a sermon on John 20:19-31
preached on April 12, 2015, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
What do you do after a big party? Hosting a big party is always a bit of a chore to begin with—the host always ends up doing the dishes, cleaning up the random messes, and getting the house back in some sense of order—but whether you’re hosting or attending a big celebration, there’s the way everything seems to go downhill a bit when it is over, how the exhilaration of expectation and festivity shift back into the routine of the everyday, how the excitement of the party eases down into something much more normal. Even when there is a general sense of relief that the celebration is over, I for one am a little sad, too, and end up counting the days until the next time something like that will happen—even though I know that the strange blend of busyness and exhaustion and exhilaration and relief will only leave me feeling like something is missing yet again after the next party, too.
As much as I feel this way in my own life and in the life of the church after a celebration such as we shared last Sunday for Easter, I can only imagine how much more strongly the disciples felt this in their own lives after their first encounter with the resurrected Jesus. The gospel according to John gives us a little sense of this, showing us an exhilarating first Easter day, when Mary and Peter both encounter the risen Jesus, and a slightly quieter first Easter evening, set in a locked room where the disciples had gathered to take in everything that they had experienced. The core group gathered there was two fewer than it had been before: Judas had killed himself due to his guilt over betraying Jesus, and Thomas wasn’t there with them for some unexplained reason.
It seems that they gathered amidst an overall air of confusion and uncertainty. Only a few of their number had encountered Jesus in person, and so the tales of resurrection were not yet backed up by personal encounters quite yet for most of them. And fear was still very much in their minds, not just fear of the kind of radical change that naturally comes when the certainties of death are broken, even by someone you like, but also fear of the authorities who had arrested and executed Jesus and who most certainly would not be excited to hear that his body was missing, let alone had been resurrected.
So amidst all their fears and uncertainties, inside locked doors, alongside their varied experiences of the risen Jesus, the disciples gathered, not quite knowing what to expect after the party—and then Jesus showed up. Somehow he made it through those tightly-locked doors and even-more-tightly-closed hearts and appeared in their midst. He offered them a word of peace and showed them his hands and his side, and then they rejoiced. He concluded his visit with them on that first Easter evening by breathing the Holy Spirit on them and sending them out to continue his work and ministry.
After that first party, the disciples kept up their gatherings. As they got ready for another Sunday evening meeting, they told the absent Thomas what they had experienced on that Easter evening, and like them he said that he would not—maybe even could not—believe it until he experienced it for himself. So when they gathered again the next Sunday, when Thomas was with the disciples in that locked room, Jesus again appeared among them. Thomas’ uncertainties were resolved when Jesus not only appeared there but offered up his wounds for Thomas to touch, and they again found that the experience they shared together made the resurrection all the more real for them along the way as they moved on from that initial moment back into the everyday.
As we too recover from the celebration of Easter and move back into the everyday, I think we can learn a few things from the disciples as we figure out what comes next after the party. First of all, the disciples remind us how important it is to keep getting together. In those first days of the resurrection, when they were uncertain or unsure what was going on, they kept gathering with one another, trusting that something special would happen in that time. In the same way, we find greater strength for our walks of faith when we walk together. When we gather with others to practice our faith, we are reminded that we are not alone in this journey. When we come together with fellow Christians for worship, prayer, study, and conversation, we are strengthened for those moments when we are unsure or uncertain, for the faith of others can help fill in the gaps that seem so easy to leave wide open. And when we share this pathway with others, we can open our eyes more clearly to the risen Jesus, for he always appeared to the risen disciples after that first morning not one by one but when they gathered together.
Beyond this, John’s story of these resurrection encounters reminds us of the importance of sticking with those who might want to ask some questions along the way. We don’t know why Thomas wasn’t there on that first Easter evening when Jesus appeared to the disciples, and we don’t know why he demanded to see the risen Jesus with his own eyes as he did, but we do know that they encouraged him and welcomed him back into their midst the next week, where his doubts were resolved by an incredible experience of his risen Lord.
In the same way, we are called to exercise a similar measure of generosity and grace with our sisters and brothers in the faith who have questions and express their doubts along the way. It is far too easy to become the kind of Christian community focused on determining who is in or who is out based on beliefs and systems and structures and visible practices, but when we do, we miss the deep reality that all this comes to us as God’s gift, with grace, mercy, and peace beyond all human measure, that we are given only to share with everyone, not to take away from anyone. Just as the disciples welcomed Thomas into their midst when he was uncertain, we too are called to offer a place of welcome to those who are looking to encounter God in the world, trusting that those who may not understand things so perfectly now will grow in faith, hope, and love through God’s own provision and in God’s own time, for they too will one day encounter the resurrected Jesus and join Thomas and so many others in proclaiming, “My Lord and my God!”
Finally, John’s story of the resurrection encounters remind us of one last thing to do after the party: keep singing. Whenever the disciples encountered the resurrected Jesus, they rejoiced and shared their rejoicing along the way. In the same way, we too are called to keep up our praise for what we have encountered along the way, and I know no better way to do that than to sing. Now some of you will likely quietly object to this, thinking that your singing voice isn’t good enough or finding some other reason for why you should be excused from singing praise for the wonder of the resurrection. However, I won’t accept that excuse, and I don’t think Jesus would, either. The beauty of your voice—or lack thereof—is no good reason not to use it!
When it comes to giving praise to God for the resurrection, we are called to raise our voices loud and clear, to set aside our doubts and uncertainties that our voices are good enough, to stop worrying whether or not we can carry a tune in a bucket, for God’s power revealed in the resurrection is so wondrous and surprising and transformative that it can change our mourning into dancing, our cries of lament into songs of joyous praise, and even our most out-of-tune singing into beautiful melodies that lift up the wonder of God’s love.
So as we journey into these weeks after the party, may we join the disciples in their Easter joy, continuing to come together to experience the presence of the resurrected Jesus, making space for those who are still looking for him to appear in our midst, and singing joyous songs of praise to our risen Lord until he comes again in glory to make all things new.
Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.