The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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10.30am Holy Communion      24th April 2022
Life in his name (John 20.30)
Handley Stevens

What a joy it is, in this Easter season, to hear again the stories of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, and to share the excitement of the early Church as they discover that the risen Lord is very much alive, and at work in the world and in his church. 
But what a wretched week poor Thomas had had.  Jeremy spoke last week about that life-destroying sense of absence that we all feel when something is lost.  Thomas knew all about that.   Jesus had been both Friend and Leader, and now he wasn’t there.  In his mind Thomas relived the events of that last night again and again.  When they had finished their supper, they had all gone out into the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus – who was clearly troubled about something – needed to spend time in prayer.  With Peter and James and John, Jesus had found a quiet spot where he wouldn’t be disturbed, so the rest of them had lain down under the olive trees.  Thomas supposed he must have fallen asleep.  Suddenly there was Judas with an armed posse, a flame of torches, a kiss of greeting, and a clash of swords, and before he knew what was happening, Jesus was being marched off under arrest.  Luckily the posse didn’t seem to be interested in anyone else, so he and one or two of the others had just melted into the darkness, and found their way back to where they were staying.  What else could he have done?  If he had stayed around and tried to intervene, he would probably have got arrested too, and what good would that have done?   But it felt bad, and the following day was worse still, as news gradually filtered through about a hasty trial, a guilty verdict on a charge of blasphemy, followed by instant application to the Governor for a sentence of crucifixion, which was carried out on the very next day.
And what had he – Thomas - done?   They had come to arrest Jesus, and he had run away.  OK, so they had all run away, but that didn’t make it any better.  And now there was nothing but this big, black sense of guilt and absence.  For the first few days he couldn’t even face the company of the others.  He just went to ground.  When they told him Jesus was alive and they had seen him, he didn’t believe it.  Wishful thinking.  Jesus had been crucified. His lifeless body had been take down from the cross and buried.  How could he possibly be alive?  From the depths of his grief, suffering the ache of absence, Thomas rounded angrily on the other disciples: 
Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hand in his side, I will not believe, he cried
There was no answer to such a heartfelt outburst, but his friends were kind and patient with him, and gradually Thomas felt strong enough to sit with them again, even if he didn’t say very much.  Even as the others were struggling to come to terms with the disconcerting reality of a presence which was sometimes real and vivid, at other times no more than a cherished memory, Thomas was nursing the absence which set him apart.
And then suddenly Jesus was there, standing amongst them with his customary greeting of peace.  And he turned straight to Thomas. There was the warmth of love and understanding in his eyes as he said: Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Thomas didn’t need to do any of that.  How did Jesus know what had been in his heart?  He just whispered: My Lord and my God – and the sense of absence which had been gnawing away at his empty grief-stricken heart was replaced with that joyful sense of presence which I think many of us would recognise too.
Most scholars think that Jesus’ response, together with the evangelist’s comment which follows, was originally the conclusion of John’s gospel.   First Jesus looks over Thomas’ shoulder, as it were, to say to us:  Dear reader, Blessed are those who have not seen the risen Lord, and yet have come to believe.  And then the evangelist goes on to remind us of the central purpose of his gospel, which has been to tell us the story of Jesus so that we may come with him to believe that Jesus really is the Messiah – the Anointed One  – the Son  of God, and that through believing we may have life in his name.
Life in his name.  Presence rather than absence.  To live in the name of Jesus means to have a share in his Spirit, the  Spirit of Truth, the Spirit of that Love which sets us free and gives us the strength to be ourselves in the service of others.  It is a great mystery, but Thomas entered into it, when the aching absence which had so darkened his life since the day of Jesus’ death was replaced by the joyous Presence which flooded into his heart as he recognised in Jesus his Lord and his God.
Absence and Presence.  Life in His Name.   Jesus said to Thomas: Do not doubt but believe.  As we come now to receive in bread and wine the body and blood of Christ, the miserable absence which we have known if for whatever reason we have turned away from our Saviour, is filled by His welcoming, forgiving, loving Presence.  Just as it was for Thomas.  Thanks be to God.  Amen

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