St Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church
Second Sunday in Eastertide – April 8, 2018
Karen Cobb, preaching
It would have been easier to run away. It surely would have been safer to hide til the coast was clear. There are days still when it takes every ounce of courage to just keep moving, head down, alone in the crowd, stumbling toward God knows what. It is exhausting work. The gospel of John doesn’t say where Thomas was, that Resurrection morning when Mary ran from the tomb. He was missing in action when the weary, frightened, grieving band was stunned as Jesus stood among them, announcing, “Peace be with you!”
There is also palpable lack of fanfare a week later when Thomas returns to the group. No “Where you been, Bro? You won’t believe what you missed!” Where was his community when he needed them most? It is no wonder that he cried out in desperation, “Unless I put my finger in the print of the nails or place my hand in his side, I will not believe!”
Church history tells that eventually, Thomas’s faith culminated in taking the mission of Christ to India… but that’s a whole other story. For today, the gospel encounter with Thomas is a resuscitation, not of Jesus, but of the faith community. It shocks overwhelmed followers back into faithful, dependable rhythm as witnesses to the incarnational word. This story, often referred to as Doubting Thomas is in fact the account of how the disciples got their groove back.
Even Mary recognizes Jesus only when he calls her by name. He tells her “Don’t cling to me. I must ascend to my Father in heaven.” The Disciples rejoice when he stands among them, shows them his wounds and breathes on them, much the same way Yahweh breathes life into Adam. Jesus offers the same physical proof to Thomas, ready to meet Thomas in his demands. However, the text does not record that Thomas laid hands on Jesus that night. His faith was not restored by touching Jesus but by seeing him and hearing him face to face. All of these disciples respond with confessions of devotion, “My Lord and my God.” It’s our story too.
I know many of you as friends for years of journeying together at St. Michael’s. Almost twenty one years in fact. But today is a new experience for me in this place, proclaiming gospel on a Sunday morning. As for many of you, Holy Week is a rich and spiritually cathartic time for me, culminating in a glorious Resurrection celebration just a week ago. Like many of you, I joined in the liturgical ritual of the agape meal and the foot washing, the prayers, the stations of the cross, and pilgrimage as a way of deepening and focusing my attention on the Passion of Christ.
Another regular part of my Holy Week rhythm is to listen again to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar”, usually on Good Friday. I know, I know, I’m a child of the sixties. I was seven years old when my parents took me to see a live performance of Jesus Christ Superstar. I fell in love with Jesus that night when I heard Mary Magdalene’s plaintive song, “ I Don’t Know How to Love Him”. It occurs to me that my spiritual identity is closely bound to the devotion poured out by Mary. Although I hope I have matured a bit spiritually since age seven, I still resonate with Mary, who is often misunderstood, often maligned, her witness dismissed as an idle tale. But, she is also faithful and loyal in pouring out all that she has to glorify Jesus. Whenever I hear that song, it still gets me.
Most days I like to say I’m preaching without words in my calling as a psychotherapist, offering a listening ear, a metaphor, toys, or art materials to help clients find meaning and healing, encouraging their expression of loss, reframing and healing conflicts and naming their truth. I recognize many of the feelings portrayed in this morning’s gospel: grief, fear, confusion, longing, anger, defense, and self-protection. They walk into my office every day. These feelings are also familiar furnishings of my own interior castle. I recognize these human feelings not only in Thomas but in his community and in myself and in you. This gospel lesson is everything about the community of Christ, then and now, in answering the question, “How do you know what you know?”
What some of you may not know is that before I was a therapist, I was a pastor for twenty-three years. It’s been about thirty years since my first sermon on this gospel passage before the Presbytery of San Gabriel where I was first approved for ordination. I can say with some certainly that the process of preaching is no less exhilarating… and terrifying than it was way back then. It is one thing, to walk and study and pray and sit at Jesus’ feet in adoration. I imagine his followers felt that way as well, enchanted and convicted by glimpses of God’s kingdom on earth. It is quite another endeavor to stand naked in your beliefs before those whom you love and respect and proclaim your partial understanding of the mystery of God’s redemptive love for the world.
As safe as it might feel to stay in my own head, locked in my own room, safe in my own protected world view, that is not all I am called to be and do. In my dining room I have a poster that reads, “A ship is a harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are made for.” It may have felt exhilarating for those first disciples to be hand-picked for Jesus, but I imagine it was terrifying to imagine life without him. What do we do now?
The journey of moving from earthly incarnation and ministry, through the betrayal and abandonment, the horrors of the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension presented in the gospels is hard to take in all at once. The synoptic gospels of Mathew Mark and Luke describe Jesus’ earthly ministry and the Acts of the Apostles portray the life of the young post resurrection church. But, in John these events are compacted into a few chapters. No wonder the disciples are like sheep in the headlights. The doors are shut, they are in the midst of traumatized grief, and now, Jesus is among them, breathing life into them, and telling them God’s mission of redemption now rests on their shoulders. Wait, what?
The issue here is not Jesus’ resuscitation. It is ours. Remember the opening words of the gospel of John? “In the beginning was the word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” According to the Gospel of John, in the space of a few verses, from Easter morning to Easter evening, Jesus has ascended to the Father, completing his incarnational reunion with God and returning to breathe new life into his followers who will continue his work of transmitting peace and forgiveness of the Living Word.
The story of salvation is not complete with the empty tomb. Our discipleship is not complete if it ends with adoration, denial and falling asleep. Thomas was not the only one missing, who needed to hear empowering news. The early disciples did. Mary, Peter, John and all the others did. The early church to whom John preached needed to hear good news, as they hid from a splintered Jewish community. Practically none had witnessed the resurrection. The signs of belief were no longer sight or touch or even hearing one’s name, but rather the witness of those whose lives were irrevocably changed by encounters with the living Christ. The Church of Jesus Christ was born in that Upper Room that night by the breath of Christ, giving the disciples the power and courage to transmit peace and forgiveness as the Father had given it to him.
It is our gift this morning as well. So, receive the peace of Christ and the breath of the Holy Spirit. Go ahead, close your eyes and let it sink in, a deep, cleansing and renewing breath. You are forgiven. You are not bound by your past. You are a new creation. You are freed for new life you can only imagine. What will you do with it? Now consider who else needs to hear this, in your life, in our community, in our world. Who is missing? Open your eyes and look to your left and to your right. Peace be upon you. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet, have come to believe. Amen.