A Provocation: The Second Sunday of Easter: April 23, 2017: John 20:19-31

John 20:19-31
20:19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and 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 be with you.”

20:20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

20:21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

20:22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

20:23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

20:24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.

20:25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

20:26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

20:27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

20:28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

20:29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

20:30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.

20:31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.


A few initial observations about “the fear of the Jews”:

  1. It is dangerous to read this scene as evidence of why you should be afraid of the big bad Jews.
  2. It is slanderous to read it as evidence of how fearful Jews were of the brand-new and tiny Jesus movement.
  3. It is vicious to read it as echoing the Exodus, and thus equating Judeans with Egyptians, replacing the “fear of the Egyptians” with the “fear of the Jews.”

It might be most productive to note that there was plenty of fear to go around in the aftermath of Rome’s repeated use of death by torture.  Judeans (which is how we ought to translate the Greek word, Ἰουδαίων) were afraid.  They had seen this before, and they knew that there was no reason to suppose that Pilate would stop with one crucifixion event.  This could be the start of something much worse.  Perhaps Pilate’s murderous act would lead to more murder.  Perhaps it would lead to a general uprising among the people.  Perhaps this in turn would lead to overwhelming Imperial violence.  The disciples were also afraid, and probably they were afraid of the same things.  There was plenty to be afraid of, then and now, without our having recourse to customary anti-Semitic readings of the fear in this scene.

The Fact of the Resurrection:

Most interpreters of this passage spend their time on the miracle of the resurrection.  That makes sense, of course.  The resurrection of Jesus after the Empire killed him is powerful and important in all sorts of ways.  Empire uses the fear of death to control the dominated population.  As long as people know that Rome can inflict intense pain on them, as long as they know that Pilate has no scruples about killing them, they will rein themselves in.  They will submit to Imperial power because they fear torture and death.  This is one of the technologies of domination that Rome had mastered.

Resurrection undercuts that technology of control, and that makes the story of Jesus resurrection dangerous.  To Rome.

The same thing happened when the Ghost Dance religion swept through Native populations, beginning in the late 19th century.  With the Dance came the Ghost Shirt, which had spiritual powers, among them the gift of being impervious to bullets.  This was one of the reasons white imperialists feared the Ghost Dance: it removed the fear of death; it undermined the technology of domination.

The Holy Spirit:

It is also worth noting the action of Jesus involving the “Holy Spirit.”  This has come to be imagined as a scene involving the Third Person of the Trinity.  And this, also, is good and useful.  Focused reflection on the Holy Spirit is helpful, necessary even.

But this scene begs for closer attention.  Jesus breathes on the disciples.  Jesus says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  The Greek for this is Λάβετε πνεῦμα ἅγιον, and it is worth reflecting on the translation.  πνεῦμα is regularly translated as “spirit,” and this is especially true when πνεῦμα is tied to ἅγιον.  But πνεῦμα properly means “breath” or “wind,” and only by extension does it mean “spirit.”  

It would be better to translate Jesus’ words as “Receive holy breath.”

Such a translation makes sense of Jesus’ act of breathing on the disciples.  The word for this breathing is ἐνεφύσησεν, and it means that Jesus “puffed” air into them.  The word is tied to using a bellows to puff up a fire.  It is the word you would use for rescue breathing for a young child.  And it catches something important about the way the phrase πνεῦμα ἅγιον is used in the New Testament: it is tied to resurrection of Jesus and implies that the Resurrection is to be understood in terms first laid down in Genesis 2 when God knelt over Mudguy (Adam) and puffed life into his nose (it is the same word, ἐνεφύσησεν, used in both John 20 and the Greek translation of Genesis 2).  God knelt over Jesus’ crucified corpse and puffed life into his body, and Jesus became a resurrected messiah.  

Jesus is puffing the breath of Resurrection into the disciples.  With this act, they are raised to new life just as he was.  Resurrection has spread beyond Jesus and all his followers have been joined to the person of the resurrected messiah.

So far everything in this little scene has been about Resurrection.

The wounds:

But the most important part of this Resurrection scene happens when Jesus shows them his hands and his side, when Jesus tells them all (not just late Thomas) to put their fingers into his wounds.  The wound in his side is large enough to accommodate a hand.  The wounds in his wrists allow a finger to pass completely through.

Why does John’s storyteller point this out?  Why does it matter?

Here is one possible reading of the persistence of the gaping wounds: Life leaves marks.

Against notions of religion that make faith into a magic release from mortality, John’s storyteller explicitly links the resurrected messiah to the fact of torture.  Resurrection does not erase the marks of torture.  Death is turned back.  But the marks that link Jesus with every victim of Imperial domination remain open and obvious.

Much of Christianity (especially American Christianity) focuses its attention on “going to heaven.”  As attractive, and useful, as this focus has been, it often has a particularly unfortunate consequence: it makes escape from the world into the central goal of the faith.  However understandable and useful this kind of faith might be, it is finally dangerous and even dishonorable.  It is typically used to allow us to ignore the gaping wounds around us.

And there are wounds of all sorts around us.  I am re-reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.  Baldwin, in a letter to his nephew, notes that black people die when they begin to believe the things that white people say about them.  Life leaves marks; life wounds people.

Every year I meet students who are at war with themselves because of things that have been said by homophobic friends, family, and preachers (ordained or otherwise).  These students have deep and dangerous wounds.  Some of the wounds are caused by direct frontal attacks.  Some (perhaps the most serious) are caused by offhand comments delivered in unthinking dependent clauses.  Life causes gaping wounds, some of which seem to be self-inflicted, though the real cause is general external.

When I cook I like to listen to old radio shows.  The other day my wife and I were cooking and heard a podcast of a radio show from the 1950s.  It was a good show, well crafted with an intriguing plot.  And it was deeply and casually misogynistic.  A central character, with the complete approval of the storyteller, told a female character to “shut up and sit on her brains.”  Then he slapped her because she was hysterical.  Life causes deep bruises, some of which can be seen.

And now the president has discovered the suffering of the Syrian people.  He has ordered a missile attack on an airfield.  He has not, however, said anything about allowing the people who are fleeing that suffering to seek safety in the United States.  Life leaves marks even half a world away.

Imagine the disciples’ reaction when Jesus directed them to stick fingers and hands deep into his wounds.  I imagine nausea.  I imagine shuddering.  And I see Jesus waiting it out and requiring the disciples to see and know his wounds.  The gaping wounds of Jesus in this scene make it clear that we cannot shut our eyes.

That may be the most important message of this little scene: resurrection and reality cannot be separated.  We cannot hope in the resurrection if we close our eyes to the wounds suffered by Creation.

Our reaction is crucial.  Now we will discover whether we want resurrection hope or just reassurance.  Now we will see if we just want to “go to heaven” and be done with it, or if we are willing to participate in God”s act of resurrection for all of Creation.

But it seems to me that if we shut our eyes, or focus only on our own salvation, the “heaven” we will “go to” will be a solitary, isolated thing with no hope, no resurrection, and no messiah, no God.  Seeing the resurrection, this scene suggests, requires seeing and knowing the gaping wounds of the Creation.  Resurrection is either for all of us, or we have no part in it at all.


2 thoughts on “A Provocation: The Second Sunday of Easter: April 23, 2017: John 20:19-31

  1. Perhaps it is not “the fear of the Jews” as in the Christians were afraid of the Jews -but because all the Jews had fear – as in the “Jew’s fear”?

    Liked by 1 person

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