Sunday, April 15, 2007

Easter 2C

Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 118:14-29; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

Isn’t it interesting how very young children so adamantly believe what they see, and that they also see more than we adults can believe. I remember studying in a child psychology class the principles of object permanence and conservation, how matter really matters to young children. If you show a stuffed animal to a young child, and then hide the animal behind a piece of paper, she won’t look for it – when she cannot see it, for her it does not exist. And if you show a child two identical glasses filled with the same amount of water, and then pour all the water from one glass into a glass that is taller and skinnier, he will tell you that the tall, skinny glass has more water in it – when he sees it, for him the difference in water level means a difference in amount. Matter really matters – children believe what they see, hear, taste, touch and smell.

And yet…also for very young children, stuffed animals talk, imaginary friends play, tricycles travel at lightspeed through outer space, and delicious casseroles are made out of leaves and pebbles and sand and water. Matter really matters, but there is much more to matter than meets the eye.

As we grow older, though, these relationships between seeing and believing become somehow reversed. We eventually learn that a stuffed animal behind a piece of paper does in fact still exist, but it no longer talks to us. We know that different sizes and shapes of containers will displace the same amount of water differently, but none of them will make a casserole if you add leaves and pebbles and sand. Matter still matters, but we find ourselves somewhere between no longer believing everything we see, hear, taste, touch and smell and yet demanding this very sort of evidence in order to believe.

Jesus was dead – there was no doubt about that. Thomas had seen the awful cross and heard the last gasping breaths as he felt hot tears roll down his own face. Not so very long before, they had all been with Jesus when they received word that their dear friend Lazarus was ill. Jesus wanted to go to him. It’s too dangerous, the disciples insisted. It’s too near Jerusalem – the last time you were there you were nearly killed! We won’t let you go. When Jesus silenced them with the news that Lazarus was already dead, it was for once not Peter who spoke up, but Thomas, sullen but determined to keep following. If Jesus is going, at great risk to himself, let us also go, that we may die with him, Thomas said.

Some time later, at a house in the heart of hostile Jerusalem, the disciples had what would be their last supper with Jesus. He told them many things that night about himself and about them and about how he believed in them. At one point he described a place with many rooms, a place where he would soon be going and where he would one day take them, and then he said they knew the way to that place. But Thomas couldn’t follow Jesus’ words, and he blurted out, Jesus, what are you saying? We don’t know where you’re going! How could we know the way? Thomas, you’re looking right at it – don’t you see? replied Jesus. I am the Way…

But the way had led to a cross, and now Jesus was dead. For two days and two nights Thomas and the others who had followed Jesus this far sat stunned inside the house, doors locked and curtains drawn against their fear of following him to their own deaths.

Perhaps they needed supplies – water, bread, oil for a lamp. Perhaps they needed to send word to other followers hiding in other homes. Perhaps he just needed to breathe air not so heavy with grief. We don’t know why Thomas left, or when exactly. We don’t know if he was there when Peter and John rushed back with astonishing news of an empty tomb, or when Mary Magdalene rushed back to tell them she had seen Jesus alive.

We do know that while Thomas was gone, Jesus came and stood among the disciples and said, “Peace be with you.” He showed them his hands and his side, and said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In nearly every account of Jesus appearing to his followers after his resurrection, they do not recognize him. Mary Magdalene thought he was the gardener. Two disciples on the road to Emmaus thought he was simply another traveler. In Luke’s version of his appearing in a room full of disciples, they think he is a ghost. Jesus was dead – there was no doubt about that.

Matter matters – why else would God have created it and called it good, why else would God have become flesh and dwelled among us? Matter matters, and so it was that belief in the resurrection began not at the door of an empty tomb but rather in personal encounters with the Risen Jesus. Many scholars agree that these were the first stories told about the resurrection – angels and rolled away stones and neatly folded linens would be written about later. Belief began in the presence of Jesus when they saw his wounds, heard his words, felt his breath move across their chaos and create in them a new life.

Thomas, then, isn’t so unusual in his doubting, in his desire to see and touch what he wants to believe, but what he can’t believe. And it isn’t so unusual for Jesus to grant him his desire. Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe. In that gracious offer, Thomas suddenly sees beyond what his eyes could ever comprehend and utters the most complete and powerful confession in John’s gospel, My Lord and my God!

John tells us that Jesus looked at Thomas and said, Have you believed because you have seen? And then his next words, if they were also spoken to Thomas, sound like a gentle reprimand, Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. Consider, though, that in none of the resurrection appearance stories does Jesus admonish doubt – instead, he commissions those who can hardly believe what they are seeing and hearing to go out and help others to see that life is possible, love is unconditional, grace is abundant, and forgiveness is free. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe, Jesus says, bringing Thomas into the mission begun a week earlier when the air heavy with darkness and grief had become all light and Spirit-filled. Blessed are those who have not seen…Thomas, let them see me in you…

Thomas and all the rest would be the first to tell the story to those who had not seen Jesus, not the way they had, anyway, when they were accompanying Jesus on dusty roads, through crowded towns, across raging waters, in a house in Jerusalem. But matter matters – the people would see Jesus in the signs and wonders performed by the disciples, they would hear Jesus in the disciples’ preaching and teaching, they would touch Jesus in the disciples’ outstretched hands. And some would come to believe, and then they would tell the story….so that still others would come to believe, and then they would tell the story….until one day, someone told the story to us.

We are among those blessed by Jesus that day, we who have not seen and yet have come to believe. We are among those who have received the Holy Spirit in baptism and are commissioned to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is more than a pretty story, more than something to believe in or not. Resurrection is a way of life, of living. Resurrection is about being transformed from people who just live until we die into people who live because Jesus lives.

And so it is not only our telling of the story, but our living of it that bears witness. Indeed, many of us came to believe not just because someone told us about Jesus but because someone was Christlike to us. The Reverend Mary Morrison writes, “Whenever we practice forgiveness, whenever we overcome the power of death in its many forms – hatred, violence, indifference – the spirit of Christ is alive and well in believers and resurrection life is expressed again in this time and place. We can’t ‘prove’ the resurrection, but we can be fingers pointing to it whenever we are signs that the life of Christ has not been extinguished, but is enfleshed in us and in every Christian community.”

Matter still matters – how well we know this in a church where water is poured across our brow, the sweet smell of oil anoints us, we chew and sip bread and wine, we embrace one another in peace. Week after week we encounter Jesus through what we see, hear, taste, touch and smell. The risen Body of Christ is here – right here, in us and through us, and we are called to be his Body out there. “Christ has no body now but ours,” wrote St. Teresa of Avila. “Christ has no body now but ours; no hands, no feet on earth but ours. Ours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Ours are the feet with which he goes about doing good. Ours are the hands with which he blesses people.”

The story of Thomas encourages us to engage our life in Christ using all our senses. It is far more than a story about doubt – instead, it is a story about following, about becoming, about being a witness to what we have seen and to what we have not seen but still believe. It is a story about how the Resurrection of Jesus Christ works within us who, like Thomas, are sometimes brave and sometimes very much afraid, sometimes open to mystery and sometimes demanding evidence, sometimes believing and sometimes doubting, sometimes seeing things we can’t believe and sometimes believing what we cannot see. It is a story about being blessed because we are matter and because we do matter.

Let us pray together the collect for today. Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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