One Bringing Peace—John 20:19-31

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

In the first beginning, the Word gave form to that which was formless; in this new beginning, the same Word speaks a word and brings peace to men who are afraid.

19When 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.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So 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.”

26A 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.” 27Then 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.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But 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.

The passage opens with a description of the ominous mood which hangs over the disciples. In John’s account, the risen Lord has not yet appeared to anybody except Mary Magdalene; although both Peter and the “other disciple” (presumably John) have seen the empty tomb, we have been told that “they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead” (20:9).

It is night, and the disciples have made a point of locking the door because they are afraid of the Jews who only a few days ago murdered their master. The tension is palpable in the first two lines.

In the midst of this tension and fear, inexplicably, Jesus comes and stands among them. There is no description of how it happened, no lurid vision of the figure of a man emerging through a wall the disciples presumed solid. From this verse, a VFX artist would have no guidance for how the appearance was effected. We have the simple statement that he came and stood.

When Jesus comes into this troubled room, he brings a proclamation of peace. In the next verse, he shows his disciples his hands and side, but not his feet; we already know, following the prophet Isaiah, that his feet are beautiful: “How beautiful … are the feet of the messenger who announces peace” (Isaiah 52:7).

This allusion fills our mind with what will accompany the peace:

who brings good news
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

When Jesus arrives and says “Peace be with you”, that small phrase is also an announcement of salvation and of the rule of God over his kingdom.

Note, too, that the first words the disciples hear from Jesus are not a statement that they are already peaceful, or that they ought to be peaceful; he does not say, soothingly, “you are peaceful” or sternly, “be at peace.” Instead, he shows himself once again in his role as the creative Logos, and creates peace by his word. This is, after all, the story told in John’s gospel, the gospel which says that “all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:2).

This is the first day of the week, the first day of the new creation, and the first creation of this new week is peace. In Genesis, God said “Light—be!” In the new creation, God says “Peace—be!” In the first beginning, the Word gave form to that which was formless; in this new beginning, the same Word speaks a word and brings peace to men who are afraid.

Thomas is not present at this gathering, and only hears of Christ’s bodily resurrection secondhand. But he wants to be like the rest, to see the risen Christ with his own eyes. The other disciples saw Christ’s hands and side; Thomas insists that unless he is also able to test those signs for himself, he “will not believe.”

This is a contrast not only to the disciples to whom the Lord appeared on the first day; it is also a particular contrast to John, who arrived first at the empty tomb: “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed” (John 20:8). John believed—not in the evening, when Jesus appeared, but in the morning when his only evidence was the empty tomb.

What Thomas is resisting is the pattern of transmission which has been established from the very beginning, especially in the account as related by John. In his prologue, John tells us that “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (John 1:18). This idea is reinforced in a later discourse when Jesus says: “Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father” (John 6:46).

Jesus, who is in the bosom of the Father, reveals the Father. John, the disciple who is “beloved” and who reclines on his bosom at the last supper, becomes a transmitter of the words of Jesus.

He does this most obviously as an evangelist, writing a gospel account, but he also does it much much earlier. At the Last Supper, in John 13:23-26, we see the pattern that Jesus speaks to the one reclining on his bosom, who has relayed a question from Peter. Thomas does not want this mediated knowledge; he wants to know for himself, with his own eyes and with his own hands, that Christ has risen from the dead.

When Thomas finally does see Jesus in the flesh, he believes. He is permitted to see a re-enactment of that first visit: Jesus comes, and stands, and says “Peace be with you.” But then Jesus reveals his knowledge of what Thomas said by preemptively commanding him to do what Thomas had said he must: touch the hands and side which were pierced. That accomplished, Jesus pronounces a blessing—not on Thomas, but on those who have not seen and who have nevertheless come to believe.

We are in the same position as Thomas at the beginning of this story: our knowledge of these events is not firsthand but relayed through the words of the evangelists and the whole canon of Scripture. We are the ones who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Just as we have received the good news in faith, it is our job to proclaim the gospel of peace to the troubled and fearful places in the world. As we have been made part of the body of Christ, and dwell intimately with him, we make him known to the world. Our speech should imitate his speech, proclaiming the good news of God’s reign, announcing salvation.

Announcing salvation and creating peace go hand in hand. However nasty, solitary, and brutish the natural world might seem under the curse, we can say with joy that our God reigns, and in this new creation he reigns in peace.

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