April 11th 2010 Easter 2
Acts 5.27-32, John 20.19-31
Today is often called Low Sunday. The “low” in Low Sunday is actually a corruption of the Latin word Laudes, which means praise – it is supposed to be a Sunday when we continue our Easter rejoicing – but that hasn’t stopped people feeling that “Low” often captures the mood better. After all the excitement and hard work of Easter it is easy to find that energy is low, numbers are low, everything is low this week. Even the readings can feel like a comedown from last Sunday’s extraordinary visions of angels. In the first reading, the apostles are hauled in front of the Jewish authorities, in deep trouble because of the message they are preaching. Then there is Thomas, refusing to believe that Jesus is risen unless he sees him for himself, wounds and all. It all points us towards a darker side to the story we celebrated last week. Perhaps instead of Low Sunday we might call it “Yes, but…” Sunday . “Yes, Christ is risen, but…at what cost? “Yes, Christ is risen, but what does that mean for those who follow him?” “Yes, Christ is risen, but do I want to have anything to do with it?”
For the early Christians those questions were real and urgent. Many of them paid for their determination to follow Christ with their lives. Last week I described Easter as an explosion, something that radically altered the landscape of people’s lives. It was a creative explosion, something that set them free and gave them new purpose in life – otherwise they would never have bothered with it - but explosions are dangerous and frightening too. It is clear that they sometimes wondered whether the turmoil and pain their new way of life brought them were worth it. Like Thomas, they sometimes struggled to believe, struggled to follow.
Thomas is an intriguing figure in John’s Gospel. In Matthew, Mark and Luke he is just a name in a list of disciples, but John brings him to life for us in three little encounters which, taken together, form a little sub-plot in the story of Jesus.
We meet him first when Lazarus dies. Jesus and the disciples are on the far side of the river Jordan. They have escaped there from the mounting hostility of the Jewish authorities. They have just tried to have Jesus stoned, but he has managed to get away. Then the news comes. His friend, Lazarus is dead. Jesus announces that he will return. Most of the disciples are aghast. “Why Jesus? You’ve only just got out – why go back into danger?” Only Thomas speaks out against the caution of the others. “Let us also go, that we may die with him,” he says to them. What good will that do? None really. But it tells us that Thomas is an all-or-nothing sort of man, someone who likes things clear-cut, definite. It also tells us how important it is to him physically to be where Jesus is. When Jesus is around, Thomas can face anything. Even death would be ok, so long as Jesus is there by his side.
The next time we meet Thomas is at the Last Supper. Jesus’ death is imminent now; they can all see it coming and they are worried. Jesus tries to reassure them. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. I am going to prepare a place for you. And you know the way to the place where I am going….”
“Hold on a minute, says Thomas, “No we don’t!” “We don’t know where you are going, so how can we possibly know the right route.”
Thomas is right. Whether you have a sat-nav, an old fashioned map, or are just asking for directions from a passer by, if you don’t know where you want to end up, you don’t stand much chance of getting there. But the answer Thomas gets from Jesus is an enigmatic one. “I am the way” he says… What is that supposed to mean? Again we see Thomas’ two anxieties at work. He needs to be with Jesus. He needs to know what’s happening, but Jesus is going away, and Thomas is baffled by his vague and mysterious words.
It seems especially hard then that it is Thomas, and only Thomas, who misses out when Jesus first appears to his disciples after the Resurrection. He’s not there in the house on the day that Jesus rises. We don’t know why. He has to wait a whole week to see him, and there’s no guarantee, of course, that he will ever have this experience for himself. Maybe Jesus’ appearance was a one-off? Of all the disciples, Thomas is the one who needs to see Jesus in the flesh most desperately – that’s what those two earlier stories have told us. And he’s also the one who’ll find it hardest to cope with the sheer mystery of the resurrection. Thomas - clear thinking, cut and dried Thomas – is never going to find it easy to bend his mind around something so strange. And who can blame him? I expect most of us would feel the same. In John’s Gospel Thomas stands for all of us when we are anxious, doubting, needing something we can rely on.
Thomas, of course, gets the reassurance he longs for in the end. There is Jesus, standing in front of him, showing him the wounds of the cross. And Thomas is filled with joy.
So that’s all right then. All’s well that end’s well. Except that it isn’t as simple as that, is it? Because as Jesus points out, those who come later will have to believe without seeing. “Have you believed because you have seen me, Thomas? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” It’s as if Jesus has stepped out of the story for a moment into the world of those who will hear and read about this later, and that’s what we need to do too, if we are really going to understand what it is telling us.
John’s Gospel was written around 90 AD – 60 years after the Resurrection - probably in Asia Minor, modern Turkey, maybe in Ephesus. We don’t know who wrote it. Like the other Gospels the name was added later. It was written too late, though, to be by the apostle John. This is the work of a second-generation Christian, reflecting on the stories he’s heard from those who were around Jesus, the stories which have shaped the faith of his community. That makes them less reliable historically than if they were eye-witness accounts; we don’t know how accurate they are. But on the other hand, the fact that the stories have survived, and that there is a Christian community in which they are being told tells us something very important; it tells us that whatever happened in Jerusalem must have been very powerful and very convincing indeed.
The Gospel story describes a group of disciples huddled in a locked room in Jerusalem, afraid even to go out into the streets of their own town, and yet, a generation later, they have taken their message to distant lands, to Ephesus and places like it. How has that come about? It can only have happened if there has been some massive transformation in their lives. The frightened men we meet in that locked room couldn’t have gone to the end of the road for a pint of milk, never mind all the way to Ephesus, risking persecution and death for their trouble. And what about those to whom they go, those who, as this story reminds us, haven’t seen the risen Christ as they have? What convinces them – what convinces the writer of this Gospel - that this message is worth hearing, worth passing on, worth living by, worth even dying for? It is what they see in the lives of those who proclaim it, their love, their capacity to forgive, their commitment to breaking down barriers between people and communities. The second-generation Christians of Ephesus may not see the risen Christ, but they see the power of resurrection at work in the apostles, and they want what the apostles have for themselves. It seems to me that it nearly always works like that. We are far more often drawn towards faith by the lives of others than by clever arguments or persuasive presentations. It is the love, courage and integrity we see in them which makes us ask questions, want to know more. On the other side of that coin is the rather sobering thought that there are also people looking at us, seeing – or not – the risen Christ at work in our lives.
Jesus said to Thomas, “I am the way”, and this is what he meant. We find him as we walk the path he walked, a path which may wound us as it wounded him, but which leads to wholeness and peace. We find him, and we reveal him to others as we live the life he lived. It’s not magic. It’s not easy; that’s why we so often fail to do it. But it is where Christ is today, in us.
I began by saying that today could be called “Yes, but…Sunday”. “Yes, but what difference does it make? “Yes, but do I want to be a part of it?” These are questions we all have to answer for ourselves in the end, but it comes down to this. The risen Christ comes to us first in the “locked rooms” of our lives, just as he did in Jerusalem. He comes to the places where we most need him, the places of our fear and doubt, places we often don’t want to be in ourselves.. He comes to offer us forgiveness, change and freedom. It is as we accept those gifts and start to walk with him that his risen life can begin to grow in us, giving us the courage to go where he leads us, and take that life out to others too.