“Thomas said to him ‘My Lord and my God’.” John 20:28
It is evening on the first day of the week and the disciples are locked in a room together. They are afraid and they are anxious about what is going to happen. They are afraid the Jews will turn on them because they have been friends of Jesus of Nazareth.
Peter and John have seen the empty tomb in the morning, but they haven’t really grasped what has happened. John himself writes that they still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.
So here they are, and you can almost imagine the scene: sitting around on the floor in small clusters; talking so quietly that you have to strain to hear the voices; jumping at every noise; checking and re-checking that the door is locked; petrified that there will be the sound of heavy steps and a hammering at the door. This is a frightened group of men whose main concern is how they are going to get out of Jerusalem and find somewhere to stay until the trouble has blown over.
Then Jesus comes and stands among them. Doors present no obstacle to someone who has overcome the power of death . He appears and says ‘peace be with you’, and the disciples are changed.
The most encouraging part of that story for me is that the fear the disciples have is no obstacle to the power of Jesus, the fear the Church has about following him is not obstacle to God’s power. The thought of going out to live a life for Jesus would fill me with fear. Working in the Church is all right; it’s not threatening; it doesn’t ask very much from me. But going out to change the world, as those disciples would be asked to do, that’s frightening.
Starting preparations for a trip to Rwanda in June, I wondered about the church there and about the obstacles it faces. I wondered about how life-changing the trip will be.
A few years ago, Voluntary Service Overseas had a poster campaign that still sticks in the memory, “Will you remember today forever? You went to work. The DART was strangely empty. You got an hilarious email. Someone made you a perfect cup of tea. You ate a delicious sandwich. The photocopier did not jam. There were no delays on the DART home. But you will remember today forever? You saw an ad on the DART that changed your life. You decided to do something about the state of the world. You volunteered to share your skills in the world’s poorest communities. You stood up, not because there were no seats, but to be counted. To say you wanted to make a difference. This is your chance”.
It made me think at the time, I’d never really done anything like the people who respond to those VSO advertisements. Twenty odd years of keeping Church of Ireland parishes going doesn’t quite match up to working in a refugee camp, or a shanty town, or a remote rural area; working with people on the very edge of life and death. Church is very mundane and predictable and undramatic. Being honest, even going to Rwanda is not going to change the realities of parish ministry here in Ireland. “Will you remember today forever?” is not the sort of question that is likely to occur on a Sunday morning.
Yet Jesus does challenge us to be like him, and, if we are like him, then there will be days that we will remember forever.
Jesus appears and he shows his disciples his hands and his side. It is the crucified man from Nazareth who has been raised from the dead. Jesus is not some superman who has flown in from outer space who can just shake off what it means to be human. He is a real person, God has taken on our flesh and blood, and really bears our pain and our injuries.
God has become this broken and disfigured man and has risen from the dead as a new creation. The man who was despised and rejected is the one who is resurrected.
God is saying to us that this is his way of doing things; the way to life is the way of the Cross. We cannot hope to share his life with him if we are not prepared to follow in his way of doing things. What God is saying to us is that you cannot have Easter without Good Friday; you can’t have new life without an end to the old life; you can’t follow him and stay the way you are.
Jesus stands among his disciples and they are challenged to change, to see in his Cross the way to victory. It wasn’t easy for them. How can giving up mean that you gain? How can dying mean that you live?
Thomas is not with them on that evening and he refuses to believe unless he can actually touch the marks of the crucifixion. Thomas is like us, he finds it hard to accept that this could be God’s way of doing things. Only if he has undeniable physical evidence, will he accept that this could be the way.
It is not simply a question of doubt, it is a question of not understanding of why it should be this way. If this is how God works, then Thomas wants to be certain. He wants to be sure that this man Jesus has really been a human being; that God really shared our life with us. It mattered to Thomas that God really understood what frustration and disappointment and hurt and pain and grief really meant.
The scars and the wounds in Jesus’ body were the marks of what the powers of this world thought of someone who gave up his life for others; for Thomas, though, they would be the marks of truth and of victory.
The Easter story shows us what we can be; that God can take our life and make it into something new, as he takes the lives of each of those disciples.
When Thomas realises that he will remember that moment forever, that God has turned things upside down, that in giving up your life you gain it, that there is no need for worry or fear, ever again, he exclaims ‘My Lord and my God”
Do we ever allow God to turn things upside down? Will there be a day that we remember forever?
Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on 19th April 2009