Intimate and Ironic Encounters—Second Sunday of Easter

Sermon delivered at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, Perkasie, PA. We gave our livestream crew this Sunday off, so no video! Please check out the manuscript below.

John 20:19-31

If the Gospel of John is anything, it is a book of encounters with Jesus. Human beings of different genders, different social classes and ethnicities, people of all kinds, bumping against Jesus. And when they bump against him they don’t know who he is at first.

So, if the Gospel of John has a flavor, a style—then, it is irony. Irony, of course, is the situation, in movies or in life, when the full significance of someone’s words or actions are clear to the audience or others, but unknown to them. That’s kind of abstract, so some examples:

What makes the famous Who’s-on-First bit by Abbott and Costello so funny? We begin to realize that the baseball players’ names are ironically the same as the words “who” and “what,” but the character does not.

What makes the death scene in Romeo and Juliet so sad? We know that Juliet drank only a sleeping potion in the tomb at the end, but Romeo thought it was poison, thought she was dead and killed himself. That is irony.

In John we get ironic encounters with Jesus. In fact, that is even the summary of the whole Gospel. It is the summary of the whole universe according to John! In the first chapter, in the introduction to the Gospel, John writes this: “[The Word, Jesus,] was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” Irony.

The first disciples, Nicodemus the religious expert coming at night, the Samaritan woman at the well, the feeding of the 5000, the crippled man by the pool, the man-born-blind, Lazarus raised from the dead, and so on: are all ironic encounters, where the folks just don’t seem to know what’s going on. But we, the readers, do.

And these encounters continue to happen, when Jesus is crucified as the “King of the Judeans” and especially when he is risen. On Easter we heard of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus: she thought he was the gardener or someone who had stolen Jesus’ dead body, but she was talking to the living Lord himself! And hardly no time passes at all between Mary’s morning encounter, and today’s Gospel lesson of the disciples bumping into Jesus  behind locked doors on the evening of the same day.

Mary had come and told the disciples exactly what had happened, that he was risen, that everything Jesus had said about himself was true and trustworthy. But they are paralyzed with fear and suspicion—understandably so, their leader had just been crucified as an enemy of the state! But though they are locked in for fear of the same violent death that befell Jesus, that very same Christ passes through their fear and finds them. The disciples believe that evil and violence still have power, and Jesus shows them the marks of violence on his body. But now those marks, ironically, are marks of God’s victory, of the overwhelming power of God to transform all things, even death.

But today’s star is Thomas. As you heard, Thomas demanded his own encounter with Jesus. Not only an encounter, Thomas demanded an intimate interaction with Jesus. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,” Thomas says, “and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side…”—here, a better word would be—“I will not trust.” 

“Put my finger in the mark and my hand in his side,” he says. I don’t know if any of you are squeamish about wounds, but that is a daring thing Thomas wants to do. Thomas wants to look and touch. Thomas asks to look and touch. Our tradition scolds Thomas’ request—calling him “Doubting Thomas”—but I think that title is pretty weak and certainly inaccurate. Because Jesus honors Thomas’ prayer to touch and see. Although the doors were shut, yet again, a week later, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he says to Thomas, Jesus directs his attention to him only: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” Jesus gives him a direct invitation to encounter him. And says, in the Greek, “Do not bring forth distrust, but trust.”

Thomas answers him, “My Lord and my God!” Here all the irony melts away, and Thomas knows and trusts the truth that Jesus is, was all along, God.

John’s Gospel here is showing us that Thomas the Twin and Mary Magdalene, the woman at the well and everyone else—are models for us and our own encounters with Jesus. We get to see them go through the paces of encounter and its aftermath. We receive the benefit of their encounters through the pages of the Gospel, but more importantly, we are given extra insight into all of reality. The flavor irony in John’s Gospel is an invitation to us, here and now, to pay close attention. All of reality—all of our lives!— could be an encounter with Jesus. That is what “Christ” means. Christ is in all things, because all things came into being through Christ. Indeed, God reaches past locked doors, past our sins forgiven them, past death itself in Jesus’ Resurrection.

We see in John that we start out not knowing, blindly encountering Christ, like a child playing with car keys or a cell phone. But this is still an intimate touching, feeling, physical encounter. Next we realize what is going on, in amazement, fear sometimes, wonder and joy, emotions overwhelm us. “Oh my gosh! That was a God moment!” We say. And finally, after this, we share the encounter with others. Mary tells the disciples. Thomas and the disciples are sent. And that’s the greatest and grandest of sendings, Jesus breathes on them the Holy Spirit the Spirit of the Church, the Spirit of trust in God, and they are sent.

This cycle of encountering Jesus is very gentle too. It’s not a commandment, really, or a rule. And not even the famous characters in Scripture understood it any better than we do. But Jesus guides them through. What Jesus says to Thomas makes all the difference in the world. It’s an invitation: “Do not doubt, but believe.” Do not bring forth distrust, but trust.

What would your life be like if you brought forth trust each day? If you had trust that you would encounter Christ each day. You might not recognize it, you might not know it at first, just like all the ironic encounters in John’s Gospel. But if you made this awareness your own, if this trust that Jesus, that God, was all around you—in creation, in your family, in your coworkers—was part of your routine, think how the transformation that Jesus showed in his Resurrection would slowly, steadily, begin to be your transformation.

What would your life be like, what would the lives of those around you be like, if you brought forth trust each day, and not distrust, that this was true? Like St Thomas this morning, we can ask this of Jesus. We pray for God’s Holy Spirit of trust and faith to be in us. Let us all pray, with St Thomas, that we would have an intimate encounter with Christ each day.