In order to have a life of faith, we must first encounter the living Christ.
The author of the Gospel According to John explains, at the end of this reading, why he has written his gospel: “These things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.” In order to really understand what John is suggesting, however, we need to do a flyover of his entire gospel.
John takes us all the way back to the Big Bang: it was through the Word—who is with God and who is God—that all things came into being. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and that’s where things get interesting. It’s in people’s encounters with the living Christ that lives are transformed, and faith is professed. In chapter one, John the Baptist testifies to his own disciples that Jesus is “the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), and then declares, “I have seen and testified that this one is God’s Son” (1:34). In order to have a life of faith, we must first encounter the living Christ.
As Jesus gathered his inner circle of disciples, they needed only to meet him once to begin declaring to one another, “We have found the Messiah” (1:41) and even, “Rabbi, you are God’s Son. You are the king of Israel” (1:49). In order to have a life of faith, we must first encounter the living Christ.
Nicodemus stole away to meet with Jesus in the dark of night, because while he was obviously intrigued by Jesus’ teachings, he didn’t want his fellow members of the Sanhedrin to know that he was a student of Jesus. They talked about what it means to be born of the Spirit, rather than of the flesh. Later, Nicodemus would defend Jesus’ legal rights before the Sanhedrin. And finally, following Jesus’ death, it was Nicodemus who provided the spices that were to be used in preparing his body for burial. In order to have a life of faith, we must first encounter the living Christ.
Jesus strikes up a conversation with a Samaritan woman he had no business speaking with, and she immediately becomes an apostle to her entire town (4:39). Jesus offered a long-distance healing to the son of a certain royal official, causing him and his entire household to believe (4:53). He heals a man born blind, and an entire city is in an uproar. He raises Lazarus from the dead, and a conspiracy to kill them both is immediately hatched.
Everywhere that Jesus went, transformation followed—sometimes it looked like belief, sometimes it looked like stubborn incredulity, but in every case, when people encountered the living Christ, their lives were altered.
Which brings us to the events of the day of Jesus’ resurrection. It wasn’t a part of this scripture reading, but we cannot ignore what John has to say about Easter morning, if we are to appreciate what we have read today. Mary Magdalene was the first to discover the empty tomb, and immediately runs to the disciples. Peter and the Beloved Disciple rush to the tomb to see for themselves, and—sure enough—find it empty and walk away in puzzlement.
It was then that Mary encountered the living Christ. She stood weeping, distraught not only over Jesus’ death, but at the heinous insult of having his body either moved or stolen. Suddenly, Jesus was standing right next to her, though sufficiently changed that she didn’t recognize him right away. After a brief but powerful exchange, Mary left and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”
Now, John doesn’t tell us how the disciples responded to this news, but Luke reports that “Their words struck the apostles as nonsense, and they didn’t believe the women” (Luke 24:11). John does report that later that evening, Jesus suddenly and inexplicably appeared in the locked room where they were hiding from the authorities. And what did he do on that occasion? The details are important! He said, “Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy” (John 20:19b-20).
It just so happened that Thomas hadn’t been there at the time. Later, his friends declared to him, “We’ve seen the Lord!” These are the very same words that Mary Magdalene had used to describe her encounter in the cemetery—the report that the men had refused to believe. Now here they were, declaring the same thing: “We’ve seen the Lord!” And just like them, Thomas didn’t believe it. Why should he? Jesus was more than three days dead. And so his response to his fellow disciples was exactly the same as their response had been to Mary Magdalene: Seeing is believing.
Thomas did not ask for anything that his fellow disciples had not also received. When Jesus appeared also to Thomas, he volunteered both the same benediction, “Peace be with you,” and the same evidence that he had volunteered to the others: “Put your finger here; put your hand there. No more disbelief!”
And Thomas responded, as Nathaniel, and Nicodemus, and the Samaritan woman, and the royal courtier, and the man born blind, and Mary and Martha, and Mary Magdalene, and so many others had also responded: “My Lord and my God!” In order to have a life of faith, we must first encounter the living Christ.
Jesus’ final remark has sometimes been interpreted as a rebuke of Thomas, leading to his becoming known as “Doubting Thomas.” But Thomas was not singled out by Jesus for doubting; and calling him “Doubting Thomas” is wildly unfair. I prefer to understand Jesus’ final comment as remarking on how fortunate all of the disciples were in having lived, walked, and worked alongside Jesus in the flesh, while future generations of believers would be required to live, walk, and work with Jesus in a very different way. Turning away from Thomas to look directly into the camera, Jesus says to those of us watching, “Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
This story isn’t just about Thomas. It’s about how the entire world reacts to the gospel. Mary found an empty tomb and cried; the disciples heard Mary’s report of her encounter with the risen Christ and scoffed; Thomas heard his friend’s testimony and doubted. These are people who saw more than we see, knew more than we know. But no matter what they were told, they remained skeptical until they’d had their own encounter with the living Christ.
So I ask you: who are we in this story? Because we—I assume, and perhaps I shouldn’t—because we have encountered Christ and now believe because of it, are we not the ten disciples? We might—and I say might—be willing to say to a neighbor, “We’ve seen the Lord!” But I ask you to look again at this reading: did the women saying, “We’ve seen the Lord!” change the hearts and minds of the disciples? Did the disciples’ saying, “We’ve seen the Lord!” change the heart and mind of Thomas? No! Because, in order to have a life of faith, we must first encounter the living Christ.
In a work of true literary beauty and mastery, John, by the final words of Jesus in his gospel, returns his readers to some of Jesus’ first words in the gospel. When he first met Nathaniel, who is skeptical of Jesus’ credentials at first, but believes after Jesus tells him where he’d been—sitting under a fig tree far from their meeting place—suddenly explains that Jesus is God’s Son, and the King of Israel. To this, Jesus responds, “Do you believe because of what I told you? You will see greater things than these!”
And what would Nathaniel see? What did Thomas see? What do we see? How do we have encounters with the living Christ?
Frankly, I find it remarkably difficult to believe that anyone is a Christian for no other reason than that they believed their Sunday School teacher when they shared Bible stories about Jesus. In order to have a life of faith, surely we must first have encountered the living Christ.
But if we (the church) are the other 10 disciples, then this story points out the limits of the effectiveness of our witness: an effectiveness that is further hampered by our testifying poorly. First Peter says, “Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it” (1 Pet. 3:15).
My congregation and I are Presbyterian, and so “testifying” doesn’t come naturally to us. What does come naturally to Presbyterians is living our lives in a way that seeks justice, loves kindness, and walks humbly. And that’s okay! We might as well play to our strengths, right? And besides, Jesus, in the Gospel of John, had something very specific to say even about this kind of witness: “I give you a new mandate: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:34-35).
Here’s where being a follower of Jesus gets trippy. Yes, we’re one of the eleven disciples (or twelve, if you—like me—include Mary Magdalene), and we all have our own hang-ups and shortcomings. Peter was rather thick-headed, James and John were hot-headed, Nathaniel was a smart-alec, Matthew was nobody’s favorite person, and Thomas was a skeptic. Each of us can probably relate to one of the disciples in their humanity. But in addition to being a flawed disciple of Jesus, each of us is also a member of the Body of Christ. By that token, the world around us comes to know Jesus through our actions (or, more correctly, through Jesus’ actions through us). In order to have a life of faith, the world must encounter the living Christ—through our participation in his ministry of reconciliation. As Thomas, who was skeptical until he had touched Jesus’ hands with his own, and then traveled farther than any other Apostle in sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with the world (traveling, according to tradition, as far away as India), so we who have encountered the living Christ must ourselves, as Diana Ross once sang, “Reach out and touch somebody’s hand; make this world a better place if we can.”
Like Thomas, we all depend upon disciples and gospel writers and pastors and fellow believers to bear witness to the news that brings life. Jesus has both mandated and empowered that witness. So, whether it is Mary telling the disciples that first morning; Peter joyfully telling Thomas what happened to them when he was absent; the preacher in your life; or you describing your joy to a friend at work, or to a stranger in the checkout line, or without a single word, as you hand a plate of hot food to a hungry soul in at the local rescue mission; we all have been given the message and the mandate to invite people into the reign of God, delivering the Good News of reconciliation. How we comport ourselves—as individuals, and as a worshiping community—is of the utmost importance, because as far as the rest of the world is concerned, seeing is believing.