The gospel lesson designated for this Lord’s Day features the appearance of Jesus to his disciples after his resurrection. It means to confirm for us what we proclaimed on Easter Sunday. This one, crucified, has really been raised from the dead. He is the living one. He was dead, and now look, he is alive forevermore.
But the report about the empty tomb does not seem to have pumped up the disciples. Far from it. We find them huddled together, hiding in a house, with the doors locked. We may say that they are under lockdown. Only it’s not the coronavirus that keeps them from public gathering, but rather their fear of the authorities. They realize that as followers of the one executed for a capital crime, there is a price on their head too. They are probably planning together how to withdraw from the city without drawing the attention of the temple police and the Roman soldiers. Understandably, they are afraid.
Chronic fear is closely associated with stress. Or at least the body undergoes the same changes in response to both. Blood pressure rises. Levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, increase. The amygdala, that part of the brain responsible for “fight or flight” signals, fires. These prepare the body for action when danger is imminent. But problems arise when the body remains in this state of high alert. It leads to increased white blood cell production and inflammation. Over time these can compromise the immune system, making the body more susceptible to illnesses that it could otherwise fight off. In short, stress can do real damage to the body.
For good reason, we’ve become more aware of the stress response in recent times. We’ve spent the past year confined in our own houses, anxious and afraid. We mentioned last time the increased incidence of anxiety and depression in our population since the pandemic began. Our bodies are overtaxed. We’ve been anxious and fearful.
What is the antidote to fear? Our first response is to say courage. But even before courage, we need peace. Peace brings to our bodies an inner calm. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system, whose job it is to relax the body, bringing us down from that state of high alert.
This is exactly what the disciples needed in that house. Then Jesus came and stood among them and addressed to them the words: “Peace be with you.” The words constitute a standard greeting that is used to this day in the middle East. But coming from Jesus, the words take on an added significance. Remember what he told them in the upper room on the night before his arrest. “My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, nor let them be afraid.” Now he reminds them of what he has given to them, when they need it most.
Do we not also need to hear these words, perhaps more now than in recent memory? Many today are in search of peace. They turn to meditation, yoga, and deep breathing. If these techniques can help, we should not discourage their use. But let us not neglect to hear the words Jesus addresses to us. They come to us too, despite the fact that we’ve been confined in our houses, behind locked doors, figuratively speaking. “Peace be with you.” Let us receive Jesus’ greeting as God’s own word to us today. Remember the Apostle Paul reassuring the Philippian believers to be anxious about nothing, but in everything, through prayer, to bring their requests to God. He then added that the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, would guard their hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. The peace that Jesus gives is the very peace of God, which the violence of this world can neither threaten nor destroy. The resurrection of Jesus is living proof. Seen from another angle, the peace that Jesus gives us makes possible our peace with God. Through him God reconciled us to himself, making peace by the blood of his cross.
Jesus shows to his disciples the wounds that he suffered on the cross, directing their attention to his hands and his side. Of course, he’s pointing to the scars left by the nails that affixed his hands to the cross and by the sword that the Roman soldier thrust into him after his death. Jesus does this for them so that they may be sure that it is really he, Jesus, who’s standing among them. Because Jesus has a future, so his disciples have a future. By communicating to them the Holy Spirit, Jesus transforms his disciples into apostles, that is, as the ones whom he sends. Empowered by the Spirit, they are to go out and proclaim the good news of the risen Jesus, in whom there is repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
The attentive reader sees next that the scene shifts. The author notes there is a disciple who is missing. His name is Thomas. He was not with them when Jesus first came to the disciples in the house. After their encounter with Jesus, the disciples went to Thomas with the news: “we have seen the Lord.” His response, of course, has earned for him the title, “Doubting Thomas.” He’s skeptical. He wants tangible proof. Not only does he want to see, but also wants to touch.
The scene then replays itself. The following week Jesus again appears to the disciples, who are again in the house with the doors shut. He gives to them the same greeting, “Peace be with you,” which reminds them of the peace that he has given to them. That peace is extended to Thomas too. He does not disqualify himself by his doubt. That should reassure those among us who doubt. Jesus does not condemn us when we struggle with doubt. He intends for us too to be recipients of his peace.
Five years ago, a movie came out called Risen (2016). The main character is a Roman Tribune, named Clavius, played by the famous actor Joseph Fiennes. Clavius is summoned by Pontius Pilate to expedite a crucifixion already in progress. It is that of Jesus. Looking up into his eyes, Clavius sees that he is already dead, and so orders a soldier to go and pierce his side with a sword. Three days later, Pilate summons Clavius again. This time it is to investigate the rumors of the resurrection of the Jewish Messiah. Pilate orders him to locate the missing body of Jesus, one of the crucified men. Pilate wants to be sure to recover the body before the Emperor arrives, because he fears that rumors of his resurrection will cause a commotion in the city. Clavius fails to find the body. He then enlists the service of his loyal assistant Lucius to find and interrogate those connected with Jesus’ crucifixion and burial for clues to his disappearance.
Eventually, Clavius comes to a house where he first sees the disciple Bartholomew and Mary Magdalene and then the rest of the disciples. But as he surveys the scene, he sees standing among them the same Jesus, whom he saw crucified. He pauses, struggling to process what he’s seeing. As he gazes in wonder and confusion into the face of Jesus, Clavius experiences flashbacks of the Jesus whom he saw hanging on the cross. Jesus now meets his gaze lovingly. He welcomes the soldier to come forward, with the words: “Come, there are no enemies here.” Clavius does not move; he is still frozen in place, able only to release the sword from his hand, which drops to the floor. He continues to survey the scene. The disciples are sitting very close to Jesus. He lifts his garment to show them his wound in the side, inviting not only Thomas but all the disciples to touch it. As they do so, he in turn touches them, patting their backs and rubbing their shoulders. Jesus then opens his palms to reveal the wounds left by the nails. The disciples then press their hands into his. The disciples laugh with delight, comforted by their proximity to the body of their risen Lord. Their fear turns to joy. After a moment, Jesus suddenly and mysteriously disappears.
This scene made the deepest impression on me. It reminded me that most people long for human touch. With so many of us deprived of touch during the pandemic, we’ve become more aware of this vital need. In her book, The Lonely Century, author Noreena Hertz describes the contactless world into which we are moving. Businesses have invested in technology and work routines that limit customers’ interactions with their staff. Last year we saw technology at restaurants that enabled customers to pre-order and pay without contact with servers. Self-checkout counters and websites and apps allow us to have everything from groceries to pet supplies and medication delivered to us without human contact.
Hertz predicts that demand for contactless encounters will remain for some time as the world slowly rebuilds after Covid. This is especially so as long as future lockdowns are anticipated and social distancing remains the norm. But Hertz wonders how long we will be able to endure a world of “low human touch.” If we no longer see the friendly face of the person behind the deli counter making our sandwich, if we no longer chat with the attendant at the cash register, if we lose the benefits of all those micro interactions that we now know make us feel more connected, is it not inevitable that our sense of loneliness and disconnection will grow? How much more hostile and threatening will our world feel when we don’t feel connected to our neighbors? Herz delivers the following verdict: “In the contactless age, the danger is that we will know each other less and less, feel less connected to each other, and thus be increasingly indifferent to each other’s needs and desires.” She concludes: “we can’t break bread together, after all, if we’re sitting at home eating Grubhub by ourselves.”
This is unsustainable. As long as we live in these bodies, we cannot live in a contactless world. But the good news is that God never intended for us to live in a contactless world. That is not God’s will for us. The first lesson designated for this Lord’s Day depicts a community that formed in response to the testimony of the Apostles to the risen Christ. We refer here to the church. The theologian Louis Marie Chauvet writes that the Risen Christ, though physically absent, continually takes on a body in the form of a church. The theologian Karl Barth similarly calls the church the earthly historical form of the existence of Jesus Christ in the world. After his resurrection, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit, who creates a community characterized by togetherness and sharing. Through the Spirit, he gives joy to our hearts, calms our fears, and relieves our doubts. These gifts are for us, just as they were for those disciples in that house, where the Lord Jesus appeared to them, blessed them with his peace, and offered his body to be touched.
We still have to adapt our routines to a world where the coronavirus remains a threat. We still wear our masks. We still have to maintain social distance. More and more of us have been vaccinated. But some of us do not feel safe enough to go to church, concerned that we may expose ourselves or others to possible contagion. We have to be patient. But in the meanwhile, we must live, to the extent that we can, as the community that has formed in response to the message of the risen Christ. Let us look into one another’s eyes and convey the warmth that comes from the deep peace that Christ has given to us. If we share a home with others, let us convey our care to them with gentle touch. And when the pandemic eventually lifts, let us be counted among those devoted to restoring human contact in a contactless world. Amen.