Peace – John 20.19-31

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.

Peace

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.

An Easter Testimony – Luke 24.1-12

March 31, 2013 – Easter Sunday

Introduction: In the last verses of Luke 23, the women who had followed Jesus in Galilee, witness his death and burial. The last verse of chapter 23 says, “They went back and prepared aromatic oils and myrrh. And on the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.” That was Friday afternoon. The next verse in the story, Luke 24, verse 1 moves us immediately to early Sunday morning.

[Read Luke 24.1-12]

They were grieving, those women. The ones who had traveled with him through the cities and villages of Galilee, giving their resources to provide for Jesus and the twelve.1 The women, probably sleepless from grief, got up early to do the physical things they could do at the time of death. The sabbath had come quickly after the death of Jesus on Friday and there had not been time to prepare his body. I suspect their plan after they visited the tomb was to return and fix food–just like we often do–although no one was really that hungry.

They went to the cemetery expecting to find Jesus’ body just as it had been left on Friday afternoon. But there was no body and they were perplexed.

Because we know the end of the story, it is easy for us to make light of the women being perplexed as if they just needed a minute to remember than Jesus had been raised from the dead. But no such possibility was in their mind. “Mental confusion” is another way of saying perplexed.2 That disorienting experience of something that doesn’t line up anywhere near what you’re expecting and you don’t know how to make any sense of it. I can imagine it almost like a physical disorientation. You thought you were one place but you’re someplace else and you don’t know where you are or how it happened.

Not one of them was thinking “Jesus is alive!”

When the two angels appear, their confusion changes to terror. They thought they were coming to the tomb of Jesus to pay their respects. To leave some flowers, talk about what a great guy Jesus was and then go home to figure out how to get on with their lives without him. It turns out it’s nothing like that.

The angels say Jesus has been raised and then they say, “Remember” and they remind the women of what Jesus said when he was alive and then the women do remember and they return to tell the other disciples what they’ve just seen. Not surprisingly, the men think the women are making it up. That they are delirious3 with grief. Only one man goes to the tomb to see for himself. He too finds no body and he goes home wondering and amazed at what had happened.

Which is not exactly a ringing endorsement for the resurrection of Jesus. It’s not even clear if anyone in the story believes it yet. It may be that the three women and Peter are thinking about it but it still is too preposterous for them to be convinced.

Until. Until the risen Jesus starts showing up.

It’s not the physical evidence in the empty tomb that becomes Easter faith. The space itself doesn’t prove anything. It’s the testimony of people who have experienced the risen One in their lives. Walking with them on the road to Emmaus. Appearing to the eleven in Jerusalem. Encounters that changed their lives.

And it’s those testimonies that have been passed on and passed on until we are all here today, wondering at this peculiar story about an empty tomb and words that Jesus has been raised.

Each generation has added to the testimonies. Rarely are the testimonies about the physical remains of the tomb–the stones and the clothes. Instead we talk about the presence of the risen One in human experience. Our human experience. I was lost but now am found. I was sinking down but Jesus lifted me up. We pass on the stories of lives transformed, healed, forgiven, made whole. We tell about freedom found, liberation loosed, compassion charged.

You’ve probably heard some of those testimonies. Maybe you’ve given one of your own.

Or maybe you wish you had one to tell. You wonder what it would be like to have experienced this Jesus who people say is alive. Maybe you’re most skeptical that a 21st century thinking person could have such an experience but there’s little tiny piece of you that still wonders, “Could it be true?”

Nancy Mairs, reflecting on faith in her wonderful book Ordinary Time, writes, “It never occurred to me that one might go to church not because one believed in God but precisely because one didn’t, that in ‘going through the motions one might not be performing empty gestures but preparing a space into which belief could flood if it were going to.”4

That’s why we gather together week after week. One person shares their experience and others benefit. One person wanders in the wilderness and others hold them fast in God’s love. One person questions, others listen. Stories get told of the transforming presence of Christ and they become stories that belong to us, that we are part of, even if that exact experience didn’t happen to us. The story of Jesus being alive didn’t belong to one person in the early community of Jesus’ followers. It belonged to them all even as some doubted and some believed.

And they passed it on to us. And it belongs to us even as some doubt and some believe. And some will come to believe and some will come to doubt. And some at the same time like the man who cried out to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief!”

All through the season of Easter we will hear the biblical stories of the appearances of the risen Jesus and listen for the resonances in our own lives and in the lives of one another. And we will meet one another at the table, as we do this morning, opening ourselves to receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation that in our eating and drinking together we too, like those first disciples, meet the risen Christ in our midst.

Nancy Mairs grew up in the Congregational church and as an adult became part of the Catholic church. In her Catholic community she was included in communion even before she converted to Catholicism. Eucharist was freely offered to anyone who was famished; anyone who needed nourishment. She writes, “I don’t partake [of the Eucharist] because I’m a good Catholic, holy and pious and sleek. I partake because I’m a bad Catholic, riddled by doubt and anxiety and anger: fainting from severe hypoglycemia of the soul. I need food. ‘O Holy One,’ I pray as I savor the host, ‘as this bread nourishes my body, so may your spirit nourish my soul. Grow strong within me, I pray, and let me live my life in your praise.'”5

And so it is with us. We proclaim Jesus lives and tell the stories of how our lives have been transformed by his. Some of us testify and some of us listen. Some of us nod in understanding and some are amazed and some wonder. And then we eat together, not because we have earned it but because we need nourishment and strength.

Nourishment and strength to go into the places of our world that are consumed with death and suffering and to be alive with the life of Jesus. We need nourishment and strength to face the demons and pain in our own lives and communities with the confidence that the God who raised Jesus from the dead, can make a way where there is no way and can turn impossibilities into infinite possibilities.6 In your life. In my life. In the life of the whole world.
* * *

1Luke 8.1-3
2 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), p387.
3 Ibid., p388.
4Nancy Mairs, Ordinary Time – Cycles in Marriage, Faith and Renewal, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), p67-68.
5 Ibid., p89.
6 John Buchanan, “The Laughter of the Universe” preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, IL, March 27, 2005.