Thomas on the way to Emmaus

John 20:19-31

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.’ 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.’

24 But 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.’

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.’ 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.’

30 Now 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.

Luke 24:13-35

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ 19He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ 25Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, (ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ) while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ 35Then they told what had happened on the road, (ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ) and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Thomas on the way to Emmaus

I invite you to walk with me through three points to set the scene for this post.

 One: Today, our common first response, and our problem, with resurrection is, "How can you believe that!?"   But Paul Nuechterlein points out that Thomas knows that you can be raised from the dead, "since Thomas had recently seen Jesus raise Lazarus." I note that Thomas is the only disciple specifically named in the story of Lazarus in John 11. This is meant to highlight the oddness that it is he, of all people, who later "doubts" the resurrection of Jesus.

We might also note that Jesus, in the Greek, says to him, mē ginou apistos alla pistos (μὴ γίνου ἄπιστος ἀλλὰ πιστός). KJV has do not be faithless (a-pistos), rather than do not doubt. Thomas is not assailed by doubt; he is in some sense choosing not to have faith.  Nuechterlein says "Thomas was struggling with the idea that God would choose to raise someone who was executed in shame." There is much more to say about what Paul says here, but for the moment, the key point is that in John's "imaginaire" — in the realm of his imagination – resurrection is not the problem it is for us today. Resurrection, as such, is not the problem he wants us to see.

Two: In my last post, struggling with the notion that resurrection could actually be a real thing, I shared how seeking to follow Jesus, and to live like Jesus, especially with respect to costly, compassionate love, brings resurrection into clear focus, on occasions, and removes my doubts. I was saying nothing new when I said that such a way of living is not easy: "He invited people to join the journey, to embark upon a way that could take you anywhere, and might just kill you."

 Brian Donst, a member of a lectionary discussion list to which I belong, made the following response.

After reading Andrew's reflections, it seems to me that what Thomas was doubting (as all the disciples probably were in the light of the crucifixion, which was still Thomas's last image of Jesus) was not the resurrection of Jesus, but the truth and worthwhileness of Jesus' life.

Which also means, then, that it’s not so much doubting the counter-experiential resurrection that is a problem for us even today, but doubting (and not really committing to) the really counter-cultural life we are invited to live in/with Jesus.  So with Thomas, I can only say, “I believe, help me with my unbelief” in the life I live.

To which I can only say, "Amen. Me too!"

Three: In a recent post to his website, James Allison says "Theological thinking is slow thinking ... it is much more like feeling your way into a new relationship that it is achieving clarity about a new definition" or, I would add, rapidly grasping the import of new facts, such as the presence among us of a resurrected person.

The text of John 20:19-31 takes about two minutes to read out loud, at a reasonably measured pace. But it is slow theology. It is the reflection of 60 or 70 years, every phrase loaded with deliberation. And it is not reflection from an ivory tower. It is the reflection which comes from being on the Way, and which comes from trusting in the truth and worthwhileness of Jesus' life, as Brian puts it. When Thomas has Jesus come before him that evening, he is being invited upon the Way to Emmaus. He is being invited into the communal, journeying life of church, with its weekly Eucharist. Upon this journey, "beginning with Moses and all the prophets" Jesus will interpret to him "the things about himself in all the scriptures."

In different ways, John and Luke are both talking about an immersive faith, which means, I think, a faith which will trust slowness; they are talking about a faith that will trust despite not knowing, and will continue to trust despite a lack of clarity about many things; an 'almost-agnosticism' which trusts that it will be converted, and that it will have Jesus come and "stand in front of" it. This is Raymond Brown's translation of John 20 vv19 and 26 (Gospel According to John Vol 2, pp1018) whereas NRSV has "stood among them." Not only are we to trust that we are in his presence, but we are to trust what we will see before us.

Brown says

The demand of Thomas to touch the wounds is certainly not representative of faith, and if Thomas had accepted Jesus' invitation to examine and touch him, Thomas would not have been a believer, in the Johannine sense. (Ibid pp1026)

If Thomas had sought that rapid clarity and certainty which, in our present era, we idolise with our misuse of the scientific method, I suspect his "eyes [would have been] kept from recognising him." To trust, rather than to seek to grasp the absolute certainty which no contingent being can have, is to walk upon the Way to Emmaus with Jesus, and slowly have things opened to us.

There is perhaps one more thing to say about this exploration of how we faith (before we go back to the texts of Luke and John.) Girard says

In the New Testament, particularly Luke, knowledge of Christ is frequently achieved in two phases. There is a first contact that results from a movement of curiosity and a purely superficial sympathy.

This is followed by disenchantment and disaffection. The disciple who is not completely converted feels he has been mistaken and distances himself. This movement of retreat will not be stopped, it is truly without return; yet it will put the person who despairs in contact with the truth, but a truth so profound that it is transfigured. (Job: The Victim of His People, pp167-8, quoted here.)

(I am reminded of Pete Mayer's song Everything Is Holy Now.

Girard describes my own life.  There was a great disenchantment, for me. Not in the the sense of dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the church, although that followed. I mean disenchantment as Charles Taylor describes it: the loss of the sense of God filling everything. (A Secular Age) Rather than "atheism [being] close to ... inconceivable" (pp26) it seemed a definite possibility.

The cry of much of the church around me— really it was my own cry— was to hold firm to the certainties of the faith, to hold fast to "the facts." This is the Thomas we meet first of all, in the reading. I was being urged to try to touch the wounds— to insist. But Thomas is re-enchanted; that is, he allowed himself to be opened to a new way of seeing the world, a new interpretation (Luke 24:27) precisely because he refused the idol of certainty. Which means that like the disciples on the Way in Luke, "all his real desires are gratified," to use Girard's words. And as the disciples said, so could Thomas: "Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the Way, and explained the scriptures to us!?"

Let us begin in Luke.
Two disciples are journeying. When Jesus asks what they are talking about as they walk,  the Greek word is peripatountes,  which gives us the word peripatetic: walking or traveling about. Strong's says:  "to walk, Hebraistically (in an ethical sense):  I conduct my life, live." On the Way, Jesus speaks to them about their way, the way they are living.

And there is another delicious double meaning of which Luke is very aware; it is a deliberate choice of words. The word for road is hodos (it is used in vv 32 and 35). But it can also mean a way – a way of living. Luke uses it in exactly like this in Acts 19:9, where he speaks not of the church, but of the Way.

The Way that Luke shows us with his narrative theology is communal. Two disciples are on the Way together. Two together are a trustworthy witness before the law. Or, for our journeying, we might see that two (and more) are protection against the delusion and false witness of our own self-serving instincts. The church has a certain trustworthiness.

But the Way which not only makes our hearts burn – everything is holy now — but which truly opens our eyes in Luke, is the celebration of Eucharist. At table, he took bread, blessed it and broke it, and gave it to them. He then vanishes from their sight. But this time, at this moment when they can no longer see, there is not disenchantment. They go and witness to what they have seen, rather than what they do not yet understand.

In John we see the same underlying structures. He gives us two Sundays with the gathered disciples. Jesus comes to them. Despite all our sense of searching, he comes to us. In one of Newcomer's songs she says

What you've been looking for
 is looking for you. (A Shovel is a Prayer)

He comes despite the disciples' fear of the Ioudaioi, those in authority, the arbiters of the culture. The fear which locks us away cannot restrain him; he brings peace, which is to offer us the same freedom from fear! The phrase peace be with you is repeated, and this peace is given— pronounced upon them, when he stands "in front of them", and "when they saw the Lord."  The name Jesus (God saves) is changed to the Lord; in the new eye-opened world, Jesus is the Lord; Caesar, the lord to whom the Ioudaioi have submitted, is an imposter.

We are then sent. This scene is often called the Johannine Pentecost, for he says, "Receive the Holy Spirit." The word for breathed is enephysēsen.  It is the same word with which the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament translates Genesis 2:7 from the Hebrew. (I sometimes describe the Septuagint as the NIV Old Testament of its day. smile)

Then the Lord God formed man (adam in the Hebrew , anthrōpon in the Greek) from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

 John has already referenced the Creation narratives. Genesis 1:1 opens the Septuagint with the words In the beginning... which is En archē, the exact words with which the Gospel of John begins.

What we are seeing, then, is a new creation, a new genesis, here in this gathering which Jesus has entered. Could it be that we are also seeing the resurrection of the disciples!? Are we seeing lifeless, disillusioned disciples, who "had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel," but are going home thinking, "We might as well be dead?" for that is the emotion grief and depression always raises within us.

So, renewed, resurrected even, we are sent. What is the content of that sending, its task?  In Matthew, a favourite text of the church, it says

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. (28:19-20)

 The task, in Matthew, is to make disciples and teach them. But John has learned more. John sees that Jesus is seeking a new kind of discipleship.

The new disciple is to forgive: The giving of the Holy Spirit comes in the same breath as the teaching on forgiveness. 

‘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.’

The word we translate as forgive, aphēte, has a strong sense of letting go, of giving up a debt. And this begins to bring us back to the beginning of this post, where Paul Nuechterlein says that it is not resurrection, as such, that Thomas cannot believe; and where Brian Donst incisively sees that Thomas's a-pistos is the fear and refusal of "the really counter-cultural life we are invited to live in/with Jesus." Let me unpack this.

Forgiveness is always, at bottom, the forgiveness of a violence. It is the forgiveness of an intrusion into our space or being; it is forgiveness of something which, if unchecked, could diminish and even destroy us— "You never know where these things will end," we say.  Our default biological-evolutionary setting and, therefore, our default cultural conditioning, is to defend ourselves, and preserve or regain our position and safety. The biological-evolutionary imperative of survival at any cost is barely controlled within us, even now. We respond with violence. We push back, out of our space, and out of the space they have claimed, the person who has threatened us, and who rivals us. The culture is founded in violence. (For more on violence and culture, read here. Search the page "Walter Wink".)

We are now in a better position to hear what Paul Nuechterlein says about Thomas.

Doubting a resurrection itself would be strange, since Thomas had recently seen Jesus raise Lazarus. [Quoting one of his sermons, he says]

No, Thomas was struggling with the idea that God would choose to raise someone who was executed in shame. Thomas doesn’t just demand to see Jesus in order to believe. He demands to see the marks of his execution! He wants to see the nail prints in his hands and the place where the sword pierced his side. He was still shuddering at the horror of the one whom they thought to be the Messiah having been executed. Jesus was supposed to save his people from centuries of being oppressed. Jesus was supposed to help them turn around the oppressive violence of the Romans. How could one who seemed so powerless against that violence actually be the one who is saving us from it? Impossible! God raised him in power as the Messiah? He’ll believe that when he sees the nail prints and puts his hand in Jesus’ side.

And here’s the main point [says Nuechterlein]:

The cross as a repulsive execution brings us face to face with the heart of the matter: that our cure for violence is sacred violence, a violence we say is O.K. for the sake of keeping order, and that God’s cure for violence is completely different than ours. God submits to our sacred violence in the cross and reveals it as meaningless and powerless compared to God’s power of life. The resurrection of the one whom we executed puts us face to face with absolutely the most difficult thing for us to believe — namely, that the only way to ultimately cure violence is to completely refrain from doing it, even if it means submitting to it, revealing its meaninglessness compared to the Creator’s power of life. We need to keep believing in the violence we use to try to stop others from using violence on us. We refuse to believe that there could be a way of stopping violence that doesn’t involve violence — or “force,” since we generally want to call what we do something else other than “violence.” Thomas wants to know, we want to know, how someone who seemed so powerless against the violence could actually be the one saving us from it. If we want to truly be challenged by something impossible for us to believe, try believing that there is ultimately a nonviolent way to stop violence. Believing that God could raise someone from the dead is nothing compared to that. [I have added the bold text.]

Forgiveness is to let go of violence rather in the same way that Thomas decides to let go of the certainty he might hope to receive by touching the wounds. That certainty is also a kind of violence! — because certainty is the insistence on the primacy of our self. It is a refusal to let go of the idea that we are a self-made, self-created, self-sufficient being (or species).  Certainty refuses to give way to our Creator, or anyone else. It cannot bear to be diminished, or just stand unknowing, and vulnerable. To forgive is to be uncertain.

Rowan Williams wrote

There is no hope of understanding the resurrection outside the process of renewing humanity in forgiveness. We are all agreed that the empty tomb proves nothing. We need to add that no amount of apparitions, however well authenticated, would mean anything either, apart from the testimony of forgiven lives communicating forgiveness.

Gil Bailie who quotes this, goes on to say,

the resurrection [itself] was an experience of forgiveness. The disciples had all abandoned Jesus, becoming complicit with his murderers. The fact that resurrection was happening to them was an experience of forgiveness for them. (Quoted here)

And this brings us back to Alison's comment about slow theology. It is why Thomas, and all of us, must take the slow journey along the Way to Emmaus. For it is upon that way, as we are reflecting upon the life of the community, and upon the experience of Eucharist, that Jesus interprets for us "the things about himself in the scriptures." This is slow. It is a thorough going re-interpretation of our self, of our very being. Alison calls it a "restructuring of the imagination."   

One of the things we sometimes do when we read a person's theology is say, "No, this is unlikely, this cannot work." But the slow, deep work of the resurrection Way suggests that sometimes it is, instead, the fact that our imagination has not been restructured; that we are not able to enter the domain of the writer's imagination. (We may have experienced an early reading of a person or a Gospel as obtuse, or even ridiculous, and then, years later, find it lyrical and full of truth.)

On the Way, we are not learning facts, primarily; we are meeting Jesus and entering a new relationship and being reformed.

Being reformed and having our imagination restructured, is the slow letting go of ourselves. It is learning that we, formed by what (and by who) precedes us, live by violence in order to avoid death. It involves the painful realisation that our even our response to Jesus often begins with an desire to be saved; that is, to preserve our place in the world. And the realisation that this has too often been followed by the cataloguing of those who are like us (in) and those who are not (out). And so even our first steps of faith, and sometimes for long after, are rooted in violence in order to preserve ourselves, whereas Jesus calls us to die and be raised again— remade.

The context of this resurrection is forgiveness. And if we – and as we – refused to forgive, we refuse this:

 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (Mark 8:35)

Andrew Prior (2020)

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