At the very end of World War 2 when the German Nazi State had surrendered and Allied forces were fanning out across the countryside, checking every farmhouse for snipers, an American platoon came across a cellar just outside Cologne where apparently Jewish men, women and children had been in hiding. The hiding place was broken and empty, so they could only guess what had happened or how long its occupants had managed to remain hidden. But on a wall of the cellar the soldiers found a message in pencil, a message of hope from someone running out of hope:
I believe the sun is shining, even though I can’t see it.
I believe in love, even though I can’t feel it.
I believe in God, even though he is absent.
Like the occupants of that cellar - like survivors of authoritarian crackdowns before them and ever since - the disciples are huddled in fear on the evening of that first Easter Day, staring at the door - waiting for it be flung open – straining their ears for the inevitable sound of discovery - at the same time, I imagine, struggling to reconcile the past week’s trauma and despair with the wild, unreasonable hope that had been growing in them all day. Jesus’ closest friends grappled with their own sense of guilt as, no doubt, they played the tapes of their own failure during those final hours over and over in their minds – easier, in some ways, to live with the leaden finality of Jesus’ death than the teasing impossibility that he might indeed have risen. When it finally happens it’s almost an anticlimax – John just tells us that Jesus comes and stands among them and says, ‘shalom’ – peace. A one-word statement of reassurance and forgiveness - in the middle of your fear and your bewilderment and self-recrimination – peace.
And then he shows them his wounds. That’s the first amazing thing. Maybe that’s part of the gospel writer’s agenda to demonstrate that Jesus’ resurrection body was solid and physical - but more than that - it tells us that the Risen One still bears the wounds of the cross. It tells us that not only did Jesus bear the full extent of human pain and suffering in his earthly life, but he still does as the risen and exalted Christ of faith. As long as there is human suffering, Christ suffers - and if Christ suffers, so does God.
Not too long ago that would have been thought of as a heresy – the idea that God suffers, that God is moved by human suffering. It was thought that the timeless, changeless God should be immovable as a rock. But theologians have at last got around to recognising what St Paul is on about when he says, "…all creation groans in travail," because God’s creation is in pain. Creation is in pain when children die of preventable diseases, when men and women die in suicide bombings and senseless wars, when a few people in wealthy countries have more than enough while the majority of the world’s population don’t have sufficient for their needs. God’s not impervious to that. The Christ of faith is not up there, I think, sitting at the right hand of God waiting to pass judgement, but right in the middle of the worst that human beings do to one another, suffering with us and for us.
That’s the first thing – and here’s the second.
Jesus says to his frightened, bewildered disciples, ‘peace’. That restores them, just like when we say to one another in the liturgy, ‘peace be with you’ – it’s a moment of recognition, and of reconciliation. And then he gives them a job to do, he tells them – ‘as my Father sent me, so I send you’. It’s a Dr Who moment, we’ve come shooting back in the Tardis to the very moment of creation. Jesus breathes on his disciples exactly as God breathes life into the first human beings in the Book of Genesis, the kick-starting of creation where God’s Holy Spirit brings dull, inanimate matter to life. And from this resurrection moment there’s going to be a new mode of living, a new creation, a new spark of imagination and creativity that changes what it means to be human, what it means to live with compassion and integrity. Something new is happening and because of that there has to be a new way of living in this world. A way of living in this world that starts to become clear in Jesus’ very next words, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
Is that a scary burden, or what? Do you ever read those words of Jesus and think it’s a bit over the top? On the one hand Christians sometimes hear it as a special power of passing judgement – depending on your persuasion maybe a power given just to priests to absolve sins, or else a power that all Christians have, the power to forgive sins and the power to make them stick. It’s a wonder we can get our heads through the door. But, what if we hear these words of Jesus as a challenge?
What if we’re meant to hear Jesus telling us that the whole point of being disciples, the whole point of receiving God’s forgiveness is so we can practice forgiveness in our own lives, that if we’re not prepared to forgive those around us, then, in a sense, we have to bear the burden of unforgiveness.
So, not the authority to withhold forgiveness but the urgent imperative to practice the way of forgiveness. We need reminding of this, over and over.
So, ten newly commissioned apostles. Except, Thomas isn’t here. Maybe Thomas has been hiding somewhere else. Or else Thomas couldn’t stand being in the same room as the other ten scaredy-cat disciples. He seems to have been made of less impressionable stuff. But when the others catch up with him, and they get their first chance to tell someone the good news – to do what effectively has become their new job – their very first customer isn’t having a bar of it.
Thomas says, "I won't believe until I can see it with my own eyes."
Thomas is like all of us. We weren't there. It’s too late for us. There are no
more resurrection appearances. If we come to faith at all, it won’t be because we’ve seen Jesus with our eyes. We’re more like the blind men that keep popping up in the gospels, the ones who come to faith not because they see but because as they feel their way about in the fuzziness and uncertainty of their lives, they hear the words of forgiveness and they feel the touch of compassion.
Thomas, I think, is like us in another way. He often gets a hard time as the disciple who refused to believe, the disciple who demanded proof. But let’s not call him Doubting Thomas, let’s recognise his experience as something like our own and call him Courageous Thomas. Because doubt isn’t a sign of a lack of faith. Just the opposite, in fact – doubt is evidence of how seriously you take your faith – doubt is the willingness to struggle with the gospel and with the evidence of your own experience, the willingness to engage with faith intelligently and realistically, to ask questions even if they make you uncomfortable or there aren’t any answers. Doubt-filled faith takes God seriously, it takes the ambiguity of God seriously and it takes your own circumstances, and your own intelligence and integrity seriously.
Thomas gets a chance to satisfy his honest doubts – to see Jesus with his eyes - which for this first generation of apostles is the path to faith. And I think the message in this for us is that God takes us as seriously as we take God – as seriously as you struggle to reconcile faith with your own lived experience you can rely on the encounter with the Risen One. Jesus gives us the clue here – ‘blessed’, he tells us, ‘are the ones who come to believe even though they don’t see’.
At some time in each of our lives we do find ourselves sitting in a cellar. A place where nothing seems certain any more. Afraid of what’s out there –afraid of what’s inside ourselves. A place where platitudes don’t work. Our faith at times like that needs to be honest, acknowledging our own inadequacy, our feelings of guilt. In times like that faith needs to live with ambiguity. Things don’t seem clear. If you’re in a place like that, if you can remember being in a place like that, you know what I mean. The good news is that God takes seriously our need to encounter the Risen One of faith in a way that confronts our fears and our honest doubts. Listen carefully, and you will hear the word that makes all the difference.