The stories we believe and facts we accept are challenged in all sorts of ways. In the middle of this Federal election for example, we are told lots of stories and facts by politicians. There is even a ‘fact checker’ enabling us to test the truth of these ‘facts’, but it only works if you believe the fact checker.
We critique the propaganda about the Russian invasion and brutal war with Ukraine being told by the West and very differently by Russia and China. We listened to the stories told by Trump and his supporters about a stolen election and watch the same processes head our way. Americans are now arguing over which books can be read, what theories about race, gender and sexuality can be allowed. While here in Australia we’re being told the ‘truth’ about trans and LGBTQI people, or about refugees and immigration, all depending on which truth you want. There’s something to suit everyone. We are awash with stories and facts.
In the expressions our faith, the proliferation of churches and the pluralistic game of religious free enterprise, means there are multiple churches for people to join to suit their version of the facts. It means the stories about Jesus’ resurrection and his appearances and of Thomas and his questions about the facts of this story, (John 20:19-31) are quite remarkable. They emerge from a faith openly acknowledging and celebrating doubt, disagreement and human and divine hope, all in the same story.
As I prepared this reflection, I remembered the story Jesus tells of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). The rich man dies and goes to ‘Hades’ while the poor man, Lazarus is ‘carried away by the angels to be with Abraham’ (Luke 16:22). Then comes the conversation between the rich man in Hades and Abraham in heaven as the rich man discovers there is no respite for him or release from the torments of hell.
Then father, I beg you to send Lazarus to my father’s house – for I have five brothers – that he may warn them …’ (16:27-28)
Abraham reminds him the brothers have Moses and the prophets; and they should listen to them. The rich man says, ‘I know! But’:
If someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ (16:30).
Abraham’s response is clear:
If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ (Luke 16:31)
Jesus’ story about the rich man and Lazarus is clear. Now we are confronted by an extraordinary and challenging story about Jesus. And the challenge is not simply about whether we believe in the resurrection of Christ Jesus, God’s only Son, but also whether we believe in God’s peace, given to the disciples by Jesus through the gifting of the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of sins.
I wondered about this peace Jesus repeatedly gives to his disciples. What did peace feel like to the disciples, including Thomas, after those last frantic, frightening days of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion? After they had abandoned Jesus out of fear and were in hiding. What did peace feel like for the women who had stayed with Jesus when everyone else had run away and who came to the tomb following the Sabbath? They were told not to be afraid, not to be alarmed, to listen and share the good news in awe, amazement and great joy. There was an earthquake and lightning enough to strike terror into anyone. There were repeated assurances for those who went to the tomb: Jesus had gone ahead of them and was waiting for them.
In a locked house, in an upstairs room the disciples saw the wounds on Jesus’ body telling the manner of his death. Jesus was real and yet different. His body bearing the truth in these marks of torture. ‘Do we believe this story, we who have not seen him in the flesh,’ asks Jesus? Do we believe in his peace? We live in a culture where we pride ourselves on rational, logical facts and science. We celebrate our capacity to discard facts and truth when it doesn’t make sense to us personally or suit our purpose.
Yet the breathing of God’s peace upon us is absolute and extraordinary. This peace is not an absence of conflict, where our polite courtesies ignore division, contempt, hatred, violence or unkindness. It is not about looking away while hoping the conflict will go away. As Christians, Jesus asks us to live and work in peace with one another, and to do this everywhere, including in the middle of war, violence and death. We are asked to speak truthfully, not propaganda to suit our own stories. We are not asked to join in the violence.
It is not easy to be a peacemaker in a country or global society where war is present everywhere. Violence is active in many of our homes, with intimate partner and family violence a daily reality. Violence, division and conflict is in our communities, as we exclude people of other races, faiths, sexualities and genders; where we ignore discrimination and deliberately or carelessly remember wrongly, exaggerating or undermining the story to suit our purposes.
We know Jesus doesn’t do any of these things. His memory is accurate and loving. What must his disciples have felt in the aftermath of their actions? Jesus’ offering of peace three times, just like his request to Peter to love his people three times, speaks to his acceptance of betrayal and denial by his closest friends. His forgiveness, his loving understanding and acceptance of each of us, without any ‘stories or facts’ means I am truly grateful it is God who judges me, because God knows my innermost heart better than I do, and my unwitting and deliberate sins. Each of us bears both the wounds of hurts done to us by others, and the wounds we inflict on ourselves when we hurt another. We repeat in our confession: ‘The memory of them is grievous, the burden of them is intolerable.’
Jesus’ body clearly remembers the torture and death inflicted upon him. The wounds, deliberately inflicted, just as he remembers the betrayals and brokenness of his disciples and friends.
Thomas’ demands to see the evidence truthfully is what we all do when the world is upended and we cannot make sense of what has happened to us in the darkness, as we are doing in Ukraine, in our refugee camps, in our prisons and in our homes. It means there need be no doubt at all; this is the man who has gone before us. He has been to the dark places ahead of us and has overcome death with love. There are no half measures.
It is Jesus’ peace and forgiveness, both healing and reconciling us which transforms our lives and our behaviours. If only we can bear to hear the story as we stand with the other disciples in the upper room, behind closed doors: and, in the presence of Christ believe, like Thomas, through doubt and uncertainty, repentance and forgiveness, with fear and joy. It is then we will find ourselves able to say: ‘My Lord and my God.’ (John 20:28)
The Lord be with you.