The Second Sunday of Easter
Reading: John 20:19-31
Today’s reading takes us back to last week and to Easter Sunday. On the first day of the week, the women who travelled with Jesus and the apostles have been to the tomb where Jesus had been buried on the Friday before and have found it empty. When they told the apostles, Peter and the Beloved Disciple ran to the tomb to see for themselves and found it just as the women had reported it. After the others have gone, Mary Magdalene, one of the women who have been involved in the day’s dramatic events stayed on alone in the garden emotionally distraught at the loss now of Jesus’ body after having lost Jesus himself.
As we saw last week, while in the garden weeping, Mary has an encounter with the Risen Lord, who sends her to the apostles with the news that he is ascending to his God and their God, his Father and their Father (John 20:17). Mary went and announced to the disciples that she had seen the Lord and repeated what he had told her. Quite what they made of it, we are not told.
In our reading for this week, St John tells us that the disciples are gathered on the evening of the first day of the week behind locked doors ‘for fear of the Jews’. Jesus appears to them and shows them that it is indeed him and that he is alive. St John writes simply that the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus, however, wastes no time in commissioning them for the work that lies ahead. Jesus says to them:
‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ (John 20:21)
After this, Jesus breathes on them and says:
‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ (John 20:22-23)
The disciples are sent by Jesus as he had been sent by the Father. As Jesus explained to them in the Upper Room just a few days ago, they do not go alone, they now have the Holy Spirit living in them. In sending them, Jesus gives them the authority both to forgive and to retain people’s sins.
As Jesus had also explained to them in the Upper Room when he gave them the Meal to remember him by, his death was all about obtaining the forgiveness of sins. It should, then, come as no surprise to them that their mission is all about telling people that they can find forgiveness of their sins in Christ. Without labouring the point, this is not something you would realize listening to many church leaders this Easter. There is plenty of talk about political issues of current concern, but very little about the need of each one of us for forgiveness.
One person, however, is missing when Jesus appears to them and that is Thomas, who has the nickname, ‘the Twin’. For Holy Week and Easter, we looked at four characters involved in the Gospel accounts of the death and resurrection of our Lord: Judas, Peter, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalene. Thomas is a character best known for his involvement in the story after the resurrection. He has, however, been involved in Jesus’ ministry from the beginning, and he is included in all the lists of the apostles in the Gospels and Acts (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13).
When Thomas is told by his fellow disciples that they have seen the Lord, he refuses to take it on trust. The result of him very sensibly being cautious has earned him another nickname, that of ‘Doubting Thomas’. This, I think, is grossly unfair. But we like to think that Thomas had doubts; it comforts us in our own. That there was more to Thomas than a person who found it hard to believe in something most people still don’t believe in is suggested by the fact that Jesus chose him in the first place and by an event that happened shortly before the crucifixion and which anticipated the resurrection.
While Thomas appears in all the lists of the apostles in the first three Gospels, nothing much is said about him. However, he makes a cameo appearance in St John’s Gospel towards the end of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has been teaching in Jerusalem, but he has had to leave Jerusalem because people there wanted to kill him and had even got as far as picking up stones to do so (John 10:31). St John describes how, for safety, Jesus goes back to where John the Baptist had previously been baptizing (John 10:40).
It is while here, in this safe place, that Jesus receives the news that his friend Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, is seriously ill (John 11:3). Jesus deliberately delays returning, but when he tells his disciples that he is going back, his disciples are shocked. Bethany, where Lazarus, Martha, and Mary live, is just two miles from Jerusalem. The disciples know how dangerous it is for Jesus to go back there. The disciples say to Jesus:
‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?’ (John 11:8)
Jesus explains that their friend is ill and needs them. Thomas then says to the other disciples:
‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ (John 11:16)
Whether this is bravado or resignation on his part, we don’t know, but he and they go, nevertheless. Before Easter, I tried to show that the disciples were not cowards and that they were under no illusion about the danger involved in following Jesus. I wanted to try to dispel the popular impression we have of them as weak cowards. They are particularly criticized for abandoning Jesus when he is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, but it is, in fact, Jesus himself who asks those who come to arrest him to let his disciples go. St John writes that when those who have been sent to arrest Jesus arrive in the Garden, Jesus admits to being who they are looking for and says to them:
‘I told you that I am he. So, if you seek me, let these men go.’ (John 18:8)
Once Jesus is arrested, the disciples have little choice but to hide. Looked at from their point of view, Jesus himself was largely responsible for this mess. He had entered Jerusalem, on what we now know as Palm Sunday, fully aware of the risk in doing so, and he had been provocative in both what he did and said once inside the city. From the disciples’ point of view, this would have all been justified if it were part of a plan to bring matters to a head and to start the rebellion they were hoping for. But then, when the moment came, Jesus refused to act and the Jerusalem authorities made their move against him. What were the disciples supposed to do once Jesus had given himself up?
Even so, notice that the disciples don’t try to get as far away from Jerusalem as possible. What is more, with the obvious exception of Judas, they all stick together. Quite what they thought would happen next, we again don’t know, but they haven’t just split up; it isn’t every man for himself. The disciples also get criticized for not being at the Cross when Jesus is crucified. But, as Jesus’ closest associates, how could they be? It was different for the women, as they would not be seen as a threat. As it was, the Beloved Disciple was taking a big risk going there with Mary, the Mother of Jesus.
The events of these past four days have been an emotional roller coaster ride for the disciples. After all that has happened, Thomas, not unreasonably, wants more than words before he is willing to believe that Jesus is alive. Who can blame him? ‘I need to see him for myself’ is his reaction. It is a perfectly reasonable position to take. Most of us would have felt the same way.
We, of course, know the outcome. A week later, the apostles are again shut up together and again Jesus appears in the room. Thomas has said he will only believe if he sees the wounds and puts his hand in Jesus’ side. Jesus tells him that now is his chance. We are not told whether Thomas did so; we are, however, told what he says. Thomas says simply:
‘My Lord and my God!’ (John 20:28)
What doesn’t always get commented on is that this is the most profound statement of faith in the Gospels. Jesus says to Thomas to stop doubting and believe. But believe what? That Jesus is alive? There’s more to it than that. Thomas gets the implication of believing that Jesus has risen from the dead and it is that Jesus should be worshipped. Jesus acknowledges Thomas’ faith and worship, but says:
‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ (John 20:29)
Thomas has believed because he has seen the Risen Lord. Many, however, will have to believe without seeing, and, St John explains, it is to them - to us - that his Gospel is written. Jesus performed many signs, St John writes, in the presence of his disciples, but St John has selected the signs he has described in his Gospel especially for us that we may see something of what Thomas saw and respond like him. St John writes:
‘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.’ (John 20:31)
So, what does this have to say to us today?
Jesus himself tells us what it should mean to us. Jesus said:
‘Do not doubt but believe.’ (John 20:27)
This will not be the message of many sermons on this passage today. Instead, preachers will tell congregations that doubt is a good thing and that they should not be afraid to doubt and to question. At least, that is, they should not be afraid to doubt and question anything to do with believing in God. When it comes to believing in ourselves, well that’s a different story. We must, we are told, have faith in ourselves, have confidence that we can ‘just do it’, and we should view doubt in ourselves as the enemy. It is as if Jesus said, ‘Doubt me, but believe in yourself’.’ We have got it completely the wrong way round. We should believe in Jesus and doubt ourself.
Tell people to doubt themselves, however, and wait for the protest. You won’t have to wait long! That we react so strongly to any suggestion of doubting ourselves shows how removed from reality we have all become. Why should we doubt ourselves? Look in the mirror! We constantly fall and fail. Even when we are at our best, we don’t know all the answers, we make the wrong decisions, and generally just mess up. We all know this, but still we believe the popular hype about how there is nothing we can’t do if only we have faith in ourselves. I am sorry, it is God, not you, who can do the impossible.
This, ‘doubt God; believe in yourself’ philosophy has become so popular and generally accepted, even in the Church, that we are shocked when it is challenged. It is St Catherine of Siena’s feast day on Friday. To read her writing and that of the saints in the past is to enter another world, and I don’t mean historically. St Catherine loves God and hates herself, she trusts God and doubts herself, she is sure of God’s strength and knows her own weakness.
But we do doubt God. We can’t help it. We should be honest about our doubt and our questions, and it is true that doubt can be a good thing IF it leads to faith and certainty. I hesitated before writing the word, certainty, for certainty, at least where faith is concerned, is seen as dangerous and destructive. We are certain of that. Jesus, however, tells Thomas to stop doubting and to believe. Not to believe in the sense that we hope it’s true, but in the sense that we can be sure it is. St John wrote his Gospel to help us to believe in such a way.
This doesn’t mean running away from challenges to our faith or refusing to face up to the difficulties, but it does mean that as we do so our goal should be to find faith and answers, not to live in a constant state of doubt and questioning.
It is, perhaps, just as well that I have been a priest for a number of years because if I was to say this as someone wanting to become a priest, it is unlikely I would be allowed to be ordained. To question questioning and to doubt doubt is to be seen as both pastorally insensitive and spiritually naïve. But I will tell you what pastoral insensitivity is, it is to leave people under the illusion that their doubts will save them. They won’t. It is by believing that we have life in his name.
There is nothing to be gained by pretending we don’t have doubts and questions, but we should not stop there. We should bring our doubts and questions to the Lord, and we should seek a way through them. Those of us who are priests and pastors, then, should be helping people to face their doubts and questions and to come to terms with them. Instead of encouraging people to live with their doubts and questions we should be trying to answer them when we can or explain why they are not an obstacle to believing when we can’t. Rather than glorifying doubt, we should be encouraging faith.
The disciples were behind locked doors for fear of the Jerusalem authorities. What are we afraid of? What doors are we hiding behind? Our doors, of course, are metaphorical ones, but they are no less real for that. I have argued that the disciples’ fear was entirely justified. They were at real risk from the authorities. Jesus was arrested as a rebel; and crucified as one. Peter, their leader, had violently assaulted the High Priest’s representative. They were in undoubted danger. It is not surprising that the disciples were behind closed doors; what is surprising is that they were still in Jerusalem.
We fear all sorts of things when it comes to believing in Jesus. For a start, there is what people will think of us. Unlike the disciples, we probably won’t be arrested for believing in Jesus, but even that is not a certainty, plenty of people are arrested for their faith. There’s certainly a chance we will be made fun of or ridiculed for believing in such outdated ideas. We may even be unpopular.
As well as fearing what others will think of us, we also fear the demands that having faith in Jesus and in being his follower may make on us and on our time. Our lives are demanding enough as it is without complicating them with all this church stuff. What is more, this is before we mention all the changes we are expected to make in how we think and behave as a result of what we believe.
Then there is our fear of losing our personal freedom and independence as we have to submit to the will of God rather than our own. Ironically, we are one of the least independent generations there have been. We are even, for example, having to scan our vaccination records before being allowed into church and Google already knows more about you than you know about yourself. Despite this - or is it because of it? - we cling to the idea that we can be free and independent when it comes to issues of faith, and so we fear the loss of it to a Lord who demands 100% commitment to him.
There are many more fears besides these. Faith in Jesus is not going to prevent what we fear from happening. I have said that the disciples were afraid of arrest and that they were right to have such a fear.
We see just how right in our first reading today (Acts 5:27-32). It is now some time after the resurrection and the events of Easter, and the Jerusalem authorities have arrested the disciples for speaking about Jesus in public. While he was still with them, Jesus had told them:
‘I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!’ (Luke 12:4-5)
Before the crucifixion, as devout Jews, the disciples had feared God, but they still feared those who could harm them physically. Now, quite simply, they don’t. They are not afraid of the Jews anymore. So, what has changed? Not the reality of the threat to them, that if anything has grown as they have spoken out for Jesus; what has changed is not the threat to them but their attitude to it. Their faith has become more real to them than their fear.
So yes, becoming a follower of Jesus may get us laughed at. It may make us unpopular or even get us arrested. Our faith in Jesus will make demands of us and often it will be difficult following Jesus in a world that is hostile to him and his teaching. And it will mean an end to our independence, if by independence we mean not having God in our life.
It won’t take away our fears completely. We are weak and sinful after all, but it will give us the strength to face our fears and to overcome them. In the Bible, people are often told not to fear. You only say that to people who are afraid. Jesus doesn’t tell us it is wrong to be afraid; he does show us the way to overcome our fear and that is by trusting in him.
Finally, we come to Jesus’ words to Thomas and to us, ‘Do not doubt but believe.’ This is easier said than done. As we have said, we do have doubts; we can’t help it. The world around us bombards us with doubts and hostile questioning. We do have fears. How are we to have faith?
Part of our problem in believing lies in how we think of faith. Faith is not primarily about what we think. Now don’t misunderstand me. What we think matters, but we will always be vulnerable to doubt, and we simply don’t have the mental capacity to know and understand all the answers. That’s true in every area of our lives. What is more, being human and mortal means we misunderstand, make mistakes, and commit sin. If faith is about our ability to think and understand, then we are in trouble; faith will ever allude us.
Believing in Jesus, however, is not primarily about thinking and understanding but about committing. It is about a personal faith, that is, our commitment to the person of Jesus. This is not an unthinking commitment, but it is one that we make while admitting that we don’t fully understand or know all the answers. It is a commitment we make believing that in Jesus all our doubts and questions have their answer. St Paul writes:
‘For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.’ (1 Corinthians 13:12)
The more we grow in faith, the more we will understand. In this life, however, we can never hope to understand completely. There will always be questions we can’t answer and problems we can’t solve. Nevertheless, what we do know and understand gives us the confidence to believe that one day our questions and doubts will be resolved. They will cease to matter. For ultimately what matters is not what we think about God, but what he thinks about us. The amazing thing is that despite knowing everything there is to know about us, God has loved us in Christ: ‘while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8). God in Christ has given himself to us; he now asks that we give ourselves to him.
The thought of giving ourselves totally to God and of what it will mean may seem frightening and overwhelming, but faith is committing ourselves to him despite our doubt and weakness, our fear and our failings. Faith, quite simply, is allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by the presence of God in Jesus. It is saying to him in worship, ‘My Lord and my God’.
In the first century, the Roman Emperor himself wanted to be seen as ‘Lord and God’, and many did indeed see him that way. Many other rulers have also wanted to be seen this way since. We today receive constant demands for our worship whether it be from people, systems, or things. There is much in this world that attracts us and seeks to exert control over us. By confessing Jesus as our Lord and our God, we reject all their claims and demands for our worship.
It doesn’t necessarily mean rejecting them as evil and wrong. Rulers are the servants of God, and we pray for them. The world is created by God, and we give thanks for it. The material things of this world are gifts of God, and we use them as God intended. But we refuse to give the rulers of this world or any created thing the worship that belongs to God alone.
Faith is based on trust. Jesus, when he first appeared to the disciples in the locked room, said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ This was the common greeting at the time. But St John wants us to hear in this more than a polite hello. Jesus repeats the greeting after he has shown them his wounds and they know it is him. Then, when Jesus appears to them a week later with Thomas present, he says it again. In this threefold greeting, Jesus offered peace to those who were gathered behind closed doors with their doubts and fears. He offers us the same peace. Not a peace that answers all our doubts and questions, but a peace that gives us the confidence to trust in him despite not knowing the answers.
Today, may the peace which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of his Son Jesus Christ: our Lord and our God.