Well, good morning everybody and welcome to our service on this, the Second Sunday of Easter. Last week we were of course celebrating the joy of the resurrection on that very first Easter Day as Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb and discovered that not only had the stone been rolled away but there was an angel sitting upon it. And as we followed their story we saw how their fear and bewilderment turned into joy as they met with the Risen Lord, whose appearance changed their lives forever – and indeed ours too. But now one week on and knowing the story as we do, I think it’s only too easy for us to underestimate just how traumatic the whole experience was – and how scary! And I think we do well, if we can, to try and remember that still, at this point in the story in John Chapter 20 – the disciples are in total shock and still in fear of their lives. For how does today’s passage begin? It begins by saying that:
Jesus Appears to His Disciples
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”
John 20.19 (NIV)
Peace be with you. The disciples had the doors locked. They were in fear of their lives and hiding away. They had seen what had happened to Jesus and thought that it would only be a matter of time before his followers were rounded up by the authorities and brought before Pontius Pilate, if they weren’t killed first!
Their hearts must have been pounding! And then Jesus appears! Peace be with you. Shalom!
The disciples must have been stunned and lucky not to go into cardiac arrest! But then their minds must have gone back to the Last Supper and one of the very last things that Jesus had said was:
27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
John 14.27 (NIV)
But of course they had been afraid, very much afraid and now Jesus wonderfully reappears and bestows upon them a blessing of peace, and it’s not just any sort of peace, the ‘there, there settle down sort of peace’; no not at all! It’s shalom – It’s God’s own peace that he bestows upon them.
And then what Jesus says is really quite astonishing! He says:
21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
John 20.21–23 (NIV)
Having declared his peace upon them for a second time, he sends them out into the world. The world which is far from peaceful, the world which needs God’s peace more than ever. And on the evening of that first day of the week when he himself has only just been raised from death that morning he speaks about forgiveness and commands his disciples to forgive. What forgive all those who ridiculed you: forgive all those who abused you: forgive all, those who crucified you! Are we supposed to forgive them? Yes, even them because that’s what my death upon the cross is all about! It bestowes the forgiveness of sins upon all those who repent and put their faith and trust in me, as the risen Lord, their Lord and Saviour, the Lord of all creation.
In that room, the disciples had tried to lock people out of their lives but they couldn’t keep Jesus out – and now he wants them to go out, and share the good news of the Gospel, and the love of God with others – and unlock people’s hearts!
But of course there was one person missing from that room – and it was Thomas! Now we often think of Thomas as ‘doubting’ Thomas and I believe that this name is grossly unfair as I will explain in just a minute! Why he wasn’t in that room we don’t know! Perhaps he was on an errand, or perhaps more likely in all of the chaos and all of the confusion he simply hadn’t met up with the other disciples yet!
But whatever Thomas was, he wasn’t a fool, he was brave, he was courageous and he was a realist! After all, it had been Thomas who had decided to follow Jesus to Jerusalem even when he and all the other disciples thought it was fool hardy!
16 “Let us also go, (he says) that we may die with him.”
John 11.16 (NIV)
Thomas didn’t actually think it was the best idea that Jesus had ever had – but by golly he wasn’t going to let Jesus go alone.
And later on, it’s often Thomas who asks the questions that everyone else is just too embarrassed to ask. Jesus speaks about there being many rooms in his Father’s house, and that he would be going to prepare a place for them, declaring with confidence that they know the way to the place where he, Jesus is going? And it’s Thomas, thinking that he might just be thinking about the Temple in Jerusalem, who honestly says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14.5) to which Jesus effectively replies, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14.6) Can’t you see Thomas? Follow me!
And they had followed Jesus all the way to Jerusalem and to the cross and now – he was dead! Thomas was a brave man, he was a realist! Like many Jews of his day, he knew what crucifixion was all about and had probably seen it before – and he knew that crucified men died – and so he wasn’t going to be swayed by the hopes and the dreams and the delusions of the people around him, who he knew loved Jesus and wanted things to be different! He was a rational man and he couldn’t accept that Jesus was alive on the mere say so of others. He needed to see for himself!
25 “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”
John 20.25 (NIV)
Aren’t you pleased that we’ve got someone like Thomas in the Gospel story who wants to ask all the questions that 99% of people today would like to ask, if only they had the chance? It is strange, we sometimes like to think that people of past ages were weak minded, willing to believe and accept anything, as long as it made their lives better – but that’s simply not the case. The people of Jesus’ day knew that dead people stayed dead and that the Romans were masters of execution. They knew that better than we do, but we sometimes, somehow think that they are the ones who are naïve and a little woolly around the edges whereas of course we are modern, grown up and sophisticated. But Thomas speaks for us, he is that credible witness who won’t simply take things for granted at face value. He wants proof! He wants evidence!
But actually his response is no different to the others, Mary Magdalene doesn’t believe until she turns round and sees the risen Lord. Peter & John who ran to the tomb, (many believing that John is ‘the beloved disciple’) don’t believe until they see the empty tomb and the abandoned grave clothes. After all, seeing is believing!
And a week later, Thomas gets his chance, for once again the doors are locked, and once again Jesus appears to his disciples and once again the Lord declares ‘Peace be with you’. How much Thomas must have appreciated that, but not as much as the opportunity that he now has to see the risen Lord for himself:
27 “Put your finger here (Thomas); see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
John 20.27 (NIV)
Now we are not told if Thomas actually did so. I would like to think that he didn’t need to! Because he could see with his own eyes that the man who was standing before him was not an apparition or a figment of an over active imagination. He was not an actor, an imposter a charlatan or ghost. But even if he did touch Jesus so that he had his blood upon upon his finger tips what more evidence would you need – that this was Jesus wonderfully alive! The very same Jesus who he knew and loved. The man he had broken bread with; the man who had taught him so much. The man who carried within his own body the dreadful marks of crucifixion but was now wonderfully, impossibly alive. He was the Son of God.
It’s no wonder is – that that from the most famous doubter of the New Testament, we get the most wonderfully and glorious statement of faith! “My Lord and my God!” Because on the one hand Jesus was the very same man, wonderfully alive – but on the other hand, he was wonderfully different, a man standing in this world, but with all the qualities of the next. Time, space and death no longer have any hold on him, for he was a man of the new creation and Thomas no longer has any doubt as to whose company he’s in.
Whereas Mark in his gospel in some ways loves the mystery of the whole thing, with Jesus speaking in parables and some still not understanding! John’s Gospel is quite the reverse it’s all about seeing – and believing, and making things abundantly clear, whether you be a respected Rabbi like Nicodemus who needs to be ‘born again’, a blind man whose eyes are wonderfully opened, or a sinner who steps out of the darkness and into the light. It’s about encouraging the individual to make that step of faith which opens your as eyes to see Jesus as he truly is, and enhances your wonder, appreciation and understanding of him. In a sense, seeing is believing but believing leads to rejoicing. Rejoicing in precisely who Jesus is and what he has done upon the cross and what he continues to do in people’s hearts, minds and lives – and will do in the fulness of time.
And yet of course, for those of us who live so many years after the resurrection, often in a sceptical and secular society. It is important that we hold on to credible witnesses like Thomas and the many other disciples who went on to courageously live and die on the basis of what they had seen and heard. And yet even here Jesus speaks to us across the ages when he says to Thomas:
29 “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
John 20.29 (NIV)
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. And that includes us; you and me.
Well we currently live in somewhat chaotic and frightening times, don’t we? And we may be tempted to lose our faith and say where is God in all this? In some ways that’s quite natural and understandable because deep down, our minds want evidence, whilst our hearts want reassurance. Well, this Gospel and this particular passage about Thomas wonderfully provide both, because its very purpose is that we might take comfort and confidence in it, and recognize and understand the hope that Jesus brings, being the Son of God who steps into this broken and chaotic world, and by whose life, death and resurrection transforms it and gives us all, eternal life when we put our faith and trust in him. Because in Christ God’s love and words of hope continue to reach out to us and what do they say? They say, they say Shalom, Peace be with you’.
In the name of Christ. Amen.
Prerecorded for and on behalf of the Necton Benefice and released online for the Second Sunday of Easter 19th April 2020
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