The Easter stories are full of people getting the wrong end of the stick, or misunderstanding what is going on. Mary thinks Jesus’ body has been stolen. Peter sees the linen wrappings and can’t work out what it’s all about. The disciples did not understand what had been foretold in the scriptures. The angels question Mary and she still does not know what’s going on. Then she thinks Jesus is the gardener. Then, it seems, she reaches out to cling on to him, and he tells her she has to let him go. You could hardly get more misunderstandings into one story if you tried.
And the point is, of course: Easter has burst into our world, the world of space, time and matter, the world of real history and real people and real life, but our minds and imaginations are too small to contain it, so we do our best to put the sea into a bottle and fit the explosive fact of the resurrection into the possibilities we already know about.
At one level, of course, the continued puzzlement of the disciples is a mark of the story’s authenticity. If someone had been making it all up a generation later, as many have suggested, they would hardly have had such a muddle going on.
What is abundantly clear from the Gospel accounts of the aftermath of the resurrection of Jesus is that his first followers were not at all prepared for what actually happened. Nobody could have been. As someone else has said, it looks as though they were struggling to describe something for which they did not have adequate language.
In the beginning of the Gospel encounter that we have just heard proclaimed we are still there – back to last weekend – on the first day of the week, the day of the resurrection. During this period of the Church’s year time almost stands still.
Whatever else has been going on in our lives, the Church’s year has stood still for the last week to give us the opportunity simply to catch our breath, and to take in once more the joy of our Easter hope, and this will be the case for the coming weeks as we continue to sing hymns that rejoice in the resurrection. Easter is not over, we have many days of celebration ahead of us in these great Fifty Days of festival.
We find ourselves back there on the Day of the Resurrection in the locked upper room with the first disciples. The doors of the room that the disciples are gathered in are not only locked to keep the Jews away, they are locked to keep the whole world away – whilst a small group of men and women try to make sense of all that they had hoped for, and all that now seems to have been lost.
Then Jesus walks through the door – literally through it, without opening it – and stands amongst them, and greets them with the words that bind each one of us together as we prepare to gather around God’s altar of grace week by week: “Peace be with you,” used in our liturgy very deliberately to point us to the expectation that we will meet week by week with the resurrected Jesus who alone brings us his peace, as we gather together as his Church.
Jesus is there, not altogether as he was (after all he can walk through walls), but not altogether different either (he still has the wounds of the cross on his body), and his first words to those who had pretended not to know him, and who stood at a distance from the cross, and who denied that they knew him in his hour of greatest need is not retribution or blame, but peace. Imagine being there, what an extraordinary experience, face to face with the resurrected Jesus, experiencing his presence, experiencing his healing, knowing his love. No wonder that the disciples who were locked in that room in fear became the fearless missionary leaders of the Early Church.
But imagine not being there, and only hearing about it after the event. What a muddle, what a confusion. No wonder Thomas ends up in a bit of a state. After all, he missed the whole thing and is now only hearing what literally is unbelievable news, second hand.
In my mind as I try to stand in his shoes I wonder whether there were a whole lot of different emotions going on in him. Certainly at one level (whether he was willing to admit it or not) there must have been something compelling in the story of his companions, simply because of the joy with which they told him what had happened. But there are plenty of joyful people who are completely delusional, so joy is no guarantee.
At another level he was probably quite cross simply because of the fact that he had missed out. None of us like to be the only one in a group who was not present at an important occasion, whether we let other people know that that is how we feel or not.
Whatever it is that he is thinking, Thomas expresses his response through stubbornness. ‘Unless I see it, I won’t believe it’ is the line that he is going to take. Whilst the weight of Christian history has come down against him, if we are honest, if we had missed that moment, and if we had not known what we were only going to find out later, then we would probably have responded in a similar way.
The good news for Thomas, of course, is that on the first week’s anniversary of his resurrection, Jesus returns again and this time Thomas is there, not just as a spectator but as a participant, in the joy of it all; because whilst our Gospel reading started with the events of the first evening of Easter Day, it ends by describing what happened today, a week later, when the disciples were again gathered together in the house.
You might have noticed that when Jesus returns a week later, the doors are shut, but not locked as they were before. There was no need for fear now that the disciples had met the risen Lord. But there was still the need for Thomas to experience what he had missed a week before. Jesus once again enters the house (not through the conventional route), again he greets them with words of peace, but this time he offers his hands and his side for Thomas to touch, in order for him to believe. But with the overwhelming presence of Jesus in his midst, Thomas does not need to do those things in order to adore his Lord.
I think that if the writers of John’s Gospel were present with us now, they would want to say one thing very clearly to us today, and it is this: the resurrection of Jesus is completely outside of anything that we find easy to understand, it caused a great muddle to the first followers of Jesus, and it does the same for those of us who follow him today. The resurrection is not simply something to which we can ever give theoretical or intellectual assent, it is something that we are called to experience for ourselves.
That is the whole point of this encounter with Thomas. It is not enough for him to simply hear that Jesus is alive from others, he needs to experience it, to participate in it, in order for him to be able to live it. Even if we have not said this out loud many of us know this to be true for us as well. I cannot manufacture an experience that I have not had, even if it is an experience that the people that I respect and trust the most have had, or even that I read that the first disciples have had. What was true for Thomas is true for me, and for all of us as well.
Thomas reminds us that the good news of the risen Jesus cannot adequately be conveyed through the stories of others. It can only really come alive in us through our own experiences of him. Others can help us towards it, and guide us on our way – and of course that is one of the reasons that we gather week by week as the Body of Christ around Word and Sacrament, to hear and share and reflect on each other’s experiences of God at work in us and the world. But we cannot experience the love of God in his risen Son by proxy (through someone else), we – like Thomas – need to experience this joy for ourselves.
So as we rejoice in the resurrection of Jesus again today in these great fifty days of Easter, we celebrate the example of Thomas, who will not settle simply for the stories of others, but who in his own unique way seeks to experience the risen Lord for himself. As it was for Thomas, so may it be true for each one of us. We cannot experience the risen Christ through others alone.
Like Thomas, we must experience him alive for ourselves; and the good news is that he is here with us today, and every time we gather as the Body of Christ to celebrate the Eucharist together.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen.