Mary Magdalene and Doubting Thomas
Posted on behalf of Reverend Canon Cynthia Botha
Date of sermon: 12 April 2015 (Easter 2)
Where: St Francis
The group of believers were one in heart and mind that is how the Acts of the Apostles reading starts today. Remember that Acts records events that happened very soon after the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus and the first years of the early Christian church. It speaks to us of the new creation arising from those events – and we are going to be reading of the events of the early church over the next couple of weeks. What a change – they are one in heart and mind. Just a little while ago they were nothing like this – the group of believers after the crucifixion were a confused and frightened group of people – locked up in the upper room. Now they are one in heart and mind.
Our reading from the gospel of John paints that earlier very different picture. We hear of Thomas who was not there when Jesus first appeared to them, and who will not accept what the others tell him. He needs to see for himself. He needs to have the experience for himself. “I want to see the wounds and touch them” and then I will know for sure. Then I will know with my own mind not just what you tell me. Jesus has to bear the marks of his torture and death. This response to the resurrection earned him the title of doubting Thomas – a phrase which has continued to today and which is perhaps rather unfair.
Is he really the only one to doubt? Look at the disciples after the crucifixion and during the crucifixion. In fact we can’t find them – we don’t see them during the Good Friday events. Only the women and the disciple whom Jesus loved, stand at the cross. They are also not around on the next day. We are told they go and hide and lock themselves away in a room for fear that the Jewish authorities would do to them what they did to Jesus. They desert Jesus and run away. They are confused, they are afraid and they are uncertain. They have just lost a very good friend – someone who they journeyed with over three years and learnt from – listened to his teaching, watched the miracles, seen Jesus healing people and who claimed to be the promised messiah. But now they are without hope. Did it all end in a disaster?
The book that we used for meditations during Lent had a very interesting reflection for Holy Saturday. It said that the disciples behaved as a people who were not expecting the resurrection – and they weren’t. They didn’t know the resurrection was coming. We, who went through the Lenten journey, know where the story ends – we knew it on Ash Wednesday – it ends with that first Easter morning. They had no idea about that. They don’t wait with hope and joy – they wait with heavy hearts that don’t really know what they yearn for. And yet Jesus had told them often enough what would happen – he said things like ‘destroy the temple and I will rebuild it in three days’. How is that possible? What did he mean? They knew the temple had taken years to build so what did he mean?
We see some of the confusion too with the women who go to the tomb. They go to complete the burial rites and put spices on the body. The body had been buried in a hurry the day before. They worry about the stone – who will roll it away? The appearance of the angelic figures are frightening? What is going on? In John’s account, Mary speaks to the person she sees in the garden and thinks he is the gardener? What have you done with the body? Where have you taken him? Someone has suggested that she is almost hysterical in her quest to find the body.
Today’s reading from John tells us of Jesus’ second appearance. The focus is on Thomas who was not there the first time and who wants to be able to see for himself and touch Jesus. I wondered why they were still locked in the upper room – they had seen the risen Christ the week before – why are they still afraid and perhaps arguing about what they experienced. Though the doors were locked, Jesus appears and greets them with a message of peace. Why a greeting of peace? What at least does peace mean? It means the absence of war and fighting– were they arguing amongst each other about that first resurrection appearance? Is this the reason for Thomas’ outbreak? The peace of God is like no other peace and is just what they need.
Jesus invites Thomas to come close and to see the wounds and to touch him. Remember in the garden when Mary Magdalene wanted to cling to him – he has to stop her. Mary is the one who loved the Lord, was desperate for love, fearful of rejection. Jesus has to say to her – do not cling on to me. Mary has to learn to let go. Her experience of the resurrected Christ is that she must be set free from her need to have Jesus always within reach. She has got to let go and go and do something – go and give the disciples a message and tell them to go on to Galilee, that that is where they will meet the Lord. What would our response be or rather what is our response? Like Mary or Thomas?
Thomas needs something different. There is the invitation to come closer, to come and see and touch. He needs a different reassurance. Why was he reluctant to believe? Could it be that he does not want to be hurt again? He was after all one of the twelve and close to Jesus. The death of Jesus ends the friendship, or so he believes, and he is still dealing with the death of a loved one. He is reluctant to draw near – he may get hurt again. Jesus tells him to do the very thing he forbids Mary to do. But what is his response? We are not told that he does touch Jesus, but the invitation is enough and he exclaims in awe and wonder – My Lord and My God. Complete acceptance and complete recognition.
The resurrection appearances change these men and women. They become an Easter people and the Acts reading tells us that the apostles go on testifying to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was powerfully at work in them. That is our gift today as well. We are an Easter people – we know the story. We just need to consider how to respond. John says “blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe” or as some translations have it – “and yet have decided to believe”. The disciples have no advantage over us – we just need to decide how to take the message forward. Like Mary, we have work to do. We have to share the good news of hope and forgiveness and life eternal.
What a blessing Thomas is for us today. He reminds us that the skeptic – the one who questions – is not rejected by God; that doubts and uncertainty do not lose us a place in God’s Kingdom. He reminds us too that Jesus willingly comes to us to show us his hands and side so that we may believe. The signs of the risen Christ are the marks of his suffering. If you find it hard to believe the way everyone else seems to, then it is a wonderful story with unexpected encouragement. If you don’t share the experience that everyone else seems to have had, there is hope. And it is a clear reminder that doubts and questions are never an excuse for avoiding commitment. At Easter our real pilgrimage begins – we need to walk into a world where we have to live and act and love and be loved. And we have a crazy world out there – with all kinds of challenges! The risen Christ took Thomas’ fears, doubts and disbelief and transformed them into a powerful Christian witness that has sustained generations of us who struggle with life and faith. Like Thomas – we too can come to the point when called by God to draw near and touch – we can exclaim – My Lord and my God.