Reading John 20.19-31
Verse 19. “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.20. After he said this he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21. Jesus said to them again ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 22. When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ 24. But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark and my hand in his side, I will not believe. 26. A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said ‘Peace be with you.’ 27. Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28. Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29. Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. 30. Now, Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31. But, these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing, you may have life in his name.’
Since none of us can attend church services, these words will be emailed or hard-copied. I have made this homily very much longer than the usual Sunday sermon. You may read it in snippets at leisure. Then, there are three prayers and a biography of Thomas.
Do you remember C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe?” The wicked Queen of Narnia, a fiend of unexampled malignity, who represents the power of sin and selfishness, had usurped the throne and cursed the land always to be winter but never Christmas. Christina Rossetti’s hymn tells us that Narnia was like Britain “In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan. Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone. Snow had fallen, snow on snow, in the bleak midwinter, long ago.” But Aslan, King Jesus, the mighty lion, was coming back into his kingdom. The curse of perpetual winter was losing its grip and the landscape was thawing. Aslan came, but was compelled by pure love to be killed in place of Edmund, a type of Judas-the Betrayer, who had deserted to the wicked queen and whom Aslan redeemed with his life. Aslan was slain upon the Stone Table, a type of Calvary, upon which mount, Jesus was slain. However, at Easter sunrise, the table cracked and Aslan came back to life. A fierce battle began against the wicked Queen’s evil forces and goodness. As the battle raged, Aslan flew to the Queen’s castle to free an army of humans and good beasts, whom the Queen had turned to stone. Aslan breathed on them and the stone beings returned to life. The combined force took to the field, defeating the forces of the Queen. On Easter Day, Jesus, risen from the dead, breathed upon his stony-cold and effete disciples “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. He breathed on them and said ’Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
Today is ”Low “ Sunday, an anti-climax after the Easter high. At Woollies, chockie eggs have been discounted. In parishes, if the Chreasters (Christmas and Easters) had been able to worship, they would have gone, and there would be roomy parking once more. The Gospel action in today’s Scripture takes place a week after Easter Day. Together with Thomas, today is a day to question any hidden doubts we may hold about our beliefs. Are we truly in direct prayerful conversation with God-in-Risen-Jesus through his Holy Spirit, who breathes out breath in word, song, prayers, sacrament, forgiveness and togetherness of the community at prayer? Can we conclude that we do have faith enough to carry us through the Corona crisis to next Easter? Shortly before he was brutally killed in prison, John the Baptist, who really knew that Jesus was the Messiah, began to doubt. He sent disciples to ask Jesus “Are you the One who is to come?” In wrestling with our doubts, our faith becomes stronger.
Today’s Gospel is different from Luke’s account a week ago. Last Sunday, Mary of Magdala sprinted from Jesus’ empty tomb to the disciples’ bunker. There were gathered ten survivors of the Good Friday blood-bath. Judas was dead and Thomas was AWOL. The group sat haunted by their sad memories and with revulsion at their weak showing to defend their Master. Keeping her 1.5 metre distance, Mary cried breaking news “I have seen the Lord.” Alas! Luke wrote that Mary’s nearly incoherent delight was met blankly by the weak disciples: “it seemed to them to be an idle tale, and they did not believe” [Luke 24.11]. Peter later trumpeted that her utterance was “hysterical female nonsense.” According to the socio-religious view of the time, a woman’s evidence did not count. Instead of breaking out the party food and drink as an emboldened Easter people, the jelly-livered men disciples huddled together like affrighted mice.
They had an idealized picture of their Messiah as a possible triumphal conquering hero. The idea of a suffering, crucified Messiah was a million miles from their minds. When Jesus was slain, all their hopes were shattered. Instead of offering comfort to Mary and Jesus’ grieving family, the disciples had gone to earth.
Suddenly, having debunked death, the murdered Messiah broke into the upper room, and broke into their locked-up, fear filled lives. Earlier, the tomb-breaker affirmed that he was the door of the sheep-fold. Unimpeded by door locks, he came straight into the midst of his frightened sheep to bid them peace [John 10.7]. Why didn’t Risen Jesus go first to harass Pontius Pilate to accuse, “Pilate, you made a big mistake. You were warned by your wife, Claudia, at the time of my unjust trial, “have nothing to do with this just man.” You had told the wicked priests that you found no guilt in any of the charges held against me. Weren’t you man enough to affirm that sensitive, courageous woman?” [Luke 23.14]. Why didn’t Risen Jesus shirt-front Caiphas, the high priest, who orchestrated Jesus’ death to say “So, I was guilty of blasphemy, was I? You said I was not the Messiah? Check your holy scrolls once more and review the prophecies about me, you drongo.”
At the Risen Lord’s appearance in the upper room, the cowardly custards squirmed in embarrassment. They knew that they had failed him miserably, deserted him and denied him. One whispered “At least it looks as if he’s still talking to us after our spineless abandonment. We did disperse like rats chased by a cat and left him to his fate.”
Sensing their profound remorse, Jesus did not chew them out. He had no words of recrimination, no harsh reminders of their guilt. Instead, like a post-op surgical patient, he showed them Calvary’s cost to his wounded hands, his side, his feet. A Risen Lord without the proof of his wounds would have little to say to his wounded ones. Much of our identity lies in our wounds. Our wounds tell us who we are, like the death-camp number branded on an arm or the scar after life-saving surgery. We must not let drain life from our wounds, but encourage new life in these broken places; that is resurrection. Now, his team could see Risen Jesus was no unsubstantial ghostly apparition.
Then, to re-create the broken lives of these vulnerable disciples, to lift his team from further paralysing fear, to bring them out of their hurt, to empower them for future costly personal mission in his fledgling church, the Risen Christ breathed his Holy Spirit on them, saying, “Let that be my gift of peace to you. Now, go, breathe my spirit on all others, to change their fear into freedom. As the Father sent me, so I send you.” The breath of the Wounded Healer was the same enlivening Spirit that hovered over the chaotic void of Genesis. It came with all the wonder of God’s intensity, which raised humanity from the lump of original clay to its mission to multiply, fill the earth and steward it once more. Risen Jesus breathed life into his fledgling Church, which, now certain of his resurrection, should have been ready to carry his peace into the whole world.
Did Risen Jesus expect the very human, yet newly empowered group to up and race off on mission? In their shame and confusion, his bestowal of the Holy Spirit then was not sufficient to bestir these poor traumatized fellows to go. They were still frozen with the fear, terrified of hearing Roman boots bump up to their hidey-hole and the executioner’s knock “You’re next!” They were disillusioned by their failures and desertion, and continued to huddle behind closed doors. They locked doors against the enemy; they barricaded their hearts against hope. But, the disciples’ choosing safety was no way to begin a new church, with no one getting in and no one getting out. Risen Jesus would have to give them a full quarantine/forty-day indoctrination, and, then let the Holy Spirit of Pentecost get to work.
On Resurrection Sunday evening, the team crowded around Thomas with the confident cry “We have seen the Lord.” They had reckoned without their man. When death came for Jesus, Thomas took it as the tragic end to an inspiring friendship. Was he heartbroken and disillusioned that his worst fears had come true, that his hopes were dashed? Had he simply got away either to wallow in sorrow and brood alone his felt loss of Jesus dead, so that the doubter became a pouter? He had lived three years garnering the memory of the Master’s teaching and learning. Was he proud, wilful, obstinate, or did he seek space to rage impotently and bemoan the three wasted years of lucrative livelihood he had given up for the failed fake, Jesus? He really was wounded; his mind was darkened by doubt and his heart broken by grief. His wounds were invisible, yet, they were real and painful. With the ten others, he, too, needed the blessed assurance that Jesus had truly conquered death. The disciples’ news of Jesus’ rising seemed too far-fetched to be true. Thomas was always a glass-half-empty pessimist. Now, he became belligerent in his pessimism. It has been said “there is more faith in honest doubt, than in half the creeds. There is more ultimate faith in the person who insists on being sure than those who glibly repeat things they have never thought through, and may not really believe.”
Cutting himself off from the community, Thomas made a big mistake. He plunged into spiritual darkness and missed the thrill of first Easter, when the others saw the Risen lord once more and realized that he was no ghost. It is only with the help of the community that we can resolve our doubts and sustain our faith. Jesus has called us to live as members of a community of believers, whose common faith strengthens the faith of each individual. Are we ever a Thomas cut off from community wisdom? Perhaps a poor and inoffensive idealistic locum might suggest “Next year, post virus, could the parish join in an all-together service of unity at Pentecost with surrounding churches?” Could a present-day Thomas be a parishioner who is never impulsive, never swept off one’s feet by novelty, who is cautious and slow to convince. “No! We are just worn-out oldies! Any talk of ecumenical overtures just makes me sick. I’ll leave the parish if that damn fool Walter takes this any further! This is not the time. Let’s wait and see.” And there it stops.
When Thomas returned to the community, he must have noticed that the disciples’ fear was largely gone, to be replaced with joy and peace. He still maintained that he was a no-nonsense guy. The hard-headed, even bullet-headed bulldog barked “Don’t give me Mary of Magdala’s silly stories. She and that other Mary can prattle about empty tombs until the cows come home for all I care. John, you saw Jesus taken down from the Cross as a lifeless corpse. Get a grip on yourself. Now, you tell me Jesus came through a bolted door. How do you know that the apparition was the real deal? You’re deluded. You’re cracking up. Are you hallucinating on magic mushrooms again? Or, are you having a sick April fool’s joke at my expense?” Yet, Thomas owned that he had once seen a woman in need reach out to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment, so strong was her faith. He had seen how her human heart could only be healed by another human, one who understood human pain. Thomas’ faith was so weak, could he touch Jesus himself?
Thomas had demanded proof. The disciples had also demanded proof. They had not believed that Jesus was risen from the dead; they just got to see Risen Jesus eight days before Thomas did. When Jesus returned to the upper room and Thomas was there, he did not chide nor condemn Thomas, or make fun of his doubts. Jesus knew that once Thomas had fought his way through the wilderness of doubt, he would be the surest of men. He gave Thomas time for a cuppa tea, a Bex and a good lie down. The Good Shepherd Jesus had come with compassionate concern in search of his lost sheep, lost in grief. The wounded Jesus and the disciple wounded by painful doubts stood before one another. He came to give Thomas a chance to examine the facts for themselves. He came, bearing the mortal wounds suffered in defending his flock from the wolves. When Jesus button-holed the sceptic, Thomas’ blood drained from his face. He dared not eye-ball the Risen Lord. Jesus began: “Tom, you didn’t believe the other disciples had seen me?” Thomas: “What they said was unbelievable.” Jesus: “Come close, Tom, if you need substantial proof. Touch the indelible scars of Calvary’s cost.” Thomas: “No, I don’t want to. I can see you.” Jesus: “Do you only believe what you can see? Blessed are those who have not seen, but believe. Thomas, don’t be unbelieving.” The Risen Lord pronounced this last beatitude for all future generations of disciples, who will hear the Gospel in the presence of the physically absent Jesus. And, Thomas replied with the most profound and personal assent of faith “You are my Lord and my God,” a statement of full trust and relationship. Thomas had not aired his doubts as wilful mental gymnastics. He had honestly doubted in order to be sure.
Why do we need to touch our Lord? Isn’t seeing him sufficient? Thomas had to touch his Lord to be healed. We truly owe much to the initial faithlessness of Thomas than to the faithfulness of the other ten. Because Thomas doubted and was not present at Jesus’ return, the Good Shepherd was forced to come in search of the stray. Because Thomas doubted, the others were privileged also to see and to touch the indelible scars of Calvary.
James, one of the disciple band with Thomas, later wrote “When you ask God, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind” [James 1.6]. The waves of the sea are constantly seething, subject to the forces of wind, gravity and tide. Divided loyalty leaves a person as unsettled as the restless sea. The hymn encourages us: “Just as I am, though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt, fightings and fears within, without, O Lamb of God, I come.” We believe in God and that God will respond with loving care when we pray. But, not to every thoughtless or selfish request. With Thomas, we must have confidence that God will align our desires with God’s purposes. At first, Thomas may not have been completely convinced that God’s way was best. Bishop Heber (the first bishop of Australia, who never left Calcutta!) expressed Tom’s doubts: “The Son of God goes forth to war, a kingly crown to gain. His blood-red banner streams afar, who follows in his train?…A glorious band, the chosen few, on whom the Spirit came; twelve valiant saints, their hope they knew, and mocked the cross and flame…They climbed the steep ascent of heaven, through peril, toil and pain. O God, to us, may grace be given to follow in their train.” Once Thomas felt the evidence, he believed completely.
Earlier, Simon, the leader of the pack, confessed Jesus as the divine, long-awaited Messiah “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” [Mathew 16.16]. He was praised by Jesus and titled “You are Peter the Rock.” For centuries, poor Thomas has had to endure the unfair maligning of him, the tarnishing of him from Sunday pulpits for his moment of weakness in belief.
Jesus had been dead one week and three days, when he met Thomas. The most famous image of this meeting was painted by Michelangelo Caravaggio in 1601. May I give some background to this painting? By 1600 the Church of Rome was still under siege from the reformed teaching of Northern European Protestantism. This perhaps better-educated church group had an intense love of the Bible. A biblical source for their reverent respect for the Word was Paul’s Letter to Timothy “All Scripture is inspired by God. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right” [2 Timothy 3.16]. Sola Scriptura/Scripture alone, was the Protestant dictum. The Northerners removed any non-scriptural usages from their worship. Thus, churches were stripped of icons, images, paintings, stained glass, vestments, anything that lacked a scriptural warrant. The Church of Rome reacted to the iconoclasts, the image-breakers, with the plaint: “What about our millions who cannot read the Bible. How can they be saved except by being moved to faith with the veneration of sacred images?” Enter artists such as Caravaggio, a hot-headed, violent thug, but a brilliant expert with chiaroscuro, the control of light and shade, and a specialist in using models lifted from their street life squalor. Caravaggio became the devout art evangelist for the great unwashed masses, just at the time when the Church of Rome was reasserting its beliefs and practices after the Reformation mauling. Emerging from a sordid life, Caravaggio understood what it was like to live inside the grimy skin of the pious dirt-poor.
In Caravaggio’s painting “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas,” Risen Jesus holds aside the folds of his burial sheet to let Thomas peer closely at the wound in his side made by the Calvary soldier’s spear. Acting like a surgeon at his own autopsy, Jesus takes Thomas’ wrist to guide his grubby forefinger into the open wound, to read like Braille the mark of the spear. The touch is Jesus’ personal gift, his intimate presence to demolish the disciple’s doubts. Thomas’ face shows that seeing and feeling is believing, and Risen Jesus is no ghost after all. Caravaggio’s light illumines the foreheads and intense concentration of Peter and John to raise the question: did they too need the evidence that Thomas sought, to change their disbelief into faith? When Thomas had touched the wounds, his doubts vanished and his faith was re-born. Jesus is still offering us his wounded hands and side, both individually to us Thomases, in communities like St. Philip’s. He calls us to recognize him in the wounded ones of our wounds and in our own world.
Poor Thomas! How loaded he is with a passion for seeking incontrovertible proof! Can we read the rap sheet of the other disciples and compare him? Simon denied his Lord three times, but is not called Simon the Denier but Peter the Rock. Nicodemus scoffed “Can any good come out of Nazareth?” Only Jesus, but, we don’t call Nic a scoffer. Mary Magdalene thought Jesus was a gardener, who had tidied the body away. Dull as dishwater Philip (oops! I better be careful of what I say of your church patron), needed Jesus to despond “Philip, have I been with you all this time, and you still do not know me?” Jesus was mildly exasperated, but we don’t call him “Phil the Dill.” The two disciples on the Emmaus Road failed to recognize Risen Jesus when they had walked and talked with him many miles, yet we don’t call them dumb. When James and John misunderstood Jesus’ word ‘kingdom,’ they had their mum demand thrones for her lads left and right of King Jesus, but we don’t call them opportunists. All these and others, when confronted with clear evidence, failed the test. Why has the name “Doubting Thomas” stuck like tar to feathers on this unfortunate disciple?
This homily began with The Chronicles of Narnia, where the hearts of good people had become hearts of stone that needed reviving. People can develop a stone-cold heart by choosing to follow selfish, disobedient ways. As Thomas realized, people need their cold hearts to be restored and made warm. They need the Holy Spirit of Jesus to breathe the breath of life on them. On Resurrection morning, Risen Jesus did breathe his Holy Spirit upon them. Hopefully, this was extended to Thomas a week later. What about us? Jesus comes to call us to service. He doesn’t call the qualified; he qualifies the called. Even the most saintly of us, being human like Thomas, can take mis-steps as part of our spiritual journey. Jesus’ promise is to break in to any fear-filled situation, where we have tried to bolt the doors of our hearts against offering compassionate care and loving kindness, to breathe upon us the breath of life. We actually touch Christ whenever we respond to someone hurt or in need, when we listen with patience, when we comfort a child, visit the elderly or the infirm (by prayer, phone or email!). Thomas wasted a week of Easter joy. Let us not waste a lifetime. In this isolation crisis may we reach out to touch the wounds of all as Thomas touched the Master. Do this, and there will be High elation on this Low Sunday.
Lord Jesus, you came back to your frightened disciples to fill their troubled hearts with joy and peace. You came to show us all how loneliness and meaningless life would be without you. Come close to our community, kept as we physically are away from church. Shower the peace of your presence to protect our people from the harmful virus while we worship at home. In the main, we are of riper years. Give us the fuller personal assurance that Thomas found, so that we may join our gifts and talents by letter, phone or email to bridge the chasm that the Corona has caused. Lord in your mercy. Hear our prayer.
Jesus, you came to the bedside of the daughter of Jairus and to Peter’s mother-in-law with your pastoral care. Continue to bless the marvelous and self-sacrificing energies and patient labours of all health-care workers. Give them immunity from the dread which they daily meet, and take away any fear from them and from their families. Bless with common-sense our community and din into everyone that we are all in this together, so that we will get through to a blessed tomorrow. Lord, in your mercy. Hear our prayer.
Risen Jesus, for whom no door was locked and whose heart was never locked against us, reach out to touch with you mercy the present wounded state of us all. Breathe on our parish and on all who truly need your life-giving breath. Where we may not see the way forward in this scourge, give us the courage to still believe in you, that you are close by, ready to lend a hand of loving care. Keep our faith in you steadfast, so that we may constantly receive the joyful blessing that you gave to Thomas. Lord, in your mercy. Hear our prayer.
Postlude: The life of Thomas after the First Easter.
Together with eleven of the twelve disciples, Thomas was born in the Galilee, a Roman province to the north of Israel. Thomas had first spoken in John’s Gospel when Lazarus became ill. Jesus knew that, if he raised Lazarus from the dead, his fame would be the tipping point to bring on his execution. The eleven did not want to cross into the Judean region, where Jews had tried to stone Jesus before. Bravely or foolhardily, Thomas loved Jesus enough to be willing to go to Bethany and certain death. He urged “Let us go with Jesus, so we may die with him” [John 11.16]. We hear a second utterance at the Last Supper, when Jesus outlined what heaven would be like. Practical Thomas said “Lord, we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?’ This gave us Jesus’ superb piece of consolation “I am the way, and the truth, and the life [John 14.5-6]. Thomas’ third utterance was as Jesus showed him his Calvary wounds, “my Lord and my God” [John 20.28]. With that, his scepticism waned and his bravado ended.
When the disciples were sent out as apostles, the historian Eusebius recorded that Thomas, having evangelized Parthia, was assigned to far away India. He is recorded as founder of the church of the Syrian-Malabar Christians, or Thomas Christians at Mylapore, near Madras in present day Tamil Nadu India, in 52 CE. Here, he allegedly taught and ordained Christian ministers along the Malabar Coast of South India. To this day, his followers are called Thomas Christians or Christians of the Syro-(Syrian)-Malabar rite. Centred on Kerala, Christianity is a predominant religion. Allegedly, he was martyred by the king for converting the queen in Mylapore, 3 July, 72 CE. His bones were first moved to Edessa, Syria, in 232 CE, then, in 1258, to Ortona, in the Abruzzi region of Italy, where they survived the Nazi destruction of the church in 1943. His skull was taken to the monastery of St John on the isle of Patmos, the scene of the writing of John’s Fourth Gospel. Lastly, his finger bones were found at Mosul, Iraq in 1964. It was a common practice for pilgrims, whose home churches had no relics, to approach a shrine, particularly if a skeleton was on show, then reach over to kiss the hand or feet, only to bite off digits or toes to take back home! When the other disciples worked around the Mediterranean, the question must be asked: how did Thomas come to work so far outside the Roman Empire? Did he only travel to Iraq? What do you think?
Cheers until next Sunday, Father Walter