Written by Kathryn Matthews
Sunday, April 23
Second Sunday of Easter
Blessed are you, O God of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom we receive the legacy of a living hope, born again not only from his death but also from his resurrection. May we who have received forgiveness of sins through the Holy Spirit live to set others free, until, at length, we enter the inheritance that is imperishable and unfading, where Christ lives and reigns with you and the same Spirit. Amen.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "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."
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
All readings for the week
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
1 Peter 1:3-9
1. What makes us, as followers of Jesus, "hide out" today?
2. What would you have done, in Thomas' place?
3. Do you think that "seeing is better than hearing" for the life of faith?
4. Why do you think a woman was entrusted with the news of the Resurrection, if the men struggled to believe her?
5. Where do you see the risen Jesus alive, today?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
That same night, after Mary Magdalene claimed to have seen and talked with the risen Jesus, the frightened disciples were holed up in a room behind locked doors. No one could get in--not even those who were so nervous, so threatened, by the way the crowds loved Jesus, that they might come after his followers, too. The disciples were bereft at the death of Jesus and perhaps at their own failure to stand with him to the end, but now this woman was making the most incredible claim that would undo, would overturn, their turmoil, their sense of failure and inadequacy, their loss of hope. All might be made right after all; all might be healed. Could it be? Could it actually be so?
Gathered in fear and confusion, they locked the doors, and waited. And suddenly there he was, in their midst. What were his first words? "Peace be with you." No fear. No scolding. No turmoil. No doubt. Only peace. Those words Christians say to one another during our worship services, perhaps without thinking: "Peace be with you." And then--since, in the Gospel of John, this is Pentecost--Jesus breathed the gift of the Holy Spirit into the disciples. It was their commissioning to go out and be peace and love and justice for the world. Just as God sent Jesus, so Jesus sent them into the world that God loves so well. O. Wesley Allen hears in this breath the echo of Genesis and "God's breathing life into creatures at the beginning of the world (Gen. 2:7)." On Easter, Allen says, God in effect recreates through resurrection not just a few followers long ago, but all of us.
Talking about forgiveness and grace
Jesus then talked about that thing that is more difficult to talk about in the church than sex or even money: forgiveness. Eugene Peterson's translation in The Message of Jesus' words provide a very different way of seeing the gift of forgiveness and grace: "If you forgive someone's sins, they're gone for good. If you don't forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?" For Allen, this text reminds us that both the Spirit and the Resurrection are gifts given to us so that we can share them with the world, and in so doing, be part of God's transformation of that world that God loves so much. It sounds as if a personal, private faith is not what Jesus intends for us, but instead he wants a Spirit-filled church to be his gift to the world.
Once again this week we hear about the importance of "seeing" in John's Gospel. We recall that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb last Sunday and saw that the stone had been removed; that Peter and the other disciple ran to the tomb and saw the linen wrappings lying there; they went in and "saw and believed." Mary Magdalene saw two angels in white, and then she saw Jesus standing there (but didn't recognize him), and he asked her, "Whom are you looking for?" When he said her name, she said, "Teacher!"--she went and told the disciples, "I have seen the Lord."
Now, in the evening of the same day, the disciples see Jesus, in his body, wounds and all. But Thomas, who arrives afterward and misses everything, very reasonably says he won't believe until he sees for himself the mark of the nails on Jesus' hands (he sounds almost modern, requiring empirical evidence, doesn't he?). He even wants to put his own finger in the mark of the nails and to feel the reality of the Resurrection for himself. Barbara Brown Taylor describes Thomas as "a brave and literal-minded maverick who could be counted on to do the right thing, but only after he had convinced himself that it was the right thing."
Giving Thomas a break
Perhaps we church folks have been too judgmental of "Doubting Thomas." After all, the disciples have all seen Jesus and the marks on his hands and side. But once Thomas "sees" and even touches the wounds of Jesus, he believes, too--that Jesus is really risen, as the other discples are saying, but even more, as Arland Hultgren writes, "that he has encountered the presence of God in the risen Jesus."
The story of Thomas, for the writer of the Gospel of John, speaks to all those in later generations (including us, today) who didn't witness with their own eyes the things the Gospel describes, and yet have come to trust the testimony as true. Again, as Eugene Peterson translates it: "Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing" (The Message). Hultgren calls Jesus' words a "beatitude" that "puts all Christians of all times and places on the same level before God as the original disciples."
A story that comes alive in every generation
Indeed, for centuries, these stories have been passed down from generation to generation, coming alive for each one in its own time. We have them in Scripture, which Barbara Brown Taylor compares to a message rolled up in a bottle and sent out for us by our ancestors in faith long ago, so that we can share in their experience of Jesus--"if not in the flesh, then in the word."
Just like Thomas listening to the excited and bewildered reports of his fellow-disciples, and just like the second-generation Christians hearing these same stories in the Gospels (even before they were written down), we hear the story after the fact and decide whether we, too, believe. In any case, the experience of Thomas, according to Taylor, teaches us that "seeing is not superior to hearing." And so, ironically, after all this talk in the Gospel of John about seeing and believing, our generation is asked to "hear and believe."
Seeing the risen Jesus alive today
And yet, an ever greater irony is that our eyes, in every generation, do see, in ways both marvelous and wonderful, the risen Jesus alive in this world. If it's true that we are indeed recreated through Christ's Resurrection, as O. Wesley Allen claims, then our beautiful, majestic, joyous Easter services in churches around the world are only an effort to give expression to the lived reality of encountering the presence of God in the risen Jesus not just this one morning but every morning of our lives, in every "little death" that leads to new life, every experience of healing and grace, forgiveness and new hope. Relationships repaired and renewed, churches brought back from the brink of closing to new and vibrant ministry, health restored after suffering and illness, delight in life after long grief...the experience of resurrection and new life, in moments and ways both large and small, all point to the One who gives us life and promises life eternal, the One who raised Jesus up on the third day and recreates us, day by day.
In many dramatic ways in the life of the church, we see resurrection and experience new life, see and hear and touch the Risen Jesus, the Body of Christ alive and in love with this beautiful world. We see, and we believe. Resurrection isn't something that happened a long time ago, something that we simply commemorate each Easter. In our day-to-day lives as the church in ministry, we put our hands on the wounds of this broken world, but we also witness to the hope that sustains us in knowing that we are going to rise again, that everything is going to be all right in the end.
"A limbering effect"
William Sloane Coffin, a great prophet of the United Church of Christ who passed away, fittingly, during Holy Week eleven years ago, once said: "As I see it, the primary religious task these days is to try to think straight....You can't think straight with a heart full of fear, for fear seeks safety, not truth. If your heart's a stone, you can't have decent thoughts--either about personal relations or about international ones. A heart full of love, on the other hand, has a limbering effect on the mind."
Those disciples cowered in fear behind locked doors when good news was waiting for them outside. Good news came to them anyway, even in their fear, and made their minds "limber." They were seeking safety, and the truth came instead. Is it fear that makes us hide from the suffering of the world? Perhaps that's a mystery of the heart, so easily turned to stone, so easily turned away from the pain of others. Coffin once warned that we run the risk of washing our hands, like Pilate, because power is hard-hearted. And yet, he said, we belong to one another, according to the vision of the religious community, the saving vision, the ancient prophetic vision of human unity, all of God's children on this earth. As Allen said, we can't keep the gift to ourselves: the Spirit was given to us because we are connected to, and responsible for, one another.
Are you on a mission from God?
When Jesus commissions the disciples (and us), he gives them a "mission." We hear much talk in the church today (and even in business and other settings) about "mission" and "mission statements." Perhaps it's only human to seek clarity about what one is "about." What is the mission of your church? What is the mission of the wider church? Parker Palmer has provided a measure of clarity for us on this point, writing that "the mission of the church is not to enlarge its membership, not to bring outsiders to accept its terms, but simply to love the world in every possible way--to love the world as God did and does" How would that description match the mission statements of many of our churches? How have churches hurt people by having a misguided sense of mission?
Being a community, or at least an institution. preoccupied with moralistic judgment has given Christians, alas, "a bad name" (can you imagine "Christian" as a "bad name"?), at least in the eyes of those who call themselves "spiritual but not religious." Gail R. O'Day offers a simple mission statement for the church "to bear unceasing witness to the love of God in Jesus." The popularity of the current pope, Francis, may be a response to his obvious and heartfelt desire to bear such a witness to God's love in Jesus, rather than being harshly preoccupied with the sins of others, especially the controversial, personal issues that divide us. (Granted, he has been courageous about speaking out about the really controversial sins of what we are doing with the gifts of God: our materialism, militarism, and disregard for creation).
What do you think would happen if churches clarified their sense of mission? Do you think most of them understand their mission principally as judging between right and wrong, especially in personal, private matters--not in the "big," shared sins that shape our society as peaceful and just (or not)? What does it mean to "believe" in Jesus? If we see Jesus as the focus of the text, his care for Thomas and all who will follow Thomas, does that change the "feel" of the text for you?
Prophets in our own generation
Sometimes it feels like there's a gap in the prophetic witness of our time. Where is this generation's William Sloane Coffin or Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa or Oscar Romero? Again, this new pope may be the closest we have come to such a voice in many years, although Archbishop Desmond Tutu has certainly offered a powerful witness as well. And yet, in today's passage from the Gospel of John, the words of Jesus, "Receive the Holy Spirit," reassure us that God has given us, each one of us in every age, the Holy Spirit, and has commissioned us, empowered us, to be, like Coffin and King, Romero and Mother Teresa, a holy and brilliant flame, each in our own way, breathing love and peace and justice in the midst of fear and pain and hopelessness. To William Sloane Coffin, spirituality meant "living the ordinary life extraordinarily well," like Mother Teresa's encouragement not to strive to do great things, but instead to do small things with great love.
Whenever we're afraid and hiding out, all locked up, God comes to us in the midst of our fear and says, "Peace be with you." Whatever doubts churn in our minds, whatever sins trouble our consciences, whatever pain and worry bind us up, whatever walls we have put up or doors we have locked securely, God comes to us and says, "Peace be with you." Whatever hunger and need we feel deep in our souls, God calls us to the table, feeds us well, and sends us out into the world to be justice and peace, salt and light, hope for the world. We can do it, if we keep our eyes open, our minds limber, and our hearts soft and willing to love. As God sent Jesus, God sends us, this day. It's true!
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (email@example.com) is the retired dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection
Paul Tillich, 20th century
"Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith."
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 20th century
"Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God."
Eugene H. Peterson, 21st century
"It is not easy to convey a sense of wonder, let alone resurrection wonder, to another. It's the very nature of wonder to catch us off guard, to circumvent expectations and assumptions. Wonder can't be packaged, and it canít be worked up. It requires some sense of being there and some sense of engagement."
Brennan Manning, 21st century
"For me the most radical demand of Christian faith lies in summoning the courage to say yes to the present risenness of Jesus Christ."
Jon Meacham, 21st century
"One of the earliest resurrection scenes in the Bible is that of Thomas demanding evidence--he wanted to see, to touch, to prove. Those who question and probe and debate are heirs of the apostles just as much as the most fervent of believers."
Jan Karon, 21st century
"Easter is never deserved."
Martin Luther, 16th century
"Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime."
Madeleine L'Engle, 20th century (when asked, "Do you believe in God without any doubts?")
"I believe in God with all my doubts."
Robert Browning, 19th century
"I show you doubt, to prove that faith exists."
Stuart Chase, 20th century
"For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don't believe, no proof is possible."
Kahlil Gibran, 20th century
"Faith is a knowledge within the heart, beyond the reach of proof."
Paul Gauguin, 19th century
"I shut my eyes in order to see."
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