This morning’s Gospel reading was John’s account of Thomas (chapter 20). A few days ago, I discussed the pair on the road to Emmaus, and the way Luke illustrates the doubt and puzzlement with which the news that first Easter morning was met among even many of the close followers of Jesus. Both authors are at pains to illustrate that the eventual confident conviction that Christ is risen was no exercise in mass wish fulfilment. Jesus’ followers knew that death meant death, and although they’d been around when Jesus has miraculously raised the daughter of Jairus, and later Lazarus, they hadn’t been looking for anything more from Jesus now. He was dead, defeated. They wanted to mourn, and to avoid any sort of cleaning-up operation conducted by the Jewish authorities.
In John’s account, the experiences of two other followers are in the spotlight. First is Mary Magdalene. John records that when she, Peter and John saw the empty tomb, and the neatly wrapped linen burial cloths, she “stood weeping outside the tomb”. And even when she turns and finds Jesus standing there “she did not know it was Jesus” (a parallel to the Emmaus followers). Only when Jesus addresses her “Mary”, in a voice perhaps firm but gentle, does she recognise her risen Lord. And she – like the Emmaus followers – having her eyes opened returns to tell the disciples, passing on Jesus’ message “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”.
That evening Jesus appears to the (still fearful disciples), but Thomas Didymus (or “the twin”) isn’t there. The other disciples tell Thomas the good news – “We have seen the Lord”. But Thomas, sceptical, utters the famous line “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” – a test, perhaps as specific as the one Gideon once posed. One wonders what the following week was like, because John records that it is another week before Jesus again appears, when Thomas is with the disciples. Jesus knows Thomas’s test, doesn’t rebuke him, but simply states “reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe”. We aren’t told whether Thomas reached out to touch – Caravaggio thinks he did although I like to think not – but we do know that Thomas’s response was one of wonder and worship: he is recorded as declaring, simply and yet profoundly, “my Lord and my God”. Perhaps there is a sense of gentle rebuke in Jesus’, “have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”, but I don’t think rebuke was really Jesus’ point John wraps up the chapter declaring that his purpose in writing these resurrection appearance accounts “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you might have life in his name”.
Luke’s Emmaus followers come to believe as Jesus expounds the Scriptures, and breaks bread. The risen Jesus fulfils prophecy and comes to his followers anew as they break bread. John’s spotlight shines on intimate encounters with two of those closest to Jesus, one a woman. Neither of the two were looking for Resurrection that first Easter week, and yet that is what was revealed to them. They are brought to wonder and worship – one through the gentle voice that spoke her name, the other through the offer of touch. This is no spirit, but a bodily resurrection – changed, and raised incorruptible, but nonetheless the flesh and blood incarnate Son.
Perhaps too often, evangelicals – the church collectively, or we individually, focus on the “what’s next”. But we need to pause a while, in this Easter season, lost in wonder at what happened that first Easter. The forces of sin are beaten back, and Jesus is raised, to die no more. Say it often enough and we risk losing the sense of astonishment and joy. We do – and should – affirm the resurrection each week, but the Easter season is a special opportunity each year to tell each other, and celebrate afresh, this astonishing news.