Easter 2C John 20:19-31
He Breathed On Them…
This text from John is read twice a year: The Second Sunday of Easter and often is the choice on Pentecost. It is a deep and rich text, crucial to our understanding of the Fourth Gospel. And yet, its dependence on a deep knowledge of first century Jewish life and the internal and greater context of John’s gospel demands our greatest attention and reflection on just what is and is not being said here.
“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace [Shalom]
be with you.’” Verse 19 sets the scene, and sadly has also contributed to centuries of misunderstanding that has resulted in the most virulent anti-Semitism from the earliest years of the Church through to and beyond the Holocaust to our present circumstances.
The ongoing story about Thomas being reduced to the facile designation and common figure of speech, “Doubting Thomas” further detracts from the evangelist’s purpose: that the readers and hearers of this text may come to belief and life. Add to this a complete lack of understanding of what John means by “sin,” and Houston, we have not just a problem, but a host of problems.
My comments rely almost entirely on the Westminster Bible Companion, John, by Gail R. O’Day and Susan E. Hylen, and a near lifetime of reflection, agony and insight pondering just this text.
Who are these “disciples” as most translations have it? Not the eleven (or the twelve now minus Judas). The Greek word is elsewhere in John understood as the emerging “community” of early followers of Jesus, and their number in this instance is not disclosed. They are presumably the crowd of followers to whom Mary Magdalene in the verses preceding this passage has just told about her experience of the risen Lord just outside the now empty tomb. They appear unconvinced by her witness as they are hiding in fear “of the Jews.”
John’s frequent and inconsistent use of the phrase “hoi Ioudaioi,” “the Jews,” has been problematic almost from the very beginning. Elsewhere in John (chapter 6) it appears to be interchangeable with “the crowd,” which would almost always, given Israel’s pivotal geographic location for nearly all ancient trade routes, would include all kinds of other people than just Jewish people: there would be gentiles, proselytes, and all kinds of people curious to know more about other philosophical and religious traditions and might best be called Judeans, the diverse population of Judea of which Jerusalem was the center – that is, these are probably not Galileans, a more homogeneous population of farmers, fishermen and some trades people in the north of Israel. Jerusalem to this day is one of the most diverse and cosmopolitan cities on Earth.
John’s gospel is well known for its literary irony. In chapter 7, for instance we read that “the crowd” fears the Jews….or that the crowd fears…..itself. That is, the fear of speaking openly about Jesus, or in chapter 20 the fear of “the crowd” after the crucifixion among his followers, is of the crowd – the crowds that no doubt come from all over the ancient world during the week of the Passover, which is the overall setting for our story.
This “fear” also is not an unknown theological concept in The Bible. “Fear of the Lord,” the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Israel) is an appropriate posture of humility before the One who creates all that is, “seen and unseen.” That is, fear of the Lord is how we are to show respect and offer glory to and for the One God. John goes to great pains to demonstrate that often we give more glory to other humans than we do to the Lord. “How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not accept glory from the one who alone is God?” [5:44] To quote O’Day and Hylen, “Responses out of fear for what other humans may do indicate a lack of trust in God. Such divided loyalties inhibit discipleship.” [p.129] And as the editors of John indicate, loyalty to the One True God is what this passage is about, using Thomas as a stand-in for any one of us.
The word “doubt” does not appear in the Greek text. Rather the word is “apistos” meaning “unbelief.” Unbelief, throughout John, is a synonym for “sin.” So in part one of our story, the followers who fear humans more than God have an experience of the risen Lord who greets them, “Shalom!” and then “breathes on them” the One God’s own breath. In Genesis 2:7 God “breathes” humans into existence. The word is “ruach” which can mean, breath, wind and spirit. That is, these fearful followers are re-created, breathed into, new life, eternal life, life which is free from fear. A life of “Shalom,” which means a life of justice and peace for all people; not some people, not a lot of people, but all people.
A week later, we are told, Thomas, who was not there to experience all of this, shows up and merely says he wants the same experience. Jesus obliges. Thomas believes and issues the extraordinary witness, “ My Lord and my God,” similar to Martha’s declaration back in chapter 11 (I know, I know) when she says, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ [anointed] who is coming into the world.”
There is no doubt in what Martha and Thomas declare, and what they represent in the gospel of John: the hope that we too will “see,” through the witness of these stories, and “believe … and have life in his name.”
That is, the story is not about scary Jews from whom we must hide in fear. And that fear is to be accorded only to the One God, not any crowd of humans. And that it is right and a good and joyful thing to want to “see” for ourselves before joining with Martha and Thomas and a whole parade of characters in the Fourth Gospel who believe.
At the very least, it is incumbent on all of us to do our due diligence in trying to probe, interpret and understand these texts so that they not be used to perpetrate the kind of violence against others, any others, all others, who as of yet do not believe as we do. This is a text of invitation, not fear. It is a text of acknowledgement that the desire for empirical evidence is a good thing. It is a text that says that the One God desires to come to us, to come behind our locked doors, so as to breathe on us God’s own breath and spirit to re-create, re-energize and enliven us to be believers who fear/respect/honor God more than humans.
If there is an indictment in this tale, it is not on the Jews, nor, dare I say, is it even against the crowd, but it is upon everyone who reads, listens to and probes this text for truth. It is upon us . it is upon us to know the difference between texts that call us to judge others and texts that invite us to a deeper understanding of just what it means to be human. Whether you believe in God or not, we do well to ponder the deeper meaning of the undeniable fact that it is in breathing, in breath, that we have life at all. And that there is a source of that breath. And that this breath is meant to be the source of shalom for us and for all people.
There is no Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Taoist, Agnostic, or Atheisitic way of breathing. We all breathe; the same air enlivens and sustains us all – all the way back to the earliest humans and the earliest signs of life on this planet. We are united one to another by the very source of life that makes us and sustains us. Can we allow texts such as this one inspire us to a deeper appreciation and acceptance of one another? All others? For in the end I am persuaded that is what lies at the heart of the Good News of Jesus: we are all united and inextricably linked to one another by the very Source of Life itself. It is long since time that we believe this and live accordingly. Amen.