SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL LEE WOOD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, APRIL 12, 2015, THE SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In today’s gospel reading, it’s the very first Low Sunday, did you notice that? The first “Easter II” - the first “Second Sunday” of Easter, just like today is. And we have this great story, that I love, from John’s gospel about what happened on the evening of that day, the first day of the week, when the disciples cowered behind locked doors, and Jesus came and stood among them. And one of my favorite things about the story is that I’d venture all of us can find ourselves in it somewhere. It speaks to all of us. And I want to pick out 3 particular groups to emphasize in the next few minutes: (1) Those who doubt, (2) those who are afraid, and (3) those who have wounds. Or - to simplify things - the skeptics, the scared and the scarred. (Preaching professors everywhere are high-fiving each other because of that little trick.)
First group: The Skeptics -Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, 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 in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe”. (20.24-25) Today, all across Christendom, Thomas is either being vilified or lionized. He’s getting potshots or praise. I’ve heard sermons from both perspectives, but this story is more complex than that - Thomas is neither patron saint nor cautionary tale, so how can we walk the line between those two extremes?
First - Let’s not brand Thomas a failure or put him up for abuse because he demanded to see the wounds before he would believe. There is a branch of the church that teaches God will do almost anything for you - if you just believe hard enough. There are two problems with that: First, if makes faith into a work, something we have to do, to gin up to get God to bless us or even in order to be saved (when faith is really a gift, and we’re saved by grace not works); and second, that formula grants no room for doubt, so it leaves no room for Thomas . . . and it leaves no room for me. John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany uses a Frederick Buchner quote as its epigraph: “Without destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.” Listen - God doesn’t demand of us certainty. In fact, Anne Lamott says “the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it’s certainty.” He’s not afraid of our doubts; his shoulders carried cross beams, he can handle doubts.
But second - Let’s not make Thomas’ doubting something to emulate, make him into sort of a patron saint of skeptics, a romantic, dark character who always struggled with his doubts and that’s why we love him, he’s just so mysterious and tormented. One of my more progressive priest friends issued a little bulletin on Facebook this week - he said “Take it easy on Thomas this Sunday. After all, he’s just like a lot of us, full of doubts about Jesus, not able to buy the story hook, line and sinker.” And he’s not wrong - Thomas is like a lot of us. It’s just that it’s not exactly accurate about Thomas - just look at how John told the story. Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. (26a) You see, Thomas was “doubting from the inside.” It seems to me there’s more than one kind of doubt - you can stand outside Christianity, unwilling to consider its claims may be clues that could lead to the truth about reality. And there are doubters who do their doubting from inside the door. Some skeptics fall in love with their skepticism - it’s far more comfortable for us, more respectable, we don’t really want to believe. But Thomas came in the house, he brought his doubts to Jesus. Are you willing to do that, too?
Thomas wasn’t a failure because he doubted, and he isn’t a hero because he doubted. Jesus doesn’t rebuke Thomas for being a skeptic - he offered proof, said “Here, Thomas, put your fingers in my wounds, touch me” - but notice what John doesn’t say? He doesn’t say “Thomas probed and measured the wounds” - maybe he did - but John says simply: Thomas answered him “My Lord, and my God.” This story isn’t about romanticizing doubt so much as it’s about that confession: Thomas is the first person in the gospels to confess Jesus’ divinity - Peter confessed Jesus as “son of God,” but Thomas confessed Jesus was God himself. If you’re here with doubts, that’s good - God wants you to bring him your doubts, bring your questions inside. But don’t fall in love with doubts or a perpetually open mind. As Chesterton said “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
Second group: The Scared - On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were or fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” I love how different the gospels all are. For a long time, John’s was my favorite gospel. But there’s something so great about Mark’s too. Mark is probably the earliest, and it’s definitely the most bare and stark account. Some of the best manuscripts actually stop at chapter 16 after verse 8,so the last words they have from Mark are: “And they went out and ﬂed from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16.8)
Pretty easy to understand, right? The disciples had a lot on their minds - Their confusion and fear had to have been building since that last night with Jesus, when he had been arrested and tried and beaten and dragged all over Jerusalem. Then he’d been executed. At any moment the authorities could swoop in with arrest warrants to round up all the disciples for a similar fate. And I have to believe they were at least a little afraid of Jesus. After all, he’d just been dead a little bit ago - so what’s he like now, some Zombie Jesus? And the last thing they’d done while he was still alive was to abandon him. If he’s back, does he want to settle scores for that? Will he be angry? Will we still be a family?
And Jesus shows up and says - not once, but three different times - “Peace be with you.” Peace. Eirene. To anyone living in fear, Jesus’ answer is always: Peace.
You may be afraid of God himself. He knows what goes on in our twisted little minds. Let me quote Anne Lamott again, twice in one sermon, a record for me. In Traveling Mercies, she confessed “I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.” But to Anne and me and everyone Jesus says “peace” - peace is the absence of anger, the absence of hostility, reconciliation with us, regardless of what we’ve done.
Or if yours is a different fear altogether - fear your friends or coworkers will see you just barely holding yourself together, fear of the shadow on the chest x-ray, fear of growing old, fear of dying - Jesus says “Peace.” He has walked where you walk, walked through the valley of the shadow of death, gone even into death itself, and come out the other side. His “peace” means we have nothing to fear, not even death.
Gets us to our third, and last, group: The Scarred - Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. (20.19b-20) One place I turn when I have a case of first impression is to the Roman Catholic Catechism. It’s like an ecclesiastical Google search - I may not agree with everything in it, but man is it thorough. This week, thinking about suffering and scars, I was drawn to this paragraph that I want to read you:
The cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the “one mediator between God and men.” But because in his incarnate divine person he has in some way united himself to every man, “the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery” is offered to all men.
Or from Pope Paul VI: “By suffering for us He not only provided us with an example for our imitation, He blazed a trail, and if we follow it, life and death are made holy and take on a new meaning.”
Life and death - and scars - are made holy and take on a new meaning.
Whatever state you find yourself in - you may be a skeptic, you may be scared, you may have scars - this story is for you. On this particular Sunday, on this side of Easter, nothing that can keep you from God, can keep him from you. Stop doubting, and believe.
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
1) G. K. Chesterton, Autobiography. Collected Works vol. 16, p. 212.
2) Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Anchor Books, 1999): 131.
3) Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2d ed. (Liberia Editrice Vatican, 1994): Para. 618.
4) Pope Paul VI, Gaudium et Spes (http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/ documents/vat-ii_cons_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html) (last visited 10 April 2015) (emphasis added).