Reflection 7th April Easter 2: John 20:19-31

Jesus and Thomas

Preacher: Stella Hayes


Church Newsletter 040724


Good morning. My name is Stella and I am a member of the congregation here. Our minister, Emily, who also happens to be my beloved daughter, is in Darwin for Synod meeting so you get me this morning. I will offer some reflections on things I have read and pondered on based on today’s lectionary reading and hope they may give you something to bounce off in your own reflection.



Just a quick prayer before we start… Dear God, may you be with each of us this morning as we wrestle with this astonishing story of the disciples encountering Jesus risen from the dead. Help us to find something fresh in this story to help us deepen our trust in You so we may live our lives more generously and abundantly. Amen



A word first about the pictures on the overhead…


While I am talking, I thought I would take you for a little walk through the hill beside our home. As some of you know, I have the great privilege of living out near Mpwaltye Arnteye, Honeymoon Gap. Our home is at the base of the hill on the eastern side of the gap. About 12 years ago, my husband, Keith, managed to set that hill ablaze with a lawn mower. The flames very quickly rushed up the hill as there was a lot of dry buffel grass. Everyone living on the block at the time and a few neighbours all came out and with water backpacks and rakes and hoses and buckets of water, we fought to contain the fire and save the trees on the hill. We did a pretty good job but sadly some of the mulga did not survive. Anyway, Keith, as an act of atonement, decided to rid the hill of the buffel. He wandered the hill regularly and as soon as any of the burnt buffel reshooted he would pull it out. (This started a compulsion and he now has managed to rid most of the hills on and adjoining the block where we live of buffel). So, when the buffel is removed, native plants have the chance to regenerate. And we have noticed that around the stand of mulga at the base of the hill, as soon as there is any rain, this delicate little fern shoots up within a day. The rest of the time it just looks like some random thin dead sticks on the ground. We were told it is called Resurrection fern. We have just had the most gorgeous of Easter times with all the beautiful rain and rivers flowing, and around the mulga, the live and dead mulga, all these little resurrection ferns have popped up. For me, like so much of the landscape here, this is a beautiful example of the pattern of death and resurrection, the pattern of transformation we are invited to trust in the gospel story.



So, we come to the week after Easter, and, as we have been doing all this year, following the story of Jesus in the Gospel of John. Todays’ reading has John describing events that happened after Jesus has been crucified and buried and has left his tomb empty and met with Mary in the cemetery garden.


Mary has told the disciples that she has seen and spoken to Jesus, and we now find them huddled together in a locked room, terrified the Jewish leaders will hunt them down and hand them over to the Romans to be tortured to death as Jesus was. And even after Jesus first appears to them in the locked room and says, “Peace be with you” (twice) and breathes the Holy Spirit into them, a week later they are yet again bunkered down in a locked room. One disciple was not in the locked room on the first occasion of Jesus appearing, and that was Thomas. When the others told him they had seen the risen Jesus, he was clear that unless he actually saw Jesus for himself and put his fingers into his wounds, he could not accept that he had risen from the dead. So, a week later, Jesus appears again in their locked room and this time Thomas is present. Once again Jesus says “Peace be with you” and makes the offer to Thomas to touch his wounds so he may know he has indeed risen from the dead. And forever after, Thomas is known as Doubting Thomas.



Over the years when I have been taught the story of Thomas, it is usually presented as though Jesus is admonishing Thomas for his lack of faith, and we are subsequently being told to not be like Thomas but to believe and not doubt.


Personally, I have always been willing to hold onto doubts and questions. Partly because I am educated that way… we are taught in most of our schools and universities that knowledge is meant to be evidence based. In our scientific era, unless something is observable, measurable, repeatable, is it true? The famous Royal Society of London, the oldest scientific Academy has as its motto, ‘Nullius in verba’ which was adopted in its First Charter in 1662. It means ‘take nobody’s word for it’. It is an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment. This is a big part of western culture’s ways of seeing things which will influence most of us here. So, are we then meant to suspend all of that when it comes to our religion?



I actually think that Jesus did appear to Thomas and offer for him to put his finger into his wounds suggests he did not judge Thomas for his doubts at all but was willing to meet with him where he was at, in all his doubt, confusion and grief. Jesus comes as the presence of grace. I think this encounter between Jesus and Thomas is quite a vulnerable and intimate one. Thomas had been honest in his doubt about a man rising from the dead and Jesus lets him actually touch his wounds… well he offers to, anyway. It’s unclear whether or not Thomas took him up on that offer. When we are honest with each other, when we are willing for another to touch our wounds, this is real vulnerability and intimacy.


Then Jesus tells Thomas to believe and not doubt and says, “Blessed are they who believe without seeing.” In fact, Jesus often appears to be telling his disciples to believe and drawing attention to their lack of faith. What exactly is being asked of Thomas here, what is being asked of the disciples and indeed what is being asked of us? Are we asked to believe crazy things we have no direct experience of?



I found a very helpful discussion about this in Karen Armstrong’s’ book “Case for God”. She goes through the etymology of the word belief to help us understand how the meaning of the word has evolved. To offer a brief summary… Armstrong points out that the New Testament was originally written in common Greek and the word that ultimately got translated as belief, was originally pistes, which means “trust, loyalty, commitment”. Pistes was then translated into the Latin by St Jerome in the third century to fides and credo, and then translated into English in 1611, and these words became beleven. And even back then, beleven which evolved into belief, did not quite mean how we think of it today, but more to be loyal to, or to hold dear.  Today, we think of belief as more of a cognitive exercise, as meaning a kind of intellectual assent to a set of propositions, and if we have doubts or questions about those propositions, we are not a true believer. This has probably occurred because Western Protestant theology is largely all in the head.


I think it was perfectly understandable that Thomas struggled to accept that Jesus had risen from the dead. Even back in first century Palestine when healing miracles were not uncommon, someone rising from the dead was astonishing. In fact, you could argue that if the first witnesses to the resurrection were not totally bewildered, one would have to wonder as to the validity of their testimony. And it is interesting that what Jesus keeps saying to the fearful disciples when he comes into the locked room is “Peace be with you”. It would seem he expected his appearance to totally disrupt their sense of reality, to cause turmoil and confusion. He probably expected that the disciples would feel afraid and ashamed… ashamed they had abandoned, betrayed, denied him in the time of his most desperate need.


The striking thing is that Jesus comes offering peace, not to judge or condemn them. He comes as a forgiving and loving presence.



So, if we think of the original meaning of pistes we could argue that Jesus was not asking Thomas for unquestioning acceptance of his supernatural powers but more asking him to trust him. With the presence of his risen wounded body, Jesus invites Thomas to trust in a reality infinitely larger and more abundant than the violent, envious and fear driven world that crucified him. Which was what he was asking of all the disciples. In John’s gospel, he kept appearing to them while they were fearfully locked in a room, he wanted them to not be so threatened, so self-protective and scared. He wanted to liberate them from their locked room of fear and shame and send them out into the world. By dying and resurrecting, he was showing them they did not need to fear death or the authorities that wield it, but that they had an ultimate safety in an infinitely forgiving and loving God.


(I should also say here, that when we talk of fear of death and the pattern of death and resurrection, death does mean actual bodily death, as Jesus died, but there are also many deaths throughout life…. Deaths of hopes and dreams, significant losses of people and things precious to us. As Richard Rohr says time and time again, part of us has to die to enter into the sacred. Not fearing death also means not fearing these many deaths throughout life but trusting that all deaths have the power to transform us, to grow us, that from the worst things, the best things can come.)



Sarah Bachelard, in her fascinating book, “Resurrection and the Moral Imagination” argues that if we do not fear death, we do not operate out of a sense of scarcity and are freed to behave in more moral ways. To quote her:


“I have argued that to the extent that death colonizes life with a sense of scarcity, threatenedness and fear, it shapes our thinking and responsiveness to be less generous and open, more competitive and rivalistic than when responsiveness to life is free of that anxiety. The more we seek to secure or possess our lives in the face of threat, the more we are dissociated from our belonging to one another and the human condition.”



A wonderful example of this is the story of Etty Hillesum, a Jewish woman who lived in Holland at the time of the Holocaust. My friend Carol gave me a very inspiring book called, “A Life Transformed” which draws on the diaries and letters of Etty to tell something of her story. She developed a deep faith in God, not through institutional religion but through a process of psychotherapy and a practice of prayer. All of this enabled her to hold onto her compassionate humanity through a time of extraordinary violence and inhumanity. As the persecution of Jews became an ever-increasing reality in her country, she resolved to not be poisoned by fear and hatred, which meant she made the choice to not go into hiding despite the insistent offers of friends. She walked openly around Amsterdam, determined to live. She wound up as a staff member at the Jewish camp at Westerbrook which was a halfway point for Dutch Jews before they were sent to concentration camps in Germany. Her role was to support her fellow prisoners, which she endeavored to do as best as she could. Etty wrote in a letter from Westerbrook:-


“The main path of my life stretches like a long journey before me and already reaches into another world. It is just as if everything that happens here and is still to happen were somehow discounted inside me. As if I had been through it already and was now helping to build a new and different society. Life here hardly touches my deepest resources – physically, perhaps you do decline a little and sometimes you are infinitely sad, – but fundamentally you keep getting stronger.”


These lines reveal a life lived beyond the power of death and fear. There is deep sadness, but as Etty faces and accepts the certainty of violent death, there is not a concern for self-preservation but with love. She frequently writes compassionately of the suffering of her fellow inmates and her refusal to hate the Nazi guards. Her thinking is not shaped by scarcity and fear of death, but by a sense of plenitude and abundance. She was killed in Auschwitz. It is a shame that many Jewish people in Isael today are not living out of a sense of ultimate safety in God but are living out of fear and threatedness so continuing to perpetuate violence.



And what about us here in Alice Springs in 2024? In a town where the violence of our country’s history is still unhealed and visible.  What could it look like for us to encounter the risen Christ, to live beyond a sense of scarcity, threatenedness and fear in our town today?



So, to conclude… I do not think the story of Thomas is about our capacity to suspend all doubt in supernatural events, but about our capacity to trust in the transformative pattern of death and resurrection embodied in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, the transformative pattern also visible in this astonishing desert country around us.

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