Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
April 27, 2014
Today is called “low Sunday” by some traditionalists in the church. Low because so many people who were here last week are absent this week, so our attendance is lower than it was. Low because we have come down from our celebratory Easter high, full of alleluias, and Christ is risen, and even the Hallelujah Chorus, which I was delighted to see was sung not only by the choir, but by the congregation as well. And finally low because we are back to normal again, although for this church determining what is normal right now is a bit difficult to pin down!
Normal is the everyday, back to usual and customary, back to what happens after the party is over, the guests have gone home, and it’s time to think about what to do next, where do we go from here. John’s story is appropriate in this context because he tells about the aftermath of the resurrection high. If you recall what happened in the 18 verses immediately preceding today’s reading, you will remember that Mary Magdalene had come to the garden early in the morning while it was still dark and had seen the stone rolled away from Jesus’ tomb. She ran to tell the disciples, and Peter and John ran back to the tomb and found it empty with just the grave cloths remaining. In John’s gospel there are no angelic messengers with the good news, “He is not here; he is risen.” And the disciples don’t quite understand yet what they’ve seen. John says “as yet they did not understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead.” There seems to be nothing left to do at the tomb, and so they go home. Mary Magdalene, however, stays in the garden weeping because she thinks Jesus’ body has been stolen. And that’s when she has her encounter with Jesus, mistaking him first for the gardener, but realizing who he is when he calls her by name. She then goes to the disciples and announces to them, “I have seen the Lord,” and tells them about her amazing experience.
Well, obviously it didn’t make much of an impression because when we see them next, it is the evening of that very same day – it is Easter evening — and they have locked themselves into a little room because they are afraid; they are huddled behind closed doors, lying low, getting their alibis straight, trying to figure out how to stay alive and what to do next because people are out to get them. It is not a very pretty picture. Despite the fact that in their last hours together Jesus had done his best to prepare them for life without his physical presence, it seems that they’ve forgotten everything he told them. He had encouraged them to live with confidence, devoted to God and to one another. He had urged them to be a bold presence in the world, doing deeds even greater than his own, and he’d prayed that God would unite them in one spirit.
But that is not what we see here. They are disheartened, defensive, cowering in fear, their sense of bold mission having been overwhelmed by their anxious and timid spirits. And this is John’s picture of the very earliest church on the night of resurrection. A whole bunch of nothing – not a leader among them – not a bright spot – not a hopeful word – not an inspired plan; just paralyzing fear.[i]
And then suddenly Jesus is there, standing right in the middle of them. In the midst of the void created by his absence, Jesus comes to fill the space. The first thing he says is “Peace be with you.” And then he shows them his wounds, which let them know for sure who he was. He was not that sweet, benign, every-hair-in-place, untouched-by-human-pain, floating-above-the- fray Jesus of some of our favorite artistic renderings of him; but he is “the resurrected Christ, . . . wounded, scarred, identifying with all the other wounded and scarred people on earth.” That’s how the disciples knew . . . that’s how we know . . . who he is.[ii]
The things Jesus says and does seem random perhaps, but on closer look, we can see that they each have a purpose; they each represent various aspects of the life of the church – there is blessing, and the word of peace; there is the Lord’s supper recalled in the offering of his wounds; there is baptism, with the breathing of the Holy Spirit; there is mission, sending them into the world; and there is fellowship, commending to them acts of forgiveness and reconciliation.[iii] Jesus is calling them back to their best selves; calling the church to be its best self.
This is, I think, the ongoing challenge to every church – to be our best selves because there are times when it is easy to become like those frightened disciples behind locked doors. We’ve heard that he is risen, but we don’t trust that good news enough to live into it. It is then that the risen Christ comes and says “Peace be with you,” And tells us that he is sending us out into the world to be his hands and feet, wounded and yet holy instruments of the living God. He gives us the Holy Spirit, and gives the power to forgive one another of our sins.
Without the spirit of the risen Christ at the center of what a church does, it will eventually become like this pitiful little group of discouraged disciples – defensive, anxious, empty of meaning and purpose, engaging in various activities to fill in or ignore the void created by the absence of the holy. Worship can easily become entertainment; mission can simply become social work. With Christ at the center there is humble trust, joyful praise, brave and creative mission, and a reconciled and forgiven community excited and awed by the opportunity to participate in what God is doing for the transformation of the world.
Christ-centeredness doesn’t mean that life is easy. It means that life has purpose. It doesn’t mean that everything will go our way. It means that God will help us to find a way. We know whether or not Easter has happened to us by whether or not the resurrection has made any difference in our lives. What counts is not in the end the gladness and Joy of last Sunday, but how we go about living our lives now that things are back to normal. The coming weeks and months will tell whether or not we welcomed the Risen Christ last week. If we can see the spirit of Jesus at work here as we do our work, then we will have welcomed him. If people within this place and beyond are being touched and transformed, then Christ was welcomed last week and remains with us.
But you know, one of the disciples wasn’t there the night that Jesus came and said those blessed words, “Peace be with you.” We don’t know why Thomas was absent – maybe he wanted to be alone with his sorrow; maybe he was out scouting around to see what was happening in Jerusalem. Thomas was a brave person, contrary to some depictions of him. When the disciples tell him what happened, he isn’t quick to believe. He gave them the same response that perhaps they had given Mary Magdalene when she came back with her own good news. Whatever the reason, he’s not buying it. “I won’t believe it until I see it for myself,” he says.
We often call Thomas the doubter and I have preached on this text many times before to point out that doubt can be a healthy part of the growth of our faith because it leads us to important questions which can then lead to important answers
But this morning I want us to consider another side of Thomas’s response. There is something kind of selfish – all about me-ish – in his response. Like he’s saying that nothing can be true unless he has verified it by his own experience. Nothing is true unless he believes it to be true.[iv] So he discounts their story; he rejects their testimony; he says what he feels and thinks is more real to him than the combined experience of the entire group. That’s a real slap in the face to these people with whom he has been so closely connected for the past three years. They’ve been through all kinds of incredible experiences together; they’ve known each other at their best and at their worst; they’ve bonded through their love of Jesus, and their trust in him and his message.
Here they thought they were all in it together, but now he’s denying that reality by giving more value to his singular doubt than their combined witness. And we’ve all been there at one time or another – I know I have — not ready to receive the contribution that someone else might want to make to our lives because it just doesn’t fit with what we want, with how we’d do it, with where we are at that moment.
The good news is, of course, that the disciples don’t get angry with him and kick him out of the fellowship! They may be disappointed, but they don’t give up on him. And then eight days later Jesus shows up to give Thomas what he needs. And he’s in the right place at the right time to receive it. Jesus greets Thomas with the word of peace, and then invites him to see for himself, to do exactly what he needs to do in order to believe.
Christ can come to us undeterred by our doubts, to give us a mission and purpose in life and to equip us for the job. “He comes to show us that [always] the world is greater than we think and that we are capable of more than we dreamed as we go on together.”[v] We are called to be the body of Christ together; called to be the church, and Christ will give us what we need—Spirit, Mission, and Forgiveness– in order to accomplish what he has called us to. Christ gives us everything. Church isn’t my hard work or your hard work or our long-range planning. Church is a gift, a visitation, an intrusion of the living Christ standing among us. Do you believe that to be true? That’s why John told us this story, you know, “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” May it be so for each one of us. Amen.
[i] Tom Long, “The Church with Nothing, “Whispering the Lyrics, 1995, 90.
[ii] H. Laron Hall, “I’ll Believe It When I See It,” No Darkness at All, 1994, 132.
[iii] Long, 92.
[iv] Hall, 134.
[v] Hall, 136.