2ND SUNDAY OF EASTER — 7 April 2013
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls – 9:15 am
Acts 5:27-32 | Psalm 150 | Revelation 1:4-8 | John 20:19-31
“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
On this the second Sunday of Easter – does anyone else remember when we used to call it “Low Sunday,” allegedly because after the huge crowds in church on Easter Day, today got a much more modest attendance. I’m glad to see that doesn’t apply to you in this parish! Actually, it probably reflects the fact that the Sunday of the Resurrection was considered a ‘high holy day,” in comparison to which today, a week later, is relatively lower. Don’t take notes. It’s quite all right to completely forget this whole point.
Anyway, on this the second Sunday of Easter in the Church –not only the Catholic tradition in the West but also the Orthodox Churches in the East – the Gospel reading every year has for a very very long time been the narrative of the encounter of St. Thomas with the risen Jesus. Here’s where we get the whole bit about “doubting Thomas.” I assume you have heard many many sermons that argue that this is not altogether fair to poor St. Thomas. I have certainly preached them! And sometimes the point has been that doubt, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. Which is true.
Have you all seen the TV commercial sponsored by one of the cellphone companies, in which a man wearing a red-and-black-checked lumberjack shirt – I have one just like it -- and his apparently expectant wife – come into the cellphone store and he announces that he’ll believe anything – Bigfoot, ghosts, mermaids and mermen – but he won’t believe that this company has a good deal on cellphones. His wife observes that the cellphone company should write a joke book. Well, fortunately, St. Thomas was not anything like that guy.
He was not the only one who was doubtful when told that Jesus had risen. St. Matthew tells us that when the disciples met the risen Jesus in Galilee, “some doubted.” [Mt 28:17] In the well-known and well-beloved story about Cleopas and his companion – I suggest it’s his wife Mary – meeting but not recognizing the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus, they say that they had heard the story that Jesus’ tomb had been found empty, but they doubted. [Luke 24:22-24] After all, St. John’s Gospel says that Mary the wife of Cleopas was one of the women standing near the cross of Jesus. She had seen Jesus die! They didn’t know what this empty tomb business was all about, but they doubted. So let’s give poor St. Thomas a break! Lots of reasons for doubt going around. People in the first century knew just as well as we do that dead people do not rise from their graves. (Though north of the Wall in Westeros, all bets are off.)
Incidentally, the discovery of the empty tomb does not in itself prove the resurrection of Jesus. I think there are all sorts of reasons – historical, scriptural, theological, spiritual – for concluding that the gospel stories are basically sound and that the tomb was indeed found empty on Sunday morning, but that is important not so much for proving that the resurrection happened as for clarifying what happened. We do need to understand that the resurrection of Jesus was not simply the resuscitation of his corpse, “back to life.” The resurrection was not, and is not, “back.” According to the gospels, the daughter of Jairus, and the son of the widow of Nain, and Lazarus were resuscitated. What God did with Jesus was, is, at a wholly different order of reality.
(Don’t ask me about the Shroud of Turin. I’m not going there.)
And I think we can see that in the gospel story of St. Thomas today. Note that the Gospel says that both on that first Sunday, and then a week later on this second Sunday, the doors were locked; but “Jesus came and stood among them.” [John 20:19,26] It does not say that Jesus walked through walls!
(I have this immature and very silly image in my mind of the risen Jesus standing outside the door, wondering to himself, “Should I knock? Or should I just walk through?”)
(Another reflection, I hope not quite as immature and silly: The other disciples are telling Thomas that they’ve seen the risen Lord. Thomas says, “No! I won’t buy that! Bad enough that our hopes have been so cruelly dashed, I can’t risk the pain of some wild hoax! Not unless I can touch his wounds!” And then, in the event, does Thomas examine Jesus’ wrists and say, “Ooh! Big nails they used!” and poking Jesus in the side comment, “Ow! That’s got to have hurt!”? No! In the event Thomas does not touch Jesus’ wounds, he falls and cries, “My Lord and my God!” That, by the way, is not a statement of systematic Christological theology, although it may be relevant to that. It’s a cry of faith and trust. Thomas recognizes what has happened in that upper room: at least for that moment and in that place, in the words of the Revelation and of Mr. Handel, “The kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.” [Rev. 11:15])
Where is the risen Jesus between his appearances to his disciples? A silly question, probably, but I suspect it has occurred to most of us at one time or another. Hanging out inconspicuously in that little coffee shop across from the Pool of Siloam, maybe? I don’t think so! No, despite how the gospel writers, and especially St. Luke, address it narratively, the resurrection and the ascension are aspects of the same reality. The risen Jesus is in heaven, which is to say with the Father, which is to say in the headquarters of the Kingdom of God. Heaven, of course, is not “up there.” It is not anywhere in this created universe; it is the greater reality within which this whole created universe has its present existence and its ultimate goal. “My kingdom,” Jesus says, “is not of this world.” It is the ultimate beyond, which in various ways and at various times breaks into our present world. The signal instances of this breaking in from the ultimate beyond are, I think, the Incarnation and the Resurrection (which themselves may be aspects of the same reality).
We need to understand, in our heads and in our lives, that all this stuff we are celebrating, especially at this season, is not about “religion.” Or even about “spirituality.” (“I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.” “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. How can I help?”) “Religion” and “spirituality” can all too often be seen as just one of life’s compartments, just one pigeonhole among other pigeonholes in our desk: job, family, recreation, politics, hobbies, religion, whatever, often isolated and not always related to each other. The Gospel, the good news, which has been proclaimed to us and which we are to share with the world, is about God’s ultimate rule over the whole of existence, and how this rule, this “Kingdom” in human terms, has appeared and been especially enacted in our world by the creator God enfleshed in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of the Messiah Jesus of Nazareth.