a sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter on John 20:19-31
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on May 1, 2011
They started out very afraid, gathering almost surreptitiously, trying not to draw attention to themselves, not sure who they might run into or who might be looking for them or for Jesus. Some of the disciples had seen Jesus since the tomb had been reported empty, but others still awaited their first glimpse of their teacher who had somehow overcome death. All of the sudden Jesus appeared in the room where they had gathered. The door was still locked, no windows were open, but Jesus made his way into their midst. He spoke to them right away: “Peace be with you.” There was no reason to be afraid now – he was alive and with them again, and they could simply be present with their old friend and teacher once again. And so they rejoiced, grateful that the rumors were true and that they could see him with their own eyes. Then he spoke to them again, inviting them once again to be at peace and blowing the Holy Spirit out on them, sending them out to be his witnesses just as he had witnessed to God’s work in the world in and through his life.
Seeing is believing when it comes to the resurrection for the disciples. They weren’t quite sure what was going on, but then Jesus showed up among them and they believed. And so it often goes for us. We look around, watching for marks of the resurrection all around us, wondering where we can see Jesus, hoping that we’ll be witnesses to his great love too, trying to follow in the footsteps of the disciples, and finding him when and where we least expect to see him. Sometimes we luck out and we see the risen Jesus after all – perhaps in the gentle touch of one we love, maybe in the presence of family and friends, maybe in the gathering of the people of God across boundaries of age and place and time, maybe in some other place that we know well or can’t even begin to imagine. And so we rejoice! We sing our “Alleluias” over and over again and shout “Christ is risen!” at the top of our lungs. We tell everyone we meet about the ways we see Christ alive and at work in our world. And we do the best we can each and every day to embody the life of the risen Christ in our world.
But Thomas wasn’t there. For some reason Thomas didn’t make it to the house that Easter night, and even though the other disciples had to see Jesus alive again in order to believe it, everyone seemed to put him down a bit because he supposedly “doubted” the resurrection. Thomas’ point of view was simple: “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.” He had known Jesus for several years and had witnessed him die, so Thomas needed some sign of the resurrection to believe that it happened, and since he hadn’t had one yet, he questioned it all.
Our friend doubting Thomas has a point, if you ask me. What’s the point of the resurrection if you can’t see it? Why does Jesus’ rising from the grave matter if nothing changes because of it? And if you can’t see some proof of something being different after Easter morning, why should you believe that it happened at all? I find myself on Thomas’ side quite a lot these days. The incredible destruction of tornados in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee makes me wonder about the goodness of God. The pain and despair and conflict in our world that seem to keep piling on top of all the other heartache we face get in the way of the resurrection in my eyes. When one of you or one you love can’t seem to catch a break from the trials and tribulations of life, I question the resurrection because I can’t see a needed sign of God’s love breaking through. And the difficulties that we face as a congregation to live a new life together that we have struggled with so much in recent months make me cry out with Thomas: “Unless I see evidence of something new here, I will not believe.” Too often there’s just something missing in our experience of resurrection, and so we rightfully and reasonably join Thomas in questioning how or even whether God is up to something in our world, demanding visible signs and evidence of the resurrection in our midst and hoping for something new to take hold now.
The next Sunday, though, when they gathered together again, Thomas was there – still questioning what was going on, but present nonetheless! Then Jesus appeared again, breaking through the locked doors and proclaiming once again, “Peace be with you.” Then Jesus spoke up about Thomas’ “doubting” ways, inviting Thomas right away to come up to him: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” But even before he could actually do any of this, Thomas cried out, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus offered his later listeners a word of confidence and hope, encouraging them to believe even though they have may not have seen him with their own eyes. Nonetheless, Thomas’ doubt turned to belief, for he had seen evidence of the risen Christ and had no reason to doubt what was going on any longer.
And so we are here today, maybe finding ourselves like the disciples, because we saw something last Sunday or over the course of this week that showed us evidence of the resurrection. Or maybe we are more like Thomas, present in spite of our fears and doubts and uncertainties, still looking for a sign of the resurrection to take hold and become real in our midst. All of us, though, whether or not we have seen the risen Christ over the last week, are still looking for signs of his resurrection life in our midst, wondering where we can see him at work, whether it is for the first time or for the millionth time. In the face of destruction across the South, in the harsh climate of war and strife that seems to reign around our world, we long for the presence of the risen Christ to proclaim and bring peace into our midst. And in the midst of uncertainty and potential change in our life together here in this congregation, we wonder how the risen Christ can be present and at work in our midst, how we can imagine new life in the face of uncertainty, how we can dream about something new when what we have seems to be in question. But I believe that it is precisely in times like these, in moments when we least expect it, that Jesus sneaks into the room, slipping in through the locked-down doors, showing up when we aren’t looking for him, breaking bread and revealing himself, speaking out in the midst of the quiet of fear: “Peace be with you,” confronting all the doubting Thomases in our midst to show us that the resurrection is taking hold now. It is as our last hymn puts it so well:
“Help then, O Lord, our unbelief;
And may our faith abound
To call on You when You are near
And seek where You are found:
That, when our life of faith is done,
In realms of clearer light
We may behold You as You are,
With full and endless sight.” (Henry Alford)
So may we open our eyes to the possibility and presence of the risen Christ in our world and in our lives, transforming our uncertainty and our despair and even our doubting into the hope of new life, opening the way of resurrection to us and all doubting Thomases each and every day. Lord, come quickly! Amen.