In a subject I took at university, one student was late for every single lecture. The lecturer would have given us the handouts. The subject of the next essay would have been announced. The class would have settled down to take notes on the day’s lecture. Then the door would open and this woman would come in, all breathless and apologetic. She would take a seat, rummage around noisily in her bag for a writing pad and pen, and then start whispering (stage whisper) to the unfortunate student next to her: “What’s the topic? When’s the essay due?” Then – to the lecturer – “Could I have a hand-out please.”
No doubt there were reasons for her behaviour. We knew it had nothing to do with public transport; she lived two streets from the university. We knew the lecturer tried talking to her about it. Everyone would be irritated by her constant lateness and noisy attempts to catch up. The concentration and purpose of the class was distracted. I guess she wanted attention. Perhaps she felt left out, in some way.
At this time of year we revisit the struggling disciple who’s nick-named ‘doubting Thomas’. The one who needed certainty before he could have faith. But this is not purely a story about faith. So this time we won’t concentrate only on his doubts. We will do that, but first we’ll place him squarely in the experience of his community. I encourage you to see if you can recognise him in your own community. You know him – or her. He or she is ‘away’ from the community’s life when important things happen. So they don’t ‘get’ where the group is now situated. They feel left out. They can’t believe what others say has happened because they didn’t experience it. The new events and direction are perhaps explained to them, but they weren’t part of the discussion so they don’t see why these changes are happening. Perhaps they even drop out of the community.
Keep them in mind as we consider Jesus’ words to his disciples. They are delivered in the context of the community life of Jesus’ followers, after his death. The followers are devastated by that, of course, so they try to deal with it by staying close together. As they are on that first Sunday evening when they feel his presence with them and hear him say “Shalom alekhem - Peace be with you”. We know that in Hebrew ‘shalom’ doesn’t just mean ‘peace’. By that word shalom, Jesus was wishing them: ‘a good purpose in life’ following his teaching, and the blessing of a supportive community.
A week after this experience, they are still together, still remembering Jesus’ blessing as they set out on a new journey in faith in his name.
But this time, the person who’d been ‘away’ the week before is back with them – the disciple Thomas. He may have had good reason for being away – perhaps grieving alone for his loss of Jesus. Whatever the reason, he wasn’t there at a very important time in the life of the community. He needed more than their word that Jesus had appeared among them and spoken to them. He needed to experience Jesus’ presence himself, before he could believe it.
So John’s story tells us that Jesus reappeared and showed Thomas the nail wounds on his hands and feet. Remember that John’s story does not mean Jesus was literally walking around in the flesh after his death. It’s John’s way of saying that eventually all of the disciples (except Judas, of course) became convinced that the spirit of Jesus had survived his death.
I believe the most important words in the story are not that a resurrected Jesus was walking through walls. The most important words are those of Jesus to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This is John’s message for everyone who read his gospel – from the very first readers right up to his readers in the present day – that’s us, here today. None of us has experienced Jesus as this story says, but we can believe his spirit remains with us - through the priceless teachings he passed on to his followers. We too can receive the peace of God, or Shalom alekhem, through the wisdom of Jesus – for life.
And just as it was, way back then, this community here today contains people of great faith. I know that many of you have had extensive experience of living in a relationship of trust in God. I encourage you to share those experiences with others in this community, as well as to people outside of it. Study groups are places where high points on the faith journey can be shared and experienced. And I know you’ve had many such opportunities in the past. Perhaps these days, as well. But along the way you will have discovered that Jesus’ teachings are double-sided, like coins. They come true for you only if you carry them out for someone else!
Like the time a man was taken on a conducted tour of both heaven and hell. He was astonished to find that heaven and hell looked exactly the same! There were no angels and harps in one place, or demons and fire in the other. In both places there were people seated either side of long tables set with beautiful crockery and silverware. Each table was piled high with delicious food. The distinctive thing about the table settings in both heaven and hell was the extraordinary length of the cutlery. Every spoon, fork and knife was four feet long. The one rule at both tables was that they had to use this long cutlery. It was only when the man looked closely at the behaviour of the people at the tables that he knew whether he was in heaven or in hell.
In hell, the people in the dining room were experiencing the pain of starvation. They were sitting at tables loaded with food, but could eat nothing. Their cutlery was too long to carry the food to their own mouths. On the other hand, the man also knew when he was in heaven. There he saw that each person at the tables was feeding the person opposite with the long knives and forks and spoons, and being fed by them. They were all well fed, happy, and glad to be helping each other.
There are so many ways a community of faith can make Jesus’ blessing of shalom alekhem happen. We don’t doubt for a moment that Jesus meant his followers to have a good purpose in life. And as I said, the true potential of Jesus’ teachings comes true for his followers only when they bring good news and good actions to other people. But Thomas’ story is a reminder that his experience still happens these days. He had the feeling of missing out. When he finally caught up with the other disciples he couldn’t understand why they’d changed. He had the feeling that the others had become the ‘in group’ with Jesus, and he was on the outside. He needed to discover for himself that somehow, Jesus remained with them all, including with him. He needed reassurance that he really did still belong to the circle of disciples.
Have a think about communities to which you belong – this one and perhaps other different kinds. Maybe a workplace, bowls club, or a service club. How are they structured and who are the ‘in group’. There’s always an ‘in group’ in any organisation. If you recognise that the in group includes you, you may like to consider who might be feeling they’re missing out – on important decisions. That really is a dangerous development in any community. The person feeling left out can drift further to the margins and even right out the door. Or, they may register discontent that creates cracks in the community.
Be aware of the Thomases in your midst. They need to be noticed. They need to have their ‘outsider’ feelings acknowledged. They need Jesus’ blessing of shalom alekhem – from other members of the community!
And one of the most important communities to which we all belong is family. Sometimes it’s easy to dismiss our own family as recipients of our faith in the teaching of Jesus. I don’t mean preaching them a sermon over the Sunday roast. But family members can sometimes need our recognition of their situation in the family. For instance, some family members have a disproportionate responsibility. It could be to care for frail or disabled family members. And sometimes those carers are taken for granted. It often used to be that the single woman in the family was assumed to be the person who would look after Mum and Dad in their old age. And because of limitations imposed by those responsibilities it was easy for them to become marginalised – even in their own family. No one seemed to notice that their chance to pursue a career or to have their own family, had been taken from them.
A doctor friend once told me how often he had seen the carer in a family overlooked when other siblings swooped at the last minute and assumed the right to make decisions about a dying parent.
During his time as British Prime Minister, Tony Blair had this to say about carers:
We all may need care, or to provide care. When I was a boy, I watched my own mother care for my father after he had a stroke. Like her, there are many people – daughters, sons, parents, relatives – who give help and support in many ways to those they’re caring for. What carers do should be properly recognised, and properly supported. Carers should be able to take pride in what they do. And in turn, we should take pride in carers.
So – we’ve thought about two ways of making Shalom happen. 1. By including those who feel left out of community life. 2. By acknowledging and supporting the carers in our midst. The good purpose of the community of faith is not just to follow Jesus by being a carer for others. We are also called to care for and honour the carers.
Jesus still says Shalom alekhem. Accept it - for yourself, your family and your community. Put it into practice. Make it happen.
A reflection from the Rev Dr Lorraine Parkinson at The Habitat Uniting Church,
Cnr Burke and Mont Albert Roads, Canterbury, on April 11, 2021