What would you think if I told you that I had seen Bishop Tyrrell (the first Bishop of Newcastle) riding his horse on William Street, outside of the Church, before the Eucharist began today? I suspect that some of you might think that it was finally time to call in the doctor, and others of you might be wondering how much red wine is left in the decanter in the vestry.
I might just be able to persuade one of you that Bishop Tyrrell was really there, if I painted a word picture of him vividly enough – after all strange things do happen! But even if I were able to persuade one of you that I had seen him, your theoretical assent that what I was saying was actually true would not come close to matching the actual reality of seeing him for yourself.
In the Gospel reading that we have just heard we are still there on the first day of the week, the day of the resurrection. During this period of the Church’s year time almost stands still. We left Church on Easter Day with the rumour that Jesus was alive, with the testimony of a group of women who encountered two heavenly messengers in the emptiness of the tomb, and Mary Magdalene (not trusted as a reliable witness because she was a woman), who met the Risen Lord, but without any other witnesses who could confirm her story. Now we return today – a week later – and only a few hours have passed in the Easter narrative. Whatever else has been going on in our lives, the Church’s year has stood still for the last week to give us the opportunity simply to catch our breath, and to take in once more the joy of our Easter hope, and this will be the case for the coming weeks: Easter is not over, we have many days of celebration ahead of us in these great Fifty Days of festival.
So what would you think if I told you that I had seen Bishop Tyrrell outside, riding down the street, over 100 years after his death? There are some things which we simply have to experience in order for them to be truly real for us. And because we are all different, we will experience them very differently.
In today’s Gospel we find ourselves in the locked upper room with the first disciples. Only Mary Magdalene has experienced the Risen Lord. Others know that the tomb is empty, but no one apart from Mary has had any real experience of Jesus being alive. The doors of the room that the disciples are gathered in are not only locked to keep the Jews away, they are locked to keep the whole world away – whilst a small group of men and women try to make sense of all that they had hoped for, and all that now seems to have been lost. And then Jesus walks through the door – literally through it, without opening it – and stands amongst them, and greets them with the words that bind each one of us together as we prepare to gather around God’s altar of grace week by week: “Peace be with you,” used in our liturgy very deliberately to point us to the expectation that we will meet week by week with the resurrected Jesus who alone brings us his peace, as we gather together as his Church.
We simply cannot know what Jesus’ body was like in these resurrection encounters, when he meets with his disciples in the days before his ascension. The Gospel writers were not trying to be scientists, so the kinds of questions which might intrigue us about his body didn’t even occur to them. But the Gospel writers do want us to understand two things, and I say this this morning to help us to reflect on the resurrection encounters both today and in the coming weeks. On the one hand, they want us to know that there is something continuous between who Jesus was before he died, and who he is after he has risen. The resurrected Christ is not so different from the Jesus who the disciples had known before his death that he has lost the marks of his humanity. That, I think, is what the wounds are all about. The holes in his hands, the gash in his side: they are still there in the resurrected Jesus, reminding the first disciples that the life of this same Jesus has continued beyond the grave, as it has already started to do for each of us who are baptised in his name.
But, on the other hand, the Gospel writers also want to emphasise that there is a difference between who Jesus was before he died, and who he is now. His ability to walk through doors, and walls; his appearing and disappearing, point those first disciples to the reality that whilst this is the same Jesus, his resurrection has not simply been the resuscitation of a tired human body brought back to life. It is the resurrection of God in Jesus, in this heavenly nature which the Gospel writers are trying to convey, and which Christians have struggled to understand through the centuries. Jesus is there, not altogether as he was, but not altogether different either, and his first words to those who had pretended not to know him, and who stood at a distance from the cross, and who denied that they knew him in his hour of greatest need is not retribution or blame, but peace.
Then in John’s Gospel everything happens at once: those words of peace bring rejoicing, and commissioning as Jesus sends the disciples out. In this account we need wait no longer for Pentecost, for where the risen Lord is present his Holy Spirit is present too with power.
Imagine being there, what an extraordinary experience, face to face with the resurrected Jesus. No wonder that the disciples who were locked in that room in fear became – at once – the fearless missionary leaders of the Early Church. But imagine not being there, and only hearing about it after the event. It would be like me telling you that I had seen Bishop Tyrrell on his horse waving to me as he trotted down the road outside. Or like trying to understand the sweet scent of a rose from reading about it in a book. Or like learning about the taste of chocolate from listening to a radio programme about it. No wonder Thomas ends up in a bit of a state. After all, he missed the whole thing and is now only hearing what literally is unbelievable news, second hand. In my mind as I try to stand in his shoes I wonder whether there were a whole lot of different emotions going on in him.
Certainly at one level (whether he was willing to admit it or not) there must have been something compelling in the story of his companions, simply because of the joy with which they told him what had happened. But there are plenty of joyful people who are completely delusional, so joy is no guarantee. At another level he was probably quite cross simply because of the fact that he had missed out. None of us like to be the only one in a group who weren’t present at an important occasion, whether we let other people know that that is how we feel or not. Whatever it is that he is thinking, in John’s Gospel, Thomas expresses his response through stubbornness. ‘Unless I see it, I won’t believe it’ is the line that he is going to take.
Whilst the weight of Christian history has come down against him, if we are honest, if we had missed that moment, and if we hadn’t known what we were only going to find out later, then we would probably have responded the same way. As I alluded to in my Easter Day sermon, for many of us the figure of Thomas is someone that we can very much relate to, even if we only say so quietly to ourselves. The good news for Thomas, of course, is that on the first week’s anniversary of his resurrection, Jesus returns again and this time Thomas is there, not just as a spectator but as a participant, in the joy of it all. Because whilst our Gospel reading started with the events of the first evening of Easter Day, it ends by describing what happened today, a week later, when the disciples were again gathered together in the house. You might have noticed that when Jesus returns a week later, the doors are shut, but not locked as they were before. There was no need for fear now that the disciples had met the risen Lord. But there was still the need for Thomas to experience what he had missed a week before. Jesus once again enters the house (not through the conventional route), again he greets them with words of peace, but this time he offers his hands and his side for Thomas to touch, in order for him to believe. But with the overwhelming presence of Jesus in his midst, Thomas does not need to do those things in order to adore his Lord.
I think that if the writers of John’s Gospel were present with us now, they would want to say one thing very clearly to us today, and it is this: the resurrection of Jesus is not simply something to which we give theoretical or intellectual assent, it is something that we are called to experience for ourselves. That is the whole point of this encounter with Thomas.
It is not enough for him to simply hear that Jesus is alive from others, he needs to experience it, to participate in it, in order for him to be able to live it. Even if we have not said this out loud many of us know this to be true for us as well. I cannot manufacture an experience that I have not had, even if it is an experience that the people that I respect and trust the most have had, or even that I read that the first disciples have had. What was true for Thomas is true for me, and for all of us as well. Thomas reminds us that the good news of the risen Jesus cannot adequately be conveyed through the stories of others. It can only really come alive in us through our own experiences of him. Others can help us towards it, and guide us on our way – and of course that is one of the reasons that we gather week by week as the Body of Christ, to hear and share and reflect on each other’s experiences of God at work in us and the world. But we cannot experience the love of God in his risen Son by proxy (through someone else), we – like Thomas – need to experience it for ourselves.
So as we rejoice in the resurrection of Jesus again today in these great fifty days of Easter, we celebrate the example of Thomas, who will not settle simply for the stories of others, but who in his own unique way seeks to experience the risen Lord for himself. As it was for Thomas, so may it be true for each one of us. We cannot experience the risen Christ through others alone. Like Thomas, we must experience him alive for ourselves; and the good news is that he is here with us today, and every time we gather as the Body of Christ to celebrate the Eucharist together.