Preacher: The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, Precentor

We live in a world where there is much violence. We live in a world where we greatly struggle to find peace. We live in a world where we saw a week or two ago a man walked into a Brussels airport and, blowing himself up, kill scores of people and injure many more. We live in a world where we see year after year millions made homeless not through natural disaster but through the unnatural violence of human beings. We sit here in our cathedral knowing that the violence and fear and cowardice that can plague the human heart is our violence and fear and cowardice too.

And then we hear a story. Jesus walks into an upper room where his disciples huddle in just such fear and says to them, “Peace be with you.” And we might wonder about that. The story we have heard read is set on the eighth day of Jesus’ resurrection. This Second Sunday of Easter is our eighth day. We have journeyed through Holy Week with Jesus to the cross and we have risen before dawn to witness the lighting of the new fire and we have sung the joy of Easter. We now return to our cathedral a week later and this Sunday we see him enter an upper room on two occasions a week apart and say to his frightened disciples, “Peace be with you.”

The Catholic theologian, James Alison, writes of the world having been turned upside down by God’s action in the death and resurrection of Christ, who he calls a victim.

The making of [Jesus] a victim … made it possible for God to be revealed for what he really is: the forgiving victim. [1]

James Alison highlights that what is set free into the world in the resurrection is the forgiving spirit of the one who was crucified. The one who, on the cross, cried out to his Father, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” And once this spirit of forgiveness is set free in the world it is a different place and the way we relate to one another can be a different thing.

Jesus in the upper room has the marks of the nails in his hands and the marks of the spear in his side. He knows what it is to die a violent death and to die forgiving those who caused his death. That knowledge, that presence, is the one who speaks of and gives peace. Only one who knew violence and forgave that violence can give true peace.

The disciples heard of and knew Jesus’ peace. Thomas, though, was missing.

When the other disciples told him that they had seen Jesus, he said to them, ‘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.’ We think of Thomas as the great doubter but truly the other disciples were no different. They did not believe the stories from the women of Jesus’ resurrection. It was only when he appeared to them that they believed.

We all doubt, it is part of faith. One scholar Tony Kelly seems to positively encourage our doubt, our questioning. He wrote,

God is present at the edge of our real questions. Jesus is always a question for us. At the beginning of John’s gospel, the first words spoken by Jesus are: “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38)[2]

God is present at the edge of our real questions.

And that Thomas questioned. He questioned Jesus’ resurrection and he laid down conditions for his coming to belief. And what is so very moving is that Jesus gave Thomas just what he asked for.

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ (John 20:26-8)

Jesus’ words to Thomas match exactly the words spoken by Thomas. This crucified one with the signs of his death still present in his risen body stands and speaks his words of peace to Thomas. And what we might notice is that Thomas does not need to touch him anymore. It is not touching Jesus that brings him to faith but Jesus’ presence, Jesus’ gracious gift of himself. Jesus actually says in the Greek, “Do not be unbelieving but believing.” Jesus’ longing is that Thomas believes, that his disciples believe, that we believe. The writer of John’s Gospel says at the end of this chapter that his book was written that we might believe. And through believing have life.

Thomas allowed his question. He spoke his truth. His unbelief, his honest doubt about the resurrection of Jesus. And Jesus honoured that unbelief. In Tony Kelly’s words, God was present at the edge of his real question. Jesus gave himself to Thomas and Jesus’ grace led to Thomas’ confession, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas found God in the place of doubt.

A 20th century Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote the following about doubt.

From the place where we are right

Flowers will never grow

in the spring.

The place where we are right

Is hard and trampled

like a yard.

But doubts and loves

dig up the world

like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard

in the place where the ruined

house once stood.

Doubts and loves dig up the world like a mole, a plow.

Interesting that doubt and love are placed alongside one another in this poem.

Another way of saying that God and questions are no strangers to one another, I guess.

In a few weeks’ time we will celebrate the Feast of Pentecost and we will read the account from the Book of Acts of the sending of Jesus’ spirit. The Gospel of John tells the story a little differently. In the first scene we read about this morning, when Jesus spoke his words of peace to the disciples, Jesus also gives his spirit. This is John’s Pentecost, if you like.

Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ (John 20:20-23)

Jesus gives his disciples peace and he sends them out into the world as the Father has sent him. And he gives his spirit, this spirit of the one who died forgiving, remember, he gives that spirit and he tells us to forgive. And so we are sent out.

What shall we do with his words of peace ringing in our ears? Shall we serve one another as he served that Thursday night at his final supper? Shall we love as he loved that Friday when he died? Shall we wait with those who seem to be in the dead places where life is almost only a memory, as Jesus waited in the grave? Shall we, like the disciples sit with our questions, name our doubts? Shall we cry out our need for faith and what it is that might bring us to belief as Thomas did?

He sends us out … but he will go with us. The one with the marks of the nails in his hands, and the memory of the words of forgiveness he spoke to those who crucified him ringing in his ears, will accompany us. Jesus’ gracious, forgiving, peace bringing presence will be with us as we go to take God’s love to the world.

[1] James Alison Knowing Jesus p37.

[2] Tony Kelly, C.Ss.R Behold the Cross p106.