In our Orthodox Church this first Sunday of the fifty days of Pentecost is often called Thomas Sunday because of the Gospel which we have just heard read. We remember especially that St Thomas was not present when the Lord Jesus first appeared to the other disciples, and he insisted that he would not believe until he saw for himself. I don’t think that we should rush to a criticism of St Thomas. At the beginning of this Gospel reading we learn that the disciples were gathered together, hidden away, because they were afraid of the Jews. It seemed that something had happened to their Lord Jesus, there had been angels and an empty tomb, but nothing yet made sense and they were still afraid.
Everything changed for them when he suddenly appeared among them. The door was shut fast. They didn’t want anyone finding them. But their Lord Jesus was suddenly there all the same. What were the first words that he spoke to them after his resurrection? They were words of comfort and encouragement. Peace be with you, he said. And it was his presence which filled them with joy and gave them that peace they had been lacking. It wasn’t enough to know that Jesus might be risen from the dead, they needed him to be with them, so that their fears disappeared in his presence.
This message of peace was so important that the Lord Jesus repeated it again. Peace be with you. In the presence of our Lord Jesus there is peace. And after we have prayed the prayers of consecration and the divine action of the Holy Spirit transforms bread and wine into the Body and Blood of our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ, there are several times when I say, Peace be with you. And I will step aside from the altar so that the presence of Christ himself, present in his Body and Blood, might give us his peace.
St Cyril of Alexandria says,
When Christ greeted his holy disciples with the words “peace be with you,” by peace he meant himself, for Christ’s presence always brings tranquillity of soul. … The peace of Christ which passes all understanding is in fact the Spirit of Christ, who fills those who share in him with every blessing.
But he does not only give us his peace. He sends us out in service. Indeed, the purpose of the Christian life, of growing into union with God by the indwelling Holy Spirit, is so that we can serve the will and the purpose of God in the world, and make Christ present among those who need his healing presence themselves. We are not gathered here today simply for ourselves, but so that having received the grace of God, the gift of the life and love in the Holy Spirit, we might go out and share it.
He says to the Apostles, As the Father has sent Me, I also send you. He sends us out in the same saving mission to the world which brought about the incarnation. Just as he became man for the sake of the world, so he now sends us out with his peace to bring peace and comfort and strength to those who need healing. But it was not only in his peace that he sent out his disciples, it was with the power of the Holy Spirit. And just as God had breathed the Holy Spirit into Adam as his true life, so this divine life which was lost when Adam sinned, is renewed in those who are united to Christ.
In the peace of Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, all that we receive from God in the liturgy and in the spiritual life of communion with God in prayer, is to be given away as we are sent out into the world. We gather together here, and are filled with heavenly bread, and we are sent out again, to share what we have received.
Now the disciples told Thomas all that happened, but he could not bring himself to believe it. The disciples had not believed the women either, when they came from the tomb. And often we cannot bring ourselves to believe that the blessings which other Christians enjoy could be ours. We are also, like Thomas, often confused, anxious and even afraid in our difficult circumstances. It sometimes doesn’t seem possible that we could find peace.
St Cyril again says about this,
I think, however, that it was not so much that the disciple did not believe what was told to him, but rather that he was distracted with the utmost grief, because he had not been thought worthy to see our Saviour with his own eyes. For he, perhaps, thought that he would never receive that blessing.
St Thomas waited 8 days. Perhaps the other disciples also started to wonder if they had imagined things? Or perhaps they encouraged Thomas to be patient and the Lord would come to them again. The 8th day always has a symbolic meaning of being the age of eternity, and on this 8th day after the resurrection of the Lord we are invited to gather together also and receive the visitation of our Saviour. Once again Christ offers peace to those who wait to meet him, and he is most careful to overcome all of St Thomas’ doubts and fears.
St Cyril says again,
We indeed close the doors, but Christ visits us and appears to us all, both invisibly and visibly. Invisibly as God, but also visibly in the Body. He allows us to touch His Holy Flesh, and gives us of it. For by the grace of God we are permitted to share in the blessed Eucharist, receiving Christ … Participating, then, in the Divine mysteries, in addition to filling us with Divine blessedness, is a true confession and memorial of Christ’s dying and rising again for us and for our sake. Let us, therefore, after receiving Christ’s Body, turn away from all unbelief in Him … be found established in the full assurance of faith.
Do you come here today with such fears and anxieties? Do you have such a burden that you cannot even believe that it could ever be taken away? Here in this place Christ will make himself present with us and will give himself to us. In receiving him in the Holy Communion he renews in us the divine life of the Holy Spirit and he gives us his peace. Have confidence in the risen Lord Jesus. Turn to him in all your fears. And though the door of your heart may be closed and you feel that you bear the burden alone, he waits to appear within you, saying, Peace be with you. Call out to the Lord, in this place, and you will find him already here.
Let us attend to this holy celebration of the Liturgy, and ask that God will indeed become present among us and take away our fears, that in his peace and renewed in his life, we might share the divine gift of love with all those he sends us out among.
To his glory, and for the salvation of souls. Amen.