This sermon was preached on April 7, 2013 at the First Presbyterian Church of Ashland. My primary text was John 20:19-31.
Christ is Risen!
Christ is Risen indeed!
Our Gospel passage today picks right up from where the story ended last week. In John’s version of the story, Mary Magdalene had gone to the tomb, seen the stone rolled away, told the disciples, went back to the tomb and ran into a gardener…who turned out to be Jesus. She then went and told the disciples what Jesus had told her, and that’s where we pick up this morning.
The disciples had essentially been hiding out behind locked doors…they didn’t know what to think about the fact that the stone had been rolled away and that Jesus’s body was gone…they thought someone might be coming after them. And so they hid out. Behind locked doors. Waiting…we’re not really sure what they were waiting for. Maybe for things to die down…maybe for someone to come and tell them that they weren’t under suspicion of anything, we don’t know. But they were hiding.
And then Jesus showed up.
The text doesn’t tell us that he knocked on the door…or anything at all about how he came to be standing there among the disciples. As you heard this story, you probably get the image of a ghost-like Jesus suddenly just…appearing…to the disciples.
And obviously, I wasn’t there, so I can’t tell you how that all played out, or how exactly it was that Jesus showed up…or whether it was Jesus as a spirit, or if he had a type of body…but, nevertheless, there he was. With his disciples…minus Thomas…maybe he was sent out on a pizza run? Who knows.
And Jesus probably knows that they’re going to be a little unnerved by all this…and might have some questions, so he shows them his hands and his side…just so that they would know that it’s him. It is their teacher, their spiritual leader, the one who had a spear stuck into his side, and nails hammered through his hands.
And what happens next seems to be…a commissioning of sort. He’s clearly not going to be around for long…and so he’s commissioning, empowering and sending out these disciples of his for ministry. He breathes on them, gives them the Spirit, and empowers them for a ministry of forgiveness.
I love this part of the passage, Jesus breathes on the disciples…giving them the Holy Spirit. As you heard this verse, you might have been reminded of any number of other passages in the Bible. Perhaps it was the creation story in Genesis 2:7, in which we are told that “the Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life.”
Or maybe it was the very creepy story of the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37, where the bones eventually come back together, and sinews and flesh and skin cover the bones, and finally the Lord says: “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The Lord God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live.”
A few verses later, the Lord promises: “I will put my breath in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the Lord. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the Lord says.”
I think we’re supposed to be reminded of all of these passages – I think that’s something John did on purpose when he tells us that Jesus breathed on them and told them to receive the Holy Spirit….just as God breathed life into the first creation…and as the Lord God breathed life into those dry bones…Jesus breathes new life into these disciples, these broken and weary and fearful disciples…many of them had probably been doubting Jesus, were doubting much of what he said, because it appears that he had been killed…even though they heard from Mary that he was risen…could they really believe it?
And then Jesus shows up. Their eyes are opened and they see his hands and his side…they are able to see the risen Christ, and receive the new life breathed on them…the Holy Spirit.
Oh those lucky, lucky disciples…
Well, all of the disciples except Thomas.
Can you picture the scene when he arrives back at the house?
Thomas walks in…and everyone just kind of looks at one another:
“No, YOU tell him.”
“I’M not telling him….just tell him what we just saw.”
“Okay, so….Thomas…while you were out…”
And then Thomas says the line that forever has him branded as the one who doubted…as a Doubting Thomas…he says to the other disciples:
“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.”
There it is. Poor, doubting Thomas. Sad, Thomas the doubter.
He will not believe.
And thousands of years later, we still sometimes look at folks with a little bit of pity and say “Oh….don’t be such a Doubting Thomas…”
Thomas just did what ANY of us what do, didn’t he?!
He wanted to be able to see Jesus with his own eyes…he wanted his eyes opened, as the eyes of the disciples had been…to this new reality of Jesus, the Risen Christ.
And so…Thomas did what many of us have done in similar situations.
A whole week.
You have to wonder what Jesus was out doing during this whole week, and why he didn’t reappear to the disciples agin sooner, but the text says: A week later Jesus’s 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.”
And after waiting for a whole week….after sitting with his doubt, with his questions…wondering why Jesus would show himself to the other disciples, but not to Thomas…Jesus arrived. Brought peace. And let Thomas have the same experience that the other disciples had been blessed with a week earlier.
Something I noticed during my reading of this text this week was what Jesus 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.”
He offers Thomas exactly what Thomas needed to believe. And he does this without having been there a week earlier when Thomas said this is what he needed. Perhaps we’re just missing a little dialogue here in the story. Maybe Jesus showed up…the disciples said something like, “See Thomas! He’s alive! He’s risen! Now you can put your finger in the mark of the nails and put your hand in his side…”
And then Jesus says, “Okay, sure. Do that.” Or perhaps there is something quite mysterious about the Risen Christ. The Risen Christ, who, while not visibly-present to Thomas a week earlier, still knows Thomas’s heart, knows what Thomas needs to believe…still knows what Thomas said to the other disciples.
Jesus says to Thomas “Do not doubt…but believe.” But to be honest, that’s not a great translation. The Greek in that text essentially says: “Don’t be unbelieving. But rather, believe, have faith.” It’s possible it’s just a bit of a game of semantics here, but I think there is a difference between unbelieving and doubt.
I don’t think you can believe and unbelieve at the same time, and I think that’s what Jesus is talking about. But you can believe and have doubt at the same time. For, I think that pretty much describes the bulk of our Christian journey.
Jesus doesn’t show up in the room and say “Get rid of all your doubts…” Rather, the Risen Christ shows up and says “Don’t become unbelieving. Look at me. Believe. Have faith…you will believe because you’ve gotten the chance to see me…but there will be others who will believe without seeing…”
And who is he talking about there? Well, lots of people…but definitely US. We haven’t seen Jesus’s hands and side. We haven’t gotten that first-hand experience of having Jesus just show up in a room we’re in behind locked doors. And yet…here we are. Many of us followers in the way of Jesus…
And many of us still have doubts. That doesn’t mean we don’t have faith…that doesn’t mean we don’t believe…but we do still have doubts.
And while we have those doubts…we wait. We wait like Thomas waited that week for Jesus to show up. We wait with our doubts, with our questions…and it may be a day, or a week, or years…but at some point, Jesus shows up, shows up in the locked spaces that we are hiding…and says “Peace be with you.”
As our passage from Revelation said, Look! “He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him.”
1 Corinthians 13:12 says: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.” Things might not be all that clear to us now…sometimes they may be a little fuzzy…but I think the encouraging thing is that at some point, our eyes will be opened. Every eye will see him.
And so, I think we go throughout our life and our spiritual journeys sometimes feeling like the disciples…having experienced God’s presence and feeling that new life that’s been given to us by the Holy Spirit…
…sometimes we’re feeling more like Thomas. Feeling like we missed Jesus…and that we just have to sit around and wait for Jesus to show up again…sitting around with our doubts, with our fears…and just not quite feeling as sure as the disciples may have felt.
And I think the good news for us in this story is that Jesus shows up again. Thomas and the disciples didn’t know that Jesus would show up again, but Jesus does. A week later, Jesus surprised them by just appearing again in the house behind the locked doors.
He brings them peace, encourages Thomas’s faith and gives Thomas exactly what Thomas needed to believe. Jesus isn’t thrown off, or upset, or irritated with Thomas’s doubts. But he reaches out to him in just the way that Thomas needed.
That sounds like good news to me…that God will show up. Meet us where we are. That God will accept us just as we are, with our doubts, our questions, our faith…all of it. And in just a few moments, when we celebrate communion…we create a space where God shows up.
And while we don’t understand the mystery behind the bread and the wine, we participate in this act of remembrance and of hope, that God shows up and meets each of us wherever we are on our journey.