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Those Who Have Not Seen (Jn. 20:19-31)

by James C. Somerville

James G. Somerville is pastor of Wingate Baptist Church and adjunct professor of religion and philosophy at Wingate (North Carolina) University. This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 8, 1998, p. 364. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


I was a freshman in college when I went to my first -- and last -- tent revival. I still remember the smell of sawdust, the glare of bare light bulbs, the squeak of metal chairs. And I remember the evangelist -- a wild-eyed man waving a Bible in one hand, slicking his hair back with the other and shouting himself hoarse on the Good News. When all that was left was a whisper, he leaned over the plywood pulpit and pleaded: "Won’t you come? Won’t you come? While the organist plays one more verse of ‘Just As I Am,’ won’t you come?" And although I didn’t go forward, I came close. He spoke as if it were his life that depended on it and not mine.

It is rumored that Rudolf Bultmann -- the demythologizer of the New Testament who had little interest in the question of Jesus’ physical resurrection -- often leaned over the pulpit when he preached, reaching out toward his hearers like any tent-meeting evangelist and pleading with them to come to Christ. So great was his concern for the intellectuals of his time, and so certain his conviction that they could not accept the primitive "myths" of the New Testament, that he reasoned the miracle stories away in an attempt to remove any roadblock between those skeptical minds and a living faith.

That same gesture -- leaning over the pulpit and pleading with the skeptics -- characterizes this story from John 20. John tells us that Jesus, now risen from the dead and very much alive, comes to that locked upper room where the Eleven have been hiding. It is dark outside, and inside a single lamp is burning. The disciples are gathered around the table, speaking in whispers, when one of them looks up and sees someone standing beside the door. There is a sharp intake of breath and then silence as the figure moves toward the table and into the circle of light. "Shalom," he says, showing a familiar face, holding up a wounded hand, and then he waits for the truth to sink in, for the disciples to let out their breath in one joyful gasp, for them to fall on him weeping, shouting, cheering.

What a glad reunion! And Thomas (out buying groceries at the time?) misses the whole thing. "We have seen the Lord," the others tell him excitedly. But Thomas is not convinced; Easter is too close to April Fool’s. He folds his arms across his chest and says, "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.

That might have been the end of it, and maybe it should have been. Thomas has heard from a handful of eyewitnesses that Jesus is alive. Surely that’s enough. Still he takes his stand as a skeptic, making Jesus’ next gesture seem remarkably generous: Jesus comes back to that upper room the next week, when Thomas is there. He greets the disciples as before, but then turns his attention toward the doubter.

"Come, Thomas," he says. "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing." It is the kind of earnest plea you might expect from an evangelist, as if it were his life that depended on it and not yours: Won’t you come? Won’t you come? And Thomas, in one of the highest confessions of faith in the New Testament, blurts out: "My Lord and my God!"

Jesus’ response is gently reproving: "Have you believed because you have seen me, Thomas? Blessed are thosewho have not seen and yet have come to believe."

It is precisely here that John, the writer of this Gospel, leans over the pulpit and begins pleading with all those who have not seen the risen Jesus but may yet come to believe. "I could have written a lot more about Jesus," he says. "I could have preached all night. But what I have written I have written that you might believe that he is who he said he was: the Messiah, the son of God, and that believing you might have life in his name. Won’t you come? Won’t you come?

When I teach a New Testament course to college freshman I tell them that John is laying it on the line here. "He is saying that everything he has written in this Gospel is written so that you, the reader, will come to believe. He has done all he knows how to do. If you don’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, at this point in the Gospel, then John’s efforts will have been wasted and the Gospel will have failed." And then I lean over the lectern and add with a smile, "You wouldn’t want that to happen, would you?"

This is where I join John and Jesus and Bultmann in urging "those who have not seen" to move from doubt to faith, from death to life. It is not so much a story of Jesus’ resurrection that John tells here as it is the story of Thomas’s rise to faith. And, as Jesus suggests, anyone can do it. You don’t have to put your fingers in his hands or your hands in his side. You don’t have to see him standing before you. As Bultmann would insist, faith and proof are two different things. And as John has explained, these things are not written so that you may have the facts, but so that you may believe.

 


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