Every year on the Sunday after Easter we read the story of so-called Doubting Thomas and his coming to faith and every year I - like most preachers I guess - struggle to find something new to say about it! Is Thomas a sceptic, someone whose example we thankfully are able to avoid because we have come to faith in Christ despite never having seen his risen form - or is Thomas an example of the need we all share, a need to encounter the risen Jesus as a reality in our everyday lives? Does that make Thomas in fact an example to follow - an example of the one who expects and receives from God the evidence he needs to live with integrity and faith? The Gospel writer is I think a bit ambivalent about Thomas, and so when it comes down to it are we.
But this year a new perspective on an old story jumps out at as we we consider that - like us - the disciples in those first post-Easter days were huddled behind closed doors in isolation, hardly daring to believe the first reports of the risen Christ. Thomas is not the only doubter amongst the disciples - the rumours brought by the women caused more consternation than joy and the disciples didn’t fully dare to believe the first reports of the risen Christ. They needed repeated experiences of the risen Christ in their midst in order to discover the fullness of the promise the resurrection offers. Jesus is risen? But the brutal oppression of Roman rule and the jealous push-back from the Jewish religious authorities still shaped their reality. How do wild rumours of resurrection change any of that?
Perhaps the sort of isolation and anxiety we have been experiencing lately feel like they should have been left behind in Lent but here we are in Easter and still isolated and prevented from gathering in worship. We have celebrated the good news of Easter morning as an age-old message of hope that sits oddly with the fearful circumstances of life in 2020. Maybe this year we have heard the Easter message with a new emphasis. But now we, like the disciples in the first century, are faced with the fact that the external circumstances of the world we live in remain unredeemed and overpowering. We believe in resurrection as the core of our faith, even though as modern women and men we also take pre-scientific explanations with a grain of salt and we are surely aware that resurrection defies any easy explanation. We believe in it - but can we believe it changes anything? Can we believe that resurrection has the power to reshape our own lives and to defeat the fearful circumstances of our world?
We are embarked on a long journey. The journey, I mean, from the lockdown of COVID-19 to liberation. Yes, governments including our own are already cautiously speaking of the possibility of easing restrictions in coming weeks and yet, as a British medical authority wrote last week, by no stretch of the imagination can we believe this pandemic is beginning to retreat any time soon. Globally it still has a long way to go, on this planet of seven billion people it is still just in the incubation stage. Daily in our own country we should give thanks for the accidents of geographical isolation and a dispersed low-density population as well as the sensible response of federal and state governments that have acted on good advice. But we also know as we read of the current realities in Europe or the United States the risk of complacency against this invisible enemy.
As a theologian I am used to the idea that we are living in in-between time - the time between that first Easter that signalled a new relation between God and the world and the fulfilment of that relation which is what we are yearning for when we pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth. This is the journey through the already but not yet redeemed reality of our world - and this year, this Easter we as Christians must be most acutely aware of it. This Easter we live the reality of that fearful huddle of disciples too scared to comprehend what Easter might actually change.
I suspect that as Christians how we live in this journey is as important—if not more so—than getting to its end. The values of God’s kingdom need to be practiced during the journey so that we can be ready for its inbreaking. We need to be compassionate with everyone on this journey with us. Remember the Archbishop’s simple mission last year, to encourage us to say G’day to strangers? At this risky time we are bound in mutual interdependence with all who share this spaceship Earth with us.
Discouragement can be close at hand, because there is a deep weariness that always accompanies the constant demands of profound change. On this journey we must learn to be gentle with ourselves as the challenge of adjusting to ever-changing conditions brings new pressures and expectations. To be fully present to ourselves and to those we love - and authentically present to strangers and the unlovely as well. To make time and space within ourselves for grief and lament for all that has been lost in order that we might be capable of recognising and believing in something new and lifegiving. We are not a collection of individuals, as a community of faith we are bound to one another in love so that the strong can hold up the weak.
So we are in an incubation period. I don’t mean the incubation of an implacable virus, but of new habits of faithfulness and attentiveness that will be fruitful now and in the future. The disciples were in lockdown because they did not think anything could change their fearful reality - we too as modern Christians have unfortunately also learned to expect too little of the risen Christ. Jesus breaks in to and disrupts their isolation, breathing the gift of the Holy Spirit into their lives and recreating them as women and men oriented towards the future of God’s promises. The point is that we don’t and we can’t just imagine ourselves into becoming resurrection people. We weren’t there that first Sunday evening, not you or me and not Thomas and so, in the reading we heard this morning Thomas too receives the life-shattering encounter with the risen Christ that he needs to come to faith. That makes him no more or less a believer than the other disciples but it surely makes Thomas a warrant for us that the dreary anxiety of our own lives too will be blown away by the fresh air of the spirit of the risen Christ. We just need, like Thomas, to faithfully keep showing up, paying attention to what God might be doing in our lives and practising the ways of forgiveness and love.
In the Acts of the Apostles, which we will be reading through in coming weeks, the disciples keep gathering together and sharing their lives not out of fear but for prayer and mutual support. When they break bread and eat together they will find that Christ is with them and strengthens them. Whenever they travel they will discover Christ is with them, bringing new insights to Scriptures they knew and re-framing their hope. They learn to practise the habits of hope and faith. They become resurrection people on the journey, discovering new truths in familiar actions, and they become something new which today we call the Church.
I think this is a time of change, a time of challenge and innovation and one of the times in history when we need to be alert for what God is doing new. But it is also one of those times in which we need to look backwards to refresh our own faith and unity by learning again the habits of the infant Church. We cannot gather physically, but we are learning to gather in spirit virtually online, by phone and even in writing! We can worship together, pray and encourage one another. We can read and study scripture, sharing insights with one another listening for Spirit in our midst. We can give thanks daily for the signs that God is with us. We can be patient and joyful one day at a time.