John’s Gospel gives us two accounts in which Jesus becomes present in the midst of a group of his disciples, appearances neither Mark nor Matthew even mention, and which Luke presents as a single incident. In reading the resurrection accounts we need to remember that the evangelists’ purpose was not to write newspaper reports but to lead the readers to reflect on their own faith in the risen Lord.
Today’s Gospel includes both of John’s accounts of Jesus’ appearance to the gathered disciples. All we know about the first group that Jesus breaks in on is that it included some but not all of the disciples and they were afraid enough to have locked themselves in, leaving the distinct impression that they were in hiding.
The risen Lord never appeared with flashy ostentation. Instead, he appeared to his beloved friends with a simplicity comparable to that of his birth in the stable. When he appeared on the inside of the locked doors, he showed the disciples his hands and feet, signs of all that had happened and also the definitive sign that evil and death had no power over him — not on the cross, not ever.
Jesus who had spoken at such length at the Last Supper makes only a few short statements when he appears among the disciples. The one word he repeats is “Peace.” When they hear that they surely recall his promise to give them peace unlike any in the world. After that greeting Jesus showed them the maimed hands and feet that identified him as exactly who he was: the crucified and risen one.
After speaking a second blessing of peace Jesus imparted on them the graced power to become who they were called to be. Breathing over them as the Creator had blown life into the first humans he incorporated them into his own relationship of being loved and commissioned to carry on the Father’s work. Jesus gave the disciples the one ministry that symbolized and included everything he had done and was handing on to them: “Forgive. You have the power. You have the necessary grace. Forgive.”
Thomas is Jesus’ key dialogue partner in the second appearance story which begins just like the first: with peace. Except for his need to touch the risen Jesus, we don’t know the details of Thomas’ struggle to believe. Did he find the testimony of the first witnesses unconvincing? Was it doubt that death could really be overcome? Perhaps he couldn’t believe that they could all really be forgiven for their betrayals. Whatever blocked him, it was symbolized in what Jesus’ had suffered; Thomas had to see for himself that one so wounded could be living and loving. So Jesus acted out exactly what he had told the disciples to do: demonstrating how to be forgiving and hold fast to one who could be lost, Jesus invited Thomas to touch him and to take his place in the believing community. Thomas needed no further evidence.
In this second week of Easter the early community and especially Thomas stand as witnesses to us. Their stories encourage us to allow Christ’s word of peace and reconciliation to touch us and move us into mission. They remind us that locked doors are ineffective against the appearance of grace and that Christ approaches closed minds with love and often even a touch of friendly humor.