Jesus Are You Joking?
John 20:19-31, Easter 2, Year A, Good Shepherd
The Rev. Mark A. G. Huffman, 2017
Holy Hilarity Sunday
God’s great practical joke on the devil
In Jesus suffering and death the devil thought he had won
In the resurrection God turns the tables on the devil
And so we are laughing at the devil
As the Apostle Paul says in I Corinthians
Death has been swallowed up in victory
Where O death is thy victory?
Where O death is thy sting?
Of course on the very first Easter it seemed at first like death had won the victory; like sin had had the last word; like the devil had had the last laugh and O did it sting.
When Mary goes to the tomb, while it was still dark and finds it empty she thinks it’s an especially cruel joke that has been played on her. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him,” she wails to Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved. Not only have all her hopes and dreams died but now they are even playing tricks with Jesus dead body.
Not until Jesus comes to her in the garden and calls her by name does Mary begin to see the humor in the empty tomb.
Mary then goes and joyfully announces to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!”
But they must have thought she was joking, if not crazy. In Luke’s gospel it says that the apostles thought Mary’s news was “but an idle tale.”
They obviously didn’t believe what Mary told them because as today’s gospel reading opens it tells us the disciples were huddling together in fear behind locked doors when Jesus comes and stands in their midst. Only after he says, “Peace be with you,” and shows them his wounded hands and side, the marks of his crucifixion that his resurrected body still apparently carries do they get the joke and “rejoice.”
“We have seen the Lord” they joyfully proclaim to Thomas echoing pretty much exactly Mary’s witness to them. But he obviously thinks they are joking. “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,” he tells them.
Of course Jesus does indeed let him in on the joke by giving him the chance to do just that. In response Thomas cracks up with the boldest affirmation of faith in the gospels – “My Lord and my God!” he exclaims no doubt rolling on the ground in laughter and joy.
And then of course it’s down to us. But do we get it or not?
“Have you believed because you have seen me?” Jesus asks Thomas. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.”
Really Jesus? Jesus, are you joking? Are you really expecting us to get the joke without seeing? Yes of course we’ve heard the punch line – He is Risen! Jesus Christ is risen indeed! But is it enough?
I think we who have not seen will be excused if sin and suffering, death and devil still don’t seem like a laughing matter.
After all in all the resurrection accounts only the disciple whom Jesus loved in John’s version is able to believe without seeing the risen Christ. And he did actually see the empty tomb. And he along with Mary and Peter and Thomas and all the others had seen and walked with and known Jesus in person. So they had that huge advantage over us to begin with. And still they don’t believe until they see and even touch the risen Jesus
One of the jokes Christian history has played on us is to call, Thomas – doubting Thomas. It’s based on what many scholars say is a mis-translation of the word apistos. The New Testament was first written in Greek and we have translated it into English, and accurately capturing the meaning of words in another language can at times be a tricky business.
When our English translation renders what Jesus says to Thomas in this morning’s gospel reading as, “Do not doubt but believe.” The word for “believe” is “pistos” and the word for doubt is its opposite “apistos.” To capture it in English you should either say, Do not be doubting but undoubting or Do not be unbelieving but believing. You can see why they didn’t choose the word “undoubting” since it’s not a word but unbelieving is or almost is.
And while “pistos” is usually translated as some form of the word for “believe” nowhere else in the New Testament is “apistos” translated as “doubt” it’s usually rendered as something more like “unbelief.” It’s perhaps a little awkward in English, but is doubt really the opposite of belief?
I don’t think so and I don’t think Jesus thinks so either. Paul Tillich – doubt is a sign of faith not of its absence. If anything today’s gospel reading is an affirmation of Thomas’s doubts and questions because they lead him to Jesus; they lead Jesus to him.
I don’t think Jesus is judging Thomas or us for “doubting” in today’s gospel reading. If fact I don’t’ think Jesus condemns Mary or Peter or the other disciples or Thomas for their doubts or even their disbelief. He overcomes them with his presence and his promise.
It’s hard for our encounters with suffering and death not to affect us the same way it affected Jesus first disciples. Mary wept. Peter was confused. The other disciples were afraid. Thomas disbelieved if not doubted and questioned. If that’s where surely we are we are in good company.
The promise of Easter and of today’s Easter gospel reading is that Jesus will come to comfort our grief, to heal our confusion, to calm our fears, to answer our questions, to satisfy our doubts.
When that happens, as I believe it will and it does sometimes even on this side of the grave, we too will rejoice and dance for joy and perhaps even laugh.
Until it does or when it doesn’t Jesus calls us in today’s gospel to hope, to believe, to trust that one day it will. He knows we can’t laugh at the graveside of those we love. He knows suffering and sorrow is no joke. He knows because he too has walked through this valley of the shadow. He too has suffered and died.
If the incarnation of God as a human being in Jesus tells us anything it tells us that God does not laugh when we cry. Rather God weeps with us. God shares our confusion and fear in the face of suffering and death. Jesus too prayed, “Let this cup of suffering pass from me.” Jesus too cried out his question from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The prophet Isaiah tells us that one day God will swallow up death forever. One day God will wipe away the tears from all faces. Meaning I believe that one day not only will suffering and death be no more but God will not just comfort but somehow heal and make whole our sorrows and our grief.
The resurrected Jesus still bears the marks of his suffering. So too we may forever carry the scars that sin, death and the devil have left on our souls. But one day we won’t feel them anymore. One day they won’t matter even to us anymore.
And when that day finally comes. Yes, we will finally get the joke, and we will laugh and laugh and laugh as we love and live forevermore. Amen.