring. In other words, the Church is the community that is born from the evangelical testimony of others and is indwelt by the Holy Spirit – the “Other Comforter”.
Hearing and believing
Thomas ought to have been there on resurrection Sunday. Had he been there, he would have been one of the first witnesses – those who had seen the risen Christ, received the Holy Spirit and been commissioned by Christ. But he wasn’t. That meant that he ought to have believed the testimony of his fellow disciples when they told him, “We have seen the Lord!” (20:25). Instead Thomas demands something entirely inappropriate: unless I have an identical experience to you, I will not believe! I won’t trust what I’m told: I need to see it and touch it for myself!”
It is entirely due to the graciousness of Jesus that he is prepared to plays the game Thomas’s way. Thomas does indeed become one of the apostles (he’s notably “on the list” for the Tiberias encounter in the following chapter). Thomas was in a unique position. He was around in the period between resurrection and ascension, so that Jesus was able to satisfy his demand for a face-to-face experience. However, he ought to have believed on the basis of the testimony of the others. And yes, that isn’t knock-down proof. It requires trust. The witnesses could be wrong. They could be lying. It would be much better to be able to check it all out ourselves. But we cannot do so. And John’s community, like us, can only trust ourselves to the evangelical testimony of others. That requires faith, not the sort of certainty – the proof – that Thomas demanded – and got. It requires more faith to say to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”, when the only “proof” we have isn’t proof. That is the sort of faith that Jesus asks of us: faith, which believes and trusts even in the face of doubt, rather than because of a certainty that, by definition, leaves no room for faith. That is why we are “more blessed” than Thomas!
Resurrection, Peace and the presence of the Spirit
The text this week is a deliberate reprise of chapter 14. Only a few days before Jesus had promised the Holy Spirit (14:16ff). The Holy Sprit is the Other Comforter – literally the Other Christ. Jesus is going away, but the presence of the Spirit means that the disciples are not being abandoned. They have become part of God’s family through Jesus’ presence with them (part of the significance of the exchange with Philip in 14: 8ff). Jesus says that the presence of the Spirit will mean that they will not be orphaned (14:18).
The Spirit is the Spirit of creation. John consciously evokes the story of God breathing Spirit life into the clay Adam. Yet the Spirit is also the Spirit of resurrection. It is by the power of the Spirit that God raises Jesus from the dead. So the presence of the Spirit in 20:22 (John’s version of Pentecost) is about new beginnings – being “born again”. The Spirit, Jesus had told Nicodemus, blows where it will. Now the Spirit blows where the risen Jesus breathes! And where Jesus breathes the Spirit, there is new birth – life in his name.
The Spirit is also the concrete experience of the peace of Christ. Jesus’ words of peace are a blessing. That means they are more than mere words. They are invoking the presence of God via the Spirit. When Jesus promises to leave “Peace – my peace, which is a peace very different from anything that the world offers” (14:27), he is talking about the Holy Spirit. And here, in chapter 20, the risen Christ makes good his pre-Easter promise.
Living and preaching the resurrection (Acts 4: 32-35/Psalm 133)
“With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all” (v33). This is the heart of the apostolic community. It is what makes the Church the Church: the community that exists because Jesus has been raised and lives the life of the Spirit. Rudolph Bultmann wanted to draw an enormous distinction between Jesus’ message of the kingdom and the apostolic message of the resurrection – between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. He was on to something important – the difference that the resurrection makes – even though the conclusions he drew about history and continuity were probably unwarranted. Nevertheless, it is interesting that much of Christian history, theology and preaching has had difficulty making necessary connections between Jesus and his message, and the apostolic preaching of Jesus.
Here in Acts, we discover that Luke has no such problem. It is the resurrection that makes Jesus significant. The resurrection begins to make a reality of all that Jesus preached and promised, even though the crucifixion had put a complete end to it. The resurrection is the means by which grace is let loose in the world. Because of resurrection, the Spirit is present and indwelling us. This is how the Life God intends for the world is experienced and lived.
So we have this picture of an extraordinary community, startlingly “at one” and with the most amazing sense of community and care for one another. Unity is the sign of the Spirit’s presence and work. Fracture and division are symptoms of what is wrong in the world. In the Old Testament, the concrete experience of Israel is of having to live constantly on the edge of extinction because of hostility. Nation-states and empires lived and thrived only to the extent that they had the power to do so over against their enemies. But that form of survival-living is repeated at every level: people divide into smaller and smaller interest-groups in order to prosecute their own cause over against others.
We know that story well. We are extraordinarily aware of the interconnectedness of the planet, so that how I shop in the west determines how people live in the east and south. How we use our cars and electricity determines the future of the whole planet. Living at the expense of others is all about trying to create our own heavens-on-earth at the expense of other people’s living hells.
This is why the psalmist talks – almost in classic English understatement! – about the dramatic difference unity brings: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1) There is a two-fold sense of “kindred” here: the first (and obvious) sense is of people who are related being united. But there is a second “eschatological” sense: human beings discovering erstwhile enemies as “kindred”. This is about recognising a common humanity in Yahweh; a common cause; a common destiny; a common flourishing that can only happen when that sense of relatedness is discovered and lived out.
The first Christian community in Acts manifests precisely this sort of relationship – and it is the work of the Spirit. Luke shares Paul’s theology: unity of the sort described here is so extraordinary – so counter-intuitive – that it can only be a sign of the reality and presence of the Holy Spirit! It is a unity that is possible only through the saving, transforming work of the Spirit in the lives of the believers. And it is real because it takes shape on the ground.
This is what resurrection means in practice! That is why v33 occurs where it does. It is not that Luke moves from a description of the community in v33 into a brief theological excursus, before resuming the community description in v34. For Luke, it follows as inevitably as the day shall follow night that the life of the community is shaped, enabled and empowered by the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. The Church is the community of the Spirit. The Spirit is the very life of God, whose power to give life is shown most clearly in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And that life is transforming – as Jesus always intended it should be! It is a little piece of heaven on earth – or a sign of the Kingdom.
Life, joy, light and forgiveness (1 John1:1-2:2)
Eternal life is Jesus, not a calendar that has no end. That’s what John tells is in v2. I need to say that I refer to “John” as both the author of the Fourth Gospel and the epistles (and, indeed, of Revelation): whether or not they were penned by the same hand doesn’t matter insofar as all the books clearly share the same communal base, theology and imagery. In this sense, it is quite proper to explore them as a common tradition. Jesus, in John’s gospel, claims to be “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). This ought not to be understood as some sort of polemic against other religions, but as something about the uniqueness of Jesus. Jesus is nothing less than God incarnate – the Life of God brought down to earth. God has acted uniquely in Jesus to save the world, defeating all the powers ranged against Life through the cross, and raising Jesus from the dead in an act of triumph. Through Jesus, who sends the Spirit, the Life of God is to be experienced as a present reality in a way in which it cannot otherwise be experienced. To “believe” (in the Johannine sense) is to be drawn into the same union with God that Jesus shares with the Father.
This Life is also described in terms of Light (1:5, cf John 1: 3-9). Light is ambiguous – not because it is in any way bad, or negative, but because it provokes fear among sinful human beings. The Light either attracts and draws people out of darkness or, as John says in the gospel, it sends people scurrying for the cover of darkness because of fear of exposure.
Despite all the sharp antitheses in John’s writing (light/darkness, life/death) which he uses to show the difference that Jesus makes, John is not a typical “holiness” preacher, urging his flock to be engaged in constant, fearful navel-gazing and self-examination in case they’ve inadvertently done something naughty. John wants them to be relaxed and confident in the love and acceptance of God, as Jesus was. 1:5-2:2 is about exactly this point. Yes, we sin. It is no good pretending we don’t. If we say we don’t sin, we make a liar both of ourselves and God. And yes, God is Light, and there is no darkness in God. So don’t we have a problem?
No, says John. It’s not as though we ought to be blasé about sin; it’s just that we needn’t get too panicky about it because God has the situation in hand! To have eternal life means to have Jesus. And to have Jesus means that all that Jesus did on the cross – including providing the means of forgiveness – is an ongoing, present reality. Jesus, in John’s gospel, is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). So fellowship with Jesus is to be constantly “cleansed by his blood” (1:7). What remains for us to do is to be confidently honest with God: confess and move on.
And if we’re still worried, says John, just think about the fact that Jesus has gone to be with the Father. He is our first Advocate (remember his high priestly prayer in John 14 and others?). Although we have the Spirit (the other Advocate), Jesus remains our Advocate even now! “And listen,” says John “don’t get your sin out of proportion. You may be a pretty evil person – seriously bad, as opposed to a sinner because of ‘ignorance or weakness’. But don’t let that cut you off from the Light and from Life! Don’t think you’d better head back off into the darkness! Just remember: Jesus’ death is able to deal with the sin of the whole world! So why agonise over whether God could possibly forgive you?”
Get with the programme
Thomas proved a good theologian in the end, didn’t he? “My Lord and my God” is an accurate theological summary of who Jesus is. Strangely, it just doesn’t seem to cut as much ice with Jesus (or John) as we feel it maybe ought to! Jesus goes on to rebuke Thomas, and John sums it up. Yes, Jesus performs signs to disclose who he is. He did lots of ‘em! But he’s not trying to produce theologians: Jesus is trying to point people to Life! If that’s what we’ve discovered and experienced for ourselves, then we can’t keep quiet about it. Jesus doesn’t give us Life as the ultimate consumer product for own private enjoyment. In Jesus is Life, and that Life is for the whole world. We’ve got to add our voices to the testimonies of those who “have not seen, and yet have believed” – and found Life!