As a child I was hopeless at sport – sport was simply not my thing. The best I ever managed at secondary school was the report in my first year where the sports master had written for Gym: He has absolutely no aptitude for this subject but he tries his best. And it wasn’t helped by the fact that my sister was a superb athlete who ran for the county! People always assumed that I would be able to run as fast as my sister!
But I was the one nobody wanted on their team. When I was at primary school we used that iniquitous system of two people being chosen as captains for football, and then they picked their teams. And of course, when it came to choosing who was going to be in your football team it was never going to be me, because I couldn’t play an even half-decent game of football if my life depended on it. I always knew that I wouldn’t get picked but that didn’t make it any easier.
There is nothing worse than being left out.
Today we think about Thomas. In fact, the gospel reading about Thomas is traditionally used on the Sunday following Easter throughout the Church worldwide. Immediately after the great celebration of resurrection we are thrust into thinking about the doubt and unbelief of Thomas. In the Orthodox Church today is known as “Thomas Sunday”. Well – as today is actually Easter Day in the Orthodox Church, they’ll have “Thomas Sunday” next week – but you know what I mean!
And yet, as we shall see, today, and our gospel reading, 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.
You can understand how Thomas felt – everyone else had apparently had this wonderful experience of realising that Jesus was alive again. He had been left out. They were all meeting together and he was the only one not invited to the party. The rest of the team were there – but not Thomas. Perhaps there was a bit of him that thought, “Well, I didn’t want to go to the party anyway!” I have always felt a great deal of sympathy for Thomas.
Anyway – there are the disciples, minus Thomas, cowering fearfully behind locked doors, 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. Jesus appears again and offers Thomas the evidence he demands, and Thomas is finally convinced.
Because of this incident, Thomas has gone down in history and Christian tradition as “Doubting Thomas” – as if he were the only one of the disciples ever to have had doubts. We know from earlier in this chapter that Mary Magdalene has met with the risen Jesus. Peter and the person that John calls ‘the other disciple’ have seen the empty tomb, but that’s it – they’ve had no actual encounter with Jesus. It’s only Mary – and she has gone back to the others and told them. And in spite of that, in spite of having heard the news that Jesus is risen, here they are hiding behind locked doors! All except Thomas.
But it’s not Thomas I want us to be thinking about this morning – it’s the rest of them! Because our gospel reading has a very clear message for us – not about Thomas – but about the other disciples and especially about 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 this is John’s gospel – and with John there’s always something deeper going on under the surface that John wants to communicate. And it seems to me that there’s far more to this reading that simple fear of the authorities. 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 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. So they believe Jesus is alive again. So what was going through their minds? Think about it. With one exception, the disciple whom 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. 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 naughty children who might hide away from parents because they are afraid of what punishment might ensue after a misdeed, 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 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 Thomas encourages us all to be bold in our faith, and to reach out to God beyond the evidence of our physical senses.
And the experience of the other 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.
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
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.
Our reading tells us three things. Jesus wants us to know his peace. Jesus wants us to be filled with the Holy Spirit. And Jesus wants to send 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 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 breathes his Holy Spirit into us. And he sends us out. 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.
We finish by praying again our collect for today. Let us pray.
for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred:
open the doors of our hearts,
that we may seek the good of others
and walk the joyful road of sacrifice and peace,
to the praise of God the Father. Amen.