Locked for fear

8 April 2018
Second Sunday of Easter
Easter 2B (RCL)

Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1 – 2:2
John 20:19-31

Poor Thomas — we call him doubting Thomas, but he doesn’t doubt. He absolutely refuses to believe. It is not from lack of courage that he refuses to believe, but because the group of other disciples are not forthcoming.

First, to set the historical background of this passage. The Emperor Domitian ascended the throne in 81 CE and kept it until 96 CE. Both Suetonius and Cassius Dio record that he gave himself the title Dominus et Deus (Lord and God). This is exactly the title Thomas gives to Jesus. Eusebius records that at the end of his reign, a persecution of Christians and Jews broke out. One of the critiques of orthodox Christians against the docetics and gnostics was that the docetics and gnostics avoided persecution by sacrificing to the Emperor, since this world of matter was unimportant, and Jesus didn’t really suffer himself.

Thomas the Twin is often cast as the spokesperson of the gnostic branch of Christianity. I believe he is cast in this role (or the role is at least alluded to) in this passage. Thomas was not present on that first Easter evening, because he would not have cared about the resurrection (since Jesus only appeared to have died). When he came back into the community, the evangelist, with deep irony (and probably a fair amount of sarcasm) has Thomas refuse to believe the other disciples until he can see and touch the wounds of Christ, something that would have revolted a gnostic Christian.

Here, Thomas, usually a spokesperson of a gnostic Christianity, accuses the remaining disciples of a kind of triumphalism. So Jesus shows up, and offers Thomas the same proof as was given the others. And when Thomas sees the wounds, he exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” an exclamation that would have claimed his life if offered in the arena.

We, in this country, are not yet in danger of facing the kind of trial that Christians faced in Domitian’s reign. But we are faced with the same test rather more subtly every day. Who is our Lord and God? Country, or Jesus? Economy or Jesus? All too often, our Christian communities seem triumphalist. Everything is wonderful. We have no wounds. How would a newcomer know we are Christian? Only when we have identified and touched can we see the risen Christ.

The other lessons speak of community so close that everything is shared. In 1 John, the word used for fellowship is koinonia, which is a word from the realm of commerce and means something like an unlimited partnership. If the partnership goes down, all your assets go with it. You’re all in. To be all in with others, we have to know the wounds, and be willing to share ours. For a newcomer to find his or her way into our congregations, they have to know the stories, the good and the bad, or they will always feel closed out.

The disciples were meeting behind locked doors, for fear of the Judeans (not Jews). Jesus showed up, breathed on them, gave them the gift of Holy Spirit, and the authority to release sins, and sent them out (as the Father has sent me, so I send you). And yet, a week later, they are still behind locked doors! Thomas rightly perceived that nothing had changed. They were keeping any joy they had locked away from the world, so that no one else could get in. They hadn’t yet really dealt with the wounds of Jesus. Only after Thomas has touched those wounds do we find the disciples outside the locked doors.

Our fears keep us apart from one another, and at the base of those fears are unacknowledged wounds, but that we have received and that we have perpetrated on others. Until those can be acknowledged, no sins will be forgiven and we will live behind closed doors. Thomas doesn’t doubt so much as he shows us the condition of faith.

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