This meditation begins with the Gospel of John, chapter 20, verses 19 through 31:
19) On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
20) When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
21) [Jesus] said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
22) And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit.
23) Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
24) Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.
25) So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
26) Now a week later his disciples were again inside and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, although the doors were locked, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”
27) Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.”
28) Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
29) Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”
30) Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of [his] disciples that are not written in this book.
31) But these are written that you may [come to] believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.
Today – July 3rd – is the feast of Saint Thomas. He is the patron of my parish here in Hyde Park, in Chicago, so that brought this passage of scripture to my attention. They read it in the service last Sunday, and it has been on my mind ever since.
When this passage gets read and preached on, the focus usually lands on Thomas, and how Jesus answers his doubts. This makes sense. It is an instructional tale for many of us who struggle with doubts, great or small.
In fact, back in the seventh century, Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote about the example of Thomas: “Do you really believe that it was by chance that this chosen disciple was absent, then came and heard, heard and doubted, doubted and touched, touched and believed? … The disbelief of Thomas has done more for our faith than the faith of the other disciples. As he touches Christ and is won over to belief, every doubt is cast aside and our faith is strengthened.”
This example of skeptical faith, answered and rejuvenated, is vital and important. But hearing the passage again this past Sunday, I found myself stuck on another phrase, and it is upon this phrase that my thoughts have turned and returned these past few days:
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
The disciples had come through a harrowing experience – the death of their master – and they were in shock. Like many in shock, they responded in panic and post-traumatic stress. They decided to hide behind a wall, and to lock the door.
What fascinated me was that they did this “for fear of the Jews.”
You see, all twelve of the disciples were themselves Jews. So here they were, huddled in a room, hiding in fear of those who – in reality – were no different from them.
And then, into the midst of this terrified group, comes Jesus. There are two things to note about this:
First of all, the door was locked, and yet Jesus appears among them. It is as if Jesus is saying, though his actions, you don’t need to rely on a locked door – that is false security.
Second, they were huddled “for fear of the Jews,” and when Jesus appears among them, he is also, himself, a Jew.
So here we have this illusion that the disciples have cast upon themselves. They have drawn a false distinction between themselves and those around them – Jew and Jew, human and human – and they have begun to think of these “others” as a threat and an enemy. But this distinction is false. In reality, there is no difference between those in the room, and those outside. But they have locked the door, in the thrall of this falsehood.
Suddenly, there is Jesus, appearing among them. The lock is no good, the border is a lie, and you cannot depend on those things for your safety. Jesus, the Jew, is among those who hid behind a wall “for fear of the Jews.” Upon appearing in their midst, he speaks a clear and simple message: “Peace be with you.”
These past few days I have been thinking of the ways in which, in our fear and our stress, we erect border walls with massive locks. We are certain that these will bring us the security we crave. We fear those on the other side of the locked door – we have convinced ourselves that they are “different” from us, even though they are in so many respects the same. They are human like we are human. They want security and hope, just like we do, and they would do anything, almost, to make sure their families are safe.
Like Thomas, we perhaps doubt the presence of Jesus. But more than this, we don’t just doubt the words about Jesus – we doubt the words of Jesus. He comes and says, without question, “Peace.”
Like Thomas, we still have a ways to go between hearing the words in our ears and believing them in our hearts.
We still believe the walls are righteous.
We still believe the locks will protect us.
And we still believe the pernicious lie that those – who in so many ways are just like us – are a threat.
We who follow the Master are promised life in his name. Like Thomas before us, that life means letting go of our doubts. But – like the other disciples before us – it also means letting go of our trust in earthly barriers between “us” and “them.” It means letting go of our locked rooms, and the false security of our walls.
Life in his name perhaps begins when we can finally hear the words, “Peace be unto you,” and believe them.
Then, like the disciples, we too – every one of us – may rejoice together.