Sermon - 27th April 2014
Scripture - John 20:19-31
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
There were many of Jesus’s followers who did not witness the first appearances of the risen Jesus on Easter Day. They probably heard the rumours that the tomb was empty. In fact, the Jewish and Roman authorities were probably putting the story around that the body had been stolen – the last thing they wanted was some supernatural element being added to this controversial execution: they wanted to stamp out this cult which surrounded the prophetic teacher from Nazareth.
Stories would probably be circulating among the followers that Mary of Magdala believed she had seen Jesus on Easter morning.
And then on the evening of that first day, a group of the disciples had gathered together and had shut themselves away. They feared for their lives. The passover festival was over, and many of the visitors to Jerusalem were leaving the city on their journeys home. The civil authorities will have been on the lookout for the companions of that troublemaker who had just been executed. It was definitely a good idea to stay behind closed doors.
But not everyone was there on that first evening. At least one of the inner circle of Jesus’s followers was missing. Where was Thomas?
Our picture of Thomas is not very clear from the gospels. He is always counted as one of the twelve close companions of Jesus; he offered to go with Jesus to Bethany when they heard that their friend, Lazarus, was seriously ill. He was also present in the upper room at the last supper on the evening of Jesus’s arrest.
But for some reason, he was missing from the gathering on the Sunday just three days after the crucifixion. Perhaps he was too afraid to risk being caught by the civil authorities. Perhaps he was caught out by the curfew and was stuck somewhere else. Perhaps he was just too confused and disturbed by the events of the previous days and couldn’t face anyone, even his friends.
Whatever the reason, Thomas was absent from that first gathering after Jesus’s death, when their Teacher appeared among the disciples and left them in no doubt that he had risen.
The gospel tells us that the disciples were filled with joy at seeing Jesus. And it must have been these joyful, vibrant, excited friends who told Thomas that they had seen Jesus, and that he was alive, and that he had risen as he said he would, and that the rumours of the body stolen from the tomb were lies, and that Mary of Magdala must have been right in what she claimed, and wasn’t it all wonderful news?
Perhaps it was all a bit too much, if you hadn’t been there to witness it and share in it yourself.
It would be wonderful to believe that Jesus was alive, but look at the evidence! He was dead and buried. Someone had probably tampered with the tomb – not the first example of grave-robbing and probably not the last.
People claim to have seen Jesus since his death, but people see what they want to see. All of the disciples have been heartbroken with grief since Friday; Judas is dead; they’re going out of their minds with fear and worry; Jesus’s close friends will accept any crumb of comfort if it takes away some of the pain for some of the time. Did he really appear, or was it mass hysteria, or a clever trick, or did something supernatural and ungodly happen which might have been a ghost or a demon masquerading as their friend.
Those who claim they saw him are absolutely buzzing with it; they say he showed them his hands and his side. More trickery? Another false prophet? – they’re ten a penny round here!
No, thinks Thomas, I must be true to my own values. Unless I can see the holes that the nails made, and can put my fingers into them, and unless I can put my hand into the wound in his side, I refuse to believe.
On the following Sunday, one week after the disappearance of the body from the tomb, Thomas is present with other disciples, in a house, behind closed doors, when Jesus comes in and stands among them again. Jesus lovingly offers Thomas the proof he needs: “Put your finger here; look, here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it into my side. Do not be unbelieving any more, but believe.”
In that moment Thomas’s lonely doubts and feelings of exclusion disappear, and he declares to Jesus: “My Lord and my God".
There is a very useful modern phrase which I think describes how Thomas must have been feeling when his doubts were at their strongest: somehow, he'd slipped 'out of the loop'.
Through no fault of his own, he'd lost touch with his friends - just for a short time, but such a critical time. In his absence they had moved into a whole new dimension of faith and belief, and now he felt on the outside looking in. There had been a time when his was a voice to be heard among the disciples; now he could do no more than listen to the unbelievable things he was being told.
After a week of struggling with the stories about Jesus's appearances to others, Thomas must have been wondering whether he still belonged among the followers of Jesus, whether he was worthy of sharing in the good news, whether he had deliberately been sidelined.
I think many of those feelings ring true with us today. Life moves quickly; events sometimes overtake our ability to keep track of them. In a busy city community we connect ourselves with organisations, individuals, families, work colleagues, faith groups, leisure networks… And we can only cope with them all by giving priority to some over others. So sometimes, we slip 'out of the loop' and find ourselves no longer at the heart of things, no longer one of the influential voices, no longer one of the big fish in the pond.
When we find ourselves on the outer fringes instead of the inner circle, our human nature often convinces us that we were eased out by others, or by factors beyond our control; yet, if we're totally honest with ourselves, we've usually made our own choices which have placed us on the sidelines. And, usually, the choice about returning into the mainstream is still ours.
Despite his feelings of exclusion, Thomas chose to be with the disciples on that second Sunday. And Jesus's patient and unconditional love for Thomas, through that personal encounter, caused all the doubt, all the resentment, and all the hurt to be dispelled.
Our own community of disciples here, can be a dynamic, fast-moving, ever-changing place to be. Despite our best efforts, some people, from time to time, do slip out of the loop; they somehow perceive themselves to be on the outside looking in. And it's a lonely and unhappy place to be, and leads to even more disengagement as time passes.
Our challenge as a Christian community is to catch people before they slip; to heal matters before they cause damage; to offer support before people go over the edge. That is the kind of patient and unconditional love which Jesus showed to Thomas.
Our challenge as individuals, prone to our own occasional doubts, stresses, and feelings of disconnection, is to remember that, just as Jesus was waiting for Thomas to overcome his feelings of exclusion, so Jesus is waiting for each one of us to reconnect into the loop and to experience his love once again in our lives.
It may mean trying to heal old wrongs. It may mean finding the strength to fully forgive a past injury. It will certainly mean choosing to connect once again with the new life which Jesus gives unconditionally to those who follow his way.
Just as with Thomas, seven days after the resurrection, the risen Jesus is waiting to strengthen our faith, inspire our actions, and commission us as his disciples.
We can follow Thomas into a new relationship with Jesus, sweeping away all the past obstacles, and discovering the grace of God and the gifts of service which have been given to each and every one of us. We can choose to place ourselves back within the company of the disciples and know that we belong there.
Or we can stay on the fringes, feeling undernourished and not cared for, and convincing ourselves, like Thomas, that we're out of the loop, sidelined, unheeded.
Our Christian journey is full of choices. Thomas shares his insight with us that this is one of the important ones - and it is ours to make, because Jesus’s invitation into active and renewed discipleship never ends!