In all four Gospels, the response to the resurrection is fear. For some ridiculous reason, I hadn’t realized that until this year. Now, 2000 years later, we have some sense that this is very good news, and we sing. Look at today’s music: "Be not afraid, sing out for joy, Christ is risen, Alleluia! This joyful Eastertide," the anthem begins, "away with sin and sorrow!"
But in all four Gospels, the response is fear. I don’t usually do this, but get your Bibles out and flip with me. We’ll start at the beginning of the New Testament with Matthew, Matthew 28. Mary and Mary head to the tomb and are met with an earthquake – this is the most dramatic resurrection appearance – an angel moves the stone as the ground trembles. The women leave with tomb with fear and great joy, this amazing mixture. Jesus appears later and leads with, "Do not be afraid," which means he knows they are.
In Mark, the women run after an angel shares the news – Mark’s Gospel ends with: "for terror and amazement had seized them, and they did not tell anyone for they were afraid."
In Luke 24, the women are terrified. Peter gets to the tomb and is the only one who gets it. Jesus appears to a few disciples on the road to Emmaus, then when he appears to the whole crowd, not until 24:36, the disciples are startled and terrified and think he’s a ghost.
Which brings us to John. It’s been a week for us, but it was just a day for the disciples. After Mary had broken in early that first Easter morning, after Peter and another disciple sprinted to the tomb, they bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, Jesus’ body gone. Then they went home. We don’t know what they did, but that same evening John says they were huddled, afraid. They had seen the fate of their Lord, the awful crucifixion, and were worried they would share it. I also imagine in some way they knew that the powers of death Jesus had triumphed over wouldn’t go off gently into their goodnight, in the words of the old Dylan Thomas poem, but would rage, rage, against the dying of the light.1
Jesus appears in their locked room – "Peace be with you," he says. "Shalom. That is a traditional Jewish greeting, David Bartlett reminds us, in the first century as now, but also has a deeper meaning of peace, well-being, confidence. The gift of God that drives away fears."2 Jesus shows them his hands, his side. "My peace I am giving to you." Here in John, the blessing becomes a commission. The risen and glorified Son of God sends his disciples to bear witness to the life they have found in him.3 This is John’s Pentecost, condensing Luke and Acts 50 days into one resonant day.
Then, Thomas. He had to run an errand, was picking up groceries, he missed Jesus. "Unless I see his wounds, unless I see the mark of the nails in his hand, touch where the sword pierced his side. Unless I do that, I will not believe." I don’t know if I can blame him. AND THEN A WEEK GOES BY. Everyone else had seen him and Thomas has to wait a week.
I think there are some really wonderful sermons to be preached about doubt – "doubting Thomas" he’s called. Doubt is an essential part of the life of faith, and I believe it is so important that this church be a place that honors doubt and honest inquiry. I love the question I get in Bible study, the looks on your faces during the sermon sometimes. Asking hard questions takes courage. But I want to lean a different way. A week later Jesus shows up again. There is something crucial here, I think, about HOW Jesus responds to Thomas. He 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.
Jesus could have CRUSHED Thomas, could have chastised him. Or he could have been indifferent, which might have been worse. In every new member class someone tells me about growing up in a tradition that doesn’t give them space to question. Sometimes those folks haven’t been to church in a while. I was a part of a campus ministry group in college that seemed fun and inspiring until, in my adolescent angst, I started asking some questions about how they did things. I was told that I need to get on board and do things their way or leave. I left. I think many who used to go to church don’t anymore because their questions were not met with ways to engage the struggle, but were met with awkward glances or eyes that say, "What? You don’t believe like we believe?" I think most people who are being honest with themselves and with each other wrestle with faith pretty deeply at some point. Why does the world work like this? Why do bad things happen? Who are we called to be?
I think the way Jesus meets Thomas shows us something important about how we are to meet all people in matters of life and of faith. Jesus engages Thomas in a non-anxious way – he doesn’t come fired up and spoiling for a fight. He doesn’t try and pick apart any argument he makes. Jesus creates a space for him to struggle, and doesn’t judge him for it. He offers himself, and waits. See my hands. Touch this scab. Do not doubt me. Believe. Even Jesus’ words in verse 29 aren’t judgmental, I think. Jesus stands there for Thomas, but speaks to him, in words that I think are more intended for John’s readers. Jesus speaks to us – Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.4 But that again is where Jesus’ posture is important. He could have made sure that Thomas didn’t have anything to do with him again. But he doesn’t greet him that way. In contrast to our toxic political discourse, that spills over into our neighborhoods and family gatherings. And the church. What if Jesus has already shown us a different way?
I don’t begin to think that you’ll have an encounter that important this week. But, you might. You might meet someone with a question. You might run into someone in Target who you can tell is having a hard day. Or you might just meet someone who is afraid, like every disciple after the resurrection, afraid, like the rest of us, a good bit of the time. And you’ll have an opportunity. It might be a question about deep matters of faith, or it might be in the parking lot, and you’ll have a chance to figure out how to respond. The posture with which we meet others matters so much. It matters here, as you greet folks around or take off to the next thing. It matters to the person you haven’t seen in a bit that would love to hear from you. It matters to the cashier taking your money at the store, or the waitress who brings you lunch. I think the way we treat those folks reveals a lot about who we are. Those are, in some ways, just small things, but it is the very small things, these tiny moments, out of which a life is constructed.
We’ll do another small thing in a moment. You’ll come up, if you can – if not we’ll bring it to you. Betty or I will stick a little piece of bread in your hand. You can dip it in the juice or the wine. Gluten free if you need or prefer that. It’s a small thing. But in this very small thing we are given a glimpse of the God who came to earth and lived with us, who suffered, who died a painful death, was raised, and reigns in glory over it all. And as we are fed, just this little bit, we are sent to embody that love in all other small, maybe even chance encounters, chances to listen and to share our faith. Thomas is watching and wondering. How will you meet him?
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. "Do not go gentle into that good night," Poets.org.
2. David Bartlett, "Preaching After Easter," in the Easter 2015 Journal for Preachers, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 3, p 40.
3. Lamar Williamson, "Preaching the Gospel of John: Proclaiming the Living Word," (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), 282.
4. Lamar Williamson’s thoughts on this verse were helpful here, in his, "Preaching and Teaching the Gospel of John," (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2004), 284.