Sunday, April 12
Second Sunday of Easter
Marks of Faith
Light of the world, shine upon us and disperse the clouds of our selfishness, that we may reflect the power of the resurrection in our life together. 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 This Sunday
1 John 1:1-2:2
1. How do you think the disciples spent the week between these two post-resurrection appearances?
2. Why do you think they were still behind locked doors a week after seeing Jesus alive?
3. What is overwhelming you right now, in your life? How do you respond?
4. How do you think the church went from this moment to a time when many people perceive it as "judgmental" rather than loving?
5. What do you believe we are sent to do and be in the world?
Reflection by Kate Matthews (Huey)
Craig Dykstra once described the feeling of being overwhelmed "by the sheer hugeness or complexity of something. We can't get our arms around it. We can't get it figured out. We are unable to organize it or to bring it under control. We are overwhelmed in a way that makes us feel small, weak and inadequate."
"Overwhelmed" is a good way to describe the disciples after Jesus died, huddled together in their fear and confusion, not knowing where to turn or what to do next. Their leader and teacher who had held them together all those long months was dead and buried, executed like a common criminal, and lying in a tomb (or so they thought). What a disappointing turn of events! With Jesus into that tomb went their hope, their vision, their sense of direction and purpose in life. They were left only with an overwhelming sense of failure, loss, and shame, because they knew they had deserted Jesus in his hour of need. Were they more disappointed and disillusioned with themselves or with Jesus, who had raised their hopes so high? It would be hard to "get your arms around" that kind of disappointment, to "organize" the feeling of that kind of loss, to "bring under control" that depth of shame. They must have indeed felt "small, weak and inadequate."
Then, one of the women, Mary Magdalene, was saying things that didn't make sense: that she had actually seen Jesus and had talked with him, that Jesus was alive, that he had risen from the dead just as he had promised. They didn't believe Mary's words, of course, because she was only a woman, and women, after all, aren't "rational thinkers." So most of the men didn't open up the doors and rush back to the tomb. They stayed put and waited to see what would happen next. Suddenly, astonishingly, quietly, there he was, right there, in their midst, before their very eyes. Jesus was alive.
Isn't it reasonable to assume that the disciples might have been just a little bit afraid that this was not all good news? That Jesus might be understandably angry with them for abandoning him, in Peter's case for even denying Jesus three times as he warmed himself by the fire in the courtyard, while his Lord and Savior was questioned by the religious authorities? It's frightening enough to see someone who was dead suddenly alive, but what if he had every reason to say, "Where were you when I needed you? What kind of faithful disciples are you, anyway? Why did you run out on me? Peter, you especially, I picked you out to be the leader; how could you have denied me three times?"
Grace, and peace, and the Holy Spirit, too
But that's not what happened. There were no recriminations, no anger, no condemnation or judgment, not even an understandable "venting" of disappointment and hurt. Instead, the first words Jesus offered were both greeting and gift: "Peace be with you." He knew what was in their hearts and why they had barred the door. He saw right through them and knew that they weren't re-grouping, getting it together and deciding on their next move, that is, how they were going to carry on Jesus' legacy or spread his teaching. They were scared and hiding out. Yet, suddenly, in the midst of their fear and confusion, there he was, not with angels, trumpets, or legions, but quietly. He brought only peace, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, and a commission. In fact, he breathed the Spirit into them. This is John's "Pentecost," but here the Spirit comes not with wind and flame but with Jesus' own breath, the very life-force of the one raised from the dead who tells them to go out and be peace and forgiveness and love for the world.
At creation, God breathed life into us humans, a tender, intimate, up-close and personal moment, and here we are again, with Jesus not holding his disciples at arm's length but re-creating this sorry crew of weak disciples, giving them the gift of new life, the gift of grace, and commissioning them to share that gift, that good news, with the world. However, he does not give them the gift of a personal, "private" faith, a just-you-and-me-Jesus faith that has nothing to do with the world that God loves so well. Instead, these weak and overwhelmed disciples, now Spirit-gifted, are Jesus' gift to the world.
Looking for confirmation isn't necessarily doubt
Jesus first talks about that thing that's more difficult to talk about in the church than sex or even money: forgiveness, which gives us some sense of what's uppermost in Jesus' mind. But then the story shifts to Thomas, out running his errands. Michael E. Williams sees Thomas as the only disciple courageous enough to leave that locked room. When he returned and heard that the others had seen Jesus, he of course wanted to have the same experience himself, to receive the same assurance the other disciples had received. Personally, I think he was no more a "doubter" than they were, before they saw the risen Jesus. Wouldn't we, in his place, want the same thing? Gail O'Day observes that it's more significant that the other disciples are still hiding out after they've seen the risen Jesus, an entire week after that Pentecost experience. That's downright puzzling. An interesting contrast might be drawn between the reaction of the disciples to their first encounter with the risen Jesus, and Thomas' reaction to his first encounter, when he recognized Jesus as "My Lord and my God!" The rest of the disciples, O'Day writes, even after seeing Jesus risen, "still do not live as an Easter people."
Thomas wanted to experience the Resurrection for himself, to put his finger and his hand on the marks of Jesus' suffering and feel for himself that this incredible news was indeed not too good to be true. His faith was no less, no weaker than the other's faith; he was just that one little sheep that the good shepherd sure enough would come back for, to tie up this one loose end. The story of Thomas is a message for the people in John's community a generation or two later when the Gospel was being written down. Their faith was based not on what they had seen with their own eyes but on what they heard. Jesus is really talking to them (and to us) when he says to Thomas the words that Eugene Peterson translates in The Message as "Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing."
What overwhelms us today?
Even better blessings. That is the promise to the church one week after our beautiful Easter services, back to life as usual. Back to our lives with their own "overwhelmings": wars and uprisings, counter-offensives and coups that drag on for months and years, with hundreds and thousands dead and maimed; an environmental crisis that looms ominously over us and our children and grandchildren (California is about to run out of water, we are told); nagging economic problems in spite of the recovery and political divisions poisoned by ugly rhetoric and intransigence on all sides. And then there are our own private griefs and burdens: health problems, kid problems, too much work, too much worry, too much coming at us, so much to run away from, so much to fear. What's an overwhelmed person of faith to do? Even one week after the music of the trumpets and the splendor of the lilies have faded, how are we to live "as Easter people"?
William Sloane Coffin 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." When our hearts fill with a fear we can't organize or get our arms around, a fear that makes us feel weak and small and inadequate, all of us disciples receive from God that same gift of grace, forgiveness, and the Holy Spirit, a gift that limbers up our minds and our hearts, turning them from hearts of stone to hearts full of love.
Loving the world "in every possible way"
We may feel overwhelmed on the Second Sunday of Easter, like those disciples one week later, even though we have experienced the risen Jesus. We may feel like locking our doors and hiding out. Indeed, it's a great temptation in the life of the church to huddle behind massive, beautiful doors, to hide out from a world in pain and great need, and to make our faith a personal, private thing that has nothing to do with that pain or that need. However, Jesus sends us out into the world, to put our hands on the marks of its suffering, to bring good news and hope to all of God's children. Isn't that the mission of your church: to love the world, as Parker Palmer says, "not to enlarge [your] membership, not to bring outsiders to accept [your] terms, but simply to love the world in every possible way--to love the world as God did and does"? Why, then, do so many people perceive the church as judgmental rather than loving? How well are we fulfilling our mission, if that's how people see us?
Limber minds and open hearts
Whatever overwhelms us, 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, as William Sloane Coffin would say, "limber," and our hearts soft and willing to love. As God sent Jesus, God sends us, too, into the world that God loves.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
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A preaching version of this reflection (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
For Further Reflection
David Housholder, The Blackberry Bush, 21st century
"If anyone or anything tries to curse or kill the Goodness at the Center of all things, it will just keep coming back to life. Forever Easter."
Paul Tillich, 20th century
"Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith."
C.S. Lewis, 20th century
"I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."
Elbert Hubbard, 20th century
"God will not look you over for medals, degrees or diplomas but for scars."
J.M. Barrie, The Little White Bird, 20th century
"The reason birds can fly and we can't is simply because they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings."
Khalil Gibran, 20th century
"Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother."
Cyril of Alexandria, 5th century
"When Christ greeted his holy disciples with the words, 'Peace be with you,' by peace he meant himself, for Christ's presence always brings tranquility of soul. This is the grace Saint Paul desired for believers when he wrote, 'The peace of Christ which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds.' The peace of Christ which passes all understanding is in fact the Spirit of Christ, who fills those who share in him with every blessing."
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