A Sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Easter
Year B – 12 April 2015
John Edward Miller, Rector
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
– John 20:19-31
Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
John’s Gospel is the last of four gospels of the New Testament. In outline it is generally similar to the other gospels, but it is significantly different in a number of ways. It is cosmic in scope, instead of being localized in Palestine. John speaks of incarnation of the Word rather than the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. John’s narrative contains a great deal of material that the other three don’t, such as the famous “I am” sayings, through which Jesus identifies himself by using metaphors, like the good shepherd, and the way, the truth, and the life. And John’s gospel is known for its signs and wonders that point to the eternal nature of the Christ, including his changing of water into wine and the raising of Lazarus. In short, the fourth gospel is a more theological treatment of Jesus’ ministry than a collection of his sayings and deeds.
John’s use of symbolic and metaphorical words is important to note. His intent is to give us multiple clues to the nature of Christ and his meaning for us today. John is always beckoning the reader to pay attention to detail, and to dig deeper to find truth and light for our journey.
Today’s Easter episode is a dramatic example of John’s distinctive style of telling the story. He depicts the disciples huddled together behind locked doors because they feared being victims of same fate as their Lord. The risen Christ mysteriously appears among them, but they do not recognize him at first. The disciples are still suffering from the shock of witnessing Jesus’ death, and are reeling in awe concerning reports of his resurrection. Plus they are being cautious, lest this unexpected visitor is a threat to their safety. So it is up to Jesus to reveal his identity. He says, “Shalom aleychem” (“Peace be upon you”). The disciples are too suspicious to give the greeting’s traditional response, Aleychem shalom” (“[and] upon you peace).” They look at him in silence, so he shows them his hands and his side. A glimpse of those wounds gets their attention. John says, “Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” The dime dropped, the connection clicked, and they experience his presence among them.
Next comes the “Pentecost moment,” according to John. Jesus repeats the greeting, and gives them their apostolic mandate to go where he would send them. Then he breathes on them, and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This symbolic act alludes to the ancient story in Genesis, in which God breathes into the nostrils of the human he had created from muddy earth, thereby making him a living being. In this resurrection appearance, Jesus “inspires” his apostles with the power of new creation. Now they are spiritually ready to take on a great responsibility, one for which they will need his help, namely dealing with the sins of the people they will encounter as missionaries of the Word.
This was a major moment. A game-changer, you might say. And all of the remaining eleven were there to receive this Easter gift, except Thomas, who was away at the time. We are given no reason for his absence. But we are enticed by the story to ask why he wasn’t ducking for cover like the others. We can rule out defection or desertion, because he returns. So there must be another reason. Perhaps he was dazed by Jesus’ death, and confused by recent rumors, and just wanted to go the open tomb and see it for himself.
Whatever his purpose was, it is clear that he is in no mood to hear fantastic tales that made no sense to him. When his colleagues tell him that they had seen the Lord, Thomas likely gave them a raised eyebrow and maybe an “Uh, huh, right” response. The door was locked; perhaps there was an entry code, a special knock, or a password. If he had to use a code, how could Jesus have entered without being admitted? Shaking his head, Thomas gives them a “prove-it” response. He says, “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.”
Who is Thomas, really? He is a disciple of Jesus, but when he lays down the gauntlet, he is not yet an apostle, one whom Jesus “sends” out with the gospel message. There is something in his way, and maybe many things – fear of being crucified, worry about the future, anger that it all came to an abrupt, brutal end – among other concerns. My gut tells me that he’s in grief, and that he misses Jesus terribly. Loss loomed large in the group. So when he heard that his friends had seen something that he had not, Thomas resents their joy. Feeling cut off and alone, he resentfully demands proof.
The experience that knocks the chip off his shoulder is intense and personal. Jesus appears again, this time specifically focusing on Thomas. He approaches him, and makes himself totally accessible to Thomas’ senses. Jesus makes an offer he cannot refuse, telling him to reach out and touch the wounds in his hands, and to thrust his hand in his pierced side. And challenges him, saying (in effect), “Lower your guard, Thomas. Go ahead, touch me; it is I.” For Thomas the offer is enough; he knows him, and he exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” In that moment, the Good Shepherd has rescued his lost sheep. Thomas is restored to the fold, and the apostles experience the Risen Lord together.
However, history has saddled Thomas with the nickname, the “Doubter.” This Sunday is often dubbed, “Doubting Thomas” Sunday because of his comments to the others, hanging belief on pragmatic evidence. But this does not do justice to Thomas, or to John’s intent. The only name the gospel calls him is “the Twin.” John never names Thomas’ twin, and that is no coincidence. This detail is designed prompt us to take notice. It is the author’s hint that we should discover the identity of the twin. We are invited to accept a spiritual quest, because the answer to the question provides the key to understanding life after the resurrection of our Lord.
I am not alone in claiming that each one of us is Thomas’ twin. All humans are his twins. And everyone baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus is his twin. We share the same fears, the same hopes, and the same human condition. All of us are dealing with the same reality. In our experience, people who die stay dead. To accept another view of the nature of things, one that does not compute, requires another kind of experience – one that is sees with new eyes.
Resurrection faith is not a black/white, no/yes decision. It is not a leap into the dark. For us, it is a process of discovering what God reveals about life eternal in the here and now. That means that believing in the truth of Easter is an acquired taste, a cumulative experience of tasting the fruit of new life. Popular wisdom advises that, “Seeing is believing.” That works for science, where testing and measuring matter greatly, and for courts of law, where there must be evidence to convince a judge or jury beyond a reasonable doubt. But seeking that kind of proof of God’s presence is a futile enterprise, because God surpasses our comprehension. Our desire to touch and examine the evidence remains, but what faith seeks is understanding, not certainty, which is the opposite of faith. Faith is a deep trust in God that enables us to accept his many disclosures of a bigger picture than earthbound vision can grasp on its own. This Easter story in the upper room illustrates that kind of faith. Its message is: believing is seeing.
In John’s gospel the empty tomb is not concrete evidence of Jesus’ resurrection. Taken as evidence, the fact of empty tomb tells only that Jesus is absent, missing. But faith accepts the empty tomb as a symbol that points beyond our mortal limits and calls for trust in a new possibility. It offers us a vision of reality that transcends our usual expectations. It beckons us to become people who live as though we believe that love is indeed stronger than death.
Thomas, our twin, wanted desperately to believe. He did not deny the possibility that the Lord was alive. He simply longed to experience that truth for himself. While he languished in grief alone, outside the circle of faith, he remained in the dark. As soon as he re-entered the community of belief, he experienced confirmation of his hope. That is where the risen Lord abides. He was, and is, among those who believe and follow his new commandment to love one another. Their shared hope is ours as well. It is not a delusion, it is a new level of reality.
Soren Kierkegaard was right: none of us can be a “disciple at second hand.” We need the community of faith to comprehend and confirm our belief. There Christ’s resolve that we love one another as he has loved us is not only a new commandment, it is the way, the truth, and the life. Where love is, there Christ is. Thus we should not deride or despise Thomas. On the contrary, we must embrace him; for his story is our story. Neither Thomas, nor you, nor I is condemned to walk in the darkness without the light of life. God hears our cry and graces us with glimpses of the truth that the empty tomb no longer evokes fear and trembling; instead it becomes the symbol of “love divine, all loves excelling,” and our shared hope and joy.
As Thomas is given the assurance that death is not the final word about Jesus, we also receive the blessing of encouragement that assures us that the power of love transcends even the apparent finality of death. If we choose to look at the world with Easter eyes, we see that the hands of the risen Christ are all about us. They are the hands of loving people who care about us. They are hands that bless us, that touch us tenderly, that offer us a tissue to wipe away our tears that gives us a hand when we stumble to our knees in sorrow. These are his hands – hands that were wounded for our sake, hands that reach out to us in our suffering. They are about the business of rolling away the stone from the tomb of our grief. They are the hands of creation, hands that order the chaos that debilitates us, hands of the divine artist who refashions our flattened lump of clay into a creature made in the image of God. These are the hands that gently take hold of us and breathe the breath of life into our nostrils, inspiring us to live life to the fullest.
Because of these hands, we know that the body of Christ is not trapped in the tomb. He is raised from the dead, and has ascended to the right hand of the Father. But he has not left us without a visible, tangible sign of his eternal presence among us. He has given us the church as the community of faith. Together, in love, we represent his living body to the world, and to one another. Christ our Lord is the head, and we are called to be the members. The soul of this risen body is the Spirit of God; the life blood of the Body of Christ is love.
On this second Sunday of Easter the gospel invites us to believe and see. It is up to us to accept this challenge, and to gaze at the world with Easter eyes. Those of us who trust the grace of God will recognize the risen Christ in and through the community of faith. With God’s help we will see him, and exclaim with our brother Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” And in the company of the faithful we will sing a new song: “Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!” Amen.