Sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Easter: Thomas assured – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 16 April 2023 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes.  (Acts Ch 2: v 14a, 22 – 32; John Ch 20: v 19 – 31)

I have never seen a ghost. I have, however, known two people who have had what you might call ghostly experiences; both men of impeccable trustworthiness and altogether reliable. One, a senior Home Office official, heard a ghost and declared it to be a chilling experience. The other, in his day a distinguished cricketer, became aware of a bright presence at the end of his bed, but felt – by contrast – reassured by it, as if it were somehow protecting him. Neither, as far as I am aware, ever had such an experience again.

On a lighter note, I remember a time, some years ago, when those who telephoned the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Spirit in Yeovil would be surprised to hear a voice answering, “Holy Ghost.”

We are into the season, in the gospels, of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. And they are greeted with similarly mixed reactions. Luke tells us that when Jesus came and stood among the eleven remaining apostles on that first day of his resurrection, “they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit” (Luke Ch 24: v 36 -37). But in John’s account, in today’s Gospel, “the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord”. One can understand their fluctuating emotions: disbelief that anyone should come back from the dead, alarm that it could be a ghost – possibly an illusion – and then sheer joy at the discovery that this was not simply a fantasy but reality.

Yet they had to determine in what sense Jesus, after his resurrection, was real. So do we, for it is an all-important question. For a start we would, I think, agree with the gospel writers that he displayed some ghostly qualities. John makes a point of saying that the doors of the house where the disciples had gathered were locked: they were terrified that there could be a knock on the door from the feared agents of the Sanhadrin. Yet Jesus just appears in their midst. In the same way Luke describes how, out of nowhere, he falls in with the two disciples as they walk to Emmaus, and then disappears as he breaks bread and gives it to them as they have supper later.

Nonetheless, Jesus assures the disciples that he is fully himself: “for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke Cha 24: v 40). To prove the point he asks for, and eats, some fish (v 41 – 43). He also invites Thomas to feel the wounds in his hands and side. Now the intriguing thing about that is that Jesus does not appear to be afflicted by these wounds: he is in other respects whole again, not crippled or suffering. He is clearly not exactly as he was during his earthly ministry, but at the same time is not simply an apparition: he has corporeal presence, and engages with the disciples in his accustomed way. But now they know what they may have been only partly aware of before: that he is closely, if not inseparably, identified with God Himself. That indeed is Thomas’ great insight. He has been very keen to test the waters at first, and is dubious about the others’ account of Jesus’ appearance to them. He wants physical proof – and we can hardly blame him: people do not come back from the dead; except now. When Jesus does re-appear a week later, Thomas has his proof; first he recognizes him visually in person – “my Lord”; and then, with unnerving and amazed insight, he recognizes him as divine – “my God.” In this way he speaks for all of us who live by faith alone.

In the final chapter of John’s Gospel, probably added after our reading today, we have a glimpse of Jesus’ joy of resurrection. Although with a transformed body, he delights in the simple pleasures of life. The scene is set once again by the Sea of Galilee, where his ministry began. Once more he is with those first disciples, his close friends; now they find him on the shore, frying fish over a charcoal fire and inviting them to share his breakfast. It is a touching scene, made all the more poignant by the knowledge of what they have been through.

A poem by Michael Symmons Roberts contrasts the foreboding of the Last Supper with the quiet happiness of Jesus’ resurrected life:

“On that final night, his meal was formal:

lamb with bitter leaves of endive, chervil,

bread with olive oil and jars of wine.

Now on Tiberias’ shores he grills

a carp and catfish breakfast on a charcoal fire.

This is not hunger, this is resurrection:

he eats because he can, and wants to

taste the scales, the moist flakes of the sea.”

As Thomas has joyfully grasped, this is resurrection, not just for his risen Lord, but for him too – and the promise of that resurrected life for all of us who, down the centuries, have echoed his exclamation, “My Lord and my God!”