The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Second Sunday of Easter (Year A)
April 23, 2017
Last week the worst thing imaginable happened. Any death is a loss, any death is sad, but my friend Joshua, he was so young. Only thirty three. Executed. Well, murdered, really. Maybe you heard of him—the carpenter’s son, the teacher and preacher that had been going about Galilee for the past few years, proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is near… He drew such crowds—he had such a presence about him, a spirit, a charism, that people began to wonder if he might be the anointed one, the Messiah, the one spoken about by the prophets, who would restore our nation to wholeness and throw off the yoke of oppression.
Apparently the attention he gathered was too great; the Romans, afraid of rebellion, suspected him of treason, and the Temple authorities accused him of blasphemy. Despite the danger, we followed him to Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover. And, just as we feared, after dinner on Thursday night he was taken into custody, betrayed by our friend Judas, and, after a trumped-up trial, executed—hung—crucified—for all to see.
Mary and some other disciples went and prepared his body for burial and laid him in the tomb Joseph gave him. They went back on Sunday to tend to the body—but the tomb was empty. They told his other followers as soon as they could reach them that Mary had seen Joshua, again, alive...
It seemed so astounding, so unbelievable. I hadn’t made it back to Galilee yet—but my friends told me later that they were so afraid that they met together, locking the doors because they were afraid the police would come and arrest them and take them away for trial, too, just for knowing Joshua. But while they were there, hiding away, suddenly Joshua appeared again. “Peace be with you.” Peace, he said. Just appearing like that, through that locked door.
Maybe they were projecting, just wishing, hoping that it was really him. Maybe it was just a ghost, a spirit, an apparition! But how could it really be Joshua? I had seen him die—seen him killed. Mary had put his body in that cave. She told me how the soldiers had blocked it up with a stone. Sure, it was strange the tomb was empty—but there was no way he still could be alive, was there? “I can’t believe it,” I thought. “I won’t! Not unless I see the holes where they nailed him, the place where they stabbed him—no, not unless I can feel it—I just can’t believe it unless I see it for myself!”
I didn’t want to be fooled—I didn’t want to go through that suffering again. I missed him so much—there was something so powerful about being with him, and I didn’t want to get my hopes up that what Mary said was true—I didn’t want to hope, be wrong, and then lose him all over again.
Now it’s just one week later, one week since that Sunday when Mary found the tomb empty, when my friends saw him—and tonight we all were together—I was with them this time—and he appeared among us again, again saying “Peace be with you”—I could hardly believe it was him—but there he was—and he asked me, he asked as though he’d heard me say it, “Thomas, touch my hands. Reach out and feel the wound in my side. Believe!” Believe, he told me!
I was overwhelmed with desire and love and peace and joy—overwhelmed with love—and, I can’t explain it—I just knew it was him! That we were all there together. My Lord! And, can it be, my very God?
What are the things that you notice about Thomas in his story? How do you identify with him? Perhaps you hear his longing for Jesus—the loss that he’s experienced. Perhaps you identify with that feeling of the loss of a loved one—of the hole that remains when someone so near is gone. Maybe you know that trauma of loss that can extend even beyond death; Thomas and his friends feel loss over Jesus—and that loss extends even into a loss of security, an awareness of the danger that surrounds them, of their own mortality-- the danger they themselves face—the fear that they will be taken into custody by the police and executed as well.
The doors are locked out of that fear—not fear for the Jewish people, it should be said, for these are all Jewish people—but rather fear of the government officials, the religious authorities—those in power are the ones the writer of John names in that phrase, “the doors were locked for fear of the Jews.” Those rhetorical phrases in John have been put to evil use, justifying anti-Semitism and violence for far too long—maybe you identify with that loss, with those wounds of Jesus.
Or perhaps you know that feeling of doubt that Thomas has. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20.25b) After all, we call him “doubting Thomas,” don’t we—so quick to call him out for this doubt. But it’s not really that different for us, is it? What would we say about someone who had been raised from the dead? Would we really believe it if we hadn’t seen? How do we really believe it?
Each year, be it during Lenten study groups or confirmation class or just around Easter in general, people will ask questions about belief in the resurrection. “Do I have to believe in the resurrection?” or, more likely, “What if I am not sure about the resurrection?” Our modern concept of belief has us so tied to the scientific method, of a way of being able to prove something empirically, that we forget that belief is about so much more than proofs or theorems or data. Belief is about encounter, about experience. Thomas’s questioning, his longing, the thing we call doubt, is really about belief. In fact, it’s quite faithful. He wants to believe—he’s asking to believe. He is faithful, like those who ask the questions about resurrection.
For asking those questions is not sinful or faithless; rather asking those questions can become a part of faithfulness, of seeking. I am reminded of another gospel story of belief, that of the father who brought his son for healing to Jesus in the 9th chapter of Mark: The father tells Jesus that his son has had a spirit since birth that makes him unable to speak, and sometimes seizes his body. “‘It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’’ And after prayer, the spirit came out of him. (Mark 9.22-24) Perhaps you identify with Thomas in seeking, in longing. Perhaps your prayer is, “I believe; help my unbelief.”
Ultimately Thomas is deeply faithful—in his questioning and in his response. As Augustin reminds us, scripture doesn’t say that Thomas actually touched Jesus’s wounds. He was invited to do so—but just seeing them was enough. Encountering the risen Lord, seeing his wounds there, being invited into relationship with Jesus—all of this drives Thomas to his confession, “My Lord and my God.” It is Thomas who, for the first time in the gospel of John, directly names the divinity of Christ. My Lord and my God. Faithful Thomas is perhaps a better moniker!
But for those who are seeking, like Thomas, who are asking, “Do Christians believe in the resurrection?” the answer is yes. We do believe in the resurrection, and we make that claim in the creeds every week: “On the third day he rose again in accordance with the scriptures, he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” We do not make this claim lightly. We make it on the basis of Mary Magdalene’s having told us about her experience. About Thomas’s telling us about his experience. On the basis of those who were there, telling their stories of encounter of the risen Lord.
Perhaps you, like Mary Magdalene, like Thomas, have had an encounter with the Risen Lord—perhaps you too have uttered those words, “My Lord and my God.” (John 20.28) All of these witnesses claim that encounter: Mary Magdalene outside the tomb, whom Jesus tells not to hold onto him, who reports back to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” The disciples themselves, locked away in fear, to whom Jesus appears, saying, “Peace be with you.” And now Thomas, who longs for Jesus, who wants to touch his very wounds—and, who, when he sees Jesus, confesses, “My Lord and my God.” All of them have a personal encounter with the risen Lord. And so dowe. For belief is not merely an intellectual assent but an experience of Christ—a way of being—an encounter with the resurrection.
Jesus says “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (29) I don’t think this is a lessening of Thomas’s belief—that Thomas would have been more faithful if he’d believed without seeing. Rather I think this is Jesus’s way of telling us that not everyone going forward will be able to stand in the same room at that exact time in first Century Palestine with him. We will encounter the Body of Christ in different ways—but that we will encounter him, just the same.
How is it that you encounter the risen Jesus? We have that experience in different ways: in the community that is this place, the Body of Christ, the Church. The Anglican priest and reformer John Wesley had an experience of having his heart “strangely warmed,” of knowing the presence of God to be near and real, that supported and sustained his ministry and missionary zeal—an encounter with the risen Christ. We receive the body of our crucified and risen Lord each week or each month in the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, the Mass—here at this altar—a physical encounter with God’s love, with God’s grace—a physical encounter with the risen Lord made known in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. Our souls and bodies are sustained by this meal, this self offering, this Real Presence.
Perhaps like Thomas you are longing for this encounter, feeling loss, and longing for the presence of Jesus. Perhaps you have questions, doubts even, and are faithfully seeking, as Thomas was, to see our risen Lord. Or perhaps you have seen those wounds yourself and recognized an encounter with the risen Lord. Wherever we find ourselves today, Jesus invites us to come, to touch his wounded hands and side, to experience his presence with us. And he bids us his peace.
When you bid one another peace today, know that you are offering one another the same words as our Lord: “Peace be with you”—a sign of his risen Presence among us. May we look for Christ’s presence in our lives this week, in this Body, in all that we meet. And as we look upon the wounds of his Body, may our prayer be that of Thomas’s—My Lord and my God!