In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is left feeling abandoned (Mark 15:34): of his disciples, one betrayed him, another denied him, and the rest ran away, and he left feeling all alone. (C.f.: John 16:32) Now here in John’s Gospel post-Resurrection, his disciples — hiding behind ‘closed doors for fear of the Jews (John 20:19) — are feeling abandoned by Jesus, of whom one of them said: “Our own hope had been that he would be the one to set Israel free” (Luke 24:21), that is, they had hoped that he would be the long-awaited Messiah. With his crucifixion, this hope was completely dashed, and they are left feeling bereft and very vulnerable and alone. In some senses, what is portrayed here is sin — sin alienates, and we are left huddled away out of fear. (C.f.: Genesis 4:14)
This Jesus, the one who was crucified, now appears to them and says, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:20, 21, 26) This could be just the traditional Jewish greeting: “Shalom!” But this greeting is mentioned three times in this morning’s Gospel; it means more than that. In it is not hint of their abandonment of him. What they did is not recalled; what we have here is forgiveness. This does not mean that what they did is somehow papered over/made right/smoothed over/ignored. For he ‘showed them his hands and his side’ (John 20:20) — what they did is plainly evident; it is not undone — and it is by its marks that they recognise him. What forgiveness means is that it’s not the end of the story; life with Jesus can still go on, but not the same as before. Perhaps we have here a reminder of Isaiah’s prophecy: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.” (Isaiah 65:17) In this new world, we have a new commandment (John 13:14): We are to forgive one another. (John 20:22; Matthew 6:12) — and again, perhaps a reminder of Jesus’ parable of The Unforgiving Debtor: “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18:32-33); and also of the prayer the Lord taught us to pray: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we also have forgiven those who trespass against us.” (Luke 11:4)
It is to be a new world with a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31ff), where we extend Christ’s Peace to one another (c.f.: Matthew 18:22), instead of seeking revenge. (C.f.: Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:19-20) To manage to live in this new world, we will need always to remember the mercy God has shown us in forgiving us our sins, and the joy that comes with knowing ourselves forgiven, the joy of knowing that life together can go on even so. And from this well to draw the strength to forgive our neighbour who has sinned against us. (C.f.: John 4:14) That we may be able to do this, Christ ‘breathes on us and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22) — a gesture found here in this book that begins, ‘In the beginning’ (John 1:1), and so is reminiscent of the book of Genesis, Scripture’s first book which also starts off in the same way, with the ‘Spirit hovering over the waters’ at the beginning of Creation (Genesis 1:1) and breathing life into us all (‘spirit’ and ‘breath’ being the same word). (Genesis 2:7) What we have here in this gift of Christ’s Spirit is new Creation, where we are made able to live in this New World and all is made new again, where we are made new again … forgiven!
That this is so, all depends on Jesus being raised from the dead. To believe it asks a great deal of us, that we are more inclined to disbelieve, and so to raise barriers: “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” (John 20:25) We can do this in various different ways, such as when some natural disaster overtakes us, and we say, “How could a God who is love let this happen?” or more simply, “Where is God?” — and all the while conveniently forgetting to put our suffering into the context of God’s own suffering the cruel death of his Son. Our faith in Jesus raised from the dead calls us to look for new beginnings in what otherwise seems to be the end, and in our despair it holds out hope that can raise us up to new life; this we are called to cling to. It doesn’t undo what has happened, but it does keep us open to new life. The alternative is shown us in Jesus’ crucifixion, when the darkness came over the whole land (Mark 15:33), when the very first act of Creation was seemingly being undone and chaos was once more looming to threatening all life on earth. (Genesis 1:2-3. C.f.: 6:5ff) Should this is the case, St Paul puts our lot very well: ‘For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.’ (1 Corinthians 16:17) To live in such a world is to live in the darkness of Death, where there is no light shining for us, the penalty for sin. (C.f.: Romans 4:15; John 3:19- 20)
The Thomas of today’s Gospel who put our doubts into words, though his hopes had been shattered, does not abandon his faith altogether. For he does not simply walk away, but still remains in touch, connected in someway, with those others who had shared his belief in Jesus (John 20:25, 26) — and it is there in their midst that he comes to experience the Risen Jesus. (C.f.: Matthew 18:20) He is an example to us of what the prophet Isaiah suggests: “Let any who fear the LORD among you listen to the voice of his servant! Whoever walks in darkness and has no light shining for him, let him trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God.” (Isaiah 50:10) Sometimes we just have to endure — clinging to our faith till the light shines again and new life is possible once more. (C.f.: Genesis 8:11-12) For it is only amid the ‘teaching’ and the ‘fellowship’, with ‘the breaking of the bread’ and ‘the prayers’ to support us (Acts 2:42), that is, it is only within the Christian community, where all are so ‘united heart and soul’ that all their needs are met through their care of one another (Acts 4:32, 34), that we are likely to encounter the Risen One and know once again the joy of being one with the Lord. (Matthew 18:20) When this happens (c.f.: John 13:4-5), we will once more be able to say with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28) and joy will return once more to our life. (John 20:20) Meanwhile, those of us whose faith is not being tried/tested (c.f.: 1 Peter 1:6-7) ought to live lives that proclaim our belief that Christ is Risen (c.f.: 1 Peter 3:8ff), that lets the light of Christ’s Resurrection continue to shine in what is otherwise a dark world (c.f.: John 3:21), to be the dawn in a new world, so that we are a beacon of hope for those whose faith is being put to the test, that they may come to the full profession of a faith that does proclaim Christ Risen as “My Lord and my God!” and in this way add to the numbers of believers.