“Peace be with you.”
In the Gospel of St. John, these are the first words spoken by Jesus after His resurrection to the apostles, gathered in hiding. “Peace be with you.”
We read on Easter Sunday how Mary Magdalene comes to the empty tomb, tells the disciples the body of Jesus is gone, and Peter and John run to see the empty tomb as well. Other than Peter and John running to the tomb, we are not told in the Gospel what the other Apostle’s reactions were; all we are told is that they remained together in hiding, when that same evening – the evening of that first Easter Sunday – Jesus appeared in their midst; in the midst of those who were afraid, who were grieving the loss of their teacher and friend in a brutal and violent death only three days earlier; who were confused; disillusioned, angry, feeling guilty or ashamed at having abandoned him.
But it is in this ‘hiding’ that Jesus appears to his disciples; and in the midst of this wide range of emotions, His first words to them are ‘Peace be with you’ and then He sends them out into the world to be messengers of hope, of peace and of love.
Of course, in this particular passage we encounter St. Thomas, who happens to be absent on that first Easter evening – and we are not told why: who knows where Thomas was when the rest were in hiding; but by omitting that detail, St. John is telling us that it really isn’t important why Thomas wasn’t there, it is important to know that he simply was not present. When the disciples later tell him that they have seen Jesus, St. Thomas expresses his doubts, and forever earns himself the nickname,’ Doubting Thomas’.
And this is where, I think, Thomas gets a bad, even an unfair reputation: Thomas didn’t say, “I don’t believe what Jesus said about dying and rising again’. Thomas says to the apostles, ‘I don’t believe what you are telling me – I need some proof’. He’s using his rational, God-given ability to reason and wants some assurance to back up this story; he’s going through grief, just as the rest of the Apostles; Thomas then makes the famous demand about needing to see and to touch the wounds from the crucifixion.
Most of us focus on this description of Thomas, and we tend to class him as inept, confused, or weak. We forget that earlier in the same Gospel of St. John, in the story of Jesus going to Bethany to heal Lazarus, all of the apostles tried to talk Jesus out of going there because the people had earlier tried to stone him. It is only Thomas, who encourages the other apostles to go where Jesus is going ‘let us go and die with Him’ Thomas is quoted as saying. So Thomas isn’t some weak-minded coward; he is loyal to Jesus;
And when Jesus reappears the following week, and shows Thomas his wounds, Thomas makes a declaration that no other Apostle makes in all the Gospels up to that point; he calls Jesus ‘My Lord and My God” – no one else has called Jesus ‘My God’ before that.
Thomas would eventually proclaim the Gospel; traditions tell us he took the Gospel all the way to the west coast of India, before being martyred there; dying as a witness to his faith in Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t condemn Thomas (or any of the other apostles for that matter) for doubting or questioning. He holds up rather, those who have not seen and yet believe in Him.
This sounds much like a new beatitude (blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the poor, blessed are the pure of heart); this is a message for all who will hear and receive the Gospel that Jesus has died and has risen and has opened the way to salvation for all people. This is a message for all generations from the time of Christ, to our time, and for generations yet to come. It is a message of encouragement; it is an exhortation to not give up hope or trust in God that all will ultimately be well.
We are the ones Jesus is speaking to and about, when He says ‘blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe”. That’s why this chapter of St. John’s Gospel ends with ‘these are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and through believing you may have life in His name.”
The Church – the Body of Christ – has survived for two thousand years, and has seen endured and lived through some tremendous times of peace, hope and joy; she has also experienced periods of great darkness, doubt, scandal and sorrow.
But in all of these times Jesus Himself has been present in His Church, and has always reminded us through His Sacred Word, His Sacraments and His faithful ministers that He is always with us.
And He continues to speak His words of comfort and encouragement to us and continually says, ‘Peace be with you’.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!