The Rev. Canon Stephen Huber
An aspect of priestly ministry I enjoy is working with couples as they prepare for marriage. Former colleagues at St. Columba’s Parish here in Washington, the congregation I served prior to coming to the Cathedral, used to kid me about running a wedding chapel! It is a privilege to be invited into people’s lives at such a sacred time. Although I have heard other clergy say they find this work difficult, because the months leading up to the wedding day are all consumed by those plans and it’s hard to get the couple to focus, particularly if they are young, on what life will be like over the next fifty plus years after the big day is but a distant memory. There is some truth to that, but I like weddings as well, so I’ve never found that little tug-of-war too off-putting.
Surely as those of you who are married know, the wedding—no matter how glorious the day—does not make the marriage. The process of falling in love that begins long before the wedding day must continue, with intentionality and resolve, every day thereafter. Through the years a couple will learn to see, hear and discover each other in new and unimagined ways. And every couple will also know times of doubt, loneliness, and estrangement that require falling back in love, often over and over again.
Well here we are on what the Church has traditionally referred to as Low Sunday. Our most glorious day in the Church year is over. That was last week. Amidst all the flowers and music and grand liturgy we boldly proclaimed, Christ is Risen, Alleluia. Now we must get back to the intentional, exhilarating, challenging, and always grace filled work of becoming Christ’s disciples in the world. And today you might be asking yourself if what we proclaimed last week with such gusto can really be true? Maybe you are feeling a little or a lot like Thomas this morning, full of more questions than answers. In any event, Low Sunday gives us permission to acknowledge the let down after Easter Day’s magnificent and confident celebration. It says it’s okay to feel the way I suspect many mothers of the bride feel on about the Wednesday after the wedding.
Today’s gospel story of Jesus’ encounter with the disciples, and later with Thomas, is richly packed with so many elements of our own faith journeys: the highs and lows, the doubts, the clarity, the where and the when. Who of us cannot identify with the apostles cowering in fear or Thomas’s saying I need some tangible proof here? “Let me put my finger into the mark of the nails,” he says. Of course, we also know that while our formation as Christians takes intentionality, faith is ultimately a gift. “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you.’…he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” It is the gift of the Holy Spirit that enables the apostles to see, hear and touch Jesus. Just like a marriage requires intentional work on the part of both partners if it is to grow and flourish, but love is ultimately a gift. It is not something you can buy in the florist shop or get by studying about it in a textbook.
Jesus also commissions his disciples in today’s text, “As my father has sent me, so I send you…If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Our journey in faith is a call to action. Christianity is a religion that is totally immersed in the human condition. Our faith is to mean something for the world. It’s not only to be expressed in the grandeur—and safety—of majestic Church buildings. If that is the case, we remain too much like the frightened disciples behind locked doors. Once they receive the gift of the Spirit, they embark on a bold ministry in Jesus’ name of teaching, healing and forgiving the sins of many. The gift of the Spirit prods us to do the same.
Now there is a connection made between recognizing and even touching the wounds of Christ and seeing the risen Christ. John tells us that the apostles, huddled behind locked doors, only recognize Jesus when he shows them his hands and his side. Thomas, of course, isn’t with the group when this happens. But he later says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later the risen Christ comes to the disciples and says to Thomas, “Put your fingers here…Do not doubt, but believe.” The apostles recognize him when they touch his wounds and when they are together in community. Several thousand years later, this is still where we find the risen Christ.
My friend, Richard Silbereis, an inner city priest in Hartford, Connecticut, likes to say that the Christian journey is a journey into the wounds of Christ which are never far away from the pain of the world that Christ claimed as his own on the cross. Jesus lives where we live. He embraces the world’s sin and injustice as his own. That’s why our faith is to mean something for the world. He breathes the gift of the Spirit on us so that we can join him in a ministry of healing and reconciliation. By our baptismal vows we promise to strive for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being. If we will take these promises seriously in our work and relationships then we will end up journeying into the wounds of Christ. The gift of the Spirit is a challenge to move beyond our own immediate needs to the needs of others and to recognize that we are all inter-connected sisters and brothers on this small and fragile planet we inhabit together.
Our basic belief about Jesus—that he is God who took on the fullness of our human condition and then was raised from the dead—is an affirmation that all life matters to God. When we don’t act that way we hurt one another and creation. Those are the wounds the risen Christ invites us to touch, care about and heal.
And so if the Easter faith claims we make are sometimes hard to believe or understand, today’s gospel affirms that Christians have been trying to grapple with knowing, seeing, believing in the risen Christ from the very beginning. Thomas is the patron saint of every person who struggles with faith. I think that would be all of us. Frederick Buechner once said, “If you don’t have doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep.” But just like two partners need to keep on loving each other even during those times when they don’t feel much love, if we will risk involving ourselves, each in our own way, in connecting with the pain of the world—mostly through small acts of caring, sometimes through big acts of challenging unjust systems—like Thomas and the others we will begin to meet the risen Christ because we will have put our hands in his wounds. When you start having that experience, these lofty theological claims we make that can seem unbelievable will begin to make sense.
If in a marriage or friendship you have hung in together through a particularly challenging time, it is often the case that you come out of that period of doubt, fear, or brokenness knowing each other more fully and strengthened in your commitment.
Perhaps you are put in touch with the truth of Easter resurrection through the healing of your own brokenness. Philip Yancy, in his book I was Just Wondering, quotes a recovering alcoholic:
None of us can make it on our own—isn’t that why Jesus came? What I hate most about myself, my alcoholism, was the one thing God used to bring me back to him. Because of it I know I can’t survive without him. Maybe that’s the redeeming value of alcoholics. Maybe God is calling us alcoholics to teach the saints what it means to be dependent on him and on his community on earth.
We live in a culture that promotes self-obsession and disconnection. Jesus came to bring people together, to reconcile the disconnected. And the other great lesson from today’s gospel about the risen Christ is that we find him when we are together in community, supporting, caring and praying for one another. That is when the disciples see the risen Lord. And the same is true for us. So it is good that we are here today. Christ breathes the gift of the Spirit on us. The risen Christ in the bread and wine nourishes us so that we might go forth to be Christ’s people in the world, so that we will be his community on earth. Jesus comes to the disciples and forms them into a new community marked by joy and courage. That community becomes the Church. And the church in spite of all its sins and failings is still meant to be the place where we meet the risen Christ and in turn become Christ’s hands, feet, eyes, ears and heart in the world.
Certainly through the generations there has been plenty of National Enquirer type theories offered to explain away the claims of Easter faith including hallucinating disciples, a stolen corpse, and mistaken identities. A recent archeological discovery, being referred to as “The Jesus Family Tomb” has raised additional questions about Jesus’ life and death. And there have also been attempts to demonstrate physical proof for the resurrection. Our efforts along those lines always come up short. And yet for over twenty centuries in every generation Christians have testified to encountering the risen Christ, most often in the context of Church, his community on earth. This continues to happen because the gift of the Spirit is given, and over and over again faithful Christians step out in discipleship and meet the risen Christ in prayer and the sacraments, and by entering into the wounds of the world as witnesses of Christ’s justice, mercy, and reconciliation.
Easter created the church. Jesus comes to us in our fear and doubting and breathes the Spirit upon us. When we encounter Christ in the bread and wine and dare to put our fingers in the mark of the nails and forgive the sins of others, then our doubts begin to transform into belief and we joyfully can join in the chorus of saints, prophets, and martyrs throughout the generations, proclaiming Alleluia, He is risen indeed, Alleluia.