In Honour of Saint Thomas

What would you think if I told you that I had seen Bishop Tyrrell (the first Bishop of Newcastle) riding his horse down Winsor Street before the Eucharist began this morning?  I suspect that some of you might think that it was finally time to call in the doctor, and others of you might be wondering how much red wine is left in the decanter in the vestry.

On Friday evening the boys and I, and their grandmother went to the Urban Circus, the big top currently opposite the Newcastle Show Ground.   As we watched the artists dancing with fire, and hanging precariously from ropes to our very great enjoyment, it struck me again that no matter what new technology has emerged, there is, for me at least, nothing that compares with live performance.  You cannot adequately capture the experience of a circus without experiencing it.  Watching it on television, or hearing about it from friends, or reading about it in books will get you some of the way towards understanding what the circus is all about, but ultimately you need to be there to really live it.

For those of you who don’t spend time at the circus, what I am saying can apply in a whole range of other areas of our lives as well.  Imagine only knowing about the sweet scent of a rose from reading about it in a book.  Imagine if the total extent of your experience of chocolate was what you had heard about it on the radio.  There are some things which we simply have to experience in order for them to be truly real for us.  Because we are all different, we will experience them very differently.

As my boys and I sat in the front row of the circus ring on Friday evening – just an arms length from the performers – we became (for those two hours) more than spectators, we were caught up, as well, in the whole experience of living the circus, being not just onlookers, but participants in all that was going on.

So what would you think if I told you that I had seen Bishop Tyrrell outside, riding down the street, over 100 years after his death?  It is a bit like the circus.  I might just be able to persuade one of you that Bishop Tyrrell was really there, if I painted a word picture of him vividly enough – after all strange things do happen!  But even if I were able to persuade one of you that I had seen him, your theoretical assent that what I was saying was actually true would not come close to matching the actual reality of seeing him for yourself.

In the Gospel reading that we have just heard we are still there on the first day of the week, the day of the resurrection.  During this period of the Church’s year time almost stands still.    We left Church last Sunday with the rumour that Jesus was alive, now we return this morning – seven days later – and only a few hours have passed in the Easter narrative.  Indeed in morning and evening prayer Christians around the world have been repeating the same psalms every morning and every evening since Easter Day – during this great octave of the resurrection.  Whatever else has been going on in our lives, the Church’s year has stood still for the last week to give us the opportunity simply to catch our breath, and to take in once more the joy of our Easter hope.

In this morning’s Gospel we find ourselves in the locked upper room with the first disciples.

Only Mary Magdalene has experienced the Risen Lord.  Others know that the tomb is empty, but no one apart from Mary has any real sense that Jesus is alive.  The doors are not only locked to keep the Jews away, they are locked to keep the whole world away – whilst a small group of men and women try to make sense of all that they had hoped for, and all that now seems to have been lost.  And then Jesus walks through the door – literally through it, without opening it – and stands amongst them, and greets them with the words that bind each one of us together as we prepare to gather around God’s altar of grace week by week: “Peace be with you,” used in our liturgy very deliberately to point us to the expectation that we will meet week by week with the resurrected Jesus who alone brings us his peace.

We simply cannot know what Jesus’ body was like in these resurrection encounters, when he meets with his disciples in the days before his ascension.  The Gospel writers were not trying to be scientists, so the kinds of questions which might intrigue us about his body didn’t even  occur to them.  But the Gospel writers do want us to understand two things.

On the one hand, they want us to know that there is something continuous between who Jesus was before he died, and who he is after he has risen.  The resurrected Christ is not so different from the Jesus who the disciples had known before his death that he has lost the marks of his humanity.  That, I think, is what the wounds are all about.  The holes in his hands, the gash in his side: they are still there in the resurrected Jesus, reminding the first disciples that the life of this same Jesus has continued beyond the grave, as it has already started to do for each of us who are baptised in his name.

But, on the other hand, the Gospel writers also want to emphasise that there is a difference between who Jesus was before he died, and who he is now.  His ability to walk through doors, and walls; his appearing and disappearing, point those first disciples to the reality that whilst this is the same Jesus, his resurrection has not simply been the resuscitation of a tired human body brought back to life.  It is the resurrection of God in Jesus, in this heavenly nature which the Gospel writers are trying to convey, and which Christians have struggled to understand through the centuries.

Jesus is there,  not altogether as he was, but not altogether different either.  His first words to those who had pretended not to know him in his hour of greatest need is peace.  Then in John’s Gospel (in the Gospel that we have heard this morning) everything happens at once: those words of peace bring rejoicing, and commissioning as Jesus sends the disciples out.  In this account we need wait no longer for Pentecost, for where the risen Lord is present his Holy Spirit is present too with power.

Imagine being there, what an extraordinary experience, face to face with the resurrected Jesus.

No wonder the disciples who were locked in that room in fear became the fearless missionary leaders of the Early Church.  But imagine not being there, and only hearing about it after the event.

It would be like me telling you that I had seen Bishop Tyrrell on his horse waving to me as he trotted down Winsor Street.  Or like someone trying to explain what a circus was like to someone else who had never experienced it.

No wonder Thomas ends up in a bit of a state.  After all, he missed the whole thing and is now only hearing what literally is unbelievable news, second hand.  In my mind as I try to stand in his shoes I wonder whether there were a whole lot of different emotions going on in him.  Certainly at one level (whether he was willing to admit it or not) there must have been something compelling in the story of his companions, simply because of the joy with which they told him what had happened.  But there are plenty of joyful people who are completely delusional, so joy is no guarantee.  At another level he was probably quite cross simply because of the fact that he had missed out.  None of us like to be the only one in a group who weren’t present at an important occasion, whether we let other people know that that is how we feel or not.  Whatever it is that he is thinking, in John’s Gospel, Thomas expresses his response through stubbornness.  ‘Unless I see it, I won’t believe it’ is the line that he is going to take.

Whilst the weight of Christian history has come down against him, if we are honest, if we had missed that moment, and if we hadn’t known what we were only going to find out later, then we would probably have responded the same way.  The good news for Thomas, of course, is that on the first week’s anniversary of his resurrection, Jesus returns again and this time Thomas is there, not just as a spectator but as a participant, in the joy of it all.

I think that if the writers of John’s Gospel were present with us now, they would want to say one thing very clearly to us this morning, and it is this: the resurrection of Jesus is not simply something to which we give theoretical or intellectual assent, it is something that we are called to experience for ourselves.  That is the whole point of this encounter with Thomas.  It isn’t enough for him to simply hear that Jesus is alive from others, he needs to experience it, to participate in it, in order for him to be able to live it.  Even if we have not said this out loud many of us know this to be true for us as well.

I cannot manufacture an experience that I have not had, whether it is an experience that the Bishop has had, or that Fr Stephen has had, or even that I read that the first disciples have had.  That is why we need to remember that this body of Christ, is made up of very different parts.

Some of us learn through our eyes (by reading books for example), some of us are stimulated through our ears (by listening to music), some of us learn through our hands (by doing things).

And we should expect that the way that the risen Christ meets with each one of us will be different because of our own differences.

Christians who learn through reading cannot understand why everyone does not experience the resurrected Jesus the way that they do when they read the scriptures.  Christians who are stimulated through listening cannot understand why everyone does not experience the resurrected Jesus at work in the music that they hear.  Christians who learn through doing things with their hands and their bodies, cannot understand why everyone does not experience the tangible presence of the resurrected Jesus through holding candles, and mowing lawns.

Extroverts experience the risen Christ in the noise of a community, introverts experience him in the silence of a seemingly empty room.  What I need to try hardest not to do, is to impose how I experience the reality of the resurrected Jesus onto others, as if it were the only way to experience him.  Because what was true for Thomas is true for all of us.

Thomas reminds us that the good news of the risen Jesus cannot adequately be conveyed through the stories of others.  It can only really come alive through our own experiences of him.  So as we rejoice in the resurrection of Jesus again this morning, we celebrate the example of Thomas, who will not settle simply for the stories of others, but who in his own unique way seeks to experience the risen Lord for himself.  As it was for Thomas, so may it be true for each one of us this week.

Alleluia!  Christ is Risen!