The Rev. Canon Mary Sulerud
Several years ago in a parish I was serving, the Sunday school teachers and students for the fifth and sixth grades thought it would be a great idea during Lent to create tableaux of the resurrection, which they hoped to complete for Easter and install in the same place in the church where we kept the crèche at Christmas. In a church that, at the time, was overflowing with young children, I was eager to do all that I could to support teachers, students, and parents in making the essential story of our faith accessible in terms other than bunnies and eggs. A few weeks into the Lenten season I stopped one of the teachers on a Sunday and asked how, what we affectionately referred to as the “science project,” was going. She looked away for a moment and then sighed loudly. “There’s a beautiful moss covered tomb completed and a realistic rock that is rolled away. We have found fabric scraps for cloths, and the boys are having a great time turning a couple of action figures into an unconscious soldier and an angel. Then other than having some women come to see the tomb, or some men running away, well, the tomb is empty and there really isn’t any Jesus to show at all, and the kids are a bit disappointed.” In a pastoral encounter that was rapidly shifting downward we talked about other Easter story possibilities like encountering Jesus on the road to Emmaus or Mary Magdalene meeting Jesus in the garden, but to no avail.
“The tomb is empty and there really isn’t any Jesus to show at all, and the kids are a bit disappointed” might be a very good summary of today’s Gospel. Every year we hear this passage from John, and it cuts to the heart of how short-lived all this Easter joy and alleluia can be. How often is Easter a little window of hope, like a royal wedding, in a world of multiple wars, overwhelming natural disasters at home and abroad? If we rush past this story with a simple note to self, oh yes, this is the story about doubting Thomas and we should have faith and not doubt, no matter the circumstances, that’s what Easter becomes. Yes, indeed, it is a story all about faith and faithlessness. Arguably doubt isn’t really the point of the story; after all Jesus enjoyed a healthy skeptic as much as the next person. What this resurrection appearance by Jesus creates is an extraordinary change in this Gospel’s message. This Gospel has made the point repeatedly that to see Jesus is to see and believe in God the Father and God’s desire to reconcile the world. The closing of the Easter story in the Gospel of John puts in front of us Thomas, the twin, the adventurous (Let’s go to Jerusalem with Jesus and there die with him) and the questioning (Where are you going, Lord?) and now Thomas has put out there as boldly as possible just what we may be on our hearts and minds, too: if seeing is believing, then where is Jesus to be seen and the scars to be touched so that we, too, can believe.
The reality that Thomas faced and we all face with Jesus dead and risen is finding and embracing this new way of seeing and believing in Jesus. We face this just as Thomas did, yearning for a passionate, direct, unassailably physical experience of God, up-close and personal in a world sorely lacking in peace, hope, and love. Amid lives full of uncertainty, confusion, conflict, suffering, and death that seem to hold little or no promise of new life, we live many generations removed from this moment of encounter with the risen Lord and we are working hard not to be a bit disappointed. Thomas isn’t just being snarky when he says he won’t believe until he touches the nail prints on the hands of Jesus and the wound in his side; he is saying perhaps what many of us feel, or may have said quietly to ourselves. After all we live in a world that one writer noted, “politely acknowledges God’s existence, sometimes, consumes God’s blessings, all the while blithely ignoring the implications and responsibilities of that consumption.” We live in a world in which the consistent message is dead men don’t walk. God doesn’t intervene or give a rip about us, and as a result God doesn’t hold us accountable. Life falls apart with incredible frequency. Hopeful revolutions become civil wars. Lives are destroyed by earthquake, flood, and storm. Jobs remain elusive for many in an economy described as recovering. We, too, are in a locked room of depressing and enervating realities and little confidence about the living God.
Jesus entered the locked room of fearful disciples not once but twice in this Gospel, and each time he breathed on the gathered group and brought forth a new creation. In other words, Jesus offered a transforming CPR in the breath of the Holy Spirit amid the prevailing climate of fear and anxiety, the true opposites of faith. It takes a second time for Thomas to be present for this extraordinary gift of Jesus. When that happens, Jesus offers Thomas exactly what he has asked for: an opportunity to touch him where he was wounded in those final hours of his life. Knowing Thomas as we do, Thomas does what would be the least expected of him: he doesn’t touch Jesus at all. Instead he makes the strongest confession of anyone in this Gospel. He looks at Jesus and says, “My Lord and my God.” In that moment Jesus makes clear that believing is no longer about seeing. Believing is about accepting and receiving the gift of the breath of God, the Holy Spirit who brings us forgiveness and peace that abolish fear and anxiety. Believing is about embracing the Spirit, and this Spirit made Thomas—and the disciples—witnesses to the joy and the possibility of knowing God in Christ through what they did by offering God’s reconciling love and peace to those who needed and wanted it. This gift of the Spirit transcends space and time and is offered to those of us who were not in that room but know only too well what it means to cower in disappointment, sadness, and fear, wondering what it means to believe.
Thomas, the twin, the adventurer, the questioner, the skeptic, shows us that the risen Christ is in the business of meeting us where we are with a gift of God’s own Spirit, intent on demonstrating what can happen when we receive this Spirit and what a game-changer the Spirit of God truly is. Thomas reminds those of us who frequent the church that there is a world full of people who yearn for the presence of a merciful, forgiving, loving, and reconciling God. The world lives amid the reality that God’s saving purposes are not yet complete, and this means life as all of us know it is confusing, disappointing, and conflicted. This world needs Christ. We are commissioned to witness to the risen Christ and bring the Spirit of God to all through our lives of hope, forgiveness, and love, lives full of joy amid all adversity. In meeting others and touching others in this way we bring Christ and the power of God to transform any reality.
To all of you outside of this or any church, what Thomas has to say to you is simply this: God does challenge the status quo and does not live by blessing its success. God does matter, and most importantly you matter to God. God in Christ is present and waiting to breathe on you a new possibility. Where Christ shows up is likely where you least expect it, in someone who often is the least likely, visible embodiment of grace, hope, and love. Where Christ may be seen is often in the very wounds of our lives that seem to bring only emptiness, pain, and disappointment in the person who offers a moment of grace, comfort, and hope. The story of Easter is the story of God choosing our failure, disappointment, and death to make a final and triumphant stand for life for all of us for ever. The tomb is empty and on the face of it that can be either a disappointment or, perhaps, the visible sign of what we least expect: life where we had seen only death. Amen.