The lessons this week give us a range of reaction among Jesus’ “post-Easter” community of disciples. The first glimpse is a group of disciples gathered together in utter fear. They have good reason to be afraid.
The “Doubting Thomas” text (John 20:19-29) take place in the evening of the first Easter day. So Jesus was arrested Thursday/Friday, executed Friday and in the tomb Saturday and Sunday. (This is where the idea of 3 days in the tomb comes from even though mathematically it is only about 39 or 40 hours). So as you can imagine the disciples are still hiding. After all they ran when Jesus was arrested, Peter assaulted a named (Malchus) slave of the High Priest who isn’t healed in John’s account as the unnamed battery victim is in Luke’s account. The disciples are all facing multiple charges.
Here is my question, who were the disciples more afraid of? The Jewish authorities were no doubt searching for them (I bet Malchus was pushing for action!). The Roman authorities were well known for their tenacity. Pilate is painted in rather generous terms in John’s account of Jesus’ passion. He must have been in an exceedingly good mood there because historically Pilate was a first rate SOB! We actually know from historical non-biblical sources that Pilate was a murderous and difficult person. Even the Romans got fed up with his brutish tactics and recalled him and exiled him to Gaul. So, I think the disciples hiding from the Romans and the Jewish authorities was probably a good idea.
But here’s a wrinkle, by the time we get to the Thomas story the disciples had been informed by the women that Jesus was raised. Despite the news from Mary Magdalene, the disciples remained hidden. In Matthew and Mark Jesus instructed the disciples ahead of his death to meet him in Galilee after he is raised. John doesn’t transmit any such instructions. In fact, in John Jesus tells the disciples that where he is going they cannot follow. So we can’t blame the Johannine disciples for still hiding after the get the news.
But there are at least two other potential reasons for their remaining hidden that first day. First, they probably didn’t believe Mary Magdalene. Women were not considered reliable witnesses in 1st century Judea and law prohibited them from testifying in court. So there’s that. But they may also have been afraid of a resurrected Jesus.
Think about it, you hear that a guy who everyone knows was dead isn’t dead anymore; that’s creepy! Then there is the other issue. When last Jesus saw the disciples it was not their shining moment. Judas betrayed him, Peter denied Jesus three times and Jesus looked him right in the face as he made the third denial. Now they get word that the guy they screwed over is back from the dead and on the loose. I’d be hiding too.
This explains their hiding on that first Easter, but it doesn’t explain why they were still hiding a week later. The text we read on Sunday spans a week of time. Jesus appears on Easter Sunday and then comes back the next week on the same day of the week. Now, maybe that next week the disciples simply gathered again because they were already beginning the custom of a Sunday worship gathering. But they might also still be hiding. We don’t really know. But what we do know is that the gathered and whether it was out of fear or for worship the gathering is what Jesus responds to in John.
By the time we get to Acts the disciples are still gathering, the first day of the week is firmly entrenched as the time for the community to get together. They were all together on the Pentecost day when the Holy Spirit came and their gathering became a support for one another not based on fear but the commitment to worship and mutual support.
What an amazing transition is represented here. Within the space of about two months the fledgling community of disciples went from a frightened, hiding group of former followers to a Spirit-filled community of apostles (sent-ones) boldly proclaiming the Gospel of the resurrected Lord and daring to live according to Jesus’ teaching of radical community (pooling their possession even!).
How does such a miraculous transition occur? I think it is all about the inspiration they receive. Inspiration is more than a positive or motivating feeling, the word literally means to be breathed into. Inspiration is a really important word in the Bible so it is a good idea to know what it means. It always means “breathed into.” When God breaths into things they come alive. This is what happens to the “dirt-man” (ha-adam) in the book of Genesis. God forms the dirt (Hebrew=adama) like a sculptor and breathed into it the breath of life and the lump of clay became a living being. This is what happens when God breathes into (in-spires) things. It is like divine CPR administered in lifeless persons or communities. This CPR can literally bring people and churches out of doubt and despair and into trusting loving disciples and communities of faith.
So Jesus breathed on (inspired) the disciples and gave them courage and the Holy Spirit breathed into (inspired) the disciples at Pentecost and set them on fire (literally) for the work of Jesus in the world. What will God do for us and through us if we are also breathed into (inspired).
Something to think about.