Easter 2 A: Thomas, John, and the Reason We Gather
Dear Partner in Preaching,
Have you ever noticed how long it takes John to get around to telling us what he’s up to? John the Fourth Evangelist, that is. Twenty-some chapters and finally he comes clean. Sort of.
So here’s what I mean. There are two elements of this week’s very familiar story – one of the few in Scripture that is read in each cycle of our lectionary – that grabbed my attention. The first is what I’d call the culmination and climax of the “plot dynamic” of John; that is, how John arranges the scenes of the story he tells together and to what end. In short, after introducing us to Jesus theologically – the Word made flesh that makes the grace of God known in the world (John 1) – and then narratively – the one in whose presence God’s super-abundant grace is available (as in more of the best wine ever than anyone can consume) such that even Temple sacrifice is no longer necessary (John 2) – the Fourth Evangelists describes a number of encounters with various figures: Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the man who receives his sight, Martha, Peter, Pilate. Taken together, these characters offer a variety of ways to respond to an encounter with Christ. Some are confused, some come to faith, some have questions, some fail to recognize Jesus, and so on. At the end of all of this comes Thomas, as something of a climax of this panoply, whose movement from skepticism to doubt in today’s reading – and then profession of faith – is, I think, John’s hope for all of us. That is, John hopes that, after reading the Gospel, we will, like Thomas, make the confession that Jesus is not only our Lord but also our God (the highest Christological confession in the NT, btw!).
The second element is what we might call John’s “confession of purpose,” this in just verses 30-31 of today’s reading. Here he makes clear that he is offering no neutral account of Jesus, but made choices toward a certain end, naming what he’s after: you. Or at least “you” as the one who reads or listens to this Gospel. John, that is, is after you and your faith. He confesses – and this only reinforced the plot structure – that he hope that by reading this Gospel you will come to faith, believe – or continue to believe depending on your grammatical preference – that Jesus is the Christ, God’s chosen One, and believing have life in his name.
It strikes me that one week after celebrating Easter, this may be the perfect time to examine John’s “mission statement” and also take it as ours. That the reason we gather each week together isn’t to make God happy (though I’m sure it does) or to learn sound morals (though perhaps that happens) or even to learn the essentials of the Christian faith (that it would be nice if that happens from time to time, too). Rather, we gather so that we might encounter – or, better, be encountered by – the Risen Christ one more time and be caught up in faith so that we may experience God’s abundant life.
We come together, that is, because the life of faith can be joyous and wonderful and all that, but it can also – and frequently is – rather challenging. The loss of a loved one, or end of a relationship, or the inability to find a job or get into the school of one’s choice, or the persistent ache of loneliness, or a prolonged bout of illness, or a pervasive sense of anxiety about our larger community, country, or world – all these things wear at you. At these times, faith can be a great strength and support, or faith can be a casualty of these assaults. And so we come together to hear the stories of Jesus read and interpreted so that we might hear Jesus speaking to us and, in turn, we might leave renewed in faith, hope, and confidence.
From this vantage point, Jesus’ words to Thomas at the end of their encounter are less a rebuke of Thomas’ lack of believing and more of a blessing to all those who came after Thomas – right up to you and your congregation, Dear Partner! – that have believed without seeing!
From this exploration, you might move one step further: what would it look like to consider – or, perhaps, reconsider – everything your congregation does in light of the evangelical mandate and hope that through the life of your community more and more people would encounter Jesus and come to faith and experience God’s abundant life? What would worship look like? And youth ministry? And church governance? And the budgeting process? And Christian education and formation? I know it may seem an odd time to raise these questions, but I actually think it’s kind of the perfect time, because right now there’s still time to think about what next fall might look like.
I also recognize it may seem like an odd Sunday on which to begin such reflections. I mean, most clergy tend to refer to the Second Sunday of Easter as “Low Sunday” – because attendance usually drops significantly just after the Easter celebration. But, again, I kind of think this is perfect, because if you’re going to begin change, you might as well start with the critical mass of folks who come on Easter and on the week after Easter. These are your core believers who might just take this message to heart.
We come together, Dear Partner, so that Jesus might encounter us and, through this encounter, change us into the people God wants us to be. That change won’t happen overnight. But thank heavens there’s another Sunday just seven days away! And that change – in fact, this whole shebang of worship and proclamation and encounter – is facilitated by your faithful preaching of the word and the work of the Spirit. For you, like John, hope and pray that folks will come to know Jesus and the life he offers. Thank you for your good work!
Yours in Christ,