Praying Towards Sunday

Alleluia. The Lord is risen. The Lord is risen indeed.  Alleluia.

These are a variation of the words that Jaroslav Pelikan, a church historian, describes as a “game changer.” Actually he was commenting on the words:  “Christ is alive.” Pelikan said, "If Christ is raised from the dead, nothing else matters. If he is not raised from the dead, nothing else matters."  That’s worth repeating.  "If Christ is raised from the dead, nothing else matters. If he is not raised from the dead, nothing else matters."  

The first disciples must have understood this.  They were a confused, frightened bunch.  Three years earlier they had dropped what they had been doing, their fishing, their tax collecting, their carpentry and craft jobs, and placed their lives at the service of a prophet, a man from God who, some even whispered, might be the Messiah.  Now he was dead, slaughtered cruelly at the hands of the Romans.  The disciples’ dreams of justice and peace vanished and now their own lives seemed to be in danger.   

As they met in the upper room that third night after the crucifixion, they locked the doors for safety.  Suddenly there was a Presence in the room and Jesus was with them once again.  Jesus blessed them, breathed on them, and gave them a job to do.  For an unknown reason, Thomas was not with the group that gathered in the upper room that night. There are those who suggest Thomas was so distraught by Jesus’ crucifixion that he was unable to even face anyone.  We don’t know.

Jesus came to these ten frightened men in the locked room and gave them peace. He gave them the mission of forgiving sins. Jesus breathed on them the breath of new creation.

Although he has gotten a bad rap, Thomas did not ask for anything more than the others had received a week earlier, on the evening of resurrection when they first saw Jesus. Thomas wanted to see Jesus, wounds and all, himself. The words of another were not enough for Thomas.

If a person were to play a word association game about the disciples, it might go something like this:

Peter               rock or stone

Matthew          taxes

John                the beloved disciple

Judas              betrayerl or traitor

Thomas           …. Doubting ?

During the days following the first post-resurrection gathering in the upper room, one of the other disciples must have said something like “Gee, Thomas, you should have been with us Sunday night.  The risen Lord came to us. He’s really changed because he came through a wall to get in, but we know it was Jesus.” 

Thomas was not able to believe the testimony of others.  Thomas responded that he needed to experience Jesus with his own senses to believe that Jesus was alive and had risen.

Jesus’ first appearance was on Easter morning when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found the stone that had blocked the door had been moved.

The next second and third reported appearances are in today’s Gospel reading. The first appearance occurred on the evening of Easter Day, when Thomas was absent (20:19-25). Another appearance occurred when Jesus saw his disciples a week later.  That’s when Thomas was present (20:26-31). Another appearance is recorded in the next chapter. Then Jesus appeared in Galilee and sent them out or commissioned them.

There are specific things about today’s reading that are important to note.  Maybe you noticed that today’s reading seemed like some sort of conclusion, especially when the last sentence tells why the book was written—“that you may come to believe.”  Many feel that these verses did conclude this Gospel in its original form.  It is hypothesized that another writer added chapter twenty-one later to give it a clearer conclusion for the newly forming church and beyond (you and I are the “beyond”).

In the second line our translation speaks of “fear of the Jews.”  This is probably not the best choice of words; the disciples themselves were Jews. 

It is suggested that the better translation might be to use the words “Judians.” 

Thomas is quoted as responding to Jesus with the declaration ‘-- "my" Lord and "my" God.’ He does not say "the" Lord and "the" God.   The declaration of faith represented in the word “my” is of major significance in Thomas’ ownership of faith for himself. Thomas made one of the earliest and total confessions of faith. This confession is not an assent to dogma; it is Thomas’ own claim about relationship.

The final verse of the scene (20:29) is a bit tricky. One could understand it as a rebuke aimed at Thomas, whose faith seemed to be dependent upon seeing Jesus, as contrasted to those who would come to believe without seeing Him. But that reading is not the only possibility. Another possibility is to see it as Jesus reaching out and meeting the needs of each person.

With this in mind, the “beatitude” that Jesus utters at the end of the third paragraph does not seem like a “put-down” of Thomas. 

Not only did Jesus forgive Thomas, but Jesus, through the author of the Gospel of John, speaks to all those in later generations (including us, today) who didn't witness with their own eyes the things the Gospel describes, and yet have come to trust the testimony as true.

In dealing with the disciples, Jesus gave the breath of life to those who followed; we are among the “those who follow”.  Recall the description of God making humans.  Part of the process involved God breathing into them the breath of life.  People were made in God’s image and given life through God’s breath.  In an act of new creation, Jesus breathed into his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit (20:22). This Advocate or “Spirit of Truth” was to teach them and remind them of all that Jesus said to them, and guide them into all truth (14:26; 16:12-14).

What were the disciples told to do? 

They were strengthen the church and live its message. This does not mean to focus on the number count—although it would be really fun to have all of our pews full!  Bigger numbers is not the primary mission of the church, although numbers may be a response to the mission. The mission of the church is to love the world as God does.

The church needs to remember that Resurrection isn't something that happened only a long time ago or something that we commemorate only at each Easter. In our day-to-day lives as the church in ministry, we need to place our own hands on the wounds of this broken world, and witness to the hope that sustains us in knowing that we are going to rise again, that all will be well in God’s creation in God’s time.

When Jesus sent his followers out, they were sent out to be peace and love and justice for the world. I frequently need to ask myself  “Can I be “peace and love and justice for the world if I really try?” Of course, we can’t do it by ourselves, but Jesus is our strength when we try to do this!

 When Jesus appeared to his disciples, what were his first words? "Peace be with you." No fear. No scolding for wavering. No reprimand for doubt. Only peace. We remember these words when we greet one another during our worship services. We give strength to one another as we say "Peace be with you."

Madeleine L'Engle, an Episcopalian and children’s author, was asked, "Do you believe in God without any doubts?" She responded "I believe in God with all my doubts."  Maybe this is a good starting place for us.

And Jesus keeps on showing up among his gathered disciples to help them--- I expect to find Him at our services on Sunday. Amen.