When 1960s boy-band The Monkees were looking for a follow up single after their hit, “Last Train to Clarksville,” the studio turned to one of it’s newest songwriters, a then very young, Neil Diamond. Now, you all likely know better than I that The Monkees were originally a “manufactured” group made up of predominantly actors not musicians for the TV show of the same name. However, Monkees drummer, Micky Dolenz, was indeed a talented musician and pushed to have the show include some actual songs. Neil Diamond at the time was simply writing songs that he thought would become country hits. In fact, the song he wrote that the Monkees recorded was original meant for Country singer Eddy Arnold. That song of course became the Monkees’ biggest hit… and here goes nothing, “I thought love was only true in fairy tales, Meant from someone else but not me, Love was out to get me, that’s the way it seemed. Disappointment haunted all my dreams. Then I saw her face, now I’m believer, Not a trace of doubt in my mind, I’m in love…..I’m a believer, I couldn’t leave her if tried.” The song is of course about someone who finally believes in love now that they are experiencing it for themselves- an experience they had the minute they saw their lover’s face. Once they laid eyes on that face there was no trace of doubt in their mind. It is a lot easier to believe in something if you experience it for yourself! Doubt dissipates when seeing turns to believing. At least, that is the sense I get from this morning’s passage.
Last week we heard a reflection from the perspective of one of the women who first arrived at the empty tomb. In John’s version of the story it is only Mary Magdalene whom Jesus first appears to and while in Luke’s version the male disciples dismiss the women’s story as an idle tale it does appear that in John’s version Mary is given a little more credit, but not much. Mary tells the disciples all the things Jesus said to her but obviously the disciples are still dealing with a lot of unbelief and fear and confusion because they respond by locking themselves up. I mean, let’s be fair to them, a lot has happened over the last few days and no wonder they are afraid, they just watched their leader die in a horrendous way, they are likely afraid that they are next.
But their locked doors mean nothing to the risen Lord. Jesus stands among them and declares, “peace be with you.” (Mind blown action) They loose their minds, understandably, and begin to rejoice. Jesus’ presence comes in a miraculous way and the first thing Jesus does is grants them peace. Jesus could have rebuked them because fear has paralysed them and driven them into hiding! Jesus could have chastised them for not believing Mary’s story. Jesus could have dismissed them because clearly they weren’t paying attention when Jesus preached and teached about his death. But instead of any negative tone Jesus’ presence is purely positive and brings peace. And the disciples react accordingly, after the initial shock, they are overjoyed. There is no doubt in their mind, they are believers.
Have you ever experienced the joy of relief? I’m a bit of a worry wart. I worry or try to anticipate worse case scenarios…and I am always relieved when those scenarios never come to fruition. But I image the joy of relief that the disciples felt was something even more, after all, even though Mary had told them what she had seen and experienced, they aren’t going to believe that Jesus, who they watched die could be alive again. But then, when Jesus stands among them, they see his face and they become believers. Their eyes are not deceiving them, Jesus is really alive! What joy.
The word evangelical has come to mean a theological movement that may differ from how we see ourselves in the world but the term actually comes from the Greek word euangelion meaning “Good News”. The early church used the term to distinguish itself. To say you were evangelical meant that you focused on the love and joy of Christ rather than the violence of the Roman Empire. Sixteenth century biblical scholar and linguist Tyndale stated that the term euangelion, “signifieth good, merry, glad and joyful tidings that maketh one’s heart gland and maketh one sing and dance and leap for joy.” Well then, if that’s the real definition then you can count me in as an evangelical. But that too is the kind of joy I imagine the disciples expressed as Jesus blessed them with peace.
Along with joy, the joy of relief and the joy of believing and witnessing that the rumours of their risen Lord are true, there is also a sense that the grief and fear that the disciples felt originally has been lifted. Rev. Dr. Karen Campbell talks of the peace that Jesus provides not only when he enters the room and declares peace but breathes peace upon the disciples. She says, “Sometimes in our grief Christ meets us in our locked rooms and our hearts begin the process of encouraging us to unlock them, and see what’s on the other side. That’s what Thomas does in this encounter.”
We move from the first encounter of Jesus with the disciples in the locked room to the second encounter. I always feel for Thomas because for whatever reason he isn’t with the other disciples when Jesus first appears to them. I tend to think that Thomas was the only one not afraid and therefore going out into the community as Jesus told them to do. However, Thomas has trouble believing when he is reunited with the disciples because the story is something straight out of a fairy tale. There is a lot of doubt in his mind and it would be a very strange and disconcerting feeling to be the only one who is not elated by joy.
Jesus appears again and tells Thomas to touch him, something the other disciples have not done. Thomas must unlock the doubt he’s been dealing with in order to find the joy of believing in Christ’s resurrection. Thomas must see Jesus’ face before he can become a believer. I firmly believe that Thomas represents all of us at some point. Those moments when a loved one receives a bad diagnoses, or we experience crippling grief, or we are shocked by news or we are afraid. How can we have the joy of believing when all we are experiencing is pain or fear or worry? What Thomas teaches me is that doubt does not disqualify us for discipleship. Instead Jesus addresses our doubts and allays our apprehensions.
Now, we do no share the advantage that is give Thomas. We have never known Jesus in the flesh. For us, Jesus does not literally physically enter the room and tells us to see his face or touch his wounds and believe but our belief comes when we experience Jesus through the lives of others and our practice. Jesus stands in our midst and offers peace through the work of the church, through the love of our community, through the peace we receive in prayer. Jesus’ own words to Thomas are important for us to hear too, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This may mean we will still have grief and fear to contend with but now joy and peace are also in the mix.
Jesus also commissions the disciples and this is important for us too. The peace and joy that they receive and feel enables them to be the witnesses that Christ asks them to be. Just as God sent Jesus, so now the risen Christ sends the disciples to do the will and work of God in the world. One commentary pointed out brilliantly, “Yet, notice here, as is ever the case in relation to the gospel’s call to service, the disciples (and we) are not merely told to get the job done. The disciples (and we) are given the powerful gift of the Holy Spirit. We receive God’s own power and presence for doing the work to which our risen Lord directs us.” It’s a little intimidating, I’ll admit, but the point is that Jesus’ presence is what pushes the disciples outside their room and into the community.
As the Gospel of John comes to an end the author turns directly to us readers and states the purpose of this book. The stories that have been written about in this book are to give testimony to the work of God in Jesus Christ. These stories are written down so that we will believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and in the act of believing , have real and eternal life in the way Jesus revealed it. These stories are meant to bring us joy, the joy of believing. Call me an evangelical, “I’m a believer I couldn’t leave him if I tried”. Amen