March 31, 2016 by jmar198013
The manuscript for my sermon for Sunday, April 3rd, 2016. Second of Easter, year C.
This week’s sermon
shamelessly steals gratefully borrows from the following resources:
Scott Hoezee: Why Didn’t They Go Looking for Him?
Paul Nuechterlein & Friends: The Girardian Lectionary, Easter 2
Mark Davis: Breath, Touch, Sight and Faith at his marvelous blog, Left Behind and Loving It
And David Henson: Easter for Doubters: The Unexpected Faith of Doubting Thomas (one of my all-time favorite Easter reflections)
And a special word of gratitude to Jenee Woodard for her diligence with curating The Text This Week, for making such spectacular resources available to humble preacher folk like myself.
Disclaimer: If you find this sermon bland; stupid; confusing; wrong-headed; heretical; too conservative; too progressive; or just too long; blame me, not any of the hard-working people I named above.
An audio link is embedded below for those who would rather listen. I’m always open to feedback on my delivery, as well.
Behind closed doors
It was still the first day of the week. That evening . . . the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities.
That’s how our Gospel lesson today began.
It picks right up where last week’s lesson left off. It’s Easter evening.
Last week, we heard the story of Easter morning. The story of the dawning of the new creation.
We fumbled in the darkness with Mary Magdalene. Toward the tomb. We gasped with her in shock, discovering the stone that sealed it shut removed.
We dashed with her to find Peter and the beloved disciple. We heard her breathlessly tell them what she had found.
The camera in our mind’s eye jumbled and jostled as it followed Peter and the other disciple’s race to the empty tomb. Perhaps some of us even got a twinge of motion sickness.
And we heard Jesus say Mary’s name. And we rejoiced with Mary as her mourning turned to laughter. Because it dawned on her that no one had busted into Jesus’ tomb; Jesus had busted out! And she leapt into the everlasting arms and clung so tightly that Jesus had to tell her to let go.
In all of that joyous commotion, we may have forgotten all about Peter and that other disciple. Remember, they weren’t there when Mary met Jesus. She had to go off and find them again, and tell them: I’ve seen the Lord!
Where had Peter and that other disciple gotten off to, anyway? John tells us that they had gone into the empty tomb—Peter first. But the other disciple close at his heels. And John also tells us that when the beloved disciple caught a glimpse of Jesus’ abandoned clothes, he saw and believed. But they didn’t stick around, Peter and the other guy. John says they returned to the place where they were staying.
And apparently, they didn’t move from that spot. Even when Mary told them she had seen the risen Jesus. They refused to come out.
I’d like to think I’d have gone out looking for him.
But they were still holed up in that undisclosed location Easter night. That’s where our Gospel lesson today picked up. The disciples huddled in their hideout, with the doors bolted shut.
John says they were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities.
I don’t know if I buy that, myself. I’m not 100% convinced it was fear of the authorities that prompted them to barricade themselves in the panic room.
Far be it from me to suggest that brother John was fibbing. But sometimes a man has to save face. After all, if church tradition is anywhere near correct, the author of our Gospel was one of those scared men hiding behind those closed doors.
Afraid of who?
If Peter and the others were really so afraid of the authorities, why did they go running around Jesus’ tomb that morning? If the authorities were on the lookout for friends of Jesus, wouldn’t his tomb would be the first place they’d look?
After all, in Matthew’s Gospel, the Jewish authorities had Pilate post a security detail at the tomb. Otherwise, they said, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people, ‘He’s been raised from the dead.’
So they hadn’t been too afraid to run around in the open that morning. But that night, they were cooped up in some hideout, afraid. Afraid of what? The Jewish authorities! Yeah, that’s it!
And I’m sure that they all believed it when they told each other that.
You know what I think they we really afraid of?
I think they were afraid to see Jesus. Or afraid Jesus would see them.
Before Easter morning, the last we’d heard from Peter, he was denying that he even knew who Jesus was.
Peter, who had told Jesus earlier that evening: I’ll give up my life for you (John 13.37).
Peter, who according to Matthew’s Gospel, had talked so big: Even if I must die alongside you, I won’t deny you (Matt. 27.35).
And not just Peter. All the disciples said the same thing, says Matthew.
And Matthew also told us that when Jesus was hauled off by the authorities, all the disciples left Jesus and ran away (Matt. 27.56). Mark told the same story.
They’d all sold Jesus down the river. They’d all hightailed it out of town and left Jesus to die alone.
I bet they thought they’d never see him again. At this point, I’m not certain they wanted to. Would you?
I suspect that’s why, after Mary Magdalene told them she’d seen Jesus, they didn’t bother to go looking for him.
They were afraid they might just bump into him.
And I also suspect that—no matter what they told themselves, no matter what they told each other—when they boarded up the doors that night, it was actually Jesus they were hiding from.
Well, unlike Rev. 3.20, Jesus didn’t just stand at the door and knock. How he got in remains a mystery. John simply reports that Jesus came and stood among them. He’s not there, and then he is.
If I was one of those disciples, I’d be expecting Jesus to say something like this: You low-down, rotten, yeller-bellied scoundrels! You all said you’d go anywhere with me! Said you’d never turn your backs on me! And then every one of you did! To a man! You’re all fired! Get out of my sight, you unprofitable servants; you make me sick! Depart into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth!
And probably the reason I’d expect Jesus to say that is because it’s just what I’d say if my friends all sold me out. Pretended they didn’t know who I was. Left me to rot.
But that’s not what Jesus said. What he said was, Peace be with you.
Peace be with you, part 1
This is why Jesus is Jesus, and we are not. The whole point of Jesus is that his ways are not our ways. And he came to show us his ways—the Word became flesh and made his home among us—so that his ways could become our ways.
And the Jesus way was to show up among those shaky disciples. To work around the doors they just couldn’t bring themselves to unlock. And to say what they needed to hear the most: Peace be with you.
Those were words of forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus doesn’t browbeat his disciples for being wrong. He doesn’t tell his disciples what they might deserve to hear. He tells them what they desperately need to hear. What he gives them is the experience of forgiveness. We only learn to forgive by being wrong, doing wrong; and then being forgiven. Just like you can’t learn to swim without getting wet, you can’t learn to forgive without being forgiven. Forgiveness is a learned skill.
So Jesus gives his disciples an assurance of forgiveness. Then he shows them the wounds of his crucifixion. In his hands and his side. John included this detail to prove Jesus wasn’t a ghost. There was a heresy brewing in those days that said flesh is bad, bodies are bad, the material world is bad. So Jesus must not have been flesh. And his resurrection couldn’t have been bodily. John wants us to know that Jesus was a man of flesh. He wants us to know that matter matters to God. That bodies matter to God. This is why we Christians feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless. It’s also why we have serious conversations about sexual morality. Because bodies matter to God. The whole person matters to God. That’s also why the church doesn’t preach the immortality of the soul. Our hope is a bodily resurrection. We believe that the whole person is being redeemed.
I suspect Jesus also showed the disciples his wounds to prepare them for what he was about to say next: Peace be with you—he said it again! As the Father sent me, so I am sending you. Not only were these shaky disciples not fired, Jesus is sending them out to continue his mission. Just as the Father sent Jesus into the world to make the Word flesh; so Jesus sends the church into the world so that his words may become flesh in our lives. The risen Jesus shows his wounds to remind them that God’s rescue of the world will be carried out by flesh-and-blood people who can be wounded. But the risen Jesus showing them his wounds means that God will be victorious. And that God’s people will share in that victory. Those who lose their lives doing God’s rescue work will gain them again. Jesus is living proof of that.
So Jesus empowers his disciples to continue the work God began in him. John says that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Then, according to John, Jesus told them something weird: “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
That’s one of most confusing things Jesus ever said, isn’t it? Did Jesus invest his disciples with the authority to say who gets forgiven and who doesn’t? Was he saying: Hey, you guys get to decide who goes to heaven, and who goes to hell? I don’t think so. Context is everything here. The risen Jesus has just forgiven them for so much. And he is sending them, as people who have been very wrong but who have been extravagantly forgiven, into the world to extend forgiveness.
If the disciples don’t go forth; if the church doesn’t go forth; if you and I don’t go forth with the message of forgiveness, the people of the world will never know they are forgiven. People spend all sorts of money these days on therapists—and I’m not knocking therapy—but we’re paying sometimes hundreds of dollars an hour to feel forgiven. For someone to tell us that we’re okay. Or at least that we’re going to be okay. The point that Jesus is making is that our guilt and shame and remorse and hangups don’t just resolve themselves. Somebody has to take the initiative, to reach out to us with acceptance and forgiveness. So Jesus says, I have forgiven you. Now you forgiven people get out there and start forgiving people. Because unless you tell them they’re forgiven, and show them they’re forgiven, they’re just stuck.
Stuck, like those disciples had been, behind locked doors. And I bet many of us have been stuck there, too. And maybe some of us still are. Telling ourselves we’re afraid of everything except the very thing we really are afraid of. What we are most afraid of is being confronted with what we have done, and what has been done to us. We are afraid we can’t tell the truth about ourselves and still go on. The wounded and risen Jesus confronted the disciples with the truth about themselves. When they saw the wounds from the nails and the spear, they could not deny that they had abandoned him to suffer alone. But Jesus—the Wounded One—forgave them. And it was his forgiveness that gave them the hope to carry on.
And there’s a snapshot of the church at work in the world: Forgiven people forgiving people.
Peace be with you, part 2
Now, Jesus had told the disciples to get out and start forgiving people. But according to our Gospel lesson today, eight days later, they were still right where Jesus had left them. Locked up in (I’m guessing) that same house.
Now I hear this, and my gut reaction is to judge them a little. Why aren’t you doing what Jesus told you to do? Go out and forgive somebody!
But then brother John tells me to slow down. There’s somebody else with them this time: brother Thomas.
John says that: Thomas, the one called Didymus—or, the Twin—one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!” But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”
Now, the Greek behind this story suggests a couple of things that aren’t apparent in English translation. First, John said Thomas wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. The way that sentence is worded suggests that it wasn’t like Thomas stepped out for a smoke and just happened to miss Jesus. It’s more likely that he had left the group completely. He no longer considered himself a follower of Jesus. Second, when John says the other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”; it wasn’t like Thomas came back from his smoke break and the others told him what happened. It’s more like there was an ongoing conversation. They kept trying to convince him over the eight day period that they had seen Jesus.
But only one thing will convince Thomas: Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.
The only way for Thomas to know that Jesus is really okay; and that he comes in peace; and that Thomas is forgiven by the friend he left behind; is for Jesus to let him touch his wounds, and still say: Peace be with you.
And even though Thomas insists, I won’t believe!; still he waits with his friends behind the bolted-shut door for Jesus to come. He waits, in his unbelief, for his Lord’s return.
And how dare we reduce this man to Doubting Thomas! Until you’ve spent a long dark night of the soul, waiting on a God you don’t think you even believe in anymore, you have no idea how persistent, how determined, Thomas’ faith really was.
Thomas was enough of a doubter to doubt his own doubts.
And once more, the locked doors don’t stop Jesus. John says: Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”
And Thomas finally sees the resurrection. And all he can say is, My Lord and my God! What else is there to say?
And it all makes sense. Why they were still locked up in that house eight days later. They weren’t still shaky. They weren’t ignoring the work of forgiveness Jesus had given them. They were being obedient.
See, before they could go out and proclaim peace and forgiveness and reconciliation and healing to the world through the resurrection of Jesus, first they had to share this good news with their friend Thomas.
Jesus had always said he would go out looking for the one lost sheep. And that’s what the disciples were doing. They went and found their lost sheep. So that he could see the resurrection, too. So that he could believe that he was also forgiven. So that he could believe that the darkness hadn’t extinguished the light.
Church, the work of forgiveness and reconciliation and restoration always begins with the Thomases within our walls.
The Thomases among us
Jesus tells Thomas: Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.
We have been trained, most of us, to hear this as at least a mild scolding. After all, none of us ever saw or touched the risen Jesus. And yet we believe.
I mean, how convenient for us is it that Jesus would put down Thomas’ seeing-is-believing faith, and bless our didn’t-see-but-still-believing faith? Did Jesus really say that so that a bunch of people 2,000 years later could feel superior?
Never forget, though, when John wrote his Gospel the situation was quite different. The church is moving into its second or third generation. Those who had seen, who had touched, were either already dead or quickly dying off. Eyewitnesses were becoming vanishingly rare. How would the church carry on in times of trouble or distress without those like Thomas who had seen and touched the risen Lord? That’s the context of John’s Gospel. The time had arrived in the life of the church when almost no one had actually seen Jesus.
And I would suspect that many of them wished that they could have.
And so John made sure that they knew that their faith was as good as the faith of those who had seen, who had touched, who had been personally forgiven by Jesus. He made sure to include a special blessing from Jesus for those believers: Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.
Jesus wasn’t putting down Thomas’ belief. He was honoring the faith of those who don’t see, and believe anyway. You don’t have to put one down to lift the other up, you know.
The truth is, the church is still made up both kinds. The ones who can believe without seeing. And the ones who have to see to believe. Jesus honors both, and so should we.
Really, I believe that those who must see to believe—the Thomases—are a real blessing to the church. They keep us honest. Many of them have simply been blessed by God with the gift of discernment. Some have been hurt by the world, and their shame runs so deep that they have a difficult time believing that they can be forgiven, accepted, and welcomed just as they are by anyone—even Jesus. Then there are people who have been deeply wounded by others in the church. It’s nothing short of a miracle that they’re still with us. We should be grateful for the Thomases in our churches. The ones who still show up—even when their heads and hearts are full of doubts—and wait on the Lord with everyone else.
So they can’t see or touch the risen Jesus? They can see us, and touch us. We can show them the power of the resurrection at work among us. In our lives. In this church. In this city. We can make the words of Christ flesh.
In an unforgiving world, where too often it seems that the cross has the final word, we can be a forgiven people forgiving people.
Sometimes—for both the Thomases out there, and the ones in here—that’s enough.