I have a question.
It’ll take me a minute to get there, so please bear with me.
Back on that sabbath day, the day after Jesus had been executed, the disciples must have felt lonely and afraid. Jesus was dead, it seemed, and not only were they afraid of the Romans who might have wondered about their association with the self-proclaimed King of the Jews, but they were probably afraid of their own people, too. Others who had heard Jesus’ message, maybe even been followers, had deserted them, much as they had deserted Jesus when he was arrested. Some might even have been angry and vengeful because what had been promised, the messiah who would free them, turned out to be a such a disappointment.
No wonder the disciples locked themselves away from the rest of the world.
But the next day, Jesus appeared to them and said “peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). Jesus told them to not be afraid, to go into the world and do that thing he’d been teaching them: to go and love one another as Jesus had showed them to love, in relationship with all around them, to love even the hardest to love, to live with care and compassion and justice and equality (John 15:9-12).
It’s no wonder the authors of the Gospel of John recorded the story that way. Many contemporary bible scholars think that the Gospel of John probably dates from between 90 and 100 AD. Most also agree that what we have is the third stage of its development. There was an initial stage based on the oral tradition of personal experience, followed by a literary stage that would have included additional sources and, finally, this “harmonized” version that combines the first two, reflecting the context of its time. In other words, the Gospel of John would likely have had more than one author and the form we have would likely reflect the christian community of the late 1st century.
That’s pretty significant because this was a community fending off the oppression of the Romans and the alienation of Jews (the first followers of Jesus, as good Jews, had continued to attend synagogue as well as practice their own “christ-centred” rituals until they were expelled from the Jewish community). They were also being challenged by their expansion into non-Jewish communities. It was a time when many christians were very protective of their communities, feeling pressured by the world around them, threatened even. It would have been very easy to lock themselves away from the rest of the world.
So John’s gospel has Jesus say don’t do that. Don’t hide behind walls. Don’t separate yourself from the rest of the world. Go and love. Love yourself, love people, love the world. Love God. Go and love.
The gospel doesn’t say this, but I like to think that’s where Thomas was when Jesus first appeared to the disciples (John 20:19-31). I think he was off telling people about Jesus and trying to teach them what Jesus had taught him. Yes, maybe Jesus was dead, Thomas might say, but what he taught is alive in all who knew him. I don’t think Thomas doubted Jesus for a second, I think he just didn’t believe the other disciples. So, for John’s community, the story of Thomas might be more about believing in their leaders than faith in the Jesus they had never personally seen. Jesus saying “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” would be important to followers struggling with a world that seems to be crushing their spirits. Just as it might be to us.
So my question, finally, is this: are we going out and loving the world? Or are we building more walls, locking more doors and finding more ways – I mean “reasons” – to exclude and ignore? Are we trying to love each other and share in relationships with each other, or are we making more rules to protect ourselves and constantly seeking more power to control our lives and others? Are we speaking out or keeping silent?
Are we living what we believe?