“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:19)
It’s the first Sunday after Easter and we are back in the upper room and back with our old friend, ‘doubting’ Thomas.
We join Thomas every year at this time which is a little odd when you consider that we work on a cycle of readings (known as ‘the lectionary’) that schedules different readings for each week and doesn’t generally repeat any of these texts more than once every three years, with very rare exceptions such as this one!
The Easter Day readings are rotated just as the Christmas Day readings are rotated but the Gospel reading for the first Sunday after Easter is always the same. Thomas is always with us. He is hard to avoid! Evidently our forefathers and foremothers in the faith who gave us our lectionary felt that this man was someone whom we needed to meet, and the reasons for that seem obvious enough.
Thomas is the patron saint (so to speak) of all us doubters. Thomas was not there when Jesus first appeared after His resurrection just as we were not there when Jesus first appeared. Thomas found it hard to believe in the resurrection of Jesus just as we find it hard to believe sometimes. Instead of being filled with sunshine and light, when we meet Thomas he exhibits bitterness and even cynicism, and we are familiar with those emotions too.
Thomas is a natural buddy for us sceptical, disillusioned, anxiety-ridden, Prozac-popping 21st Century types, and I suspect Thomas’ place in the lectionary reflects the fact that throughout the ages Christ’s followers have always felt a special affinity with this man. Even so, it struck me this week that there might be an additional (and even more profound) reason for the historical popularity of this reading as it is a story that brings us to the very heart of Good News that is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, for it is a story of reconciliation.
It really struck me during our time in Syria recently that the goal of our peace effort there is not simply to bring about a ceasefire. A ceasefire would be great, of course, and we do hope and pray for a ceasefire, but equally we need to pray for something more than a ceasefire. We need to pray for reconciliation.
This is one of the many important lessons that Mairead Maguire has taught me – that making peace isn’t simply a matter of persuading politicians and generals to stop shooting. You need women to get involved and community leaders and young people and all sorts of persons at all levels of society because if you don’t have these integrating forces working at the grass roots your ceasefire will never hold!
In the end violence isn’t about weapons. It’s about people, and unless people can be reconciled to one another, sooner or later the violence will manifest itself again. It will come in a different way and in a different form perhaps, but there’s a big difference between giving someone a tranquilizer and dulling the pain and healing somebody of their disease. A ceasefire will dull the pain for a while but what we need ultimately is not suppression of the symptoms but a true and thorough healing of relationships. And that healing of relationships – of estrangement and betrayal and violence and pain – has a name. It is called reconciliation!
I appreciate that at one level the story given to us in John chapter 20 is just the story of a reconciliation between one man and his friends. At the same time though I believe that this story is somewhat archetypal!
The disciples, we are told, had locked themselves inside their house and they had done so out of fear!
Why were these manly fisher-folk who, only a few days earlier, had been ready to fight and to die alongside their heroic leader, now cowering in the corners of somebody’s home? Moreover why, after Mary Magdalene had visited them with the news of the resurrection of their Lord that morning were not these mighty men out proclaiming the good news or, at the very least, out verifying for themselves whether what Mary had reported to them had any substance to it?
The disciples are weak at this point. That is obvious. It was their grief, first and foremost I assume, that had made them weak.
All of us who have lost those we cherish to death know what an incapacitating effect this can have on us and how the weight of grief can lie on you like a plate on your chest that makes it almost impossible to get out of bed. In the disciples’ case, of course, this grief was mixed with guilt – a debilitating combination!
What had happened to them in the garden a few nights earlier? Had they really all turned and fled after having made all those brave statements about how they were going to fight to the death?! What do you say to a guy like Peter who disowned and denied his lord over and over again – stuttering and confused and wetting his pants in fear when he should have been dying gloriously out of love for his master?!
Grief and guilt and fear obviously affect different people in different ways, and again that is something that I have been vividly reminded of in recent weeks!
This was my second trip to Damascus and in some ways it was a far more sobering visit than was the first one for me. I think I was something of a tourist the first time – wide-eyed and rather idealistic when it came to the wonderful people I was meeting and their bravery and their fortitude. On this visit I became far more aware of the human foibles of some of those we were dealing with.
This is not to say that the people of Damascus are not noble and heroic, but of course when you scratch the surface you find that not everybody is a saint but that many people there are manipulating people and events for their own benefit.
I remember debriefing this with Denning on our way out of Syria – expressing a sense of disillusionment with a couple of people who had been our former colleagues. He replied, rather wisely, “These people have been living in a warzone for three years now. How much are you going to expect of them?”
Different people respond to pressure differently. Some of us manage to put on that stiff upper-lip and carry on regardless but many of us just don’t cope, and all of us have our breaking points. The disciples had evidently reached their respective breaking-points and I’m sure that many (if not all) of us have been there too.
You reach a point where the darkness is so all-embracing that you just can’t lift your head out of the fog. And regardless of whether it’s due to somebody else’s fault or whether you’re in a mire of your own making, you are no longer capable of taking the initiative required to get yourself back on your feet. You require an ‘intervention’ (as it’s technically called) and this is exactly what we see Jesus doing. Jesus intervenes!
“The doors were locked”, we are told, but Jesus managed to find a way in anyway! I would like to think that the Lord at other points showed a respect for personal privacy but at this point He clearly did not! These fearful people had wanted to isolate themselves but Jesus “came and stood among them and said ‘Peace be with you.’”
It is an extraordinary intervention on the part of Jesus, and most especially when we recognise that He is the aggrieved party in their relationship breakdown.
It was not Jesus who had abandoned them in the garden of Gethsemane. It was not Jesus who had made all the brash promises to stand by them till death they do part! It was not Jesus who stumbled out of that last supper having had one too many (I suspect) and subsequently full of ‘Dutch courage’ when the going was smooth but totally hopeless once they were faced with real danger!
It wasn’t Jesus who had denied them three times and then run away to hide while he was tried and condemned and scourged and mocked and tortured and killed!
Jesus was the aggrieved party, and it is hard to expect the victim in a broken relationship to take the initiative in reconciliation.
That is, of course, exactly what happened in South Africa too. Who was it that founded the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ in an attempt to bring together black and white South Africans – victims and perpetrators – in order to create a unified country? Was it the wealthy white people who initiated this in a desperate attempt to stop the black majority taking revenge on them for profiting for so many years from a system of structural injustice that had damaged so many of them? No, it was Nelson Mandela – 27 years a prisoner in the white man’s gaol!
Truly Mandela was a Christ-like man, for this is the pattern Jesus leaves us. It is the aggrieved and wounded Jesus who takes the initiative and intervenes on behalf of his struggling disciples! The wounds are still fresh and visible and yet instead of being a source of bitterness and anger Jesus uses His wounds as part of the process of reconciliation!
And it is a process, and this again is where I see the reconciling work of Jesus as archetypal. It doesn’t all just happen magically and instantaneously.
“Peace be with you”, Jesus says. And a little bit later He has to say it all again because the disciples don’t start blowing their trumpets and throwing streamers the first time! It seems that they need some convincing that Jesus has come in peace, or at least that they need some time to process what is going on and so break out of the isolation and depression that they’ve been enveloped with.
I think of all the time I’ve spent in counselling over the years, seeking healing for wounds that go back to my childhood or episodes from school that still haunt me, and you think you find healing for these things but then they come back at you again and it takes time to be healed of those wounds and indeed there are some wounds that you never seem to get over completely.
It takes time to reconcile a husband and wife where there have been lies and betrayal. It takes time to rebuild a country that has been torn apart by war. Even when the aggrieved party follows the pattern of Christ and takes the initiative to initiate reconciliation it takes time for the bitterness to pass and for trust to return and for real communication to take place.
Reconciliation is not an event but a process, and it is a process that we are all involved in, I think!
Of course we don’t have to wait until the end of the process before we start to celebrate. I remember once listening to Ali Abunimah (the founder of ‘Electronic Intafada’) and he was speaking about a trip he’d just taken to Northern Ireland, and he said “the thing I loved most about Ireland was the way that people still hated each other there!”
By this he meant not that people hating each other was a good thing but rather that it showed that the Irish didn’t need to wait until they were all holding hands together singing “Kum by Ya” before they initiated a peace agreement. He saw this, of course, as a sign of hope for Israel-Palestine.
That is a good point, of course, but the flip side of Abuminah’s insight is that a ceasefire is never enough. Even when the ceasefire is successfully in place the work of peace is not complete. We need to move beyond the cessation of hostilities towards reconciliation, and reconciliation takes time.
Our friend Thomas well illustrates why the reconciliation process is so difficult. He is a bitter man. Whether he was bitter by nature or was simply twisted by the events of Good Friday we do not know but the statement for which he is best remembered – “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” – is as perverse as it is painful!
So Jesus comes to His disciples and He shares His peace with them. He breathes on them. He shares his wounds with them. He talks to them. And then He comes back and does it all over again – focusing specifically on Thomas this time. They talk some more. He shares his wounds with them … again. And so the process of reconciliation plays out!
They say we all yearn for home!
They say that even those who grew up in households that were violent and abusive still yearn for home, and this reflects the fact that what we yearn for is not a simple return to the flawed environments in which we spent our childhoods. We yearn for something deeper – something of a more spiritual nature. Ultimately what we yearn for is our Heavenly home, where we can be reunited with our Heavenly parent, and yet we recognise that there is reconciliation that still needs to take place there!
And this is the good news of Easter. This is our proclamation – not simply that Jesus died for our sins (though that is good news indeed) and not simply that He also rose from the dead (which is great news) but further that the risen Lord Jesus has thenceforth taken the initiative in reconciling us to Himself (2 Corinthians 15:19).
It has been a great privilege for me to be involved in peace and reconciliation work in Syria. I’m not pretending that I’ve been able to achieve much in two brief visits but I am committed for the long haul, and it is a privilege to be involved in this work.
The far greater privilege though, of course, is to be one of the direct beneficiaries of the reconciliation initiative of Jesus – initiated by God Himself
“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 27th of April, 2014.