Bible Text: John 19–20
Lesson Focus: Jesus turns our expectations about life and death upside down.
Big Question: How is this possible?
Key Words: RESURRECTION, DOUBT, EXPECTATION, ALLELUIA, POSSIBLE
• John’s account of the death and resurrection of Jesus is full of surprises and unexpected events.
• One example of the unexpected is that, in a time when women weren’t trusted as witnesses in courts, Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the risen Lord.
• Jesus was fully God and fully human (second article of the Apostles’ Creed). It seems impossible someone fully God would die on a cross. It seems impossible that someone fully human would rise from the dead. Jesus defies human expectations, rules, and reason.
• It’s normal for Christians to have doubts and questions about Jesus’ resurrection.
• Being compared to “Doubting” Thomas is not a bad thing.
• Thomas is the source of one of the most profound statements of faith ever recorded: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
• We are an Easter people. That means we live into the gift of grace through Jesus Christ every day and every day is an opportunity to be a living “Alleluia!”
Millions of Christians since Thomas have had doubts: about themselves, about God, about God’s love for and work in the world, about the truth of the resurrection. As painful and disorienting as doubt can be, it is also the source of our best questions, our most insightful thoughts, and, ultimately, our greatest growth as everyday theologians and believers.
Theologians who specialize in a logical defense of faith (apologetics) give some powerful proofs for the historical fact of the resurrection. Gregory Boyd (Letters from a Skeptic, 1994), Timothy Keller (The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism), and others have compiled compelling reasons to believe: for example, the Gospel writers included details of the events that only hurt their cause, like the fact that women were the first witnesses to the resurrection at a time when women weren’t legally and culturally trusted as witnesses. If the Gospel writers were making the story up, why would they make it more difficult for their audience to trust its reliability? This and other reason-based arguments can be a great supplement to Lutheran conversations about Jesus’ death and resurrection. On the whole, though, Lutherans try to focus less on what human reason can figure out and more on the paradox, mystery, and wonder of what God has done.
In John 20:24 the disciple Thomas is called “the Twin.” His sibling is never identified, which left the door open for theologians dating back to the early church to suggest that humankind is Thomas’s twin. Like Thomas, we have trouble believing what we cannot see. Like Thomas, we are occasionally courageous enough to go out into the world and do ministry, when our first instinct might be to hide away in a locked upper room. Like Thomas, we were not present for Christ’s first post-resurrection appearance. Like Thomas, we have the unparalleled honor of Jesus making a special trip just to be with us and reassure us. Like Thomas, we have a tangible sign of God’s love and true presence with us—for us, this comes in the water of baptism and the bread and wine of communion. As with Thomas, this free, gracious, and totally unmerited gift moves us to statements of faith. Thomas’s response to Christ’s appearance in the upper room was, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). It remains one of the most profound recorded statements of faith, the only clear indication given to us in the Gospels that the disciples knew that Jesus wasn’t just special; he was (and is) God.
Ultimately, the most satisfying and theologically consistent “answer” to our natural human doubts is that God defies our attempts at reasonable explanations. The wonder and mystery of this opens our minds and our hearts to receive Christ’s true presence in the bread and wine of communion, to look for “both/and” answers to difficult questions, and to embrace God as paradox in Christ—fully God, fully human—and in the Trinity—fully three, completely one.
We are drawn to these more complex, grace-dependent ideas because we are an Easter people. The idea goes back at least to Augustine, if not farther: Christians don’t just celebrate Easter one day or one season a year. If God’s word is read and proclaimed, the sacraments freely given, and the gospel seen, heard, and experienced, we are celebrating the miracle of Easter. We celebrate Easter in our daily lives, as well, every time we give praise to God by serving God and our neighbors. Our lives become alleluias.
How is this possible?
Adolescence is a time of testing and pushing boundaries. Your students may be questioning the assumptions of their childhood, including their belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. “Is that really possible?” they may wonder. “Is it something I have to believe?” These questions—and the other tough questions your class sends your way—are healthy for growing and deepening faith. Adolescents may be particularly open to hearing the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection as a way that God is countercultural and revolutionary, taking the world’s expectations and turning them upside down. God doesn’t conform to human expectations of the “possible”—and that is truly good news for us.
Help kids dive into the Key Words by asking for definitions and/or providing these definitions:
RESURRECTION: the act of rising from the dead.
DOUBT: to be unsure about something.
EXPECTATION: something confidently awaited or believed in.
ALLELUIA: praise be to God! Something we say and sing a lot during the season of Easter.
POSSIBLE: capable of happening or existing.
Choose one of the following three options to introduce the lesson. Then lead students in the Opening Prayer.
Game Option: Easter Egg Hunt
SUPPLIES: Enough hollow plastic Easter eggs (or other small containers) for the whole class; small prizes to put in the eggs; small papers with Bible verses; a display board where the verses can be arranged and rearranged; adhesive to attach the verses to this display
PREPARATION: Choose and write out verses from John 20; purchase and fill eggs; hide eggs; make a list of where you hid the eggs.
Provide enough hollow plastic Easter eggs so that each student can have one. Fill the eggs with a small prize (a piece of candy, small toy, or sticker) and a piece of paper that has “Alleluia!” on one side and a verse from John 20 on the other. Hide the eggs around your meeting space before class and challenge the students to find them. When all the eggs are found, redistribute them so everyone has at least one. After opening the eggs, have students put the verses in order on a board that can stay up during the class—they can check their accuracy and make any changes needed during the Open the Bible time. Enjoy the eggs and the prizes, say “Alleluia!” and wish everyone a happy Easter, regardless of the actual season of the church year.
Debrief the game with these questions:
• What was surprising or unexpected about this activity?
• How can we celebrate Easter every day, not just Easter Sunday?
• What parts of the Easter story does this activity remind you of? What do the hollow containers remind you of?
On Good Friday, many churches hold a tenebrae (“shadows”) service of readings, music, and diminishing light. Create a reverse tenebrae prayer to remember the resurrection by starting in darkness and gradually increasing the light in the room. This can be done by lighting candles, turning on lamps, using a dimmer switch, or having students light and hold up their cell phones. Recruit students and volunteers to read the leader parts and help increase the light in the room after each petition.
Leader 1: Let us pray. We give thanks that you are with us in the worst times, that you give us hope when things seem hopeless. (Increase light.)
Leader 2: We give thanks that what seems impossible to us is possible for you. (Increase light.)
Leader 3: We give thanks that you offer us a gift that seems impossible: forgiveness, love, and a relationship with you, even when we don’t deserve it. (Increase light.)
Leader 4: We give thanks for Jesus Christ, whose resurrection turns the world upside down. (Increase light.)
Leader 5: We pray that you would send your Holy Spirit to be with us today, as we learn about you, ourselves, our world, and your beloved Son, in whose name we pray.
All: Amen. (Full light.)
My Faith Story
Ask kids to respond to the Big Question: How is this possible?
Then share a part of your own faith story using the suggestion below or another way to share about how your expectations have been challenged by Jesus’ death and resurrection.
It’s easy to take Easter for granted and not think about it too hard: it happens every year! Tell the class about a time when Easter, or the implications of Easter for us as redeemed sinners, really took you by surprise. How has God overturned your expectations of the way the world is “supposed” to work? How has God challenged you through insights from unexpected sources and powerful witness from people you wouldn’t expect?
Open the Bible
Jesus warned his disciples ahead of time about his death and resurrection, but when it happened, it was still a huge surprise. Ask students to read this gospel’s account of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus in John 19. The disciples went into hiding when Jesus was arrested and killed. Have students try to imagine what they were thinking, feeling, and worrying about.
Jesus broke through not only the walls and locked doors of the upper room, but also the walls of fear and locked doors of the disciples’ minds and hearts. Have students list the walls of fear that they encounter. How do they experience closed minds and hearts in their lives? Talk about the way faith helps us to overcome fear. Have students turn to 1 John (not the Gospel of John) and see how 1 John 4:16–5:5 powerfully addresses this.
“Doubting” Thomas gets put down a lot in the church. In what ways might students see his request to see the risen Lord for himself as understandable?
Thomas is called “the Twin,” but his sibling is never identified. In what ways could we see ourselves as Thomas’s twin: struggling to find meaning in a world of suffering and death, invited to find hope and joy in the resurrected Christ?
Thomas’s response to Jesus’ resurrection is one of the most important statements of faith of all time: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). It is the only time the Gospels record a disciple directly testifying that Jesus isn’t just from God or of God; Jesus is God.
Organize the classroom space and the students to have various kinds of footraces: a race to see who gets the farthest balancing a Bible on their head, who can walk the fastest on crutches, or who can walk the fastest backwards are all possibilities. After celebrating the success of the race winners, have the students open their Bibles to John 20:1–18. The student who was the most successful at racing gets to read (or choose the person to read) the part of Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the resurrection. What happens when Jesus calls Mary by name? Have you ever had a similar experience in your life?
Open the Catechism
Student Book page 299: Read the second article of the Apostles’ Creed and Luther’s explanation together as a class. Read these a second time, and this time have students underline or circle words that pop out at them, either because they are interesting words or because they’re not sure what the words mean. Go over the words the students chose and come up with quick definitions as a class. Ask students to choose one word from this reading that they’d like to explore through drawing. Provide art supplies and encourage the students to draw and share with the class what their chosen word means to them.
Split the class into two teams and have each team select a spokesperson. Alternate asking questions to the teams. One team gets a chance to hear the question, confer, and give an answer (true or false) through the spokesperson. If the team gets it wrong, the other team has a chance to give the reason it is true or false for a point. Have an Easter-themed prize for all the members of the winning team.
1. “Alleluia” means “This is most certainly true.” (False; Alleluia means “Praise be to God!” Extra points to the team that can identify what word would make the statement “true.”)
2. God is easy to predict. (False; God consistently overturns human expectations, particularly when humans expect God to conform to an earthly idea of power. “True” is also correct: we can predict that God will always love us, forgive us, and be with us no matter what.)
3. Jesus’ death and resurrection came as a surprise to the disciples. (True)
4. People are resurrected all the time in hospitals when they’re given CPR. (False; resurrection is not the same as resuscitation.)
5. If you have any doubts about Jesus’ resurrection you’re probably failing confirmation. (False; you’re probably taking confirmation seriously and asking good questions that will help you grow in faith, like the disciple Thomas.)
6. The 12 disciples were the first to find out that Jesus rose from the dead. (False; Mary Magdalene, another disciple of Jesus but not one of the 12, was the first to see the risen Lord.)
7. Easter is both a day and a season of the church year. (True)
8. Easter can be celebrated on any day, in any season. (True
Select one of the options below to explore in your small group. Then finish with the Best/Worst activity and prayer.
Video Option: Resurrection Plant
Search online for time-lapse videos of the “resurrection plant,” “dinosaur plant” or “rose of Jericho.” Show one or more of these short videos to the class. The resurrection plant is a very old, very persistent type of desert plant life. It can survive in a dormant stage without water for years, and when it gets water again, it unfolds and seems to come back to life.
Debrief the video with these questions:
• Why do you think this plant is called a resurrection plant?
• How is this type of “resurrection” like and unlike Jesus’ resurrection?
Game Option: Two Truths and a Lie
Give each student a piece of paper, something to write with, and time to come up with three statements about themselves. Two of the statements should be true; one should be a lie. Challenge students to come up with statements that will make it hard for the class to guess which ones are true and which is not. Let everyone in class take turns reading their three statements, giving the class time to guess and vote on which statement is a lie, and then revealing the answer.
Debrief the game with these questions:
• In some cases, were the truths stranger than the lie? What does that say about our expectations?
Object Lesson Option: Upside Down
Provide at least one magnifying glass and give students time to experiment with holding it at different angles and distances. Holding the magnifying glass normally should make things appear bigger, while holding it at arm’s length should make things appear upside down.
Debrief the object lesson with this question:
How has this lesson on the resurrection changed your perspective on the Bible, God, Jesus, and your relationship with God and the world?
Provide handouts or project the following prayer on the wall for all to see.
Leader: As we face west, we pray that the sun will go down on all our worries, fears and burdens.
(Students add petitions here for themselves and for their prayer partners.)
Leader: As we face east, we pray that the sun will rise on a new day of hope and promise.
(Students add petitions here for themselves and for their prayer partners.)
Leader: God with us in our suffering, the night that came with Jesus’ death to the sad, frightened disciples is our night too. God with us in our joy, the day that dawned on the empty tomb and the very surprised disciples is our light too. Thank you for staying with us through the night and for leading us into the light of your Son, Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray.
Pass out pencils and Student Sheets. Look at the front of the Student Sheet together. Pick a volunteer to read each bullet point aloud for the group. Talk about the points with students.
Have students scan John 19–20.
• What still challenges you as the most unbelievable or impossible in these chapters?
• Who do you relate to the most—bold Peter, cautious John, mourning Mary, the fearful Twelve, __________ Thomas?
• Fill in the blank for Thomas. Instead of “doubting,” what word would you supply?
• What does it mean to live every day as “Easter people”?
Turn to this week’s activity called “The Resurrection Easter Word Hunt.” Let your kids pair up to work through the activity page together. After a few minutes, discuss the answers as a group.
Use the cartoon and questions on the Student Sheet to kick off a conversation.
• Why is the woman asking this question?
Taken out of context, the idea of a father sending his only son into the world to die is horrifying. Without the resurrection, the death of Christ seems extreme and cruel. Connect this back with your earlier discussion of John 20:19–29: before they knew about the resurrection, how did the disciples feel about Christ’s death?
• Have you—or anyone you know—ever asked this question? What makes it an important question for Christians to think about?
The question often comes out like this: “But why did Jesus have to die?” Many Christians and non-Christians struggle with the image of a God who would require such violence and suffering. And yet the crucifixion of Christ is the most powerful example of God’s power to give life and hope, turning the world and its expectations upside down. Right in the middle of human suffering and death is the last place one would reasonably expect to find God, and yet God is there, in Christ—miraculously loving and forgiving. However, in the horror of Christ’s death, it is important not to overlook the even more surprising miracle of Christ’s resurrection.
• How would you respond to this question?
Jesus’ death on the cross is central to Lutheran belief and theology. It is what gives us the promise and hope for life. The cross is key to this life, because, Jesus passed through suffering and death, on behalf of all of us who suffer and die. Jesus is the example of what will happen to all of us: we will experience suffering in our lives and we will die—we will also experience grace, forgiveness, and joy in our lives and even, risen with Christ, in our lives with God after death. Jesus’ death and resurrection makes the impossible, possible. Baptized into his death and resurrection, we can gain life, again and forever. There will always be suffering, the cross. We understand that as Lutherans. But, then there is Jesus, who died, so that we can let go of our crosses, our burdens and come to new life in him.
Student Book Connection
Student Book page 56: Look through “The Top 10 Bible Miracles and What They Mean” and post the name of each miracle around your meeting space in the order provided in the Student Book. Then hand out 10 sticky notes to each student and have them number the notes 1 through 10 (10 being high). Have them read the “Top 10” list individually or in teams. After some discussion about the list, have each student rank the posted miracles by placing their numbered sticky notes on them. Talk about why each student ranked the miracles as they did. Add up the totals for each miracle. Is there anything surprising about the totals? Then have the students read 1 Corinthians 15:12–19. Discuss why Paul has such a high regard for the resurrection.
Student Book page 62: Take a look together at the “Top Seven Dastardly Bible Deeds.” (Note: have a dictionary on hand in case your kids don’t have smart phones or the ability to text message.) Direct the kids to look up the word dastardly on their smart phone or to text a friend to look it up for them and text them back. Have whoever finds the definition first report back what they found. Then read number 6 together. This paints a gruesome picture. Ask you youth what they think about this as a form of punishment. How is this punishment even worse knowing that Jesus was innocent? How does Jesus turn our expectations and feelings about this upside down?
Student Book pages 245–247: Have students take turns reading “How to Proclaim the Gospel to Someone Who Needs to Hear It” out loud. Allow a short time for them to free write about their response to this article, especially about people they know or times they themselves have needed to hear the gospel. This writing should be kept private. Then discuss these questions as a group:
• Does this seem like something you could or would do? Why or why not?
• How did Jesus do this for Thomas and the disciples?
• How did the women at the tomb hear the good news from Jesus, and how did they share it with others?
Kids this age have lots of questions about right and wrong, stories in the Bible, and faith and life. Provide time for them to ask questions. Remember, there isn’t always a right answer, but encouraging discussion is great! Questions help kids explore their faith. Help them explore on their path to confirmation.
After their questions, ask one or more of the following questions to connect your conversations with the Lesson Focus:
• What’s so unexpected about Easter?
• If Jesus is all about turning the world and its rules upside down, what do you think Jesus is doing (through us) today?
• If Jesus is all about turning up in unexpected places, where do you think Jesus is today?
• How does Jesus make the impossible, possible?
• Because we celebrate it every year on Easter and talk about it the rest of the year, too, the Resurrection can lose some of its element of surprise. What did you learn or experience that surprised you today? What did you learn today that makes you want to say, “Alleluia”?
During the season of Lent, many churches “hide” and do not use the word Alleluia in worship services. Then the Alleluia makes a big and joyful return on Easter morning.
Teach the class how to sing the camp song “Praise ye the Lord (Alleluia).” The words, tune, and instructions for how to sing it (with movements) are available on the Internet. Divide the class into two groups: one group to sing the “Allelu, Allelu, Allelu, Alleluia” part and the other to sing “Praise ye the Lord.” Remember to sing “Amen” at the end!
Before students leave, be sure to give each of them the following blessing as you trace the cross on their forehead.
May you dream beyond the possible. May you be blessed by the unexpected.