Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.
Doubter, believer, and certainly not squeamish, Thomas is a compelling character. The more I think about him, the more I appreciate him.
We encounter Thomas already in two other places earlier on in John’s gospel. The first is when Jesus receives a message from Martha and Mary that their brother Lazarus is very sick. Jesus determines to return with his disciples to Bethany to where Lazarus is, but the disciples protest because the people tried to stone Jesus when he was last in Bethany. But Thomas, far from being fearful of what might happen if they return, is prepared to go and face what he thinks is awaiting them in Bethany. He says to the others: “Let’s go with Jesus, so that we can die with him.”
The second is where Jesus, at the last supper, tells the disciples that he is leaving them, that they cannot follow him but they will one day, that he is preparing places for them in God’s house, that they will know the way that leads to where he is going. Thomas is puzzled and says: “We do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
And now in our passage for today, there is no sitting behind locked doors out of fear of the Temple authorities for Thomas. He wasn’t there when the resurrected Jesus appeared among the disciples, and now he won’t believe it until he can touch Jesus’ wounds with his own hands.
We have a picture of a man who is a concrete thinker, and who is not easily convinced by the testimony of others. An empiricist, who needs to experience something himself to be convicted of its truth, but who once convicted can act without fear. Perhaps a glass half empty sort of man, but one nevertheless who looks his reality fully in the face with resolve. Thomas would make a good patron saint of realists and empiricists.
I learned last week that today’s passage from John’s gospel is one of Ian’s favourites. Why, I asked him? Ian said, because God is not out there, away from us. God meets us at our point of need. Thank you Ian, I’ve been pondering what you’ve said about this passage – which rather than a judgment on doubt, we can understand as a generosity extended to us.
Jesus came to Mary of Magdala, beside herself with grief outside of Jesus’ tomb. Jesus came to the disciples, who had abandoned him at his trial and crucifixion and were now hiding away, and brings them an assurance of peace. Jesus was prepared to meet Thomas’s need for physical proof – to submit to an examination of his wounds. Jesus’ words “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” are not then a rebuke to Thomas – but a blessing given to others beyond that first community of witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. The gospel of John desires that all might have life in its fullness, through believing in Jesus the Messiah.
Believing. The Greek verb that is commonly translated as “believe”, pisteuo, occurs almost 100 times in the gospel of John. Some commentators have pointed out that it would be better translated as “entrusting oneself to” God, and that similar concepts are to “abide in” God, or to “remain in” God. Believing then is not a simple matter of assenting with our heads to a proposition, but something much deeper that can speak to us in our grieving, in our pain, our fear and our struggles – to entrust ourselves to, to rely on, to abide in God who is love.
Last Sunday Andrew talked about Easter as gift, as something that we receive but not something that we can make happen. In amongst our frailty, new vigour, new courage, new motivation, new hope – resurrected life – happen within us and to us, but we can’t ourselves make it so. As somebody who has spent most of my life as a churchgoing person, year in year out, the Easter story can sometimes seem almost too familiar. The time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday can seem too short, too mechanical, too inevitable, like a clock ticking down, the assurance of resurrection all too glib, too much like going through the motions. And a gulf opens up between the biblical witnesses and my own life experience, and what I hear and see in the lives of others, in the community and in the world.
For me one of the unexpected joys of Lent was meeting weekly for Bible study, with friends like Ian, David, Andrew, Anne and Frank. I say unexpected because I entered into the studies as some sort of Lenten duty, but with little inkling of the new and fresh insights that would come through our conversations with the texts and each other. For that I give thanks to God.
In reading today’s gospel, I have been reminded just how unexpected the experience of meeting the risen Christ was in the lives of those first disciples. How unexpected, and how much the new believers were convicted to action. Mary of Magdala, having seen and touched the risen Jesus, shares the news with others. The disciples who cowered away in fear receive the Spirit, the breath of new life, and are sent out by Jesus from behind their locked doors into ministry in the world. As for Thomas, the tradition has it that having met the risen Jesus, the apostle went on to be a zealous missionary. He travelled to India to spread the faith, baptizing new believers, building new churches, ordaining leaders.
Where does Jesus meet you?
Dr. Miriam Pepper