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.’ John 20.19-31
When St. John tells us that Jesus came and stood among the disciples when “It was the evening of the first day of the week” he was doing more than giving us a factual report of what happened. He was using a phrase we might find familiar, from the Book of Genesis, the Book of Beginnings. Because, the “first day of the week”, was of course the first day of Creation and the picture that St. John is painting is all about the first day of the NEW creation…
The point is that in the face of this stupendous news the disciples are already behind the curve; completely out of step. Things are going on, over which they have no control; and putting it simply, they are terrified. Far from appreciating ‘the big picture’ of what God was doing, they read everything that was going on simply in terms of their own safety and whether they had been too conspicuous in following of this upstart Jesus. After all that time with him their imaginations still seem switched off and as for St. Thomas, he seems even further behind.
However, whether they were frightened, sceptical or a bit slow on the uptake, that picture of the eleven disciples cowering in fear is a pretty potent one. It sets the tone. I believe it reminds us that any authentic engagement with the truth of what happened at Easter will necessarily leave us shall we say, a bit flustered. This is because, in the end there is nowhere to hide.
A friend once told me of how someone came up him at the end of an Easter service and said, “You believe this is actually true don’t you?” Of course, he said “Yes”. And he told me, “it was as if the penny hadn’t dropped for this person. It was as if they thought we were somehow pretending; or that this was some kind of fairy tale”.
But, simply put, that kind of assumption is just one of the many ways we attempt to keep Jesus and who he is at arms length, so to speak. And, ‘cowering in the Upper Room’ like those disciples, becomes a pretty good picture of how life can feel if we let the truth of what happened that first Easter Day have its way with us.
You see, if Jesus is raised, the Gospel is true and we face the fear of realising that for the most part we have built our lives on sand. We’ve got where we are today by doing the exact opposite of what Christ commands. We have to face the discomfort of knowing that obedience to him will probably mean facing the disapproval of our social set; and the discomfort of not fitting in anymore. What’s more, we have to face the equally scary thought that Christianity is not a spectator sport.; we’re all called onto the pitch. The Lord we serve says, “As the Father sent me, so I send you”. It’s the Christ-shaped, Cross-shaped life that lies ahead…. And that’s scary. If it isn’t… then we’ve not been listening.
So, that’s why it’s far more convenient and a lot less scary, for instance, to adapt the faith and turn it into some kind of ‘posthumous reward system’. “Keep your nose clean” and you get the goodies” and so on. Whilst a combination of imaginations that have been switched off and poor teaching has left us believing Christ is some kind of absentee Landlord who has left us to get on with things on our own…
But again, it’s truly scary if, as the Gospels tell us… that we have a God who interferes in our personal, locked away, overly-protected space. For many of us it’s an entirely new concept that the Kingdom reign of God has come and we have to let our lives be shaped accordingly.
But, in the confusion of its all-too-adolescent state the world needs an alternative. It needs a living reminder of what life could be like when, as we say in the prayer, “The Kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as in the Heavens”. Yes, just like the characters in the Gospels the sheer magnitude of what Holy Week and Easter are about are very slow to dawn on us.
But if we’re honest some of us know only too well; and like the disciples we shrink in fear. The point is, who knows where it might lead? However, it’s during this Easter season that the Lord comes to us in precisely that place, the place of our fear and says, “Peace be with you”. But he won’t let us off the hook… He says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’