V. Alleluia! Christ is risen!
R. The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
One of the ways I experience the risen Christ is through scripture. The longer I’m a Christian the more the Bible means to me. The more I connect with scripture the stronger my experience of the risen Jesus is. It helps me see God alive and active in the world.
Last week, I heard about a seminary professor, David Lose, who suggested a way congregations might see the resurrected Jesus in scripture.[i] This Easter, the next seven weeks, in each Sunday bulletin, the following Sunday’s readings will be listed – see the bottom of page 18 in today’s bulletin. During the week, take five minutes to read the gospel and ponder a couple of questions about it. No correct answers. The best answers to these questions are the ones that help us enter the story more fully, that help us see these stories not merely out there, back then, but rather as here and now, that the risen Jesus is speaking to us through scripture, that these stories are very meaningful for our lives. We’ll see that quite clearly this morning.
The Second Sunday of Easter is always the story of the risen Jesus and Thomas. I think that through the ages Christians have treated Thomas rather roughly. We made his feast day, December 21, the winter solstice, the beginning of cold, the peak of darkness, the longest night of the year. Back when everyone was a Christian, and there was lots of religious art, artists often portrayed Thomas as an incredulous moron, poking around in Jesus’ wounds. Ridiculous. It’s not in today’s story. Jesus invited Thomas to stick his hand in, but there’s no indication that he did.
Thomas has represented doubt and darkness. Conventionally, doubt is regarded as the opposite of faith or doubt as opposed to faith. Ridiculous. More and more I think we appreciate that doubt is part of faith, not wholly different, but as existing together. We have faith, we trust God, not when we have no doubt, but despite our doubts. Real faith is trusting God, following God, loving and giving and opening ourselves despite our doubt, not letting doubt have the last word and rule us.
I find Thomas attractive, someone vitally important, and perhaps especially for our age, our world. Perhaps we might see him as representing the spirit of inquiry. He wanted evidence, proof, of the resurrection. He believed in the power of observation, the value of experience. Jesus did not rebuke his inquiry; he offered Thomas his hands and his side for inspection. Jesus invited Thomas’ questioning. Jesus did not declare Thomas’ faith lacking or inferior. Today’s story is a divine endorsement of science, of Western civilization’s passion for understanding our material world, learning from what we see and experience.
Thomas also receives criticism for not believing the witness of the other disciples, the witness of the church. Again, I identify with Thomas here. While I now accept and love the church, despite its many and deep flaws, I didn’t become a Christian for years because the church struck me as… well, as worse than ridiculous, as hypocritical, judgmental, moralistic, petty, controlling; as anti-material, anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-play; as rigid, static, ideological; as opposed to growth and looking backward. I understand why a lot of people are highly suspicious of the church, and if non-religious people are at all interested in God, they may identify with Thomas, not so quick to accept the church’s testimony.
Like me, perhaps you, too, Thomas wanted to see and touch the physical presence of Jesus, and when Jesus invited him to touch, Thomas saw and believed: “My Lord and my God.” Jesus replied, “You believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes.” Indeed, Thomas believed, and it changed him.
Then Jesus said, “Happy are those who have not seen and yet believed.” That’s Jesus speaking to us, to you and me, to the billions who have not seen and yet believe. John said that’s the purpose of his gospel, that his readers, you and me – those who don’t see or touch Jesus physically – may come to believe that Jesus is Messiah, the Son of God, and by believing we may have life, abundant life.
Do you see how we are part of this story? The story is for those who don’t see Jesus, but who want to believe, or do believe, or might consider believing, or struggle to believe. We are characters in the story.[ii] Thomas is the bridge, linking the disciples’ belief, linking those who saw Jesus physically, to us, those who haven’t seen, and yet believe. Thomas is the point of transition from belief through seeing to belief through hearing the witness of others.[iii]
Today’s story also invites those of us who hear and learn from the witness of others to get involved, to be part of Jesus’ mission. In most of the resurrection stories, Jesus gave his disciples authority to continue his work. The resurrected Jesus told his disciples to make disciples of all nations, to baptize, to be witnesses, to care for each other, to forgive sins. We heard Jesus say, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” Again, Jesus is speaking to each of us, sending each of us.
Then Jesus gave the disciples the Holy Spirit, the breath of God. Jesus breathed on them. It’s the same thing God did at the creation in Genesis. When God created Adam, he breathed life into his nostrils, and man became a living being. (Gen 2:7) Here Jesus breathed on his disciples; he gave them the Spirit, the breath of life, eternal life. It means that through the gift of the Spirit the disciples are now God’s children, Jesus’ brothers and sisters.[iv]
So the scene is significant in two ways. First it’s about reconciliation, forgiveness. The disciples who abandoned, denied, betrayed Jesus are forgiven. There’s love and acceptance. Second, Jesus gave the Spirit to make them his brothers and sisters and to send them into the world, to engage in his mission, to be his presence in the world. At the Last Supper, Jesus had promised the disciples he’d give them the Spirit to help them witness to him. It’s to help them share and tell good news, to be an evangelistic community.
That’s what we’re part of, part of our identity. But I’m highly ambivalent regarding myself as an evangelist, and you may be too. Although I want people to know the strength and life that comes with following Jesus, I have some negative associations with evangelism. Often evangelism seems coercive and manipulative, and I don’t want to be that. I don’t want to damage relationships with my non-religious friends and family. Yet, I know that Jesus wants me to be an evangelist. Consequently, evangelism can arouse feelings of guilt.
Here’s something to keep it in perspective, to diminish guilt, to focus energies in the right place. While evangelism may involve getting out there and telling your family and friends about Jesus, it’s usually not that. The first Christian communities spread good news, evangelized, by focusing on living the gospel with integrity, living according to God’s rule of love.
In his letters to churches, Paul got all excited and upset when his churches became full of pettiness, strife, selfishness, and jealousy. Paul longed for them to embody what he called the fruits of the Spirit: love, peace, joy, kindness, self-control, forgiveness, persistence, compassion. If a community lives like that, it witnesses to Jesus and the gospel. It attracts people because most people want the fruits of the Spirit in their lives.
Evangelism is not a program. It’s about showing people life with the risen Jesus, what it does for us. It’s being in the world, engaged with the world, but part of a renewed creation. Paul said, “Do not be conformed to the world but be transformed by the renewal of our mind.” (Romans 12:2)
Evangelism may occasionally require a few words about faith: why Jesus is important to you, how the church gives you life and strength. But what’s more powerful than words is how we change as people, how God transforms us, what the Holy Spirit does in us, the life in us. Real witness to the risen Jesus is growth, spiritual maturity, a developing and enriching character. When people see you changing positively, your behavior changing, your attitude changing, your values changing, when the fruits of the Spirit are growing in you, then it is obvious Christ is living in you. That’s powerful testimony. It helps others to see and believe as Thomas saw and believed.
V. Alleluia! Christ is risen!
R. The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
The Rev. Lane Davenport
[i] David Lose, ‘The Never-Ending Story,’ www.workingpreacher.org, 4/1/2013.
[iii] Andreas J. Kostenberger, John, Baker Academic (2004), pp. 580.
[iv] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, Anchor Bible Commentary 29B, Doubleday (1970), pp. 1035-38.