JOHN’s description of the disciples’ meeting with doors “shut” and “locked” because of “fear” has a striking resonance with the current situation of the Church. But, where the disciples huddled together for self-preservation, today’s locked doors are for the safety of the whole community.
Now, as then, the context is one of anxiety and fear. St Peter Chrysologus comments on how fitting it is that the disciples gathered in the evening, since “it was evening for minds darkened by the sombre cloud of grief and sadness.” While there was a “slight glimmer of twilight” provided by the first reports of the resurrection, the Lord “had not yet shone through with his light in all its brilliance”.
The disciples’ fear turns to “rejoicing” as they behold the light of the world: the risen Christ standing before them. As Mary Coloe observes, the narrative has an almost liturgical structure. It tells of two Sunday gatherings, a week apart. Each begins with a gathering behind closed doors: an encounter with the risen Lord in which he says “Peace be with you,” and in which he displays the wounds in his hands and side. Each encounter elicits a response of faith (Dwelling in the Household of God : Johannine ecclesiology and spirituality).
In the theology of the Fourth Gospel, as in the Revelation of John, there is an intense intertwining of glory and suffering. The Cross is the place where Jesus is “lifted up” and “exalted”. And the wounds in Jesus’s hands and side are the features most emphasised in his risen body.
These texts condense the message of the wider New Testament: that self-giving love lies at the very heart of the divine life. Easter is not a reversal or cancellation of Good Friday, but reveals Christ’s self-offering on the cross to be the source of life for the whole creation.
Ken Leech warns that the Church should never be “cocksure” or glib. We walk “in half-light, in uncertainty and bewilderment”, often unsure what the next step should be (The Eye of the Storm). Christian hope is the very opposite of facile optimism. Resurrection faith bears witness to a light that first dawned in the place of greatest darkness and desolation. It is always true, but particularly evident in the context of this pandemic, that the only credible hope is one which reckons honestly with bewilderment and pain.
This is not the only passage in John’s Gospel where Thomas seems slow to grasp the nature of events. In John 14, when Jesus declares that he will prepare a place for his disciples, Thomas says “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
In both passages, we can perhaps identify with Thomas in his confusion — his inability to grasp the reality of resurrection life — because it can, at times, seem inconceivable within the old order of suffering and sin. It is hard to imagine a “way” beyond death to life.
If we can identify with Thomas in his bewilderment, the Fourth Evangelist invites us also to identify with him in his faith. Meeting his risen Lord, Thomas sees a body that is released from the constraints of mortality, and yet, none the less, still bears the scars of crucifixion. Beholding the glory within these scars, Thomas utters a confession that is the Christological climax of the Gospel. This summit of Johannine theology is also a summit of personal commitment. Thomas says “My Lord and my God.” The reality of who Jesus is must shape everything else in Thomas’s life.
As he reveals the scars on his risen body, Jesus says “Receive the Holy Spirit” in whose power their lives will be animated and reshaped. We see the fruit of this in Peter’s sermon in Acts. Like Thomas’s confession, it is animated by the apostle’s experience of new life in place of despair and defeat.
Peter’s witness emphasises Jesus’s solidarity with those who suffer — a message that echoes down the centuries. As Willie Jennings writes, “Like us, Jesus faced the powers of empire and death. But now he has risen from the dead.” A credible word of hope must come from such a place: “Only from within the declaration of a God who was crucified will any words about God in this world, the real world, make sense” (Belief — A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Acts).