Second Sunday of Easter by The Rev. Ken Powell

Lessons:
Acts 2:14a,22-32
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31
Psalm 16

 

 

In the name of the Risen Christ…

Good morning friends and welcome on this day we properly call the Second Sunday of Easter rather than thinking of it as the first Sunday after Easter as some of us are inclined to do. They are not equivalent terms and the distinction is important as a way of recognizing that Easter Day is only the beginning of a fifty-day season within which we as the community of Christ continue to reflect on the implications and consequences of the resurrection of Jesus. It is also a way of acknowledging that the resurrection was not a singular moment in time past but is an on-going event that transcends time and place as we ordinarily know it. In that light, our presence here today is nothing less than another sign of the power and the truth that was revealed to Mary Magdalene and the Apostles and it represents for us an opportunity to affirm our own belief in Jesus.

Today’s gospel passage neatly illustrates the interwoven nature of the resurrection experience for the disciples, as it is, from one perspective, the continuation of the encounter that Mary had with Jesus at the empty tomb on Easter morning, and from another perspective it depicts the subsequent appearances of Jesus first on that same evening to all of the original disciples except Judas the betrayer and Thomas whose absence there is noted but unexplained and whose famous encounter with Jesus occurred a full week later. 

The overlapping and evolving perceptions of those to whom the risen Christ revealed himself seems to call us to be careful about putting too fine a point on what exactly happened in those days but at the same time, taken as a whole, they present a compelling witness to the sublime truth of Jesus’ identity that confronts our reasonable doubts and fears.

If, for instance, we are tempted to wonder if the resurrection story was contrived to persuade a gullible flock of sheep of an impossibility…we should ask ourselves who would have told such a tale by starting with the testimony of a woman whose testimony by virtue of her gender would not have been allowed in a court of law in a routine, minor case and whose reputation would preclude her from admittance even to the company of so-called decent folk?  No one would do so- except to record a God inspired event through which the outcast, the marginalized and the despised of the world are recognized as a primary means for divine revelation.

It is easy enough to imagine such a group of outcasts huddling together in fear of their neighbors as the news of the empty tomb spread, barring their door as best they can while waiting in terror for what must soon be the terrible approach of Pilot’s shock troops in search of the missing body of the crucified “King of the Jews”. Neither is it difficult to imagine that the imminent threat of reprisal was infinitely more convincing than the singular affirmation that Mary had “seen the Lord”.  But who could imagine the joy of finding that very one in their midst or that he would come without words of recrimination for abandoning him in his time of trial. Rather he came with words of peace and consolation and even found them fit to carry on his Father’s work in the world in the same way and in the same Spirit as he had himself done.

The gravity of this commissioning can hardly be overstated. It is a holy work of making God known in the world and inevitably it touches upon the burden of sin that is either forgiven or retained in accordance with the response to the gospel message of Jesus by which the world renders judgment for good or ill upon itself.

And so, in the gospel text we come at last, to Thomas, “Doubting Thomas” as he has been commonly known but let us take another look to see whether this is the best way to remember him. John’s gospel, for instance, mentions Thomas in several contexts that can tell us more about the man he was before the resurrection.

Earlier in Jesus’ ministry as he walked about in the Temple a number of those who were suspicious of his teaching and authority attempted to arrest and even stone him. Eventually he “escaped from their hands” … and He went away again across the Jordan to the place where the Baptist had been…and remained there.” After a time, word came to him of the death of Lazarus and ultimately, despite the disciple’s warnings and fears that they were all endangered he decided to return to Judea again to be with his friend Lazarus.  Thomas then “said to his fellow disciples, let us also go that we may die with him.”

Soon after, when Jesus and the disciples had entered Jerusalem and were gathered together for the last time Jesus told the disciples that he was preparing a place for them and that they knew the way but Thomas replied, “Lord we do not know where you are going, how then can we know the way?”

So, we can see in these revealing moments that Thomas is a volatile mix of stern commitment and frustrating uncertainty. He is all in with Jesus but he doesn’t yet know for what.

There is, however, no record of Thomas being anywhere near Jesus at the time of his arrest, trial and crucifixion and so it seems fair to wonder how well Thomas, like Peter, bore the guilt of his bold but empty promise to die with Christ. It may even be that Thomas was in hiding for fear and shame on the evening that Jesus appeared to the other disciples but at some point in time, whether later that evening or during the course of the week “the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord’” and he then declared- in perfect agreement with millions of other like-minded souls down through the ages “ Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and put my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

By his obstinacy, Thomas becomes something like the Patron Saint of the Skeptical who will never allow what they cannot prove to their own satisfaction. It is no wonder that in our age of rank materialism when faith is supplanted by statistical probability and data collection is the measure of truth that the gospel message slips by unknown and undetected. And yet Thomas’ desire for physical confirmation of the resurrection is quite natural as Jesus recognized and granted and the orthodox tradition has always affirmed.

There are things to notice and admire about Thomas as he struggles to reconcile his desire for certainty with his need to grow beyond his own expectations. For one thing, no matter how disappointed or conflicted he may have been in his spiritual life he kept coming back, grumpy and combative though he was. It is no small thing. People often find their deepest faith in the heart of the very things that have troubled them most. For another, Thomas was a person whom we might say “unlocked the locked doors” where his own fears dwelt and soon recognized the presence of Christ to such a degree that he could genuinely say without restraint or qualification “My Lord and My God!” No clearer, more direct, or more powerful proclamation of faith has ever been uttered.  

We can only wonder about the moment that Thomas became a believer in Jesus and what that might have meant to him. For me, it brings to mind Paul’s beautiful expression of “beholding the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” To come before Jesus as Thomas did bearing a lifetime of attitude and old baggage only to have it all vanish in a moment as he received the holy spirit in Christ’s presence is the moment when the gospel message gained traction in the world as time would soon show.

Anyone can still try to dismiss the story as a pious and irrelevant fantasy but at least one hard fact stands against it, namely that there is a church in Malabar, India called the Mar Thoma Church which has proudly known itself for nearly two thousand years to be the place where Thomas brought the Gospel from Palestine, across Jordan and Syria, Iraq, Iran and on into India. 2,000 years ago. And while he was it he has been credited, at least, with authorship of the Gospel of Thomas, which is certainly becoming one of the most famous and influential of all of the ancient manuscripts that archeologists and scholars have recovered. 

One wonders why we persist in telling the story as if it is primarily about doubt when it is so plainly about belief. Perhaps, we are better prepared to perceive and accept the doubt rather than receive and embrace the faith that is the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In any case, Thomas would be better named and more truly known as St. Thomas, The Believer. That is after all the point of the whole story and the culmination of John’s gospel message. In a very profound way the whole book points toward Thomas. Not because his story is supreme but because his story is our story and the book is written that we might have life in the name of Jesus just as Thomas did!