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2nd Sunday of Easter

23 March 2016

Sanssouci, Potsdam

Full recognition: The Incredulity of St Thomas by Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio

Full recognition: The Incredulity of St Thomas by Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio

Acts 5.27-32 or Exodus 14.10-end; 15.20-21; Psalm 118.14-end or Psalm 150; Revelation 1.4-8; John 20.19-end

 

Almighty Father, you have given your only Son to die for our sins and to rise again for our justification: grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness that we may always serve you in pureness of living and truth; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

SHARING in the being of Jesus has been a consistent theme through the Fourth Gospel. It begins when he invites his first two disciples to “come and see” where he is living (John 2.35-39). It underlies the offer of “living water” to the woman at the well (John 4.14), and makes sense of his insistence that those who truly want to follow him must eat his flesh (John 6.48-51).

His friends cannot be part of him, he tells them at the Last Supper, unless they allow him to wash their feet (John 13.6-9). They are bound into his unity with the Father like branches of a vine (John 15.1-6), and his great and final prayer for them is that they will be one, and part of the oneness that he shares with the Father (John 17.11).

It would thus have been superficially logical for Thomas to enact that organic unity by putting his hand into Jesus’s side. Instead, he makes the resounding proclamation: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20.28). With these words, he moves from mere objective belief that Jesus has risen, to a full recognition of the risen Jesus, and what relationship with him truly means.

This is not to say that he did not previously believe in Jesus. He was the one prepared to face danger, and even death, by accompanying Jesus to Bethany when Lazarus was gravely ill (John 11.16).

He was the one who, by pointing out that the disciples did not know where Jesus was going, and so could not possibly know the way, created the occasion for one of the most consoling promises of the Johannine farewell discourses. “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14.1-6).

Jesus’s return to the Upper Room, apparently for Thomas’s benefit, helps all his followers to understand something profound through the lens of his resurrection body. The continuity of Jesus’s earthly and risen bodies is made evident in the marks of the nails, and the wound of the centurion’s spear.

He offers Thomas the chance to make the connection between the body whose death he was ready to share, and the body whose life he is invited to live. That does not need physical proof that the risen Jesus is made of flesh and blood: it needs belief that this recognisable body, which the disciples knew on earth is also the visible shape of God (John 20.28).

Thomas has long provided a model of ordinary, manageable faith. He has been held up as the figure who makes it acceptable to have doubts, to need extra help, to come gradually to the great acknowledgement of Jesus.

There is more to it than that, though. Thomas is being shown what it means to be ready for life, not death — even if life lived in Christ is going to be hard. Very soon, that became reality. Peter and John would be arrested, miraculously released, and forbidden to preach. And yet in the power of the Spirit, they were unable to be silent (Acts 5.27-29).

They would endure more beatings, remaining radiant not because of any smug conviction that their future life with Jesus was assured, but because they could contemplate that life only as something shared with the thousands who came to believe in Jesus through their preaching.

Archbishop Michael Ramsey put it in this way: “It is . . . in the Resurrection of the dead that the goal of the individual and the goal of the redeemed society find their perfect coincidence. The individual cannot reach his goal except in union with those who shall share with him in the love of God and in the Body of Christ. . . [T]he perfecting of the individual is reached only in the perfecting of all” (The Resurrection of Christ, revised edition, Fontana, 1961).

The writer of Revelation ascribes glory to Christ (which commentators note as unusual) as the one who came to us as “faithful witness”, rose from the dead, and has been glorified (Revelation 1.5).

In the next sentence, he continues to show that this does not stop with Christ’s own glory (Revelation 1.6). The resurrection perfects the incarnation of Jesus, and opens a new phase for humanity. The cry of “It is finished” on the cross, as a declaration of what had been accomplished, implies, in the Greek perfect tense, that the completed action has ongoing consequences (John 19.30).

The wonder of this completed work is not that it shows Jesus to be perfect: that does not need to be demonstrated. It is that he should wish the human creation to be part of that perfection.

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