Acts 2.14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1Peter 1.3-9; John 20.19-31
There is an immediate and strong connection, I suspect for all of us with today’s Gospel reading, where the risen Jesus appears to the disciples huddled together in fear behind locked doors. For our own current predicament is that we are huddled, as we are enjoined to do, behind closed doors, and the fear is all too real. Many of us wish that we could open the doors, step out into the light, re-connect with the world outside. And yet, behind closed doors, the Risen Christ comes with the blessing of peace: ‘Peace be with you.’
That presence of the Risen Christ, that gift of peace, may feel all the more urgent in our current crisis. The first thing to notice about our Gospel reading, however, is that, in the disciples’ consternation and fear, Christ is nevertheless recognised by the marks of crucifixion, the wounds of suffering borne, for him, in his hands and his side. His resurrection presence is not despite the suffering, but through it, a reminder of his bearing of it. Whatever that presence of the Risen Christ might mean for us, it will not be despite the current pandemic, the cruel and heartless loss of life, the particular suffering of the vulnerable. Just as Christ bears the marks of his suffering, just as they are now part of his story, his being, so we too are marked, if we have journeyed alongside him and our neighbours, with the scars of our current testing. Christ’s wounds are now part of his identity, so that this is unmistakably him, speaking words of peace. And for us too, the wounds of this crisis run deep – personal wounds as people we know and love are affected; societal wounds as our economy falters and threatens to unravel; fear stalks us – this testing time marks us, forms part of the story that we will tell of who we are. And in that context, what does it mean to meet the wounded and Risen Christ, speaking words of peace?
Famously, our Gospel reading goes on to help us answer that question by offering us the figure of Thomas, who misses out on that first meeting with Christ; who refuses simply to take the other disciples’ word for it; who insists that he needs to see proof that Jesus’ suffering, suffering that he is all too familiar with, is not the end. ‘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’, says Thomas.
I suspect that Thomas is a secret favourite of many of us, because how many of us have not doubted, or wanted visible proof that there is resurrection, that the promises declared with such joy and vigour on Easter Sunday are not empty, that life and light do reign, even, especially, in our current crisis and testing. Thomas’ scepticism is familiar and comforting, because it is ours. Thomas speaks for all those countless disciples of Christ, who like us, are not present in that upper room at the first resurrection appearances, but yet are called to believe.
So is doubt the right way to describe Thomas’ reaction? He doesn’t actually doubt resurrection (he had after all, we are earlier told, been present at the raising of Lazarus). It is the resurrection of this man, the one who had been crucified – the vilest, most degrading death imaginable – that he doubts. The nails were driven in precisely to humiliate and place beyond the pale, this man. Can that man, wounded deep in body and spirit, have been raised? It is because he knows the suffering, the depth of the humiliation, that Thomas struggles to accept another reality alongside that one. Is Christ risen in our current unprecedented predicament?
When Jesus comes again, the doors are still shut. The disciples, despite the earlier appearance and presence of Christ, his blessing of peace, haven’t yet reached the point of living without fear. Thomas, with his questions and doubts and scepticism is very much still part of this group. Jesus comes again, once again speaking peace. But this time Thomas is there, and is addressed: ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’
We are not told how Thomas responds to this invitation. Does he put his fingers here and his hand in Jesus’ side? What do you imagine? Perhaps he did, or perhaps the suffering is all too real and he doesn’t need to be reminded, to feel it sharply once again. Maybe the point is that in the moment of seeing he realises his earlier request to see is not needed. He does not need to touch and look and so convince himself. He simply exclaims, ‘My Lord and my God.’ He is moved from scepticism to faith, from doubt to exclamation. His earlier demand to see and touch are revealed to not be necessary to believing. Thomas’ exclamation of faith is equivalent to that of the centurion in Mark’s gospel, who upon witnessing the crucifixion up close, nevertheless delares, ‘Truly this was the Son of God.’ Both see and feel the suffering and yet, in a moment, overcome it. Suffering is not denied, wiped away, but also, in these declarations and acts of faith, transcended. ‘My Lord and my God’ – this is Thomas’ moment of receiving the Holy Spirit, as the other disciples have done previously: it is the declaration that begins the process of heart and mind being shaped by this suffering, risen life – the eternal life of God present in the Risen Christ.
One of the things I have taken up during this time of enforced enclosure is an invitation from my youngest daughter to join her in using some of our daily exercise time, to follow an NHS programme to get us all a little fitter: the Couch to 5k, as it’s known. It’s an app on your phone that steadily gets you from walking with the occasional jog, to running for longer and longer, toward the goal, after 9 weeks, of a 5km run in 30 minutes. From couch to 5k. As my occasional exercise routine had been almost completely lost since I took up the post of Provost, it seemed a good oppportunity to get a little fitter. You are much helped in the escalating challenge by the presence of a coach, who via the app, interjects with encouragement, small pieces of advice, and, most importantly, tells you when the time is up. This week the challenge stepped up a gear, but remember, my coach informed me, ‘I’m with you every step of the way.’ ‘Yeah, right’, said my sceptical daughter, ‘she wouldn’t know if I fell over.’ She’s right I thought, and yet, particularly as I struggled through the last minute or so of unwanted jogging, and my trainer’s words encouraged me that I could do it, that trainer was, for me, very gratefully present. There was certainly a need for a suspension of disbelief, a willingness to accept the scenario the app offered of the trainer present alongside me. But that suspension of disbelief was both helped by knowing that the trainer had indeed walked and run this journey before me; and by the fact that the trainer’s presence visibly enabled me to keep going, to achieve what I had thought, maybe not impossible, but unlikely. With a willing suspension of disbelief, my trainer was indeed manifestedly present.
Now I am wary of pushing this analogy too far! But as Jesus says to Thomas, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ The move into faith is about finding our scepticism overcome not by answers or proofs (there are none), but by finding that the eternal, transcendent, life of God and the gift of the Holy Spirit catches us up, that the surprise of resurrection joy that the Gospels attest to, that the church is a living witness to, is ours too, and that it enables us better to respond to, live within, the suffering and the testing. The presence of the wounded and risen Christ becomes real, in the power of the Spirit, and on him we lean, and feed, and journey on.
Without my daughter, her holding me to account, and me her, the Couch to 5k would have been much harder, if not impossible. Such companionship, a sense of the other going through this with me, is crucial also. We are not disciples alone, and particularly in this time of social distancing, we need to find ways to make that companionship evident. It is a companionship with each other, and Christians throughout time, nourished together by the Gospel witness to the presence of the Risen Christ, by the gift of peace renewed each week, encouraging and enabling lives of peace.
‘Peace be with you’ is the refrain that runs throughout our Gospel witness to the resurrection: peace is at the heart of resurrection life. But not peace simply for ourselves – it is rather an active commission. When we gather, we meet in Christ’s name, and then share his peace. The gift of peace offered helps overcome fear; our history and identities are accepted one by another in this practise of forgiveness; our suffering attested to be not the end. And so we are enabled into a life we thought, if not impossible, at least unlikely: the life of new creation, of resurrection life. Christ is Risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!