Maybe you’ve had the experience. You emerge from a room where a life-changing event has take place. Maybe it’s a hospital room, where a new life has entered the world, or a much loved one has left.
Maybe it’s a lawyer’s office where a marriage has ended. Maybe it’s a room where you have been offered a new job, which will mean a move to a new city.
Whatever the event – the things that have happened inside that room have changed your life forever. And then you leave the room and walk out into the world and it seems as if nothing has changed. Life is going on as it always has. No one you see has the slightest idea what has happened in that life-changing room.
Religious and social activist John Howard Griffin had that experience when he left his fundamentalist Georgia family in 1939 and went to France to study. There he joined the French underground and helped smuggle Jewish people out of Germany.
“I think the eye-opener was the night before the fall of France,” Griffin recalls. “We had managed to get quite a few Jewish people out of Germany and put them on boats to England. But this time we had to have special papers to move anyone over the age of 15, so we were caught with these families and no way to get them any farther.
“I was one of only two people in that area who were doing this kind of work. It was my task for this night to go and tell these families that we were not going to succeed. We didn’t have the skills of forging the necessary papers.
“It was going into these rooms where we had hidden them that the whole thing, which has haunted me ever since, hit me square in the face.
“I went into the room where the mothers and fathers and children were hidden. I didn’t have to tell a single one of those families that we were not going to succeed.
“They told me that it was all over; they said the first thing the Germans would do is round them up and ship them back to Germany.
“Then they asked me to do a heartbreaking thing. They asked me to take their children, because we could move children under the age of 15.
“And suddenly you were sitting in these rooms and you became aware of the fact that there are only two people in the world who knew who was in those rooms, myself and my teammate.
“We were in the presence of a massive human tragedy – the tragedy of people who loved their children and were giving their children away to someone they barely knew, so at least the children could escape the camps.
“I realized I could go outside of those rooms, and I could go a block in any direction and could find a person who considered himself perfectly decent who had no idea of the reality inside those rooms. He might even begin to rationalize and justify the racism which led to the tragedy inside those rooms.
“I have often in talks in this country wished I could take people into such rooms – rooms that were filled with grief-torn human beings.”
We are taken into such a room in today’s Gospel. It, too, is a room filled with Jewish people, grief-torn human beings, huddled fearfully behind locked doors.
It is three day after Jesus, their friend and leader, was crucified and his body laid in a tomb. The disciples are grief-stricken at his death, and terrified that the authorities may now be searching for them, that they may be the next ones to be killed. They fear that soon it may all be over.
Then suddenly in that locked room Jesus appears.
“Peace be with you,” he says, then shows them the nail marks in his hands and the sword mark in his side, so that they will know without a doubt who they are seeing. The once-fearful group of disciples rejoices.
One disciple is not there that night. When the others tell Thomas they have seen Jesus he is understandably skeptical. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my fingers in the mark of the nails, I will not believe,” he says.
A week later Thomas has his chance. He and the other disciples are once again locked in that room when Jesus mysteriously appears among them.
Jesus goes directly to Thomas and says, “Put your fingers here and see my hands. Reach out your hands and touch my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
And Thomas does believe.
I have to confess that Thomas is one of my favorite New Testament figures. I identify with his skepticism, his demands for a risen Christ he can see and touch.
Not everyone feels that way. Thomas has received a lot of flack over the years. The term “doubting Thomas” has even made its way into the dictionary. It is usually said with scorn, used to describe an habitual skeptic, someone who will not believe anything until it can be proven absolutely.
One could see Thomas’ demand for proof as a lack of faith, and not to see his wisdom. Thomas knows that claims of a leader resurrected from the dead can easily be seen as lunacy.
The followers of Jesus were not the first religious community – or the last – to deify their founder or speak of resurrections to new life,
Thomas’ wisdom is his demand for a concrete manifestation of the risen Jesus – he demands a Christ he can see and touch.
But what about us who live so many hundreds of years after the risen Christ’s final appearance on earth? How can we demand a Christ we can see and touch?
Jesus answers that question when he first appears among the disciples in that locked room after his death. He looks at the ragtag group cowering in fear and says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Then he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit, God’s spirit, empowers the disciples to lay aside their fear, leave the locked room and go into the world in the name of Christ, preaching and healing and making the Gospel alive to people who had never seen or touched the actual body of Christ.
It is because of this empowerment by the Holy Spirit that the apostle Paul can say years after Christ’s death that “we carry in our bodies the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”
Hundreds of years later St. Theresa of Avila put it this way, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no feet but yours; yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion for the world looks out; yours are the feet through which he is to go about doing good; yours are the hands with which he blesses others now.”
That is what Jesus is telling his disciples that first Easter evening. You are my body now; you are the ones through which the work of God must continue.
When John Howard Griffith came to the Jewish families hiding fearfully in locked rooms he was making the risen Christ visible, the Christ that we can see and touch.
That risen Christ is manifest all around us. Whenever we reach out in service to another, listen to another’s problems, help someone who is sick or dying, share with someone in need, we are making visible the risen Christ, the Christ that we can see and touch.
Whenever we forgive, or are forgiven, the risen Christ is made visible.
It is the power of the risen Christ that gives us the courage to leave our own locked rooms and enter the rooms of others, to lay aside prejudices, hatred, and fear, to work for healing, justice, and peace.
“I will not believe it is really him until I see his hands,” Thomas wisely demanded.
Today, it is our hands that must make Christ visible. As God sent Jesus, so Jesus now sends us – to make sure the risen Christ remains visible to a world full of locked and fearful rooms.