Anamnesis – Remember. Every Second Sunday of Easter we read John 20:19-21 – and often refer to this Sunday as “Doubting Thomas Sunday.” It is a story, however, that is not about doubt at all. Nor is it about a lot of other things that have been ascribed to it. Such as Anti-Semitism.
It’s a story that begins by depicting ten of the remaining disciples hiding behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews.” (Judas is gone, Thomas is not there) What the text in John appears to be doing is to observe the divide between Galileans who live in northern Israel, and Judeans who live in and around Jerusalem in the south. The northern folk tend to be farmers and fishermen, while those in Jerusalem represent the Priestly caste and aristocratic remnants of the ancient monarchy. Many of the Judeans have been forced to work for Rome to carry out the Empire’s subjugation of the Israelite population, which was and is to this day a diverse and pluralistic society. These Judeans were seen as collaborators with a system of oppression. Many in the north resented and feared “the Judeans,” and for good reasons: onerous taxation for the Temple and the Empire being first and foremost, and the military enforcement of such taxation.
The point being, arguably until after Jesus and after the fall of the Temple in 70 ce, there was no such entity as “the Jews,” as we know them today. Try explaining that to white supremacists. Nevertheless, we who read this year in and year out owe it to ourselves, our Jewish neighbors and the world to be clear that this passage, which is likely written in a Jewish community in the late first century, is not advocating that Jewish people are to be feared.
Then there is the misunderstanding that somehow Jesus and the New Testament introduce new notions of forgiveness and love. In fact, throughout the history of Israel, forgiveness was a well-defined process about which Jesus reminds his disciples. If someone sins against another, that person can ask to be forgiven. Depending on the nature of the offense, however, and in whatever stage of psychic or physical recovery the offended party may be, forgiveness may be refused, or “retained” in the language of the story. The offender may return two more times asking for forgiveness, and it is up to the offended party to continue to retain the sin, or forgive it. If refused a third time, then, and only then, may the offender seek forgiveness from God. Which is the basis of many of the confessional Psalms of Israel which seek God’s intervention in resolving such matters. Holocaust survivor and writer, Elie Wiesel, when asked if he could ever forgive those who carried out the Holocaust responded, “Who am I to forgive on behalf of so many?”
The danger, as the Christian Martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer correctly observed, is to mistaken Jesus granting blanket powers to forgive to the disciples without the repentant offender asking for forgiveness. Bonhoeffer called this “cheap grace.” It is equally cheap grace and chutzpah to claim that Jesus and the “God of the New Testament” introduce love and forgiveness. Love and forgiveness form the background of the entire covenant relationship between Israel and its God, a God who repeatedly punishes his people by loving them even more! The dangers of cheap grace and Christian co-option of love, grace and forgiveness have also led to Anti-Semitism and worse in the history of the church: just think of the damage caused by the sinful outcomes of the Crusades, Pogroms and the Holocaust. These moments in Christian History could be considered by today’s standards as racial hatred and acts of terrorism. In my lifetime I have known Jewish people who when they were young would have to run home from school during Holy Week with Christian youth chasing them, beating them up and calling them “Christ Killers” – for fear of the Jews? Yes, in American towns and cities. For fear of the Christians.
It’s too bad that all of these misunderstandings and dangerous readings of this text have persisted since there are at least three important moments recorded in this Resurrection Appearance. Jesus appears behind locked doors and announces, “Peace be with you.” No doubt speaking Aramaic it is more likely to translate this with one word, “Shalom.” God’s Shalom as depicted in the Biblical narratives consists of social justice for all people, especially for those without resources, represented as a class of people called “widows, orphans and resident aliens.” This last means strangers who are to be considered as neighbors who are to be loved. Love means doing something useful or helpful for them whether or not you even like them. Imagine that as an Old Testament Ethic! We do well to note that Jesus says “Shalom” three times. Such repetition in Hebrew culture and literature means emphasis. He is sending the disciples out from behind closed doors to work on behalf of God’s Shalom for the whole world – every person, every creature, every speck of dust deserves to be taken care of and loved.
Next comes what many view as an odd moment. Jesus breathes on them. Not so odd for those who know the very beginning of the human story. God scoops up a handful of dust and moisture, fashions what some call a “mudman,” and breathes into its nostrils giving us life. The same word is used in Genesis chapter two as in John 20. And this breath, pneuma in Greek, ruach in Hebrew, can also mean wind and spirit. The breath, wind and spirit of God is that which animates all living things, creatures, plants, oceans, lakes and river life. Jesus is giving them a booster-shot of God’s spirit-breath to give them the energy and vitality they are going to need as they are sent out to work on behalf of God’s Shalom.
Finally, last but not least, there is Thomas. He was not present the first time Jesus appeared to the ten. They tell him what happened, but he wants to see for himself. And not just see, but place his finger in the mark of the nails on Jesus’s hands, and place his hand in Jesus’s side. Richard Swanson in his book Provoking the Gospel of John describes it this way. “The Jesus who enters this scene is explicitly the Jesus who was tortured to death in chapter 19. The crudely gory scene of his death is reprised in the crude details of the scene with Thomas. The Jesus who enters the scene has gashes and gaps where no living human has gashes and gaps. Thomas insisted that he must touch those marks of torture or he will dismiss talk of resurrection as meaningless drivel. This is not a man who doubts; it is a man who remembers. Thomas, like Wiesel, remembers the damage that was done, remembers the torture, remembers the crude physical violence. He is to be commended for his memory and for his integrity. Any resurrection, any resolution, and recovery that moves forward by forgetting the past will be insubstantial. Any moving forward that forgets the victims of past torture will be ill-prepared to deal with the continuing reality of violence and abuse. That is why the scene with Thomas belongs with the scene in which Jesus talks about releasing and holding the memory of abuse. That is why the matter of forgiving is not as simple as abusers insist that it must be. Indeed.” [p 173]
As such, this story is meant to make us remember, and to re-evaluate our beliefs, just as Thomas declares his belief for his Lord and his God. Things we ought to re-evaluate would be the death penalty, torture, eg as water boarding, the entire criminal justice system and prison system, not to mention the past and ongoing treatment of native peoples in the Americas, and the Church’s role in historic Anti-Semitism and the abuse of children and women. The very things this passage has been used to justify are same things the narrative means to warn us against repeating. To paraphrase our Lord and Savior, let those who have ears hear. Like Thomas, remember. Amen.