The shorthand for this week’s Gospel is that this is the Thomas week – doubting Thomas who needed to see with his own eyes before he was able to believe. But Thomas isn’t the only character in this morning’s story – in fact he only appears in the second half. The story begins with a frightened group of disciples huddled together behind locked doors because they were afraid. This year, perhaps for the first time, I feel that I have a different kind of insight into what it might be like to be hiding from people who wish you harm. None of us could fail to be moved as we watch people emerging from basements in Ukraine; their fear is palpable, their eyes tell us almost more than we can bear to witness. We’re looking into the face of fear.
So to that locked room, that place of relative safety, where our story unfurls. In the first section, the disciples who are present are immediately certain that this is Jesus. We’re told that they rejoiced. Their mood shifted, their lives were changed. The second part of the story recounts the encounter with Thomas who finds that he isn’t convinced by what his colleagues tell him.
So Jesus appears for a second time and has a physical encounter with Thomas – reach out your hand and put it in my side – and he then finds himself convinced and able to believe.
We can be very quick to identify, perhaps to over-identify, with Thomas. We are all too aware of our own times of doubt and questioning – whether we have the courage to voice them or not. I’d like to suggest this morning that we are at times like Thomas and at other times like the other disciples – and that our journey towards God requires us to embrace both of those ways of responding.
Let’s think first about the frightened group of disciples. A group of people who were confused, unable to make any sense of what they had just lived through. They were people who had journeyed with Jesus, who had witnessed his healing miracles, who had heard his prophetic voice first hand. They knew who he was. And then everything was turned on its head. They found themselves without leadership or purpose. What on earth would they do now.
Were they simply going to split up as a group and return to wherever they had come from? Would they go back to catching fish or working with wood or taking care of household responsibilities?
It’s not difficult to imagine how they felt. We know in our own lives times when we have no idea which way to turn, times when we feel rudderless, as though we could drift one way or another – and perhaps don’t even care which way that is. Major life events leave us in a position where we need to readjust, to reassess our options and to find a new focus. That’s true of positive events in our lives as well as the negative ones. Marriage, the birth of a baby, the responsibility of becoming a homeowner, the shift from student to being in the workplace – all of these require adjustment, not just of the shape of our days but in how we approach them. And of course, the same applies to traumatic events, death, redundancy, serious illness and so on.
What made and continues to make the difference though, is the presence of the Risen Christ. We’re reminded today that, like those disciples, we’re not alone in any of what life throws at us. Our Resurrection faith tells us that the risen Christ lives and moves and has his being with us and amongst us. The risen Christ breathed the Holy Spirit upon those first disciples, he gave them a gift, they were changed.
At each and every celebration of the Eucharist we pray: send your Holy Spirit upon us. Send your Holy Spirit upon us. Presumably we pray those words because we trust that God will hear and respond – if not, why would we bother? Our lives are transformed, our fears are allayed, our focus is helped when we allow ourselves to accept the gift that God bestows upon us, when we allow ourselves to be changed.
Lived experience would suggest that those moments of deep connection are often followed by moments of doubt and self-questioning and uncertainty. St Ignatius writes about this in his spiritual exercises, telling us that times of consolation will inevitably be followed by times of desolation – that our journeys of faith are cyclical.
So let’s move from the rejoicing of the first part of our story to the questioning that defines the second section. One moment we are in that place of confident truth and the next we are looking for signs and certainties. Our human nature perhaps encourages us to berate ourselves for being in that second space, the space where we are more insecure and needing to be reassured, to be pointed towards the evidence that it’s all true. But this morning’s Gospel story has something important to teach us about the complementary nature of those two positions. We journey from one to the other, and back again, and each of those places is a place of learning. A place of learning about self and a place of learning about the nature of God.
The times when we are desperately seeking something from God are often times of significant spiritual growth. They are times when we find ourselves digging deep, times when even a glimmer of light and grace makes a significant difference. The move out of doubt towards belief, is a profound journey and one that we travel time and again. It’s a journey that can bring us to the place where we find ourselves declaring: my Lord and my God.
This morning’s Gospel holds in balance those two sides of our human nature, the internal journeying that draws us towards and away from the source of truth and life. And as we journey there will inevitably be sticking points and more fluid points; there will be moments when it all seems rather clear and moments when we can’t manage to discern anything at all. We’re not asked by God to have blind, unexamined faith. Rather, we are asked to recognise and respond to our God whom we encounter in the risen Christ.
Augustine said that the divine nature is within each one of us. We encounter that divine nature when we allow ourselves to honour and respect that which is of God within each and every person we meet. It is only in so doing that we are able to honour and respect that which is of God within ourselves. Faith isn’t something out there that we simply need to go out and seek, and bring home when we find it. Faith is that place within each one of us where the encounter with the divine becomes real and engaging. That place where we can fully be ourselves and God can be God.
Whether we are in a place of fear, a place of surprise and joy or a place of uncertainty and questioning, the resurrection Christ is there with us – reaching out and seeking to engage. Our task is simply to recognise his presence and to give ourselves permission to accept the gift that allows us to be transformed.