Sermon - 29th April 2018
For God, there are no closed doors
Scripture - John 20:19-31
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
We are still in the Easter season, as we continue to look at Jesus’ appearances following the Resurrection. All four Gospels narrate a similar telling of how an empty tomb is discovered by Mary Magdalene, but thereafter they diverge. Mark’s Gospel ends abruptly. Matthew’s Gospel has Jesus appearing to His Disciples in Galilee before ascending into heaven. And Luke’s Gospel, as Philip explored two weeks ago, speaks of two disciples’ journey to Emmaus and their encounter with the Risen Christ, followed by an appearance to all the Disciples, and a later account of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, an account which bridges two books, ending the Gospel and beginning the Acts of Apostles.
As is frequently the case, John’s Gospel does things differently, and the Resurrection narrative focuses on three very personal and emotionally powerful encounters with the Risen Christ: for Mary Magdalene, for Thomas – whom we call “Doubting Thomas” – and Peter.
Today, we are going to be looking at Thomas.
Names are significant: not only do they identify us, our name also carries with it something of who we are, our reputation.
*For example, when we hear the name Oliver Cromwell, British people will recall the republican leader in the English Civil War. Have you ever noticed how the surname Cromwell is almost never used today?
*Here’s another example: when we hear the name Martin Luther, depending on your knowledge of history, you will recall either the 16th Century German Reformer Martin Luther or the American civil rights’ activist, Martin Luther King.
*A more recent example: ten years ago, the name Jimmy Savile would have meant an eccentric media personality known for his charitable work and his eccentric clothing, *but today his name has a far more sinister connection.
*Turning to the central character in today’s Gospel reading, the Disciple Thomas: his name throughout history has become forever connected with his doubts about the Resurrection: we often to refer to him as “doubting Thomas”, but there was a lot more to the man than this one incident. Here’s a short clip from the American TV drama/mystery series “Lost” in which one of the characters talks about the Disciple Thomas.
*<Video Clip from “Lost”, Season 5, Episode 6 – Ben and Jack talk about St Thomas>
*Speaking of ourselves, I am sure we would wish to be remembered in many and different ways by the people whom we know, and not by one moment in our lives, particularly, as it was for Thomas, a moment in which he was not at his best.
Looking now more closely at our Gospel reading, we hear of two appearances by Jesus. The first takes place in the evening on the day of Resurrection, the first Easter Day. We are told that the Disciples were all behind locked doors and Jesus came to them. Even though the Gospel does not explicitly say so, Jesus’ appearance to them certainly has a supernatural quality to it. It occurred to me that we humans are fascinated by supernatural appearances: it is constant theme in literature and the arts, in Shakespeare we have the ghost of Hamlet’s father, or in contemporary media through science-fiction, appearances out of thin air are common-place. Here are a couple of examples.
*<Video Clips: “Star Trek” transporter; “Dr Who” – TARDIS materialisation>
I wonder what my response might be if someone or something materialised suddenly? I think I would be very afraid. I would probably think that I had finally lost my mind completely.
*Let us think what it must have been like for Jesus’ Disciples. Three days previously, they had seen their dearest friend, teacher and Lord betrayed by one of their own and arrested. Two days ago, they had seen Jesus tried, tortured and executed. And on this day, in the midst of their grief and fear for their own lives, they heard from Mary Magdalene that Jesus was missing from the grave and had risen. I think their nerves were at their wits’ end.
Yet Jesus’ appearance to them did not push them over the edge into insanity or despair: the Gospel reading tells us that the Disciples were overjoyed. Jesus’ coming to them brought relief and reassurance.
The second appearance of Jesus to the Disciples, we are told, took place one week later, just as today is one week after Easter. This part of the narrative concerns the Disciple Thomas.
The Gospel writer does not tell us why Thomas was missing on that first appearance of Jesus a week ago. Maybe Thomas was in such pain at losing his dearest friend that he needed to be alone? Maybe he had returned to his former life before becoming a disciple?
The Gospel accounts tell us that upon Jesus’ arrest, all the male Disciples fled: maybe Thomas fled a long way and didn’t get back to Jerusalem until some days after the Resurrection and rumour of the empty tomb would have spread very quickly, as Matthew’s Gospel account of the Resurrection tells us.
Despite what we know about Thomas’ courage to follow Jesus, we could hold him up as an example of a man of weak faith: after all, his unbelief was three-fold: he refused to believe his friends, the other 10 Disciples; his belief had to be on his terms alone; and for him, physical touching of the Risen Christ was required.
The point I would like to highlight here is that when Jesus miraculously appeared to them all a second time, Jesus was aware of what Thomas had said and Thomas’ conditions for belief, and He sought to help Thomas overcome his unbelief by telling Thomas to touch the wounds.
The Gospel writer is silent on whether Thomas did actually touch Jesus’ wounds, but Thomas’ response seems to be an immediate one of recognition of who Jesus is: “My Lord and my God!” *
John’s Gospel begins with God becoming human: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (Jn 1:14) Here at the end of the Gospel, the story turns full-circle when Thomas acknowledges Jesus: “my Lord and my God”.
What does this mean for us? Just as Jesus was aware of Thomas’ doubts, God is aware of our doubts, our thoughts and our fears. As just as Jesus came to Thomas to help him overcome his unbelief, God is ready to come to us to help us. Jesus came at the right time, at Thomas’ point of need.
In the final book of the Bible, Revelation, Jesus says: * “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me.” (Rev 3:20)
For God, there are no closed or locked doors. Jesus met the Disciples at the point of their need, and moved them on. While the other three Gospels focus mainly on the facts of Jesus’ Resurrection, John’s Gospel tells of how Jesus’ Resurrection affected individuals.
Mary in grief at the tomb meets Jesus, and Jesus moves her on, telling her to go and share news of His Resurrection to the other Disciples.
Jesus meets the Disciples on that first Easter Sunday evening, and Jesus moves them on. He says to them: * “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
Jesus meets Thomas and the other Disciples a week later, and he moves Thomas on, out of his doubt and unbelief into assured faith.
In the final chapter of John’s Gospel, we read how Jesus meets the Disciples one final time and restores Peter following his denial of Jesus. Again, Jesus moves them on in their journey, and next week, we will be looking at Jesus’ very personal and emotionally powerful reconciliation with Peter, the man who denied three times knowing Jesus.
The Bible doesn’t tell us what happened to Thomas, but historians believe he travelled East as far as India, and there are Christian communities in Tamil Nadu in southern India who trace their origins back to Thomas.
Finally, why did Jesus move them on? He moved them on, because it is now our task, our task to pass on the Good News of Jesus. Unlike Thomas and the other Disciples, we have not seen, yet we believe. Our being here today in church is evidence of our belief.
I am finishing today’s sermon with a musical reflection, using the words from the prayer of St Teresa of Avila, “Christ has no body on earth but yours”. There are no images to go along with this music; instead, I invite you to reflect on the Risen Christ in the magnificent stained-glass window as you listen, following which we will have a time of silence in which we might ask God… like Thomas who needed to move on in his faith, how do I need to move on in my life?