A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

 Year C – April 7, 2013

David H. Knight,  Priest Associate

 Send your spirit, God, to open our hearts and our minds to your word,
and strengthen us to live according to your will, in Jesus Name. Amen.

On this Second Sunday of Easter, we find Thomas, one of the disciples, still in doubt that Jesus was alive and we witness the most gracious, loving way that Jesus reached out to him in his disbelief.  On the evening of that first day of the week, the disciples had met in that upper room.  They had locked the doors because they were in fear after all that had happened so violently to Jesus.  That first evening, for whatever reason, Thomas was not with them. Jesus came and appeared through those locked doors and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  The disciples recognized his familiar greeting.  They rejoiced when they saw him. Then later, when they saw Thomas, they couldn’t wait to tell him what had happened, that Jesus was alive!  But Thomas didn’t believe them.  He said that unless he could see the mark of the nails in his hands and unless he could put his finger in the mark of the nails and his hands in Jesus’ side, he would not believe.  But then, a week later, Thomas was with the disciples in that same room. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them again.  Once again, Jesus said those familiar words, “Peace be with you.”  Then, he looked over and saw Thomas. He knew immediately what Thomas needed and he said to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put in my side.  Do not doubt, but believe.” Thomas could do nothing other than to exclaim, “My Lord and my God.”  You see, like many of us, Thomas had his own way of needing to be convinced that Jesus had risen, and Jesus understood that about Thomas.  It was at that moment that Thomas experienced the risen Lord. That moment in the upper room, is one of the most powerful moments in all of the Gospels. At that moment we witness how Thomas became one of those who early on experienced the presence of the risen Lord. Imagine what that must have been like for him!  His experience was different from that of the others who had so far come to believe, yet nonetheless, he too was able to experience what it was like to know that the Lord was alive.  What that moment says to us is that Jesus, who gave his life for us, continues to seek you and me out where we are, and especially in our time of deepest need.  The Very Reverend Gary Hall, Dean of the Washington National Cathedral, has put it this way. He says, “Easter is about the luminous beauty God can make out of human failing…  (in) that relentless, divine persistence that searches for us—even in spite of us—God  will continue to seek us out and find us.”

 As Eleanor said in her sermon here last Sunday, the amazing thing is that God doesn’t ever give up on us.  God works in us and through us, giving us hope that things will be different next time—that we will break out of our unfaithful cycle and finally get it right. That was true of Jesus’ response to Thomas in that upper room.  He knew Thomas doubted but he did not give up on him but rather met him where he was. It remains true with his searching for you and me as well in our own place and in our own day.  Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian, once wrote that the good news of the Risen Lord has written on every page of the New Testament in one way or another, the word “Nevertheless.” No matter what, nevertheless, God is in the midst of us.  In a world where we are given human freedom, terrible things can and do happen. Violence continues unabated around the world and in our own land. People face illness and disease. We lose loved ones.  Bad things happen, yet

 Nevertheless, the risen Christ is in the midst of us, searching to find us and to give hope in time of our deepest need.

 I loved reading what another colleague, Shearon Williams, rector of St. George’s Church in Arlington,Virginia, had to say about Easter in her sermon last Sunday: She said, “The joy that we share at Easter is a very particular kind of joy.  It is an informed joy, the joy that springs forth from the soil of suffering, grief and despair.”  What she then said about the disciples at the empty tomb could be said as well about them in that upper room as we have heard in today’s Gospel.  She pointed out that that these were the same disciples who had witnessed all that had happened to their beloved teacher and friend in the week that had preceded his resurrection. They had seen him, and to some extent, participated in, whether actively or passively, all that had happened to him. They saw him betrayed, mocked, scorned, and crucified. It was a horrible and unforgettable week. Jesus’ death was violent and cruel.

 On the Monday of this past Holy Week, almost two weeks ago now, I had the experience of walking alongside of several hundred Episcopalians and others from around the country as we participated in a service of the Way of the Cross held in our nation’s Capitol. The idea of this service was initially conceived by the three bishops of the Diocese of Connecticut, but as word got out about this service in the House of Bishops meeting at Kanuga earlier in March, 17 other bishops wanted to be part of this service as well. They wanted to add their solidarity as the Church in prayer for the people of Newtown and so many others in this land.  So in all, 20 bishops, their clergy and several hundred people added their support, their prayers, and their presence. It was anticipated that 70 or so would be coming.  Over 300, we’re told, came.  Our own Bishop Shannon Johnston was among those bishops providing his presence, leadership, and witness. Clergy and people from the Diocese of Virginia as well joined him and the others.  People came from Oregon, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Washington D. C., Virginia, the Carolinas, and other places as well.  The service began at Lafayette Square in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church and concluded on the steps of the Capitol.  What started as snow that morning turned to a dreary sleet which somehow appropriately contributed to the mood of the service.  As we processed, mostly in silence, we recalled the Way of the Cross that Jesus walked during the last week of his life on this earth. Along the way, we paused at 14 stations where prayers were offered for the victims of violence in its many forms.  Over the years for me, the service of the Way of the Cross, in whatever form that service has taken in the parishes in which I have served, has been an important part of my journey during Holy Week, but somehow at this service that Monday of Holy Week I experienced it as I never have before.  It struck me in a most powerful way how Jesus gave his life for this sinful and broken world.  Those very images of his journey to the cross became etched in my mind as never before.  Apparently I was not alone.  I received an e-mail from another participant who simply said that Praying the Stations of the Cross had never been more moving for her. You know, somehow in the midst of so much that happens in this world, it is a natural thing at times for us to ask, “Where is God?” and especially now in this Easter season, “What does the resurrection mean in light of so much suffering that we experience and that we see around us?”  But it is precisely to that which happens in this world that Christ gave himself and that God has raised him from the dead, so that ultimately—ultimately—we may have hope once again. What we celebrate during this Easter season, and what we have with us always, is that ultimately life emerges from death.

 It is about the joy that eventually emerges from sorrow.

 It is about courage that, in time returns, and we have hope once again.

 It is about those glimpses of that hope that we begin to experience once again after we have suffered a terrible loss and we find the thread that is given to us to hold onto and move forward.

 It is about the risen Jesus who meets you and me where we are in our journey, as he did with Thomas in that upper room, who searches for us, who never gives up as Eleanor said, and who finds us where we are.

 It is about our witness as Easter Christians in response to our baptismal vows, those vows that ask of us, “Will you persevere in resisting evil…” and, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people…” doing whatever may be necessary on our part that might be required of us.  I was reminded in a conversation with a dear friend, Doug Burgoyne, the other day of the title of a book written some years ago by William J. Wolfe, professor of theology at what was then The Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge.  I have not read the book, yet its very title says it all: No Cross, No Crown.

 I would not presume to stand in this pulpit and say that Easter erases the effects of the losses you and I and people everywhere have suffered, or that Easter makes human sufferings go away, yet speaking as one who, like all of us who encounter Jesus today with Thomas and the other disciples in that upper room, it is appropriate to proclaim once again that we have in our midst the Risen Lord who meets us where we are as we face life with all it brings for

 Nevertheless, nevertheless, God is in the midst of us, searching to find us and to give hope in time of our deepest need.

 What does Easter have to say to those who suffer, to those who have lost loved ones, children or grandchildren, or spouses, partners or dear friends, to those who are in prison, or who have loved ones in prison, to those whose hearts in any way are broken and who yearn for hope in the midst of what they are experiencing?  Easter has to do with that “nevertheless” about which Karl Barth speaks. No matter what may happen, ultimately, that divine persistence searches us out and somehow, in some way, reaches us where we are.

 What does Easter have to say to us?  A week ago, on Easter Eve, at a service of The Great Vigil of Easter, another good friend and colleague, Tom Smith, ended his Easter homily that night with words that struck me as a powerful proclamation of the Easter message to us. As Jeannie and I sat in the pew and I heard him preach these words, I thought immediately to myself, “I wish I had said that—indeed I shall!”  And so I share with you on this Second Sunday after Easter what he said on Easter Eve, “If Easter tells us anything, it tells us this: what we need to overcome is not our fear of death, but our panicky retreat from the reality of life. It is not death that threatens us, it is life—that rare, untamed power that hammers at our back door and commands that we let it in.  Easter reminds us that it is out of brokenness that new life and new possibilities emerge, and from the darkest tomb, new life waits to be born.”

 Where, this morning, for you, is that yearning for new life? Where is that yearning for hope in the midst of what you are facing?  As Jesus was there to meet Thomas in his doubts, so the Risen Lord with his divine persistence is in search for you. The Risen Lord will meet you where you are and will lift you to His presence, for in the midst of whatever we face

 Nevertheless, God is in the midst of us, searching to find us and to give us hope.

 We may not touch his hands and side,
nor follow where he trod,
but in his promise we rejoice;
and cry, “My lord and God!”

Help then, O Lord, our unbelief:
and may our faith abound,
to call on you when you are near,
and seek where you are found. Amen.

                                                     Hymn 209, 2nd and 3rd stanzas,
Words: Henry Alford (1810-1871), alt