Questions are OK!

We’ve heard a lot about resilience lately. Christchurch people are ‘resilient’. We were ‘resilient’ after the earthquakes – although as years go by and repairs are not finished and gathering spaces are not restored, that resilience has got a little frayed. We heard it after the mosque massacres. We were resilient. We moved in to help and support. We shared the love. Now we have the pandemic. Here we go again. Be resilient! But what, precisely do people mean when they say this? I think we’re expected to take it as a commendation – a pat on the back for being strong characters with good coping skills.  I treat that understanding with a good deal of scepticism. I suspect it’s much more a way for those in power to paper over the cracks and find reasons to delay putting in much-needed resources. After the earthquakes our ‘resilience’ meant, for example, that no, we didn’t need any extra help for the mental health services. We were all right. We just got on with it. By now there’s more recognition of the need for mental health support after disasters, and for the length of time it will be needed. But it’s still not in place.

Coping skills don’t necessarily kick in automatically whenever there’s stress. Not everybody has the same skill in managing in difficult times. We know now that some of our emotional health depends on what happens in our early years. It is true – or so I learned once at a lecture given by Ken Strongman, Emeritus Professor of Psychology – that older persons often react less strongly to emotional stress – we’ve learnt from experience over the years. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t feel stress!

This is by way of a prologue to our Gospel reading. If ever there were people suffering extreme emotional stress in those post-Easter days, it was the little group of Jesus’ close friends. They’d been through a real roller-coaster of changes in a very short time. The triumphal celebration when Jesus rode into Jerusalem; the tense Passover meal where Jesus signalled that his time with them was very short; and the trauma of the trial and execution. And now – the complete turnaround of the empty tomb.

We can feel for the companions of Jesus in this new emotional environment they found themselves in. They wanted to wrap themselves in familiarity. But – and this is always the result of change – they found that the challenge wasn’t going to let them alone. Jesus wasn’t going to let them alone. What had happened was going to change their lives in ways they couldn’t begin to imagine, but couldn’t set aside either.

One of the messages these Easter passages have for us is that Jesus comes to us. God comes to us in many ways. That wasn’t new knowledge. It’s woven through the Hebrew scriptures, and especially the Psalms – God seeks us and finds us and holds us. But we don’t always recognise God. In all the post-Easter stories the recognition or rather, the non-recognition, of Jesus is a constant theme. The other thing to notice is that recognition comes in different ways. Mary responded to the voice; the two on the road to Emmaeus responded to a familiar action – the breaking of the bread. Thomas came to full realisation through the sense of touch. Not only is the way of recognition different, so is the response. No one way is better than any other. We’re not all the same in our responses! Nor are we likely to respond in the same way every time. We’re much more likely to vacillate between reflective and impetuous. And perhaps this warns us that there would be a good chance that we’d be slow to recognise Jesus if he appeared in front of us!

We know about Thomas. Today’s story has given us several sayings. ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’ ‘If I see it with my own eyes, I’ll believe it.’ ‘He’s (or she’s) a doubting Thomas.’ Now that’s a phrase with a negative feel to it – not quite trusting enough. We often call this story ‘the one about doubting Thomas.’ Well, as for me, I want to say, thank God for Thomas – the honest man who was prepared to come out into the open and ask questions. How many times do we simply keep quiet about doubts and questions? We don’t want to risk being at odds with our chosen communities, or we don’t want to rock the boat. So we keep quiet. I believe that we have to be honest – even if it means that we go on asking questions all our lives.

There’s a sort of perception that Thomas is somehow a second-grade disciple. Not quite up there with the rest of them, because he wasn’t prepared to take the other disciples’ word. He asked for proof – he wanted to experience for himself what they said they had seen. I don’t think there’s any of us who wouldn’t have had similar reactions at times. Vicarious experiences aren’t much fun. I want to speak on behalf of Thomas– and on behalf of all of us who ask questions and look for proofs.

We tend to concentrate more on the doubting Thomas than the beginning of this story. There’s a repeated scenario. Both times, the disciples are hiding behind locked doors, and both times Jesus arrives among them. It’s just that Thomas wasn’t there the first time. When he questions the experience of the other disciples, he’s only doing what they themselves have done before – they were every bit as sceptical at first. They didn’t believe the women who saw Jesus first of all. Women weren’t reliable. Women were emotional. Women’s witness didn’t count for much in their world –a woman couldn’t give evidence in a court of law in the Roman Empire. Just like Thomas, all the other apostles wanted the evidence of their own eyes before they’d believe! And Matthew wrote that when Jesus appeared at Galilee to the eleven ‘they worshipped him, but some doubted.’ Some, not one.

Thomas was also showing a very human reaction. He was miffed at being left out of things. We all know what it feels like to be left out when something exciting and significant happens! We can get huffy too – we can make out that it wasn’t such a big deal. Who’s to believe it happened like that.

We’re not told why Thomas wasn’t there that first time, when the rest were keeping out of sight behind closed doors. We’ll never know the reason. Maybe he was out buying provisions, or listening to the news in the streets. If he was, then he was showing considerable courage, compared with the others!

Maybe John simply selected one disciple at random from the list of the twelve in order to make a point. Possibly some fragments of story were assigned to Thomas because he was a little unusual. He’s a ‘twin’ and twins in the ancient world always had special connotations – not necessarily fortunate ones. Whatever John’s reason, in this story, it’s Thomas who’s the one who spells out what’s unintelligible and unacceptable to any rational person. No body as mutilated as Jesus’ body on the cross could possibly walk alive on the earth. So I think it’s particularly significant that it’s this ‘doubting’ Thomas whose last word affirms Jesus in words that no-one else had used before – ‘my Lord and my God.’ This is a word of encouragement for any of us who follow Jesus in doubt and darkness.

The context of John’s gospel is also important. Whoever John was (and we don’t know) he has more to say about the post-Easter Jesus than the other evangelists, and with good reasons. John’s church was in danger, so small and far away from any support structures, and surrounded by hostile forces. Moreover, this gospel was written – probably – as a response to the break between the Jewish synagogue and Jews who confessed Jesus as Messiah. To John’s community this would have been metaphorically, and often quite literally, a rupture in the family, a chaos and confusion from which there was no going back.

Jesus and the Miraculous Catch of Fish

21 Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee.[a] It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus[b]), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.

He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”

“No,” they answered.

He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards.[c] When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

John wrote for all the later generations – including ours – who will never see the human person of Jesus. He needed to emphasise the fact that the post-Easter Jesus had entered into an entirely new relationship with his followers. In our gospel reading this is symbolised by the statement that Jesus ‘breathed’ on his disciples, and gave them the Holy Spirit. It’s the only time in the New Testament that the Greek word for ‘breathe’ is used. It’s a link back to the creation story, when God breathed life into the first humans. Here, Jesus is breathing a new life of relationship into the disciples, and commissioning them to spread the new life. New creation has happened: all those present are changed by their experience of Christ’s presence. Thomas is changed when he in turn experiences the living Christ, and moves from doubt to faith.

The commissioning goes on. All who receive the Spirit will share in the life and mission of the incarnate God. Jesus as the risen, living Christ can be experienced anywhere and everywhere. The post-Easter Jesus is the light to lead us out of darkness, the spiritual food to nourish us in the midst of our journey, the way that leads from death to life.

This is not about blind faith. If we use Thomas’s story as a reason to accept without question what our elders teach, we’re headed for trouble. History is littered with too many examples of the disastrous results of unquestioning belief in charismatic figures. We’re never absolved from the necessity of asking questions. We honour the beliefs of previous generations, but have to do the work for our place and time. We can’t wish away times of doubt and darkness and anger and conflict, and the times when there simply aren’t any answers. Our faith has to be truly ours and truly experienced. It has to fit with who we are, where we live, the knowledge of the world that is ours, and the times we live in.

And we don’t have all the answers. No theology has ever been more than partial. We’re better at recognising the limitations of theologians of the past than our own, but we too are only particular kinds of people within particular cultures and particular histories. So – we’ve got to work at the inter-relationships between theologies. And keep on asking questions.

Let’s go back to Thomas. Let’s remember, that as well as Jesus’ words to Thomas, we have Thomas’ words to Jesus. He makes the strongest possible affirmation when he says ‘my Lord and my God. Whatever happened to Thomas in that enclosed space was an experience of Jesus as a living reality.

Apart for one brief mention in Acts Thomas disappears from the canonical records with this enigmatic story, but he doesn’t disappear from the tradition of the church. Fifteen hundred years later, European Christians met Thomas again. The Portuguese arrived in South India – eager to spread the Gospel – but it was already there, and it traced its origins back to the apostle Thomas. Thomas went further than any other apostle, and died in South India. We’ll never know the details – no witnesses reported back – but his memory remains. Thomas lived out the rest of his life in the light of his experience of the post-Easter Jesus. He didn’t keep the blessing to himself, but went out and shared it.

All the post-resurrection stories are about coming out of seclusion. The disciples are not to hide themselves away and keep their new understanding to themselves, but to get out and get on with the work of transforming the world.

Change is always challenge of course – even when it’s just about changing the ways we do things in our small communities. Maybe we need to learn to be more relaxed about change: relax and see the funny side when things don’t go according to plan.

In today’s story, things didn’t quite go according to plan either. The disciples had barricaded themselves in against the hostile world, and suddenly, there was Jesus:  simply there, without benefit of keys – or doors for that matter. Walking through the wall as though it weren’t there is a good metaphor for the way Jesus moved – and moves – in the world. Jesus isn’t interested in boundaries and established traditions.

We may have to let go of some things – perhaps to give up –some cherished traditions, before the new can break through. We may have to go on asking questions. But we move in the knowledge that God moves with us. That love is stronger than hate, and that from the destruction and chaos of death and change, the brilliance of new life rises. We hold to that promise.

Jesus Reinstates Peter

15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

20 Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) 21 When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”

22 Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” 23 Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”

24 This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.

25 Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

Rev Dr Barbara Peddie , 24 May 2022