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.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. 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.”But Thomas (who was called the Twin ), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But 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.”
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!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.
In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene is the first of Jesus’ followers to meet the risen Jesus. He sends her back to the disciples with an Ascension message, and the astonishing news of her encounter with her living Lord. Do they believe her? We are not told: but we wouldn’t be surprised if they had their doubts about her testimony, or even sanity.
Jesus’ Easter evening appearance to his disciples is in a room with the door locked ‘for fear of the Jews’ ie the Jewish authorities. This beleaguered company already know that Jesus’ tomb is empty. Do they also fear meeting up with their risen Lord will bring severe recriminations for their desertion? They seem traumatised and uncertain about the future. Mary Magdalene’s news hasn’t radically transformed the disciples’ outlook on life. In the midst of their discomfort they find Jesus standing amongst them: recognisably the same as he has always been, but bearing the scars of his crucifixion. There are no recriminations, only a confrontation of the best and most reassuring kind. His familiar ‘shalom’ bids them relax and accept his presence is for their benefit. As his disciples gather round him looking at his wounded body, their pent up emotions burst out into unconfined joy. Their relationship with Jesus has been re-established.
But this is not just a social call Jesus is making, no matter how welcome. His second ‘shalom’ to them is a commissioning one. He hands over the torch of his mission to his disciples. Earlier in John’s gospel there have been hints about this: but this is now happening. In his ‘breathing’ on them the Spirit of God who gives life to human beings and all living things (cf Genesis creation passages)., they are given power to bear witness to Jesus by their lives and conduct. The meaning of Jesus’ saying ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’ has been, and still is, a subject of debate. How are we to understand this? The context of the saying is the handing over and empowering of the disciples to undertake Jesus’ mission. Since John’s gospel treats ‘sin’ not as a moral category, but as ‘unbelief’, the saying is related to the disciples’ mission of bearing witness, not primarily a power vested in an individual or group. As people come to know and abide in Jesus, they will be “released” from their sins. If, however, those sent by Jesus fail to bear witness, people will remain stuck in their unbelief; their sins will be “retained” or “held on to” Seen in this light the stakes of mission are very high: for the disciples, and us.
We’re not told why Thomas was absent, missing this first Sunday evening encounter with the risen Jesus. We characterise him as “doubting Thomas,” though he asks for nothing more than the others have already received: to see Jesus with his wounds. Our faith is more akin to Thomas’ than we’re usually prepared to admit.
One week later Jesus’ visit provides exactly what Thomas needs, and he responds with the highest confession of anyone in the Gospel. This is not simply a doctrinal confession, but a statement of trust and relationship: “My Lord and my God!” Thomas reminds us of our need for our faith to be personal – creeds and statements of belief have their place, but the presence of Christ in our midst surpasses all of these, and all arguments.
Is Jesus’ response to Thomas a rebuke? It can be read like that – but more positively as blessing on all those who will come to believe without the benefit of a flesh-and-blood encounter with Jesus. Indeed, John goes on to declare that this is the purpose of his gospel, speaking to all of us who have not seen, but have heard his testimony: “But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name”.
Gracious God you come to us in Jesus always, sometimes when least expected. When we are tired, frightened of life, our setbacks overwhelming us, let us hear your ‘shalom’ as you stand beside us. May your life in us bring encouragement fresh hope and joy, as you journey with us into our future. Amen
The Rev’d John Young is a retired minister of the Synod of Scotland and a member of Giffnock URC