Last week’s Gospel ends with Jesus revealing himself to Mary outside the empty tomb and telling her, “Don’t hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord;’ and she told them that he had said these things to her.” In fact, all of the Gospel accounts tell us of Jesus’ admonition to Mary to tell the disciples the good news of his resurrection. Luke informs us, however that, “the words seemed to [the disciples] an idle tale and they did not believe them” (24:11). All but Peter, perhaps. Neither Matthew nor Mark mentions the disciples’ reaction to Mary’s news at all.
It is now the evening of the day of the resurrection. The disciples are gathered “in a house . . .” we aren’t told whether or not it was the house in which they shared their last meal with Jesus a few days before. But it could have been. We do know that this faithful remnant of Jesus’ followers were frightened, fearing that they too might become victims of the mob that had put their Master to death. We can only imagine the diversity of feelings on display on that particular evening: confusion, fear, anger, resignation. There would likely have been rumors of hope, the empty tomb and Mary’s claimed encounter with their Teacher, their Rabbouni. The air was probably thick with emotion.
And then, from out of nowhere, “Peace be with you.” This was not a simple greeting; it was a statement of fact. Peace was, indeed, with them. Despite all of the locks and bars and the great stone that had separated death from life, Jesus was in their midst, bearing visible scars from his victory over the grave. And the disciples rejoiced… and rejoiced… and rejoiced, until Jesus stopped them: “Peace be with you.” This time it was a command. Certainly, some of the disciples recalled Jesus’ words spoken after the Last Supper, “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me . . . Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy” (16:16, 20). Jesus had kept his promise.
“As the Father sent me, so I send you.” A breath… and then, an invocation: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” We will never know exactly what the breath of Jesus felt like… perhaps it was like God breathing life into the first human (Gen 2:7). Perhaps it might be compared with the breath to which Ezekiel prophesied in the Valley of the Dry Bones: “Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live” (Ezk 37:9). Or perhaps it was more akin to the breath of Aslan, in C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian, comforting and fortifying young Susan Pevensie for the work she had been given to do: “You have listened to your fears… Come, let me breathe on you. Forget them. Are you brave again?” What we do know is this: the Holy Spirit became present with the disciples as Jesus added specificity to their commission, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Viewed in the broader context, this commission is not limited to acts of granting absolution through penance, or even excommunication, but includes, in the words of Johannine scholar Raymond Brown, “partial manifestations of a much larger power, namely, the power to isolate, repel, and negate evil and sin, a power given to Jesus in his mission by the Father, and given in turn by Jesus through the Spirit to those whom he commissions.” This is pretty heady stuff. In John’s Gospel, the time between Easter and Pentecost was compressed into a few brief, but eventful, hours. God had a plan and a mission for the disciples and there wasn’t a moment to lose.
And then there’s Thomas. This is the same Thomas who, when Jesus had announced his intention to go to Bethany to resurrect Lazarus said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). You’ll recall Bethany is near Jerusalem, where there was likely a price on Jesus’ head. In any case, Thomas missed Jesus’ first appearance, and had reacted to the news in much the same manner as had the disciples in Luke’s Gospel: “Unless I can see him with my own eyes and feel him with my own hands, I will not believe.” Interestingly, there is no indication in Scripture that any of Thomas’ colleagues “tattled” on him. Some may have argued with him, while others simply rolled their eyes, looked at each other and said, “That’s just Thomas… bless his heart.” But no one said anything to Jesus, as far as we know. Yet, a week later, when the disciples were again gathered in the house, Jesus once more came among them, reminded them that Peace was with them, and then… went straight to Thomas. We’ll never know exactly what was going through Thomas’ head (and heart) as Jesus met him face to face, offering him the very thing he needed to strengthen his faith. It appears, however, that Thomas no longer felt the need to touch, only to look upon the One who knew what he needed before he could ask. “My Lord and my God.” Could there be a more powerful and complete confession of faith?
And despite all of Thomas’ frailties, Jesus loved him. After all, he had chosen him as one of the Twelve… chosen him to spread the Gospel. Jesus gentle admonishment: “Have you believed because you have seen me?” could have been addressed to any of the disciples. All (even Mary) had needed to see in order to believe. And they had. And now their pain had turned to joy, just as Jesus had promised. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This is less a dig at Thomas, I think, than it is words of encouragement for us… we who are not able to meet Jesus face to face… not on this side of life, at any rate. “Blessed” (Gr. makarios), as it appears in this passage, means happy. We’re not better than Thomas; we are able to experience the joy of being in relationship with Christ because of Thomas, and the other disciples whom Jesus commissioned to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28-19). We owe a lot to Thomas.
The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is God’s promise of salvation to those who give in to his movement and purpose in their lives. And just as God had a plan and a mission for Thomas and that first generation of disciples, so also is there work for us to do in our own generation: to continue spreading the Good News of Jesus Messiah to a world torn by strife and in great need of hope. The challenge often seems as daunting for us as it must have been for those disciples huddled fearfully behind locked doors, tenuously awaiting the miracle promised by their Master. But just as Jesus recognized and provided for Thomas’ unspoken needs, so too will we receive whatever may be needful to accomplish the work God has given us to do.
Peace is with you, my brothers and sisters.
C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian (New York: Macmillian, 1978), 148.
Raymond Brown, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI,Vol. 29A (New York: Doubleday, 1970), 1044.
Brown, 553, 1027.