The lectionary Gospels for Easter and the second and third Sundays thereafter all tell resurrection stories as befits the Easter Season. But this reading is the only one to be used every year; the Sunday after Easter, each year, this is the story we hear. This seems odd because I’m sure it’s not our favourite resurrection story – it’s certainly not mine. There is something much more satisfactory about the story of the Road to Emmaus or the Picnic by the Lakeside. But here we are once again, with the disciples behind locked doors somewhere in Jerusalem, imagining their fear, their lostness.
The story takes place on two different Sabbaths – two Sundays a week apart. The first part is set on the evening of the first Easter day. We don’t know how many were gathered, secretly, in the room – Judas was gone and Thomas was missing. So a minimum of 10, but there may well have been more than the remnants of ‘the twelve’ – we are just told ‘disciples’ and there were definitely for than 10 or 11 of them by this stage.
The second half of the story takes place a week later – so ‘today’, in a manner of speaking. This time Thomas is present, but, again, we don’t really know who else was there. It would be hard to imagine than the women who had followed Jesus so closely were absent – they had been the faithful ones and the first witnesses to the Resurrection.
We have to take care with this reading, in our understanding of that phrase ‘the Jews’. This phrase is ambiguous in John’s Gospel, and has given rise to terrible scourge of antisemitism over 2 millenia. We have to remember that every person in the room was Jewish, and that Jesus himself was Jewish. So the phrase ‘for fear of the Jews’ can’t be taken at face value – they weren’t fearful of ALL Jews or they wouldn’t have been meeting together.
I think we have to understand that John is talking about the Jewish leaders who had been so opposed to Jesus’ ministry – the Temple Hierarchy and other leaders who kept their power by colluding with the Roman empire which was ruling Judah at the time, oppressing the poor, the peasants – those who were the focus of Jesus’ ministry of healing and love. So for ‘the Jews’ we need to read ‘the wealthy and powerful Jewish elite’ – those with whom Jesus had been in conflict during his short ministry.
Nevertheless, phrases such as this have caused untold harm, pain and fear over centuries. We have to acknowledge this and make sure that this never happens in our name again – in the name of Christians or of the church.
And there in the midst of this fear and bewilderment, Jesus arrives, bringing peace the traditional greeting of ‘Shalom’ to his friends. They see his wounds – the resurrection body of our Saviour still bearing the marks of his resurrection. I love this verse: it means that in all that God does to make us anew, in this life and the next, our wounds are never dismissed or obliterated. They are part of who we are, part of our uniqueness, and are loved by God just as much as our strengths – our good bits. We all have both and both are objects of God’s love for us.
And then Jesus blesses those present on the evening of that first Easter Day, with the gift of the Spirit. This is known as the Johannine Pentecost – a posh way of telling us that this is how John recounts the coming of the Spirit. This is a little confusing for us as we’re used to thinking about the Spirit coming at Pentecost – weeks away from now. I think we need not worry about this seeming inconsistency. Different people remember things in different ways, and the storytellers who are our Gospel writers used their material differently to make slightly different points. Besides this, the Spirit comes to us continually if we are open to God’s presence – here is the renewing presence of God, with us moment by moment if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Maybe you have met someone who shines with God’s love? I wouldn’t be a priest had I not met someone like that years ago. No words were needed – just to be in her presence was sufficient – a schoolgirl like me, but overflowing, shining with God’s love.
Who wasn’t there on that first Easter evening was Thomas. We call him the doubter, but that’s a bit unfair. He just wasn’t someone who followed the crowd – he like to think for himself. His questioning of events leads to a beatitude or blessing, which is really important for most Christians now and in the past. Blessed are those who have not seen but who believe. And I guess that’s most of us. Some have had visions – think of St Paul on the road to Damascus. But most of us believe for a different reason. We believe because people have told us – we have heard the stories of Jesus and we feel called to follow.
We believe because those first disciples do what Jesus asked them to do in the reading we’ve heard today – to go, to be sent out into the world to proclaim God’s love and forgiveness to everyone. So you see, for us this sending out is still God’s imperative. We have heard the Good News because someone has told us. How can others hear this Good News if we don’t carry on telling the story of God’s love shown to us in the life of our Saviour?
And yet we don’t find it easy to talk about our faith. We’re reticent to talk about something which is so personal to us, so deeply rooted in our souls. Like those first disciples we’re hiding somewhere in fear. So we need to ask God to fill us with the Spirit of love, forgiveness and hope; the Spirit of boldness; most of all, perhaps, the Spirit of Wisdom so that we may know what to say and when to speak. We don’t need long words, or abstract ideas, just the conviction that each of us is loved by God, and that this great love changes everything. Amen