The Gospel reading today from the 20th chapter of the Gospel of St John tells us that “the doors being shut where the disciples were … Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” So, how could this happen? How could Jesus enter a room through a locked door and then show the disciples the wounds of the Crucifixion in His hands and His sides? Let’s see how the Church Fathers interpret this Biblical passage.
St Augustine explains that here after the Resurrection, Jesus Christ has “a spiritual body, [but that] … the character of a spiritual body [is] unknown … to us” [Forty Gospel Homilies 26]. St Gregory the Great offers a helpful further explanation: “The Lord’s body that made its entrance to the disciples through closed doors was the same [body] as that which issued before the eyes of people from the Virgin’s closed womb at His birth,” preached St Gregory. “It [is not] surprising [then] if He who … on His coming [to earth] in order to die made His appearance from the unopened womb of [Holy Mary] … [and] was now going to live forever made His entrance through closed doors after the Resurrection. But because the faith of those who beheld [Him] wavered concerning the body they could see, He showed them at once His hands and His side, offering them the body that He brought in through the closed doors to touch. By this action [Christ] revealed two wonderful, and according to human reason, quite contradictory things. He showed [the disciples] that after His Resurrection His body was both incorruptible and yet could be touched… By showing us that [His body] is incorruptible, He would urge us on toward our reward, and by offering it as touchable He would [encourage] us toward [a deeper] faith. He [showed] Himself [clearly] as both incorruptible and touchable to [tell] us that His body after His Resurrection was of the same nature as ours but of a different sort of glory,” concluded St Gregory the Great. [Forty Gospel Homilies 26].
I find St Gregory’s insights helpful. Just as the seed of the body of Jesus Christ came into the womb of Holy Mary through the Holy Spirit, so that body as an adult entered a room through a locked door. Another sixth century theologian, Biblical scholar and preacher, St Caesarius of Arles, reminds us that earlier in His ministry Jesus Christ and St Peter had both walked on the water of the Sea of Galilee [Matthew 14.29]. St Caesarius urges us, and I quote, not “to examine the reasonableness of miracles by [our] human senses, [because] nothing is impossible for God…. [Clearly,] if [Jesus Christ] was touched [by St Thomas] there was a body, and if He ate there [with the disciples] there was a body,” concluded St Caesarius [Sermon 175.2].
It’s not necessary for human beings to die or be on the path to sainthood before we have spiritual bodies. In a recent book from Ancient Faith Press, The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory, Presbytera Constantina Palmer tells a remarkable story about another presbytera whose location is not given: “A certain presbytera, on account of the great number of souls seeking commemoration by her husband, a senior and holy priest, was required to help him during the service of Proskomidi. (During this service the priest prepares the prosfora for the Divine Liturgy and commemorates a list of Orthodox faithful.) The presbytera would stand outside the north door of the iconostasis … [and] the priest would give her a stack of papers so she could help him read all the names. Once, as she stood reading the names and praying with her whole heart she rose into the air and prayed in an elevated state,” concluded Presbytera Constantina (p. 17). That’s never happened to me when I read all the names that you in the congregation ask me to remember and place particles of the prosfora on the diskos!
A fourth-century theologian and preacher, St Gregory of Nyssa, explains why Christ, with His spiritual body, chose to walk through this locked door: “[Christ] did not remain in death’s power. The wounds that His body had received from the iron of the nails and spear offered no [obstacle] to His rising again. After His Resurrection, [Christ] showed Himself whenever He [wished] to His disciples [on many occasions]. When He wished to be present with them, He was [also] in their midst without being seen… All of these occurrences … require no further argument to show that they are signs of deity and of a sublime and supreme power,” concluded St Gregory [The Great Catechism 32]. That “sublime and supreme power” of the Risen Lord has remained present on earth for more than twenty centuries and will remain present until the end of time.
Just as Christ was often “in the midst” of His disciples after His death on earth, so now after His Resurrection, He is often with us. The reading today from the Gospel of St John tells us what Christ did when He came through that locked door into the room with His disciples. He “came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’” St Cyril, a fourth-century Patriarch of Alexandria explains the meaning of these words of Christ, and I quote: “When Christ greeted His holy disciples with [these] words, ‘Peace be with you,’ by peace He meant Himself, for Christ’s presence always brings tranquillity [that is, calmness] of soul. This is the grace that [St] Paul desired for [all] believers when he wrote [in the Letter to the Philippians, chapter 4, verse 7] ‘The peace of Christ which passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds.’ [This] peace of Christ which passes all understanding is in fact the Spirit of Christ, who fills those who share in Him with every blessing,” concluded St Cyril [Commentary on the Gospel of John 12.1].
Is it possible that each of us can learn to experience both “the sublime and supreme power” of God and the sense of peace and calmness and unity with Christ that empowered His disciples? It may well be possible once we understand that the peace which Christ offers us opens us up to letting the power of God guide our lives. Just as Christ wished His peace to come fully into the lives of the disciples, so our Saviour has the same hope for each of us. First, we experience the peace of Christ. Then the power of the Lord follows into our hearts and minds.
However, as Christ reminded the disciples in the final chapter of the Gospel of St Luke, “I send the promise of My Father upon you; but stay in the city [of Jerusalem], until you are clothed with power from on high.” At times, we too, like the disciples, must wait until the power of God is upon us. We wait not for a voice from heaven nor a mystical experience but for the peace of Christ—the inner calmness that that the time has now come for a certain prayer, a certain action, a certain acceptance of our situation in life.
A fourth-century Roman convert to Christianity, Marius Victorinus offers a fitting conclusion to this sermon. He wrote: “When the peace of God has come upon us we shall understand God. There will be no discord, no disagreement, no quarrelsome arguments, nothing subject to question. This is hardly the case in worldly life. But it shall be so when we have the peace of God, wherein all understanding shall be ours. For peace is the state of being already at rest, already secure,” concluded Marius Victorinus [Epistle to the Philippians 4.7]. In other words, once we believe in God and trust Him and the peace He offers us, whatever our problems, we are in “the state of being already at rest, already secure.” Then we can move ahead confidently in prayer and action to live our lives in unity with the power of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. So be it! Amen.