Scripture: John 20:19-31
Gracious God, you are the wellspring of life-giving love. Fill us once more with your Holy Spirit and your peace. And let it renew, transform, and inspire us to live, love, and serve. Amen.
When our story begins, it is Easter Sunday evening and the disciples are hiding away in a locked room. It has been one horrendous week for them. And they are afraid. And for good reason. They fear for their own safety… their lives are at stake. They fear that Jesus’ fate will be their own.
But now they are also puzzled because Mary Magdalene told them about her encounter with the Risen Christ in the garden that morning. But they don’t really seem to believe her. Or, at least, they wonder… could this be true? Do they dare hope?
And in that mystifying moment, Jesus shows up, the Risen Christ right there in the room with them… despite their locked doors. And he says, “Peace, friends! I’m back!!” (I’m paraphrasing, of course.)
But you can imagine the moment, can’t you? Jaws drop… they can’t believe their eyes.
“Peace be with you,” Jesus says. Not why did you cut and run when things got rough? Not why did you deny me? Not why didn’t you trust me? Peace is the greeting. It’s a greeting filled with love and grace.
And then Jesus shows them his hands and side so they would know it is really him. And no doubt they are overwhelmed… with joy, with shock, with wonder…
And then he breathes on them and, in doing so, gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit. And it’s symbolic, of course. The Holy Spirit is that Breath of God, as near to them as their own breath.
They’ve felt alone (perhaps more alone than ever before) over the past week. Jesus surely knows that. He too knew deeply and personally that kind of loneliness. But he knows a deeper truth too. That God doesn’t abandon us in our times of need… that the Holy Spirit is present and will be forever present.
And then there is Thomas. Poor Thomas. He missed all of this! Maybe he was the only one who was willing to risk going out to find dinner that night. Maybe the lines at the grocery market in Jerusalem were as long as ours… who knows. But he wasn’t there.
And so, when Thomas comes back, after Jesus is gone, and hears this story, he doesn’t believe it. He wants proof. He wants to see Jesus for himself. And I think that is perfectly understandable. Of course, he does. I would want to see Jesus for myself. Wouldn’t you?
The good news is that Thomas will have his chance. But it will take another whole week.
But when Jesus does return, his message is the same. Peace. And once again, he shows Thomas his hands and his side. And he believes… “my Lord and my God!” he says.
Over the years, some Christians have labeled Thomas a “doubter” and judged him and looked down upon him and anyone else who’s had their doubts. But that isn’t fair. The disciples all had their moments of doubt and uncertainty. And so do we. Doubt, it turns out, is a pretty normal part of the journey of faith. Uncertainty is part of life. Perhaps Thomas is just honest about those things.
And so, when Jesus says to Thomas, “do not doubt but believe,” we shouldn’t hear those words as a scolding. We should hear them as gentle words of encouragement from a caring teacher to his disciple and friend who’s been through a heck of a hard time. Jesus gives Thomas what he needs to encourage him and to help him have faith.
Jesus goes on to say, “have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
But those words aren’t just to Thomas and the other disciples in the room. Those are words to all who would hear the gospel – all who would come to faith and discipleship in the years and centuries that followed, including us… those who would come to know the Risen Christ in our hearts and in our lives together… those who would choose to follow in the Way of Jesus without seeing him in the flesh. And these too are words of encouragement and grace from a caring teacher.
Throughout his life on earth Jesus met people where they were with healing, compassion, forgiveness, and encouragement. This continues in the Easter appearance stories of John’s gospel. Jesus calls Mary by name in the garden so she’ll know it’s him. He appears to the disciples and makes that return trip for Thomas. He cooks breakfast for them on the shore of Galilee (fish, of course). And he makes amends with Peter, not scolding him for his denial, but calling him to go forth and feed his sheep, care for his flock.
When it comes to this moment of reconnection, after all they’ve been through, Jesus’ message is peace.
And that is a message we need now, as much as ever.
I think we can relate to the disciples right now in the midst of this pandemic. We too might feel like we are locked away, trying to hold danger at bay for the sake of those we love, and indeed, for the good of the world. We too might feel alone with our fear and anxiety at times.
But what if peace can break through our locked doors? What if peace can show up, even in the midst of fear. The Peace of Christ, God’s abiding peace, can do that. That is one of the messages of this story and one of the proclamations of our faith.
And this message of peace, and grace, and abiding love is for all of us.
Surely, this deep peace and steadfast love of God is for those who are deeply suffering right now. It is for those whose lives have been turned upside down because they or someone they know and love has gotten sick. It is for those who have lost someone. It is for those who are fighting on the front lines to offer medical care to those in need. It is for those essential workers who are taking care of us all. It is for those who have lost jobs and for those who are struggling to make ends meet. It is for those who are homeless. This deep peace and steadfast love of God is for all those in deep need.
Our faith proclaims that God goes to the hard places; God goes to those places of deepest need, and offers love, healing, peace, hope, and new life. That is part of the Easter message.
But, even if you are doing fine, alright, or pretty ok most days, this message of peace is for you too. Because we all have our moments, don’t we? I know I have. I’ve had waves of worry and sadness wash over me. I’ve had moments of frustration, moments of fatigue… times when motivation and hope seemed difficult to grasp. It’s ok to admit that, even if you are doing pretty well.
Just the other day my husband walked into the kitchen and said, “I want to see other people.” He was joking, of course… well, sort of. I was a little taken aback at first and gave him a look. And so he giggled and said, “don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to date anyone else. I don’t want to marry anyone else. And there is no one else I’d rather be quarantined with than you. I just hope that one day, we both get to actually see other people – you know, in real life, not on a computer screen – I hope that eventually we’ll get to go back to work with people, and go out for fun, and see friends again.”
I want that too, of course. We all do.
But our reality is what it is right now. And the truth is none of us know how this will all unfold and what sort of new normal will evolve. And so, we have to take it one day, one week at a time. And really, that is true of life. It always has been.
And so, I wonder, in this time, how might the Peace of Christ break into our lives anew and meet us wherever we are and in whatever circumstances we find ourselves with grace, love, and encouragement?
And how might that peace motivate us to continue to love our neighbors and to be of service to those in need in this time?
Perhaps you have had your own new experiences of God’s peace in this time. I invite you to share your stories! Others need to hear them. And I’ve certainly heard some stories of hope from some of you, and others, and experienced some of my own:
Gardens exploding with color and new and even unexpected life. Reconnecting with old friends in new ways. Quiet moments in nature. Fresh appreciation of the companionship of our furry friends. Cherished moments with family at home (even over the phone or internet). Beauty and creativity that helps cut through the doldrums and lifts spirits. Inspiring stories of people helping others during this time.
All moments of gratitude. All reminders that we have so much to be grateful for, that we should take nothing for granted, and that we should appreciate each precious moment of this life.
The peace of Christ is alive in these moments. And God is always reaching out to us in grace and love. We need only open our eyes and our hearts to perceive it.
And perhaps in doing so, we might experience the Risen Christ anew for ourselves. Thomas did. And Thomas’ faith was renewed and ignited. He was inspired to carry on and carry forward that message of peace, hope, and deep love.
That is part of the job of disciple, after all. It applies to us too. How will we continue to carry forth this message?
We, like, the first disciples, are called not only to believe, but also to live the good news of resurrection, as Dave said last week. We, the church in the world, empowered by the Holy Spirit, are called to give witness to God’s grace and love and to share it.
And I know it can feel a little difficult to know how to do that right now, especially for folks who are doers, as I know a lot of you are doers. It is hard not to be out in the world doing a lot right now like you used to.
But staying at home is actually doing something. It is an act of love to protect yourself and your neighbors near and far.
Donating money to worthy causes like Christian Outreach in Action or Precious Lamb Preschool or other local or global organizations is doing something. They need our help in order to help others now more than ever.
Sincerely praying for others is doing something. It is a practice of our faith.
Making that phone call or sending that note is doing something. Those simple expressions of care and outreach matter, especially right now.
I know many of you are doing quite a lot, actually.
And all of these acts of care bring the peace of Christ and the love of God into the present and into real life here and now, just as it is. And you never know, your expression of care might just be a message of peace that breaks through someone’s fear, doubt, uncertainty, or sadness just when they need it.
That is the peace of Christ at work through you.
And the woes of this world don’t get the last word or the last laugh. God does.
Which reminds me of a joke:
One day Jesus and Thomas were sitting in heaven looking down upon the earth. Jesus asked Thomas, “do you think people will ever start calling you Faithful Thomas?” Thomas looked at him and said, “I doubt it.”
Let’s prove him wrong! Let’s start calling him Faithful Thomas.
And keep up the good work of faith, Easter people. For Christ is Risen. Alleluia!
Preached at Bay Shore Community Congregational Church in Long Beach, California.