Well, it’s the Sunday after Easter and the church isn’t as crowded as it was a week ago; some of the flowers are a bit droopy, and the Altar Guild has collected and stored
the bells we rang with our hallelujahs. The question of the day is ‘now what?’; or for some ‘so what?’. This morning’s Gospel lesson is a response to those questions. It is the same reading we hear every year on this Sunday, often referred to, somewhat unfairly, as the story of ‘Doubting Thomas’.
Last week we heard how Mary Magdalene had seen and talked directly with Jesus. While she immediately ran to tell the other disciples, they didn’t really hear her, and so they are found this week to be still behind locked doors because of their fears. In fact, their fears had them captive in despair, the kind of tomb from which resurrection is difficult, since it can paralyze all movement.
This should feel familiar to us since we live in a country which these days is overwhelmed with fears, to a previously unknown degree. We are fearful of the foreigner; we fear those of other religions or of other political views; we fear climate change, and a decline in our standard of living. We are afraid that our churches could subside into nothingness. It is not that we fear death, but that we fear life.
Such fear is experienced in the most primitive part of our brain, the reptilian brain that specializes in Fight-or-Flight reactions. Logic and careful thought cannot reach us when we are in this place. We cannot move either forward or back, but tend to run in repetitive circles.
Fortunately for us, The Good Shepherd refuses to leave the flock in this trap. Rather, he searches for them, to bring them home, just as he did on the first Easter. Even though the disciples were locked away, Jesus walked in among them. He had no words of reproach, but greeted them, “Peace be with you,” showing the wounds in his hands and side.
They were filled with joy that pushed aside their fear, and they could hardly wait to greet Thomas with the news when he returned. But he said he would not believe them unless he saw for himself. This is how he earns the nickname of The Doubter. But that’s hardly fair. I hear in Thomas’ words not so much defiance as a deep longing for the good news to be true.
After all, the other disciples had not believed simply because of someone’s report. Mary Magdalen did not see that she was with Jesus until he spoke her name. When she ran to bring the news to the others, they did not take her seriously. All of them had a need for the direct experience of a risen Jesus, and what they needed was given them.
A week later Thomas would receive the same gift. Jesus again entered the room where they were all gathered, and told Thomas that he should touch the wounds in his hands and side, and come to belief. I have always noticed that John does not say that Thomas actually touched the wounds, as he had thought he would need to do. Instead, simply being in the presence of his Risen Master, he responded with a proclamation of faith greater than any had yet spoken: My Lord and my God.
The bucket-brigade of faith goes from Mary to the other disciples to Thomas, passed hand -to-hand in a line that stretches from that day to this. Belief arises in the vision of the risen Christ, and it is sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the Sunday after Easter is a time to recall the track of this faith through our own lives. Consider for a moment: who was it who showed the Living Christ to you?
I recall Mrs. Drake who taught Vacation Bible School to us unappreciative and restless 5th graders trapped in a hot summer Church room. Her willingness to give her time to us, when she could have been canning the beans that were ripe in the garden; her patience with us when we scuffed our feet on the floor and mumbled our responses; all these things were a witness that snuck past our own locked doors into our subconscious.
Who was it in your life who showed the Living Christ to you? I remember Mrs. Cook an older woman living by herself in a tiny shack in rural West Virginia. We had brought a group of high-schoolers from our well-to-do Methodist Church in suburban Philadelphia, to the Appalachian Service Project. We were sent to Mrs. Cook’s house to fix broken windows and a sagging porch, and to put on a new tar-paper roof. She surely needed our efforts, for she had nothing. She couldn’t afford the electricity to run her old TV or even to turn on the light bulb at night. She would sit by herself in the dark, wondering about her grandson, away at school. I think our lively company was as important to her as our work.
It was, of course, July (I don’t know why all my revelations of Jesus have to happen when I’m sweating.) Every half hour we had to bring everyone down from the black roof that was hot as the fires of Hades, to keep them from having heat stroke. By early afternoon we had drunk up all the jugs of water we had brought with us.
So I will never forget looking up from my slumped position on the porch, and seeing Mrs. Cook standing there with worn, mismatched plastic glasses and two battered aluminum pitchers of ice water, condensation running down their sides. “Y’all are going to need this,” she said, handing each of us in turn a glass of blessed relief. She was giving us all she had, and I could hear the echo of Jesus’ words: Whoever gives even a cup of cold water in my name…” The force of the Holy Spirit was in her gift and her service.
Who was it in your life who showed the Living Christ to you? For this is how all of us have come to faith in the hand-to-hand transmission of God’s gracious presence. Every follower, including Thomas, has been given what each one needed in order to know and believe in the risen Lord.
What was given was not a teaching, but a relationship. Jesus came to the first disciples where they were, called them by name. And he left them with the Holy Spirit to continue holding them in love.
This is what faith is about for us still – not about doctrines, or a list of things you have to believe. It is about a relationship with the Risen Christ. It is about walking the journey of our lives with him. Faith rarely strikes all at once. Instead, we come to faith, we walk in the way of love as it deepens and holds us. It is how we walk away from the grip of fear and come to our true selves. It is how we are at last brought all the way home.