April 15, 2012
A Sermon for Easter 2
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas , “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believeing.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.
In the name of God, Creator, Healer, and Inspiration. Amen.
Traditionally, the Sunday after Easter is usually called “Low Sunday.” No one is exactly sure why this is, and even the illustrious Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church will only say it’s “probably” called Low Sunday since it follows Easter Sunday, which is the highest, most important feast day of the Christian year. Although my priest friends would say it has to do with attendance, Easter Day being the mountain-top, and Easter II being down there in some subterranean location!
Another tradition we observe every year on Low Sunday is that our gospel reading is always from John. It’s always the story of Thomas, the disciple who demands to see and touch Jesus before he (Thomas) will believe Jesus is risen and walking among them again. Thomas is sometimes referred to in the gospel as Thomas the Twin–although we have no idea who his twin might have been. Anyhow, “Twin” is not the designation which has stuck to Thomas. We all know him as–you said it, Doubting Thomas.
I take issue with this nickname and I want to argue for Thomas’ redemption! Thomas is mentioned four times in John’s gospel, and in two of those incidents he’s revealed as a man of extraordinary loyalty, courage and honesty. When Jesus is preparing to travel to see the now-dead Lazarus, there was real danger. (John 11) The disciples knew that the Jewish leaders were on the watch for Jesus at that point. Yet Thomas tells the other disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Thomas is also the one who responds to Jesus’ famous comment, “I am going ahead to prepare a place for you all, so that you may follow me.” Thomas anxiously says, “We don’t know where you’re going, Lord. How can we follow?” (John 14) He wants to follow; he just wants to know how.
Given these other perspectives, it seems a bit unfair to remember this man only as Doubting Thomas.
Yes, he did say, “Unless I see…the print of the nails, and (touch) the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Definitely bold. Not just, “I need proof,” but “I need Jesus to come and show me proof.”
We may look askance at Thomas’ demand for proof, but Jesus didn’t. Eight days after he has first seen the disciples—minus Thomas–in that upper room—Jesus reappears. This is clearly a new Jesus. He walks in through a wall. And he knows exactly what Thomas has said to the others about needing to see and touch in order to believe.
Jesus wastes no time. He greets everyone, then he deals with what is apparently his first order of business. He turns to Thomas and says, “Go ahead and touch me, see me—and believe.” Like the shepherd who leaves everything to find that last sheep, Jesus has returned to answer Thomas’ request. He is determined not to leave this one behind.
And Thomas’ response to Jesus’ action is the strongest declaration of Jesus’ divinity found in the gospels. Peter hailed him as Messiah. Thomas goes farther. He cries out, “My Lord and my God!” He recognizes God in Jesus, and he allows himself to be changed from honest and bold doubter to devout and bold believer.
Jesus makes four post-resurrection appearances in John. First, he appears to Mary Magdalene as she stands weeping in the garden. She is so distraught she doesn’t recognize Jesus when she sees him, mistaking him for a gardener. Then he calls her by name, and she knows him.
When Jesus comes the second time, he appears to the disciples in that upper room—that’s when Thomas wasn’t there. The disciples are cowering behind locked doors in well-founded fear for their lives. But with Jesus’ arrival, like Mary, they are changed: reborn. They move from one level of belief to a far deeper level of faith.
The third appearance is the one we’ve already talked about—when Jesus comes for Thomas.
The fourth appearance takes place on a beach, just after daybreak, when several of the disciples are fishing–in vain. Jesus, yet again unrecognized, points out to them where to cast their nets, and only when they catch so many fish that the nets tear, do they recognize him. They all wind up having a fish fry on the beach. And after the feast, Peter is given the opportunity to offset his earlier three-time denial of Jesus, with a three-time declaration of his love for Jesus—and for the people Jesus is entrusting to Peter and the others’ care. All the believers who will come. All the people like you and me.
The truth is, when we are in great anguish it can be very hard to recognize God with us. Remember “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
That’s the whole point of the “Footsteps” story, too. A man, looking back on his life, says to God, “I see two sets of footprints, yours and mine, during my whole life. Except during the tough times. Then there are only my footprints. Where were you then, Lord?” And God answers, “That’s when I was carrying you.”
Mary is so tightly closed in upon herself that she doesn’t know Jesus until he calls her by name. The disciples are locked down so tightly in that upper room that Jesus has to arrive through a wall. And on their fishing expedition they’re so busy thinking about fish that they don’t recognize him then either, until he calls out to them and the fish pile into their nets, tearing them.
But Thomas—the one we disparagingly call Doubting Thomas—Thomas is fully engaged and paying attention. He wants to see Jesus, he wants to touch Jesus–and he won’t settle for less. His eyes are wide open and he is waiting. And Jesus comes.
There is no wrong way to engage with the Christ. Whether we are hidden behind locked doors–real ones or the barriers we put up in our minds and hearts–or whether we are waiting and watching for Jesus–there is no force which can prevent his coming to us.
Of course what happens next is up to us: it’s an inside job. How do we respond to God’s offer of new life?
Whatever our life has been, whatever it is now, Jesus will meet us there and offer us peace. He can teach us who we really are and all that we can become.
Because here’s what I know: God’s specialty in Christ is making all things—including us–new.