” . . . 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.” John 20:31
In the verses of the Gospel reading, Saint John uses the first, second and third person in his description of the appearances of Jesus: the first person, words like “I” and “my”; the second person, words like “you” and “your; the third person, words like “Jesus”, “the disciples”, “he”, “his”, “they” and “them.” Each time, a change can be seen in those about whom he writes, a change from fearfulness to confidence.
The verses begin with a third person description of how fearful were Jesus’ friends. Verse 19 says, “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.”
Saint John is writing decades after, it would have been unthinkable at the time for the disciples to have used the term “the Jews” for they were all Jews. It is only with the passing years and the growth of hostility between the communities that “the Jews” comes to be a label for those who opposed Jesus.
The opposition had come from the religious leaders and the fear felt by the disciples is understandable, they have seen what happened to Jesus, what might now happen if the religious leaders decide to act against the Galileans who had followed Jesus? There would have been a tenseness, an anxiety, a dread of what might happen.
Jesus appears and from a third person description of fear, there is a move to a third person description of confidence.
Saint John writes in Verses 19-20, “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”
It is a piece of understatement: to say that the disciples “rejoiced” probably captures only a small fraction of the emotion that the disciples must have felt when Jesus appeared there among them. The thoughts must have tumbled over each other, after being speechless they must have had so many questions to ask. From fear, they move to confidence.
Were someone to write a description of the faith of church members, what would they write? Would they write, “they are a fearful people”? Would they see Christians as the sort of people who hide away from the world, or would they see Christians as the sort of people who have confidence to go out to face the world?
First person expressions in the passage are also expressions both of fear and of confidence.
In Verse 25, Thomas is not at all convinced by the disciples’ declaration, “We have seen the Lord.” Thomas expresses his personal doubt, his personal fear that this story cannot be true, “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.”
Perhaps some of the disciples would have had sympathy with Thomas, perhaps they would have felt that had they not been there, neither would they have believed.
From a first person expression of doubt, there is a move to a first person expression of confidence. Thomas encounters the Risen Jesus and in Verse 28 says, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus has gone from someone whose resurrection Thomas has doubted to someone he is prepared to acknowledge as Lord and God.
Had church members now been asked what their own personal response might have been in that situation, wouldn’t most have thought that Thomas’ fear was reasonable? Wouldn’t there be a feeling that it was appropriate to have felt as Thomas did, that unless one has seen for oneself, then it is reasonable not to believe? What does it take for people to move from personal fear to personal faith?
Jesus speaks directly to Thomas, he uses the second person pronouns, “your” and “you.”
Jesus recognizes that Thomas is fearful, that reassurance is needed. In Verse 27 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.”
Jesus ministry has been one of talking directly with people, instead of talking about principles in an abstract way, he has talked to persons in a personal way. There is no more effective way to overcome fear than to give personal reassurance.
Jesus has sought to move the disciples from fear to confidence in the greeting he uses on each occasion, “Peace be with you,” he says in Verses 19 and 26.
He seeks to move them to confidence by entrusting them with a ministry of forgiveness in Verse 23, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
He seeks to challenge Thomas to a deeper confidence in Verse 29, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Using the word “you,” Jesus leaves no doubt as to whom he is speaking.
The passage concludes with a challenge to “you,” the “you” is not the disciples, it is the readers, it is the church today.
Verses 30-31 say, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But 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.”
Saint John says those listening to his words today that there is a challenge to you to move from fear to confidence, a challenge to you to come to believe, a challenge to you to have life in Jesus’ name.
How do people now respond to that challenge? Is there fear or is there confidence?