Second Sunday of Easter
It is amazing how far away Easter feels. Early last Sunday we got up, got everyone dressed, and began to gather. We journeyed with Mary, early in the morning, through her alarm, her grief, her stunned surprise when Jesus, who she thought was the gardener, called her name. And we gathered, sanctuary packed to the hilt, the 8:30 people got to hear our wonderful choir, the brass leading us as we sang, shoulder to shoulder, “Jesus Christ is Risen today! Alleluia!” It was a wonderful, wonderful day. But it doesn’t take much. A cranky kid, an awkward argument at lunch. And it was back to work and school and life, as the earth quakes, as tornadoes roll through much of the country again, leaving almost 300 people dead in six states. The mayor of Tuscaloosa, Alabama wondered aloud on Thursday how anyone survived. “There’s parts of the city I don’t recognize, and that’s someone that’s lived here his entire life.” 1 It is amazing how far away it feels.
It must have felt like an eternity to the disciples. The great movement their Lord had started was apparently over, defeated. They had rumors of this resurrection, but who knows? Who can you trust? It was still scary out there. And in the midst of it, it was precisely to this despondent, pitiful little band of failures that the Risen Christ appears. 2 “Peace be with you,” he says. He moves towards them, showing his wounds, and repeats himself. “No, really. Peace be with you. My peace I am giving to you.” And here, in a crucial point in John, the blessing becomes a commission. The risen and glorified Son of God sends his disciples to bear witness to the life and light they have found in him. 3 And with it Jesus calls us to participate in acts of giving and forgiving, in paying close attention to our relationships with each other. This is John’s Pentecost, condensing Luke and Acts 50 days into one resonant day.
And then there’s our friend Thomas. For whatever reason, he missed this first time Jesus came by, and was frustrated. Unless I see his wounds I will not believe. Doubting Thomas, he has been called, always with a sneer. And I don’t like it one bit. First, we act like doubt is a bad thing, which it isn’t. Frederick Buechner once wrote that “doubt is the ants in the pants of faith; it keeps it alive and moving.” This life, this faith is hard. Anyone breathing has doubts of some kind or another. It’s about the courage to voice them, to call out to God for what wisdom may come. God can take it. And Thomas wasn’t asking for anything the other disciples hadn’t seen already. This intensity, this passion is who he is. In John 14, Thomas is the one who speaks up and says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going; how can we know the way?” setting Jesus up to proclaim that He is the way, the truth, and the life. In chapter 11, Thomas hears Jesus begin to speak of his death. Even when the other disciples don’t seem to understand, Thomas does, urging them towards commitment. “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (11:16). 4
But the amazing thing about this passage is not Thomas, I think, but Jesus. A week later – I wonder what that week was like for Thomas – back in that house, Jesus shows up again with the same greeting: “Peace be with you.” And then he reaches out to Thomas. Jesus didn’t rebuke Thomas for his tone, lecture him on his lack of faith, tell him he needed to just sit there and be quiet. He creates a space for him to question and struggle, and doesn’t judge him for it. He stands, offers Himself, and waits. Here. Put your finger here. See my hands. Touch this scab, where the spear pierced my side. Do not doubt this. Do not doubt me, friend. Believe.
Because I wonder if, in his reaching out to Him, Jesus sees something in Thomas. Maybe it was really only Thomas who knew how important this was. Maybe he knew that if this was true, that everything would change. That our fears would no longer need to bind us, that our value wouldn’t be in how much stuff we had. Maybe Thomas knew that if Jesus was actually alive, that people in despair, in hospital rooms, on battlefields, sorting through the rubble of their homes, could KNOW that God is stronger than anything that can separate us from God’s love. Because if Jesus would stand there, and he could see his wounds, touch the scars himself, he knew he would be boldly and powerfully sent out, to work and serve and pray. He knew he couldn’t help but do everything differently. And as Jesus creates space for Thomas, we, too, are called to be a church that creates space for struggle, dare we say even for doubt. What if children knew – and I pray they do – that their questions, especially the ones we don’t know the answers to, will be met with adults who will listen, who will honor their questions. That our youth, that adults of all ages, feel safe here to struggle. Not to ask questions that are really speeches, not to try and argue anyone into a corner or make anyone look bad. But questions that come out of a genuine desire to explore, to seek to live in faith together, questions about our joys, our deepest pain, will be met in a thoughtful and honest place. None of us have it figured out, but we can gather around scripture, mine the riches of our theological tradition, we can listen and pray and work together. The church must be a place for this kind of inquiry.
In all the royal wedding coverage I almost missed a wonderful story in the London Times back on Good Friday. Alex Renton sends his six-year-old daughter Lulu to a Scottish church primary school. Her teachers asked her to write the following letter: “To God, How did you get invented?” Dad, a non-believer himself, still forwarded the letter to the Scottish Episcopal Church (no reply), the Presbyterians (ditto) and the Scottish Catholics (a nice but theologically complex answer). For good measure, he also sent it to “the head of theology of the Anglican Communion, based at Lambeth Palace” – and this was the response:
Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –
‘Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected.
“Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – especially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like.
“But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!’”
And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off.
I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lots of love from me too. +Archbishop Rowan 5
In a world filled with so many difficult things, so many enormous questions, we need Thomas. But even more than that we need his God, who comes among us, bearing His wounds, meeting our doubt with – as the archbishop says – lots and lots of love. Might we, too, be that kind of church?
All praise be to God. Amen.
- “Easter Forgiveness,” by William Willimon, in Pulpit Resource, Vol.39, No.2, Year A, April-June 2011, p 26.
- Lamar Williamson, Preaching the Gospel of John: Proclaiming the Living Word, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), 282.
- Lose, David J., “Realities Old and New” sermon on John 20:24-31, in Journal for Preachers, Easter 2007, 12-14.
- “A six year old girl writes a letter to God. And the Archbishop of Canterbury answers.” http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/damianthompson/100084843/a-six-year-old-girl-writes-a-letter-to-god-and-the-archbishop-of-canterbury-answers/