The Second Sunday in Easter
Today is the second Sunday of Easter and we are in the Season of the Church year know as Eastertide. Eastertide is the period of 50 days, spanning from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday. It is celebrated as a single joyful feast, called the "great Lord's Day". Each Sunday of the season is treated as a Sunday of Easter.
John 20 begins with the Easter Sunday morning discovery of the empty tomb. Those first disciples were mystified by the absence of the body. Mary Magdalene was the first one to meet the risen Lord. She reported her experience to the others, but the others were not there. There is a shift in time and place that takes place at the beginning of verse 19 where our text began today. Most of the first 18 verses take place at the empty tomb at daybreak. Our reading today picked up the story that Sunday evening. The location is an unidentified home where the disciples have gathered. It is an anxious and turbulent time. There are the reports of the missing body, reports of sightings of the risen Lord, and the fear that the Jewish leaders will continue their efforts to eliminate this movement. The Passover Sabbath was complete. The Jewish leaders were now free to round up anyone who claimed to be a follower of the Galilean. So, the disciples gathered in secret, behind locked doors. I can only imagine the rumors and gossip that flowed that night. In the middle of their discussion Jesus appears.
Jesus’ death on the cross was traumatic.
On the evening of Easter Sunday, Jesus appears, standing among the disciples in the house and says, “Peace be with you” (20:19). He shows them the marks of nails in his hands and a hole in his side. What they see must be terrifying, especially for Peter as a flashback of his denial painfully flits on the wounds. As Jesus foretold, their pain and sorrow turn into joy because “they saw the Lord” Their teacher, who was crucified, is alive! Jesus says again, “Peace be with you” (20:21).
Amidst fear, the peace Jesus gives will enable them to go out. As God sent Jesus, he sends them into the world. Promising the Holy Spirit, paraklētos, Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you (aphiēmi)” (14:26-27). Though the word is used with a different meaning, if they forgive (aphēte) sins of any, they are forgiven for them. If Jesus came to take away the sin of the world (1:29), they would continue the work of forgiving and peace-making through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Easter message is one of peace and forgiveness. Jesus breathes the spirit on them. The Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples publicly only after Jesus’ ascension, but here the disciples in John personally receive the Holy spirit in a private space when Jesus is still on earth.
As we enter into this season of Eastertide, how can we embrace this message of peace and forgiveness? How can we claim more of this peace that Jesus offers for ourselves and how can we practice more of the forgiveness he offers - both for ourselves and for others?
Now Thomas is also here. I can’t preach this text without at least mentioning Thomas.
Thomas was absent when Jesus appeared to the disciples. He could not believe that the other disciples saw the risen Jesus showing his wounds in his hands and side. For people like Thomas, seeing is a prerequisite for believing. He needs strong evidence: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put his fingers in the mark and put his hand in his side, I will not believe” (20:25).
Strangely enough, the disciples who saw the risen Lord and rejoiced are still in the house a week after Easter.
Jesus allows Thomas to see and to touch and Thomas believes, “My lord, my God.”
I admire Thomas, he was honest about his questions, he wasn’t going to be stampeded into following the crowd. I have learned to accept honest questions as a natural ally of faith. Faith isn’t threatened by questions; in fact, it might be that unthinking acceptance of doctrine is more of a threat to faith. Curiosity and questions are part and parcel with the way God has wired us. We want to know, we inquire, we take in information and we try to make sense of it. We may have thousands of questions about God, and the meaning or purpose of our lives.
Some portray certainty as the constant companion of faith; I think faith often grows in the garden of doubt and uncertainty. Thomas spoke with honesty about his questions. He wasn’t content with accepting their word about the resurrection; he needed to meet the Risen Lord himself.
In some ways, Thomas has some similarities with the way that people under 40 think about faith and God. Those of us over 40 are used to reading or hearing other people talk about God and giving credibility to what they say. People under 40 have grown up in a world where they have learned to be skeptical of taking information at face value without checking it out for themselves. They want to experience life first hand.
In years past, people joined a church and then started getting involved - you came to church because your parents’ told you to. Today’s young adults are more likely to get involved first and find out how we are living out our faith before they join. They want and need their faith to be their own, not just the faith they inherited from their parents. That is a shift in ways of thinking about faith and ministry.
Many remain anxious and focused on getting people to come and sit in a pew - younger adults are more interested in meeting us from a distance, before they make the investment of moving closer.
One of the unexpected side effects of this pandemic is the number of people who are participating in our online services who could not be here to sit in the pews and previously were excluded; some by work schedules, some by health restrictions, some by distance. Just because Thomas was not there physically, shouldn’t be interpreted that he wasn’t interested.
Thomas, was unwilling to take what was said at face value just because the others had said it. And many people today want to experience God for themselves, rather than just hear us talk about it.
As churches move forward, as St. James’ moves forward, we may need to change the questions we ask ourselves. Instead of asking how we can get people to come and listen to us, we will be asking “how can we organize ministry and service opportunities that will provide participants a chance to experience the difference the Lord makes in our lives?” “How can we help others get involved in practical Christian service, meeting the needs of hurting people?”
It is going to require a shift in our thinking, and it will require a shift in our church programming. Thomas wasn’t denying the resurrection, he just wanted to see for himself. People aren’t denying the validity of our Christian experience; they are just reluctant to accept a second hand faith. They want to experience God’s love; not just listen to us talk about it. And as we move forward, we will continue to look for ways for our community and those around us to experience God for themselves. It is interesting that Thomas ends up making the clearest confession of faith found in John’s Gospel. When he does experience the risen Lord, he exclaims, “My Lord and My God!” He takes a different path, but he gets there just the same.
John 20:30-31 seems to be a proper conclusion of both these post-resurrection stories and the entire book, even though another chapter is added to the Gospel as an appendix or postscript. “Jesus did other signs that are not written in this book, implies that seeing signs was closely related to believing. This represents the position of Thomas. Jesus speaks about another group of people—the blessed who believe even without seeing (20:29).
Readers of the Gospel in John’s time and our time cannot see the signs Jesus performed, but they are “written” in the book so that the readers “may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God” (20:29-31).
We worship today as people who become Easter people at different times and at different paces. We are individuals who are experiencing God’s presence in different ways. We are all on a journey. And while we join together for this season, each one of us is on a personal pilgrimage as well. Each one of us is figuring it out as we go along. A long time ago, I started shedding my arrogance that caused me to think that I knew how you ought to be living out this life of faith. Rather than having the answers, the best I can do is making observations about what I am seeing as we travel along. I am honored to be traveling with you. I am strengthened and encouraged as I watch you figuring things out and making decisions about your future. Step by step you walk this journey of faith; never having all the answers you would like; never having all of the certainty you would like. But daily you choose to be people of faith and daily you live out your faith through the steps you take. As individuals and as a community of faith, you keep stepping up to meet the challenges of this new day. Thanks be to God for the courage to keep moving forward.