Now when a crowd shows up in ancient literature, it usually stands for human nature at its most basic and unimproved. The crowd is not very smart. The crowd is not very patient. The crowd is not very reasonable. The crowd is prone to fear. The crowd is fickle and impulsive. The crowd is like a child: when it hasn’t had a good night’s sleep and something to eat, it can become difficult.
This principle–God’s words are actions, God’s actions are words–is something I try to keep in mind whenever I read a miracle story in the Bible. Because the fact is that miracle stories can seem very disappointing after you get used to them. The people who are healed and fed in the Bible just remind me, at least, of those people ever since and even today who are not healed and not fed. Where’s the miracle for them?
Think about what that means for a moment. Paul is saying that Christ has broken down the defenses, the protections, that divided Jew from Gentile, nation from nation. This is no cheap metaphor. A city without a wall, or a Temple without a wall, was vulnerable. It was naked. Yet Paul here is saying that what has happened in Christ Jesus and in the preaching of his Gospel has broken down the wall that kept Jew and Gentile in hostility to each other. The people who share in the gifts of his body and blood and who receive his triumph over sin and death by faith, those people are no longer divided into insiders and outsiders, into the safe and the abandoned, into the privileged and the excluded.
In other words, there’s a reversal: the character who looks like he’s on top of the world is really not, not in the ways that matter, anyway. And the character who looks like she’s on the bottom, on the outside, is really at the top in the ways that matter.
Now it may or may not surprise you to know that this reversal is a very Christian thing. It’s something that happens over and over again in the Bible and the history of the church. It happens a lot especially in the Gospel of Luke and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles.
This fear is a dreadful burden to carry. It really is. We don’t notice it, because we’re so accustomed to it, but it’s like a load of bricks on our back. It’s a way of letting death win in advance. And here’s my pet theory about it: It’s not that we, as modern Americans, are so in love with our own lives—that we are so overflowing with joy and satisfaction that we lash out at the slightest hint of possible danger. It’s that we do not believe in or value our eternal souls. As if so many of us believe we are not prepared to bring our sins before God. Or maybe worse, as if we think there is no such thing, and there will be no accounting of our actions.
Now for Luther, the big problem was that people didn’t pray boldly enough. They didn’t expect good things from God, because they were afraid of God. He compares the person who asks for too little from God to a beggar. A rich and mighty emperor invites the beggar to ask for whatever he might desire, prepared to give him “great and princely gifts.” And if the beggar asks only for a dish of beggar’s broth, he would be “considered a rogue and a scoundrel who had made a mockery of his imperial majesty’s command and was unworthy to come into his presence.”
All the disciples devoted their lives to this story. At first, the people who believed the resurrection were fewer than are in this church today. But they suffered exile, violence, hunger, and worse to tell that story to anyone who would listen. Because why not? If God’s power is so great and glorious, why not risk everything to share it? If God’s power is so close at hand, why not ask anyone at all to imagine it? What are we afraid of? To believe this story is to be changed by it.
So how does Jesus answer Thomas’s doubt? He appears also to Thomas, and he invites the very violation that Thomas says he demands. And I like to imagine that he does it just as Professor Most suggests: gently, sadly, lovingly; seeking not simply to be Thomas’s Lord and God, but his protector and friend. Jesus had his hands and side pierced by his enemies, and now he invites a disciple to do the same thing. He has suffered to redeem the whole human race, and yet he is willing to suffer again in order to bring his friend to faith.
Now here’s the thing: Thomas doesn’t, in this story, turn to his friends and say, “It seems you were right,” or “ I’ll be darned, he really is alive.” Or even “this must be some kind of hallucination, or a ghost.” Everyone believed in ghosts back then. Instead, he answers “My Lord and my God.” All of his pent-up love, all of his frustrated faith, all of his hope and yearning for Jesus comes out in that one moment. Jesus asks, rhetorically, “have you believed because you have seen?” But in a sense, he hasn’t. Thomas has seen because he believed already, without really knowing it. He wanted to see Jesus. He hoped to see Jesus–if only in the meal he shared with the disciples. And so he saw Jesus.
In America the past becomes history very quickly, at least for some of us. By the time I was growing up, Martin Luther King, Jr. was an official symbol of the nation, which he still is today. I learned about him in school in a town that had deliberately excluded African-American homeowners into my lifetime. What was left out of the picture I was given was the profound hostility many people, north and south and everywhere else, felt toward him at the time of his death. What I had to learn later, on my own, is that he spent the last years of his life warning about the danger posed to American cities, and to the American soul, by generations of oppression and deprivation; that he spent those years trying hard to prevent chaos and violence; that he was not heeded by politicians or public opinion; and that the chaos and violence came, most explosively after his own murder. No one who was living in Chicago in 1968 can forget that.