I’m about to ask you to try to do the impossible. It’s impossible to do this fully because of the experience pretty much all of us carry. As Christians, we are conditioned to look at everything through resurrection eyes. Even those who don’t hold to church teaching on resurrection are still conditioned to look at things this way, because in church, references to resurrection are inescapable. In this season of Easter we have fifty days – seven Sundays – to focus on resurrection intensively; through the rest of the year our liturgy is rich in words and images of resurrection; every part of the New Testament is written with resurrection eyes; and this has shaped the way we see things through more than two thousand years of church tradition. I’m not saying this is a bad thing!
But what I want you to do is impossible because these resurrection eyes we have are not simply glasses we can put on and take off at will. But I’m going to ask you to imagine that they are.
Just for a short time, I’d like us all to try and take our resurrection glasses off, as if the idea of resurrection was something rare; something we might never even think about; nothing more to us than a faint hope, or maybe just wishful thinking. That’s precisely what it is for many people outside the church today.
But let’s keep going with this. Now, imagine we’re living under the colonial regime of a foreign power – the most powerful empire in the world. Some people around us, especially the dominant religious and political authorities, collaborate with that regime. Some people just go about their daily lives as best they can. And some people get involved in resistance movements. Our group includes people from all three categories.
One thing we have in common is having been drawn to a charismatic leader with revolutionary teachings of nonviolent resistance – not only to the religious authorities and the regime; but, perhaps even more, to the everyday oppressions we all get caught up in – criticism, resentment, envy, hostility, bitterness, violence, guilt and shame, to name a few. In our short time together we’ve been inspired and amazed as we’ve seen him turn lives around by his healing presence and powerful love.
But on Thursday night just gone our leader was arrested, and on Friday he was executed, and we are devastated. This morning they discovered that his tomb had been opened and his body was gone. A bit later Mary came rushing in telling us she’d seen him alive – but grief can make you crazy.
Now it’s Sunday evening and we’re gathered together. We’ve locked the doors, because they might come after us next.
This is what it’s like, I think, for the disciples at the beginning of our Gospel reading today.
And then, all of a sudden, Jesus appears – in the flesh – and everyone practically jumps out of their skin!
‘Peace be with you,’ he says, which is probably exactly what they need to hear at this point. Jesus shows them his hands and his side. It turns out Mary wasn’t mad after all. Every man, woman and child there can see him for themselves – just imagine the joy flooding the room!
Then Jesus says it again, ‘Peace be with you.’ Jane Bodley once told me of a friend who took what she heard from the Bible without question. But one time, when they heard this story together, Jane’s friend mused, ‘I wonder why he said it a second time?’
I once saw a church sign that said, ‘Peace is joy at rest’. I love that idea.
When Jesus says ‘Peace be with you’ a second time, maybe it’s because he wants their joy to settle into a soothing, healing peace – which they actually need right now. And maybe they’re going to need that greeting of peace reinforced to help them process what’s coming next: ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ With these words, the disciples are transformed from followers (or learners) into apostles – those who are sent; people with a mission to fulfil.
The mission Jesus gives them (and us) is to share God’s greeting of peace: to get out there and deal with ‘sin as it afflicts and affects the world;’1 and to ‘bear the forgiving, transforming love of God into every sphere of human experience’.
And, to empower them to fulfil their mission, Jesus breathes on them, saying, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’– the breath of God – the same breath that brought humanity into existence at the dawn of creation; the same breath that breathed new life into Jesus’ own body in the tomb; the breath that inspires and enlivens and empowers God’s people to do things they’d never dreamed of before.
But not everybody is involved in this encounter. Thomas is somewhere else this evening, and he misses out. When the other disciples tell him they’ve seen Jesus, he’s a little skeptical, to say the least. ‘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,’ he says, ‘I will not believe.’ And why should he? He hasn’t seen Jesus yet. Surely, his doubt is just as understandable as the others’ was before Jesus appeared to them. Just because multiple people think the same thing doesn’t make it true. They could all be deluded, and this is a far-fetched claim. A whole week goes by, and nothing happens.
Next Sunday evening, Thomas is with the others, the doors still shut, and Jesus turns up again.
Please note what Jesus does not do. He does not say, “O ye of little faith”, or, “Why did you doubt?” Instead, he gives himself, beginning with the same greeting of peace, then inviting Thomas into precisely the experience he needs, to see and feel for himself, so trust and faith can grow.
With the words, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Thomas becomes the very first person to explicitly identify Jesus as God. His doubt has been transformed into as firm a faith as any.
Then Jesus says, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me?’
Well, yes, and so have the others.
But there will be disciples who won’t get the chance to see Jesus in this way; disciples who will have to rely on what those who have seen Jesus tell them; disciples who knew Jesus before his death; those who will later become disciples through what they hear and learn; disciples like you and me.
‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ These words, as one commentator puts it, ‘turn Thomas’s faith outward; his faith in what he can see will be replicated by those who do not see’.2 Thomas will eventually carry God’s greeting of peace and the good news of Jesus all the way to India, sharing his experience, identifying with people’s struggles, and showing through his life that doubt and faith walk hand-in-hand.
Our experience of God’s peace and new life in Jesus is not Thomas’s experience. Our experience is our experience, and this is what we have to share. This is what we are called to do: to share our experience, to identify with people’s struggles, and to show in our own lives that doubt and faith walk hand-in-hand.
~ Rev’d Sonya Patterson