Preached by Rev. Katie Owen, Duke Presbyterian Campus Minister
Thomas found himself walking around campus in a daze. He remembered all the excitement of the past months and the many adventures with his friends, but for the past week he'd just felt overwhelmed and stressed. The burden of classes and projects weighed heavily on him. Do the professors all get together at the faculty club after hours and decide to have all their assignments due in the same week? But it wasn't just that. College had been a great experience overall but lately he felt like he had more questions than he had answers. He didn't want to become "that guy" in all his classes-you know, the one who constantly raises his hand and the kids in the back and snicker "oh look, Thomas has a question...again."
He couldn't help that he was inquisitive; the world that was nicely packaged and clean and simple in high school had all these complicating factors now. Nobody told him in high school that you could study sociology or public policy or documentary studies; nobody told him in high school that you could be anything besides a doctor, a lawyer, or a businessman. Thomas hadn't told his parents yet but all those plans of med school didn't seem so attractive now, and he'd spent so much time doing the checklist of things that create the resume to get into college that he'd never stopped to ask himself, "What do I really like to do? What am I really passionate about? What was I put on this earth to do or be? What do I believe about it all anyway?" The still waters of comfort and home and security were now filled with ripple upon ripple crashing into one another disturbing the peace. Waves of anxiety about classes crashed into the waves of grief when he missed home and his friends that had known him forever. What did he believe anymore? He walked by his college friends on the sidewalk who looked put together and happy. They'd exchange the typical "how are you?" questions and offer up either the self-protective "Oh I'm Fine" or the more typical: "I'm just so busy" as if busy-ness is a competitive sport that everyone is trying to win. He didn't know what to believe or where to turn, and he wondered if anyone he was passing by felt at all like him.
So Thomas went looking for answers, for something real and true, for something to ground him and give him that peace that felt so far from his present reality. Maybe if I just change my major. Maybe if I take different classes. Maybe if I join a new club I'll discover that I actually like contra dancing or rock climbing. Maybe if I travel to an exotic country this summer. Maybe if I just go to the career center they can tell me who I'm supposed to be. I grew up in the church and I trust that God is there, but a God that is far off is not very helpful when the problem is here. The more Thomas searched and the harder he worked at it, the more the questions persisted.
In case we think Thomas' story is unique to the collegiate setting, simply ask yourself this: At the pivotal points in your life, have you gone looking for truth in all sorts of unexpected places? Sometimes we lock ourselves away to escape our fears thinking that isolation and protection is easier than having to share our vulnerabilities and questions. Sometimes we fill our calendars so full that the to-do list of the day distracts us from the real yearning we experience in our hearts. Sometimes we wander about looking, yet blinded by our own questions and grief. Sometimes we resist believing a friend's wisdom because we are desperate to encounter the one who can offer the way, the truth, and the life for our very selves. We need a God that is not far off but meets us in the messy particulars of our lives and can use our vulnerable moments to help define ourselves authentically and honestly. We don't want to believe someone else's account; instead we want to experience Christ in a way that is real and true for us.
If any of these situations rings true for you, then we find ourselves welcomed into the resurrection scenes in John's gospel. Beginning at the empty tomb, we find individuals startled and grieving, seeking truth not in a concept but in an incarnation that lives. Thomas gets pegged as the doubter but he's not the only one. At every turn, we find individuals with similar questions and yearnings. The crucifixion had turned the world upside down and the one that they thought they were to follow-the one who offered the way, the truth, and the life-had died so now everything felt uncertain. All of the big existential questions of life and faith were back on the table. Where they were to go and who they were to be was once again an open question. It was a brave new world they were living in. As dawn broke, Mary Magdalene stood in a garden distraught, looking for the one person she held most dear in life, the one who had been crucified. When she met a man in the garden, she didn't recognize him. Her own questions and grief prevented her from being able to see the one who stands before her. The disciples-at least most of the disciples-locked themselves away in a room, perhaps for self-protection, perhaps to escape, perhaps because they didn't know anything better to do. They had heard the news of Jesus' rising from Mary but such an account was so ridiculous it couldn't be true. After all, were they supposed to trust the witness of a woman? And even when Jesus showed up among them, they didn't immediately know it was him. Likewise, Thomas had missed out on time with the disciples and the simple account of what others had seen was insufficient; Thomas wanted to see Christ himself.
Like college students looking for meaning and truth during one of life's transitions, each of the characters in John's resurrection account seems to be looking for the one who promised them life. But if we are to believe that the quest is all our own we would be missing the point. If we are to believe that the search for God is all our responsibility then we need to look a bit closer. What seems most important is not that Mary or Thomas or the disciples were seeking God-you could argue they had put up every barrier they could from locked doors to locked hearts to resist God. What seems most important is that the risen Christ comes again seeking them. The power of the resurrection rests in Christ's persistence to overcome all the barriers we put in place so that we can encounter the risen Lord with surprise and assurance. The power of the resurrection rests in the promise that in all our failed searches and all our resistance, Christ will break down those barriers, step beyond locked doors, and approach us by name with wounded arms open to greet us and grant us peace. The risen Christ seeks ways to meet us even more than we seek ways to encounter God. His persistence means that he keeps showing up even if we weren't there the first time like Thomas.
But the gospel writer tells this story not just to share the truth of their encounters but to help us be open to the ways the risen Christ is showing up and seeking us still today. John's account gives us an idea of what it means to be a resurrection community able to recognize the risen Christ in our very midst. Christ's encounter with each of these witnesses teaches us something about the kind of resurrection community we are called to be. Each point of recognition gives us a way to discern the presence of the risen Christ, a way to encounter the God who seeks us still today, a way to believe.
- Jesus calls Mary by name; the personal nature of his address causes her to believe.
- Jesus greets the disciples saying "Peace be with you;" his message of peace causes them to turn and see.
- Jesus shares his woundedness with Thomas and makes himself vulnerable; the evidence of his own suffering makes it possible for Thomas to believe.
- Jesus speaks a blessing that extends beyond the bounds of the disciples gathered; his blessing assures those of us today that Christ seeks us as well.
As the risen One stood among his disciples then, his every move makes it possible for us to learn how to recognize Christ among us now. To share personally, to overcome barriers with a message of peace, to create space where we can be honest and vulnerable and broken together, to pray blessings for one another-this is what it means to be a resurrection community. This is what it means to be a campus ministry. This is what it means to be church.
One week Thomas walked into a regular campus ministry gathering. It was spring semester and he had just called his parents to announce that he did not want to be a doctor and he, in fact, hated Chemistry and his grades reflected this reality. His physician father had been understanding, in fact surprising, when he announced over the phone, "Well, thank God. You don't need to be a doctor. Go figure out what to do with all your passions and gifts." While breathing a sigh of relief and hanging up the phone, Thomas then realized that he had no idea what he was supposed to do with his life. He needed grounding as he felt lost and his faith wavered right alongside his lack of clarity about majors and jobs and life in general. He needed something tangible, visible and true to offer him assurance that God had a bigger plan for his life. As he walked into PCM that night and shared his story, he found others in the group who had changed their majors multiple times; he found individuals willing to pray for discernment with him; he found fellow students who were also searching. That night, Thomas could see the risen Christ in a resurrection community where vulnerability was welcome, where peace was offered and blessing bestowed in prayer. The God who had been seeking him all along had been made visible in this community. As they closed their gathering that evening, they sang together the song they sang each week which now had new meaning:
"We are pilgrims on a journey, we are travelers on the road.
We are there to help each other walk a mile and share the load.
Won't you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too."1
And Thomas wept and said, "My Lord and my God." For the risen Christ was indeed present here.
The story I've just told you about Thomas is my own; it's my story as a college student in the Duke ministry who wrestled with what I believe and where I saw the risen Christ in the midst of my time at Duke. It's my story of times of doubt and discernment and the witness of the Presbyterian campus ministry-of the resurrection community-that came to know me personally and share their vulnerabilities and honest seeking with me. Though this story is mine, as I have served this year as a campus minister, I can attest that there are lots of Thomases walking around our college campuses. They're students who come to campus ministry once and see the community sing or pray or share stories and questions and say like Thomas, "that can't possibly be true." But Christ keeps seeking them and, perhaps a week later, perhaps months later, perhaps because there was a trip to the beach or a weekend outing that sounded like fun, perhaps because something about that space and about those friends led them to wonder, they return again to the group. And the next time, in a moment of vulnerability, they too are able to see in these ministries the presence of Christ, to recognize God in the honest friendships, and to realize that this is the grounding and the peace that they've been yearning for. To be part of a resurrection community like this means that questions about vocation and relationships and passion and faith all find their place in a space that is honest and true where God seeks us constantly and shows up to grant us peace and call us forth.
And so I give thanks and pray that our campus ministries and churches become resurrection communities that can proclaim the words from 1 John, "We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life- this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us- we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete." (1 John 1:1-4) Amen.
1. "Servant Song." Music available in Sing the Faith! (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2003).