April 7, 2013 – Second Sunday of Easter
Introduction: Our story is set last Sunday evening—that is, on the evening of the Sunday morning appearance of the risen Jesus to Mary Magdalene. We’re in John’s gospel where Mary is the first one to see Jesus after the resurrection.
Also in John’s gospel Jesus calls God “Father” more than any of the other gospels. Here it is a term of closeness and intimacy. It is the language of a beloved parent and beloved child.
The first part of this reading always seems like an odd part of the Easter story. After our glorious Easter celebration with great music, great food, beautiful flowers and the multitude of ways we joyfully sing and say, “Christ is risen!”—we don’t expect the gospel stories to be so bleak. We heard last week from Luke’s gospel about the women who go to the tomb to properly care for Jesus’ body; who are told Jesus has been raised and they are terrified and perplexed and the story ends mostly with confusion.
In John, the disciples are not kicking back on Sunday night with a great feast to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. The disciples are afraid. They’d followed Jesus and now he was dead—although Mary Magdalene had reported she had seen him alive. But for all they really knew, Jesus was dead and had taken their hopes for the future with him to the grave. Now they cower in a room with the drapes pulled shut and the doors locked, wondering if the next knock on the door will be the authorities who will arrest, torture and kill them too.
Then through those locked doors, Jesus appears. He doesn’t scold them for cowering. He doesn’t ridicule them for their fear. He says, “Peace be with you.”
He showed them the physical evidence of his crucifixion—the wounds on his body—and the disciples rejoiced when they realized who this really was. And again Jesus says, “Peace be with you.”
And then he commissioned this cowering, fearful, hesitant bunch of disciples: “As God has sent me, so I send you. The ministry which God gave to me, I now entrust on to you.”
Jesus breathes on them and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit which he had promised before his death. In John’s gospel, there’s no gap in time between Easter and Pentecost—between the resurrection and the gift of the Spirit. In the church now we follow the tradition of Luke and Acts where there is a fifty-day pause between Easter and Pentecost. We’ll celebrate Pentecost at the end of May. But when we read John’s gospel, celebrating Easter is also celebrating the beginning of the church’s mission1—our mission—one leads immediately to the other.
“Peace be with you. I give to you the work which God gave to me. Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Then the story turns to Thomas. Who gets a bad rap as a doubter. Despite our translations, the word “doubt” does not show up in this story. What gets translated “doubt” in verse 27 is really the word “unbelieving.” Jesus says to Thomas, “Do not be unbelieving but believe.”2 Thomas had already told the other disciples that he could not believe their news about Jesus unless he could see and touch the wounds in the hands and side of Jesus. Which is exactly what the other disciples needed as well. In verse 20, it’s not until the other disciples see Jesus’ hands and side that they rejoice.
Jesus does not shame Thomas or belittle his unbelieving. Jesus offers Thomas what he needs to believe—Jesus offers himself to Thomas. And Thomas believes and proclaims, “My Lord and my God!”—a confession of faith recalling Jesus’ words in John 14, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”3
In the Eastern Orthodox Church this day is sometimes referred to as St. Thomas Sunday which honors the tradition that says Thomas took the gospel to India in the first century. Thomas is remembered then—at least in one tradition—not because of his unbelief but because of his belief.4
But we tend to remember him as the guy who doubted. A guy who we’re not supposed to be like. Or at least not let anyone know we are like him.
Here’s the thing about doubt. In the larger church culture, we tend to treat the phenomenon of doubt on an individual basis, as if doubt is an individual flaw and then we leave doubters to figure things out for themselves. We don’t make room for doubt. Doubt is seen as failure and as a reason not to participate in the community of faith. I’m not supporting that position—I’m just saying that’s what generally exists out there.
I can’t count the number of people who confide in me that they don’t believe in whatever theological idea it is they think they are required to believe in order to be part of a church. There’s this mythology out there that being part of a church is all about a laundry list of beliefs to which one must ascribe. And, in some traditions and congregations, there is a big list you have to sign your name too. But not in most—and certainly at Central and among Presbyterians the list is much shorter than most people expect.
But here’s the more important thing we see in this story. We don’t know why Thomas wasn’t part of the first gathering of disciples who saw Jesus on the night of the resurrection. Did he have other plans? Was he at his in-laws’? Was he upset? Did someone say something to him and he took offense? Was he even more afraid than the others? We don’t know. But we do know he’s back in the community of the followers of Jesus the next week. And it is here—in that community—that Thomas meets the living Christ and is restored to a functioning faith (as opposed to a non-existent perfect faith that we think we’re supposed to have). Restored to the community, he is restored to faith. Thomas overcomes his unbelieving, not by the private ruminations of his own isolated heart and mind somewhere off by himself, but by meeting the risen Christ in the midst of the gathered community.5
This story in John’s gospel bears “witness to how we meet Christ in the community of faith that gathers to receive [Christ’s] living presence.”6 It shifts the focus off the perceived failing of one individual and puts it instead on the significance of the community where the risen Jesus appears and where faith is born and nourished—where is it sustained and supported.
It is to this community—this community that includes Thomas, with his unbelief and his belief—that Jesus is passing on his mission—the one he was given by God—Jesus is passing it on to them and passing it on to us. It’s clear we’re included because the writer of John’s gospel goes to great lengths to make certain we know that meeting the living Christ is not just for those first century followers who got to see Jesus in the flesh and who saw and touched the wounds on his body. The stories about Jesus are written down so that we too, 2000 years later, might also come to believe that Jesus is the Christ and through believing we may have life in Christ’s name. Not because we believe things about Jesus but because we have met the living Christ and set out hearts—our whole selves—after the way of Jesus.
And so it’s our turn now to do what Jesus did. To follow the way of the One who says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” That kind of love—loving one another as we have been loved by Jesus—reveals God to the world and “by revealing God to the world, the church makes it possible for the world to choose to enter into relationship with this God of limitless love.”7 So our work as the church is to bear unending witness to the love of God in Jesus.
That’s probably old news to most of you. But sometimes we need a reminder. A point to fix on the compass of our lives to set us true. Sometimes we get bogged down in the details of all our responsibilities that we forget the big picture and the mission to which we have been called.
And that’s why we gather week after week, year after year. Because we carry this mission together—holding one another together in our believing and our unbelieving. Together we watch for the presence of the living Christ in our midst. Together we tell the stories of Christ’s appearance that we might not lose heart when the road is steep and long. Together we gather around the table where the followers of Jesus have met again and again that we too, like those earliest disciples, might meet the living Christ in bread and wine.
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1 Gail R. O’Day, “John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. ix, Nashville; Abingdon, 1995, p847.
2 Ibid., p850.
3 John 14.9 (cf. John 14.7) Remember that in John’s gospel, John uses the language of Father and Son not as the language of patriarchy and domination but as the language of intimacy and relationship—of a loving parent and beloved child.See Gail O’Day, “John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX, Nashville: Abingdon, 1995, p496. I have briefly summarized some of O’Day’s work in my sermon, “Celebrate God’s Wildly Inclusive Love,” April 24, 2005.
4 Kenneth H. Carter “Living by the Word,” Christian Century, 19 April 2011, p21.
5 Thanks to my friend Dee Wade who share and succinctly summarized what Thomas Troeger wrote in Lectionary Homiletics, April-May 2013, inside front cover.
6 Thomas Troeger, Lectionary Homiletics, April-May 2013, inside front cover.
7 O’Day, p848.