Last week I heard a story on NPR about friendship. It referenced a study in which volunteers were exposed to mild (though the reporter who participated disagreed with that descriptive term “mild”) electrical shocks while watching a video screen. When the screen displayed a red X in the corner, the volunteer’s chances of getting a shock were one in five. If an O was displayed, no shock was forthcoming.
After the volunteer/reporter experienced the first shock, she exhibited symptoms of anxiety every time a red X appeared on the screen, tensing up for the next onset of pain. Anxiety levels rose whether the subject was watching the screen without being touched by another person, or while holding the hand of an unfamiliar lab tech.
But when the test subject’s hand was held by a close friend who was present for the testing, her anxiety was much lower. It seems that the friend’s presence gave support and strength in such a way that the body’s responses to stress were lowered.
In this week’s gospel text, all the disciples were stressed to the limit after Jesus’ death. When they gathered, Thomas chose not to join them. If you’d tested their anxiety levels, they’d be off the charts. Then they experienced Jesus in their presence, and felt shalom. Peace.
Thomas, though, heard about it and was unconvinced anything could give him peace. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side…’
Thomas’ response? “My Lord and my God.”
We are in trouble when we think faith is just a spiritual thing, an other-worldly exercise. Thomas, who wasn’t at all sure he could have faith after Jesus’ death, was invited to touch the open wounds of crucifixion, to be drawn into the physicality of death and life.
Many people experience this when they are ill, or living through some tremendous loss, or about to make a huge decision. The very presence of a person who loves them can make all the difference. That person can’t take away the illness, bring back what was lost, or reduce the consequences of decision-making. But her presence makes it easier. His voice calms you. The touch of her hand gives you peace.
Touching, being touched by, someone we’re close to changes us. It gives us strength, hope, spiritual courage. It makes us able to face trouble, to stand up to evil, to live bravely.
It gives us faith.
© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2016