Not in our own strength
I’m Thomas – the one they call Didymus. You probably know me better as doubting Thomas. But Didymus is the name I was called among the other disciples; for I was a disciple of Jesus. I was one of the twelve; I remember well the day he chose us. There had been a group of us gathering around him, and one night he went off to pray on his own, as he often did, and then called twelve of us to him: Peter and Andrew, James and John, Philip, Matthew, Bartholomew, Judas Iscariot, Thaddeus (also known as Judas), the other James, Simon the zealot and me. There were others around us, including some women, but in those days, the disciples had to be men. It would be different in your day, but I lived in a very patriarchal society. That’s not to say that the women who followed weren’t as dedicated, or as able as us; indeed, as events would turn out, the women were more loyal than all the twelve put together. But the twelve of us were the core: the ones he taught more deeply, the ones he sent out to preach. I remember that day he called the twelve of us to him, and sent us out to preach the good news of the Kingdom; he gave each of us authority to drive out evil spirits and heal sickness. He taught us first; it’s all there in Matthew 10. We went out in pairs; I went with Matthew, which was interesting for people knew he had been a tax collector, which affected their response. Mind you, some were more willing to listen to a former tax collector than they were to me. They knew Matthew had given up all that on following Jesus; but we all had. Given up our former lives and occupations, to follow Jesus, and to be there with him and learn from him. We knew he was something special, although it took Peter to say that we knew he was the Messiah. Before that? We each had our suspicions, we each kind of knew, but we hadn’t discussed it with each other, we weren’t quite prepared to say it out loud. It took Peter to do that; that’s why he was our leader, why he was the rock, although at times he felt like a very wobbly kind of rock, especially then.
In those days, when we followed Jesus, we learnt, saw and became more deeply involved with him and his mission. Not that we got everything right; we all made mistakes, and we missed the entire point more often than not. There was that time when we were walking some steps behind Jesus, and we’d got into an argument about who was the greatest. Well, we all thought we were something a bit special; weren’t we the ones that Jesus had chosen as his twelve? But who was the most important amongst us? I’ll never forget the look on Jesus’ face as he asked us about it; a look of disappointment and sheer compassion for us all. He made it clear that actually we weren’t to argue or jostle for first place, that if we wanted to be first, we would become last of all. That particular message took some time to seep into our heads. I’m not sure we quite realised what he meant until right near the end when he washed our feet; that was a servant’s job and none of us felt entirely comfortable with our Lord and master doing this for us, however much it was needed. But it did get the message across more deeply: Jesus was amongst us as a servant, and we were to follow him in that, as in all else. I’ve often wondered if that was the moment when Judas chose to betray him; if that was the teaching he really couldn’t accept. But I don’t know; none of us did. We talked it over constantly in that endless day after he died, but we could never understand. Judas was one of the twelve, and we thought that he was as dedicated, loyal and loving of our Master as the rest of us. So, why?
Those last days are etched into the minds of all of us. The triumphal entry, as we thought that the mass of the people had seen what we knew, and that the start of the kingdom as here; well, it was, but not as we thought it would. That last supper, when it was just Jesus and the twelve of us; the emotion, and the sadness, and the tension. We all knew that events were coming to a head; we all knew something major would happen. But what? and how? It was a very special time for us, not lessened by the bombshell announcement that one of us would betray him. I mean, why? We couldn’t think who he meant, although we trusted Jesus enough to know that he if said that, it was true. Judas’ leaving left not only tension but increased fear, as we realised that he would be able to show the authorities exactly where we would be. We could have gone at that point, you understand. But none of us did. None of us would leave him. When, earlier, he had gone back to Judea to heal Lazarus, we knew he went in danger of death, and we still followed. I suggested that we go with him, that we might die with him, and I meant it. Jesus was our Lord and Master, and we would follow him to death, if need be. We believed he was the messiah, and we would go where he led.
So, no. We didn’t run away the moment the supper was over. We followed him to Gethsemane, although we knew Judas could find us there. Jesus went away to pray, taking just Peter, James and John further on. We tried to stay awake, to watch and pray with him. We knew it was important. But we couldn’t: it wasn’t just tiredness, although it was late and it had been a full day. It was also the tension, the fear and the determination to follow wherever Jesus went. The conflict and the emotions overwhelmed us, and we slept. However much Jesus asked us to stay awake with him, we couldn’t. So, we weren’t really prepared when the crowd came to arrest Jesus. I guess, too, that maybe we expected Jesus to get out of it, somehow, as he had so many times before. When they finally arrested him, we panicked and fled. All of us: except Peter - and John, depending on which account you read. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know. I know the women followed; I know they were there when he died. I know the other nine or ten of us ran as terror overwhelmed us and ended up back in the upper room, the only place we knew was safe; but it was also somewhere we associated with Jesus, as though even in our failure we needed to be near to him. I don’t know what happened; I wasn’t there. I do know Peter appeared at some point, tearful and refusing to talk. I know we never saw Judas again. Was John there, or was he at the cross? I don’t really remember, and I’m not sure it’s vitally important. Towards evening, the women appeared and told us it was all over. Jesus was dead, and Joseph of Arimathea had been given permission to take his body and bury it. That was some small comfort; there would be a tomb. But only a tomb, after all our hopes? The women, however, prepared herbs and spices to anoint the body, once they could. On the Sabbath, we all rested. That was a day of despair. What next? We couldn’t really think.
The women left early on the Sunday, and I was there when they appeared back with tales of Jesus being alive again. To be honest, none of us disciples really knew what to think. People who were dead didn’t come back to life again. Oh, I know Lazarus did, but he was brought back by Jesus, and Jesus was dead. I left them to it for a while. To be honest, I needed to get away for a bit, and think things out by myself. When I came back, they were ALL babbling about Jesus being alive and having appeared to them. I felt slightly left out; I’d been with them almost constantly since Jesus’ death, and he appears at the one time I’m not there? Although part of me wondered if this was some sort of mass hallucination? Or maybe a vision, that he’d appeared to them after he was dead. I’ve heard of such things happening. But being really physically alive? Being resurrected, never to die again? That was impossible. They must be mistaken. No, I told them, unless I saw the holes of the nails, and the gash of the spear in his side, I wouldn’t believe. Partly because it was true, and partly to remind them of exactly how we’d been told he’d died. I guess I should have taken on board more of the atmosphere though. There was a hopefulness and joy present, that hadn’t been there when I’d left. Still, it came as a total shock to me when Jesus appeared before me, and told me to put my hands in the holes the nails had made. I didn’t need to; I could see them. I was overwhelmed with the knowledge of who Jesus was, of the fact that he had died and was now alive again; in my joy, I said ‘My Lord and my God!’. It was true; I believed it.
That was the start of the beginning of the next phase. The end of the beginning took place some weeks later at Pentecost, when the Spirit of Jesus came upon us. It was Peter, naturally, Peter the rock who took the lead on that occasion. It is, again, natural that Luke should concentrate his account of the early church on Peter and Paul, on whom so much depended in those early days. We all took our part in preaching; James, brother of John, was one of the early ones to be killed. We all knew what would likely happen if we continued down this path. But we did continue; I ended up in India, and exactly what I did there is lost to history. But I lost my life there, as Peter did in Rome. But I should say, and it was probably true for all of us, that we were no less scared of death than we were on that evening in Gethsemane. But we didn’t run this time; for we were not doing this in our own strength. We were doing it with and through the Spirit of Jesus, who was with us, helping us. For that is the only way any of us can do anything in Jesus’ service. Not in our own strength, but in the strength of the Spirit of Jesus, our Lord and master.