Monday, April 12, 2010

The Second Sunday of Easter [Year C] - April 11, 2010 (John 20:19-31)

A family in our congregation with two young children told me the story of a conversation that occurred over breakfast in their house one morning. This was late October, and the children’s placemats on the kitchen table were decorated with the ABC’s of Hallowe’en: skeletons, ghosts, jack-o-lanterns, and the like. The older of the two children, a second-grader, was apparently looking over the ABC’s one by one and eventually came to the letter “Z,” which stood for “zombie.” She could pronounce the word, but she had never heard of the term. Inquisitively, she asked, “Mommy, what’s a zombie?”
“Well,” said the mother, no doubt trying to come up with a definition that would be descriptive and direct, but also not too graphic. “Well, a zombie is a person who’s come back from the dead,” she said.

And then, without missing a beat, the three-year old chimed in and said, “Like Jesus!”

It has been tough getting a handle on Jesus’ resurrection from the start. We know that the risen Jesus is not a zombie—and to even breathe the words together seems like blasphemy—but what exactly did happen after the disciples went to the tomb and found his body was no longer there? What exactly was he? Was he something to be feared? Even his closest disciples were confronted with these very questions, and they don’t all at once make peace with them and know what the risen Christ is or means. We see them struggle not only with confusion and fright, but also with the lack of belief. And in their own experiences with the risen Jesus we see an example of the world coming to grips with the fact that, in the resurrection of Jesus, God has done a radically new thing and broken death’s hold on creation.

On the evening of this astounding, unprecedented event, they are not found joyously dancing around in the streets, giving uproarious thanks for Jesus’ triumph over the grave. They are, rather, to be found locked inside their old meeting place because they were afraid—afraid because of how the leading religious authorities might persecute them with this information. While they are in seclusion, Jesus comes into the room via the locked doors and stands among them. Whether the doors are opened for him or whether he is able in his resurrected state to pass through them is not clear, but what is clear is that his disciples do not immediately seem to recognize him. He passes into the room seemingly unnoticed. It is not until he speaks his peace and shows them the scars in his hands and side that they realize he is with them. As it turns out, getting a handle on the resurrection was tough, even at the start. The risen Christ was not simply a person come back from the dead. He was himself, but somehow different. He was a new creation. The resurrection had changed him, but he was still noticeable by certain identifiable features.

Notice, for example, how things change once they see his wounds. They rejoice! In John’s account of Jesus’ resurrection, joy does not enter the Easter picture until the marks of his death on the cross are shown. That which reveals Jesus as their Lord—and provides the occasion for joy—is nothing other than the tangible signs of his love for them. His risen body—while certainly a bit mysterious—is not a figment of their imagination, just as God’s desire to save and deliver from sin is no figment, either. The marks where the nails have been are what link him unmistakably to them and prove, in their eyes, that God’s new creation is real.

Then, since it seems like the disciples might not have gotten it the first time, Jesus repeats himself: “Peace be with you.” He bestows upon them the Holy Spirit, which will enable them to live as a tangible body in the world, working out the rigors of forgiveness and spreading the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. But, as it turns out, there is still some work to be done in dealing with this astounding piece of news. Thomas was not there that first night. He did not see what the rest of them saw, and so he is not convinced. He must place his hands in those scars they probably tell him about. Then he will be convinced and have a better handle on who this risen Jesus is. Has God really broken the cycle of death and sin by raising up the one who was crucified? For Thomas, and for the others, faith in this will come by sight. When, a week later, Thomas has the opportunity to see his risen Lord he immediately proclaims him, “My Lord and my God!” It is the most profound pronouncement of Jesus’ identity made anywhere in John’s gospel and yet he still is known primarily as “Doubting Thomas.”

In her poem, “To Know Him Risen,” contemporary poet Luci Shaw asks a series of probing questions trying to understand how she might gain a handle on the resurrection. In fact, the entire poem is made up of nothing but a barrage of questions, one after another—questions anyone might ask about this singular event—and she doesn’t include a response of any type. She asks, for example,

“Can I touch him through the cliché crust
of lilies, stained glass, sunrise services?
…Must I be Thomas, belligerent in doubt,
hesitant, tentative, convinced, humbled, loved,
and there?
Must sight sustain belief?” (in Polishing the Petoskey Stone, Regent College Publishing, 1990, p92)

Shaw’s poem of questions underscores the fact knowing Jesus risen is something different from knowing him as a man stuck in history. We don’t need to be locked in that room with the disciples that first night to sense the confusion and doubt that lingers in the air regarding this stupendous claim. In fact, it may even be more difficult for us to sustain this faith because we lack the ability to plunge our hands into his scars. We don’t need to be reminded that we were not there. Like Thomas during that first week, we must base the majority of our faith on what others saw and heard and felt.

Let it be said that we have very good reason to trust all these accounts of Jesus’ resurrection: other, independent accounts of what happened those fateful three days in Jerusalem began to spread around the Mediterranean at about the same time, all with a remarkable degree of agreement. Furthermore, the astounding growth of the fledgling church in a philosophical and religious environment that was by all accounts hostile to it attests to the presence of the risen Christ and his Holy Spirit. Yet, at the same time, we do not see him risen in the same way those earliest apostles did. In some ways, it is more difficult to “get a handle” on him.

What I’ve always appreciated so much about this post-resurrection account in John is that it shows God’s gentleness with our struggles to grasp what has happened in Jesus. It shows God’s patience—at least for now—even with our unbelief. This story does not paint a picture of a bunch of disciples standing around afterwards with all the questions answered and all the definitions figured out. It reveals a community that hears something incredible has happened, but it doesn’t whitewash the part about the doubt. It shows their initial lack of belief, their grasping at the questions.

And then there’s the issue that we always pay so much attention to what they’re doing…even in this silly sermon. What about Jesus? What is Jesus doing in this story? Is he hammering his good news down their throats? Is he chastising or shaming those who are slow to come to faith? Does he ostracize Thomas for his resistance to believe? Is he coming up with pat answers to soothe their bewilderment? No. Rather, we see a Jesus who graciously offers himself, who repeats himself when necessary, who presents his wounds of love again and again. It is worth noting that nowhere does John tell us that Thomas actually touched Jesus’ wounds. It is simply Jesus’ offer for him to do so that leads Thomas from doubt to faith, and from faith to worship.

Which makes me wonder: how do we, as the community of the risen Lord, deal with lack of faith? How do we treat those who stand incredulous at the risen Jesus’ Lordship? Do we tend to look down on them because they haven’t arrived at the same conclusions about Jesus and God that we have, and in the same amount of time? Are they simple objects of our evangelism efforts, or people with whom we need to build loving relationship with so that faith may eventually enter the picture? Do we practice Jesus’ trademark peace and forgiveness, and then offer them the chance to touch their hands into our woundedness?

Do we allow questions, or do we stamp out any kind of dialogue that will open up a place for the Spirit to blow and bring faith? For it is often those, like Thomas, who struggle the most with incredulity, who eventually become the ones who praise Jesus most whole-heartedly.

We may not always have the exact words to articulate our experiences with the risen Lord, a descriptive and direct definition of what happened those first hours after the empty tomb. Truth be told, I bet most of us slide all along that Thomas-like continuum throughout our lives—where we doubt, then trust, then fall down in praise-filled faith. We may not always grasp the fullness of this mystery, but I do hope we always grasp its joy. Those wounds are for us, and by the by, we have come to trust the risen Jesus as Lord…that, as the psalmist declares, “there are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous. The right hand of the Lord has done valiantly!”

He has done many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. You know about some of them. “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

(image: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio, 1601-02)


  1. I really appreciated how you spoke of how we are to treat those who don't have faith. To follow Jesus' example and repeat ourselves lovingly, patiently etc. Thanks.

  2. Lots in this reading to "say another way." I have never heard a sermon that focuses on the last verse, "Blessed are those ...". Should we not be celebrating that grace-filled statement everyday?