On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Judeans. Jesus came and stood in the middle of them. ‘Peace be with you,’ he said. With these words, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were overjoyed when they saw the master. ‘Peace be with you,’ Jesus said to them again. ‘As the father has sent me, so I’m sending you.’ With that, he breathed on them. ‘Receive the holy spirit,’ he said. ‘If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.’ One of the Twelve, Thomas (also known as Didymus), wasn’t with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples spoke to him. ‘We’ve seen the master!’ they said. ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,’ replied Thomas, ‘and put my finger into the nail-marks, and put my hand into his side – I’m not going to believe!’ A week later the disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut. Jesus came and stood in the middle of them. ‘Peace be with you!’ he said. Then he addressed Thomas. ‘Bring your finger here’, he said, ‘and inspect my hands. Bring your hand here and put it into my side. Don’t be faithless! Just believe!’ ‘My Lord,’ replied Thomas, ‘and my God!’ ‘Is it because you’ve seen me that you believe?’ replied Jesus. ‘God’s blessing on people who don’t see, and yet believe!’ Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which aren’t written in this book. But these ones are written so that you may believe that the Messiah, the son of God, is none other than Jesus; and that, with this faith, you may have life in his name.
One of the most popular misconceptions today is the idea that everybody up to about two centuries ago was credulous, gullible, easily taken in by strange stories and odd beliefs. We, however, with our modern ‘scientific’ knowledge, have learnt how to be sceptical, to test everything, not to take odd stories on trust but to enquire for ourselves. And so on.
There are a million counter-examples, of course (not least the many contemporary stories of people who are duped by the fantasies of politicians, economists and the like); but among the most obvious is this wonderful story of Thomas. Thomas knew perfectly well that dead people don’t rise. He knew, only too well, that there had been many would-be ‘messiahs’ and ‘prophets’ in recent memory, and that, one by one, they had been killed off by the authorities, or even by rival gangs. And that had been the end of that. No point pretending you could carry on when you obviously couldn’t.
Thomas wanted to see, and to touch. The evidence of the senses is a wonderful thing. As the story goes on, of course, Jesus gently points out that it would have been better to have believed without seeing; John is recording this for the benefit of his own readers, who have not had, as he has had, the privilege of intimate human contact with ‘the Word of Life’ (1 John 1.1). But Jesus does not (as some of today’s apologists might have told him to do) refuse Thomas’s grumpy request. The story of Thomas, in fact, shows some-thing which we see in John’s gospel in scene after scene, as those vivid one-to-one encounters unfold: Jesus and Nicodemus, Jesus and the woman at the well, Jesus and the man by the pool, Jesus and the man born blind, even Jesus and Pilate. On each occasion, no doubt, Jesus could have taken the high moral ground and simply refused to address the questions he was being asked. (The closest we get to that is the interview with Pilate, but there are all sorts of other things going on there as well.) But, instead, he meets his puzzled questioner where he, or she, is. And that is what happens here, too.
But then the miracle occurs. Thomas has said he wants not only to see, but to touch. Very well, says Jesus, ‘Bring your finger here, and inspect my hands. Bring your hand here and put it into my side.’ That’s what Thomas has asked for; that’s what Jesus will offer him.
But we are not told (despite a long tradition of Christian art, in which Thomas does indeed reach out his hand and touch Jesus) that Thomas obeys. Instead, he simply says the words, the words which bring into speech the confession of faith which had been trembling on the edge of so many conversations earlier in the book but which now at last comes blurting out: ‘My Lord and my God!’ The Word became flesh, said John at the start, and we gazed upon his glory. In the risen Jesus, recognized by the mark of the nails, the wounds of love, that glory is fully revealed, and Thomas leapfrogs over all the others, from radical doubt to robust faith. And this, says John, is the faith for which his whole book was written. The Jewish people had been waiting for the Messiah, but not at all sure what he would look like or what he would do. Now, he says, we know. ‘The Messiah, the son of God, is none other than Jesus.’ This is the faith in which life is to be found, the ‘life’ that is God’s new life, the life of God’s new age, the different dimension of life that can be born inside us here and now and will go on for ever and ever, all the way through death and to our own resurrection at the last.
It is because of this faith, which has always seemed impossible to sceptics but which is in fact within reach of anyone at all, that Jesus sends the disciples out on their mission. ‘As the father has sent me,’ he said (verse 21), ‘so I’m sending you.’ That is the most breathtaking commission and responsibility we could imagine. In that As . . . so . . . there lies the secret of all Christian mission. Think back, all through the Lenten journey, to all that we have seen and learnt of Jesus. Remember, incident by incident, what he was doing, announcing God’s kingdom and making it happen wherever he went, bringing healing and hope, food for the hungry and wisdom for the foolish. Now ask yourself: what would it take for us to do that, to be that, for our world today and tomorrow? Answer that question, and you have found the key to Christian mission.
But, you say, that’s absurd! Jesus was Jesus; we are weak, frail, muddled humans. We’re going to get it wrong. And even if we get it right, sometimes, it won’t work. Nothing will happen. But the truth of Easter is not just that Jesus himself was raised from the dead by the power of God. The truth of Easter is that that same power is now unleashed into the lives of all who believe in Jesus, all who follow him, so that he can continue his work – through them. Jesus breathed on them, like God himself breathing on the first human pair in Genesis 2.7, and that breath of life sent his followers out into the world then and does so still today.
We go out, then, as Easter people, with the message both of forgiveness and warning, of faith that confronts and conquers doubt, and of hope that overcomes fear (verse 19). We go out, in fact, as people of new creation: John emphasizes in verse 19, as he had done in the first verse of the chapter, that this was ‘the first day of the week’. It was the beginning of God’s new world. We new-creation people are to fill our lungs with Jesus’ powerful breath, to fill our minds with the truth of his resurrection, to fill our hearts with love for him and his world, and to go out, not knowing where we shall go or what we shall do, but only that a new day has begun which will never end. We are to remind ourselves, again and again, that the love which was shown on the cross (revealed once more here in the mark of the nails, verse 20) is the same powerful love that will carry us forward, through all the suffering and sorrow that we too will meet, to the point where not only we, but a great company that nobody could count, will say ‘My Lord and my God’. There are, as John says, many other things that he could have written in this book. But this is enough: enough for us, and for the world, to believe, to find life. Easter life. Here and now.
Lord Jesus, King and Master; overcome our fears with your love, and our doubts with your life, so that we may take that love and life to the ends of the world.