The man is on trial for murder. The jurors have retreated to the jury room where they are shut in until they reach a verdict. The case for finding him guilty seems overwhelming – and, in fact almost all of the jury are at the outset convinced that finding him guilty is the only option. But one of the jurors is not convinced. He has doubts. And he does his best to persuade the other jurors that they have got it all wrong, that a critical view of the evidence can only result in finding him not guilty.
The play “Twelve Angry Men” by Reginald Rose, made into a famous film with Henry Fonda, is a story of one man who sees things differently and who isn’t about to be persuaded otherwise by the other people in the group. The whole film is set in the jury room. And at times the atmosphere becomes quite highly charged as different people have their say. At first everyone is angry with Henry Fonda, because they feel there is clearly only one possible verdict – guilty. But in the end Henry Fonda, the one dissenter, manages to change everyone else’s point of view. Of course he does. How could Henry Fonda not succeed and be the hero?
Today’s gospel is about a group of people locked away in a room, and of one man who tries to persuade them to change their minds. If anyone ever makes a film about Thomas and the rest of the disciples and their discussions following the events of the morning of that first Easter Day, I wonder who they would be able to persuade to take the role of Thomas? Because although the scenario is much the same as “Twelve Angry Men” it has a different ending. A group of people arguing about the evidence. All of them except one are convinced by the evidence. But one isn’t, and seeks to persuade the others that they’ve got it all wrong. Except in this case he is not as persuasive as Henry Fonda – and he fails to change anyone’s mind. But neither can they change his. And he has gone down in history not as a hero at all, but as “Doubting Thomas”.
Immediately after the great celebration of resurrection we are thrust into thinking about the doubt and unbelief of Thomas. In fact this reading is used across the whole church on the Sunday after Easter. In the Orthodox Church the Sunday following Easter Day is known as “Thomas Sunday”. And yet, as we shall see, this is not just about the inability of Thomas to believe in the risen Jesus, but the inability of all the disciples to emerge from behind their locked doors and embrace the new life that the risen Jesus called them to.
The disciples, minus Thomas, are cowering fearfully behind locked doors, apparently terrified of reprisals in the wake of Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus might be risen, but they are still keeping their heads down. When Thomas arrives on the scene he refuses to believe the testimony of the other disciples concerning Jesus’ appearance, saying that only the evidence of his own eyes will convince him. And then a week later there they all are, including Thomas this time, shut away – and I bet Thomas was doing his best to persuade them they’d got it all wrong. And then Jesus appears again and offers Thomas the evidence he demands, and Thomas is finally convinced.
But this morning I don’t want us to dwell on Thomas and his lack of faith, his inability to believe the others, or his attempts to persuade them that they were wrong about Jesus. What I what us to think about this morning is the locked doors.
Why were the disciples hiding behind locked doors? We’re told that it was because the disciples were fearful of the Jews. But it seems to me that there’s far more to it than that. After all, if the authorities had been looking for the disciples a locked door was hardly going to get in their way! Had there really been a threat then to avoid arrest or punishment they would have had to have fled from Jerusalem. And if Jesus was really risen, then presumably they might have grasped that they had nothing to fear. There has to be more to this than simple fear of the Jewish authorities.
And Thomas isn’t with them. Thomas isn’t hiding away with the others. Thomas is the one who seems not to have been frightened. The others, even though Mary Magdalene has told them Jesus is alive, are hiding away. Why?
Remember that at this point, according to John’s gospel, other than Mary none of the disciples have come face to face with the risen Jesus. They only have Mary’s word that he is alive. It would seem that given the emphasis put on Thomas’s unbelief and unwillingness to accept the testimony of others, that John is telling us this is unique – and that therefore the inference is the other disciples accepted the testimony of Mary.
So if, even though they haven’t yet seen Jesus for themselves, they have believed that he is risen, why are they still hiding away?
I get the feeling here that it’s not really the Jewish authorities that the disciples are hiding from, though there may have been an element of that. Human nature being what it is, I suspect that they are really hiding from Jesus. We know that they have believed Mary – it’s only Thomas who is marked out as the one who wouldn’t believe the testimony of others. They believe Jesus is alive again. So what was going through their minds? Think about it. With one exception, the disciple Jesus loved – traditionally thought to be John – the other men all deserted Jesus after his arrest and in Peter’s case denied even knowing him. Only John was prepared to stand with Mary the mother of Jesus and the other women at the cross. The others were long gone. They’d thought it was all over.
And I wouldn’t mind taking a bet on what is now going through their heads: ‘We ran away, we deserted him, we denied him, we let him down – what on earth is he going to say to us? He’ll be cross, he’ll tell us off.’ And so they huddle away behind a locked door because they are so worried about having to meet him. They are all rather like a naughty child who might hide away from parents because they are afraid of what punishment might ensue after they’ve been naughty, even though deep down they know their parents still love them in spite of what they have done. Perhaps this was why Thomas wasn’t with them – because he didn’t believe that Jesus was alive he was the one disciple who wasn’t worried about being told off.
And yet, of course, Jesus was never going to be stopped by a locked door. He knew exactly where they were, exactly what they were thinking, exactly how to handle them. He comes into the room and far from telling them off he says ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you … Receive the Holy Spirit.’
He greets them with peace, sends them out to do his work, empowered by the Holy Spirit. And as we know that’s precisely what they did. The existence of the worldwide Church is proof.
The experience of the disciples should encourage us all to come out from behind our locked doors. Jesus knew what he needed the disciples to do and he knew they couldn’t do it while they hid themselves away in a locked room. The peace that only Jesus could give was with them, the Holy Spirit had been given to them, and they were sent out by Jesus. Jesus came to the disciples in the locked room on the evening of Easter Day, and then again a week later. Our reading today from the NRSV says that on the second occasion the doors were shut – the original Greek makes it clear that they were locked on this second occasion also. And
Jesus came to bring the disciples out from behind locked doors so they could go out in God’s power and change the world. But first one of them had to reach out and turn the key in the lock so they could walk out into a world waiting to hear the Good News.
Jesus says to each of us, “Peace be with you.”
Jesus says to each of us, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
God’s gifts to us, freely given by Jesus.
And Jesus sends us out, just as he sent those first disciples. And yet so many Christians still find themselves behind locked doors. Not locked physical doors, but locked doors all the same. Spiritual doors that we close, and lock, as we hide ourselves away and think that Jesus won’t notice. Doors that have signs on them – signs that say ‘Fear’, or ‘Guilt’, or ‘Doubt’, or perhaps ‘Not me’, or even just plain ‘Indifference’, or a thousand other things. Things we think Jesus won’t know about or notice. But he does, of course – and he comes and stands with us inside the locked doors and waits for us to recognise his presence so that he can gently move us on as he did with Thomas and with the others. And he gives us his peace. And he sends us out to share it. And he breathes his Holy Spirit into us so we can do it. All we have to do is accept all that – and reach out and turn the key in the lock, open the doors and go out to help Jesus change the world today by giving it the peace only he can give..
I finish with a poem about peace I came across on Friday – if you want to read it again it’s on the Church’s Facebook page – it was originally posted by Catholic Charismatic Renewal:
Be at peace with your neighbours,
and love them as yourself.
Be at peace with your family,
for there lies your greatest wealth.
Be at peace with your friends,
for friendship cannot be bought.
Be at peace with your enemies,
for this is what Christ has taught.
Be at peace with yourself,
and all things shall be well.
Be at peace with your God,
and within you he will dwell.