Time for doubt, time for praise

a sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter [Year C]

John 20:19-31

A man in the congregation who has a young daughter, about 5 years old, told me a few weeks ago that she had sat down at supper time and asked him, “When are we going to sing ‘This is the Feast’ at church again?” Evidently the long Sundays in Lent when we remove festive songs containing Alleluia and replace them with the more penitential “Kyrie,” (which means “Lord, have mercy,”) had gotten a little long for her. She was eager to rejoice and sing “This is the feast of victory for our God.”

Mawyer worshipping

And so we should. Alleluia! but we also shouldn’t forget that the first reaction to Jesus’ resurrection is fear. If we somehow were to decide to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection according to the timeline that is presented in each of the gospels, kind of like the way we re-enact and dramatize the events of Holy Week, we would probably not sing any songs of praise right off the bat. We would instead do things that communicate that it all still feels like a tragedy. Even after the women share the news that the tomb is empty. Even after Mary Magdalene tells the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” The message of the first Easter is tragic and frightening and confusing. The disciples have just witnessed a gruesome execution of their leader…in public! At least two of them have been possibly identified as members of his inner circle. As far as any of them know, the religious authorities, which is basically what is meant here by “the Jews,” want to do away with the movement Jesus has begun. One really natural reaction to all of this is to hole yourself up somewhere in a saferoom, some pre-assigned meeting place, and lock the doors. Who knows what’s going to happen next? How could this have happened?

Last Sunday, as Christian worshippers gathered in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to celebrate Easter, maybe even with trumpets and drums, suicide bombers from a little-known terrorist group detonated themselves in their sanctuaries, and in luxury hotels in other parts of the city. It was an unspeakable, horrible tragedy, and at last count officials estimate 253 people were killed and many more wounded. One article about the event I read this week discussed the various reactions to this event in Sri Lanka. There are many religious groups living together in that country, and now many are worried about how they will trust each other. The article included the reactions of some who are wondering openly, “Where is God?”[1]

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the aftermath in one church’s sanctuary (Sri Lanka)

I found that to be a refreshingly honest response, and I’m thankful they included it. Too often we rush past that part of a tragedy. We hurry to tell people to look for examples of God in the rubble, in the people who are helping and the stories of kindness and heroism that emerge. And those things are important, but often we go all “This is the Feast” without making room for the fear and questioning. And the fear and questioning are real and they’re natural and that’s where the disciples are on the evening of Jesus’ resurrection. It is hard to figure out where God is in all of this when you’re still in crisis mode.

What about you? Do you make room for the wondering, the questioning? Do you understand the urge to lock the doors and hunker down when disaster strikes?

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Of course, Jesus’ death was a tragedy, but the resurrection isn’t, and before things get too carried away Jesus finds them. Isn’t that wonderful? Jesus finds them, because locked doors don’t mean much to the risen Christ. Just as before, he tends to break down barriers and find ways to bring people together. Whether it is through doors that try to lock out the world or communities that try to lock out certain people because they seem different, or hearts that try to lock out love and compassion because of anger and bitterness, Jesus will find a way to enter. It’s usually mysterious how he pulls this off. We are all wound up in our grief or panic and then next thing we know he is there.

When Jesus comes to his disciples behind the locked doors he transforms them almost immediately from people who don’t know what the future holds to people who have purpose and mission. And he does it without shaming any of them even after they’ve demonstrated a lack of faith. He gently and graciously includes Thomas, too, who is bold about his doubt. The first thing Jesus says is “Peace be with you.” He had told them before his crucifixion that he gave them a peace that the world could not give. Peace that comes from someone who has died in order to show God’s love for you is a peace like no other.

Here Jesus basically sets the tone for everything that comes after the resurrection. I know at other churches where the worship service includes the sharing of the peace they often place it more in the middle of the liturgy, right before Holy Communion. That’s how they do it at Synod Youth events. That is a valid option. Here at Epiphany, though, it comes right after the confession and forgiveness, near the beginning, and I’ve come to appreciate that. Right from the beginning we say, “Peace be with you.” Right from the beginning we acknowledge Christ is risen and that he has shown up, regardless of whatever concerns we carry here.

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Jesus transforms them with peace and then Jesus transforms them by sending them out. He re-focuses their attention from themselves and their own inward-facing community to risk themselves in the world. He doesn’t just release them from their locked room to go back to things as usual. He sends them as he was sent, and that is a lot to chew on, if you think about it, considering where he’s just come from. It means he send them out to serve in the manner he serves, and to love others in the way he loves…to die to yourself as he died. To be sent as Jesus is sent is to lead with compassion and humility. It is to stop and be more cognizant of the situation of others rather than yourself.

One colleague of mine says that when he gets bogged down with decisions of leadership and fears of self-doubt creep in, lots of times he just drops everything and goes on visits to people on his homebound list. He literally sends himself out of the building and into the lives of people who knows will bless and minister to him, and immediately the anxieties fall away.

The third thing Jesus does with his disciples that evening is give them the authority to grant forgiveness and withhold it. This is key. Right from the beginning, the life of Jesus’ followers will be linked to reconciliation, to healing the brokenness that can be done by human sin. Christ-followers can be known in this world by so many good things: wonderful architecture like the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Beautiful music by composers from every century. We are recognized by our acts of service and justice, especially in times of disaster. Some are known for their potlucks! But Jesus places how his followers deal with sin at the top of that list. The quality of their relationships with each other, among their community, will lead the way in who they are as God’s people. It will be clear to future followers that Jesus is still among us when we deal with sin honestly and lovingly.

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Of course, Jesus demonstrates this kind of graciousness immediately in the way he treats Thomas, the famous doubter. Jesus doesn’t chastise him or alienate him from the community. He even offers Thomas the chance to poke those wounds in his hand and side in order to show that he is real. It is a gesture of remarkable vulnerability. Jesus ends up including Thomas by opening himself up, by allowing himself to be touched if Thomas needs it. And Thomas goes from being one who doubts  to being the first person in John’s gospel who proclaims that Jesus is Lord and God.

Oftentimes when this story comes up there is so much focus on Thomas, and I suppose that is helpful. He becomes a type of hero for people who struggle with belief, who are honest with their doubts and suspicions about the resurrection, or even about the existence of God. It is easy to put ourselves in his shoes, and perhaps we should from time to time, but maybe Thomas’ shoes aren’t the main ones we should be wearing. Maybe it would be better to place ourselves in Jesus’ shoes. Since we are his body on earth now, it makes sense. And especially since he sends us like he was sent, it really makes sense. Maybe our best witness is to offer our woundedness to the world so they might become ways to faith for them, to practice transparency and vulnerability especially in our weaker places, to let people even poke into our scars if they need to so that they may better understand the nature of our faith and calling and our presence in the world as Jesus’ people. If we let ourselves as individuals and as church be open to share where or how we’ve been hurt or how we’ve hurt others it will give us an opening to talk about how Jesus has led us through.

wounds-of-jesus

Last Sunday while we were all in here with our Easter bonnets and lilies and loud, trumpet music, members of our Safety Team were keeping a lookout around the building and in the parking lot. One of those volunteers, Lyle Gleason, rounded the corner from between the main building and columbarium and was stopped in his tracks by what he saw. The sun, still relatively low in the sky as it was mid-morning, was directly above our cross out front. A long and very distinct cross-shaped shadow was stretching directly toward where Lyle was standing. It was like the cross had become a sundial and the cross’s shadow was giving the time, and the perspective of the photo puts you at the tip of that cross shadow, as if you are standing at the time it has landed on.

Lyle grabbed his phone and snapped a photo very quickly. We ended up sharing it on social media and people immediately reacted to it. One woman made the photo her profile photo. In texting about that photo later that day, and about the message of Easter, one gentleman in the congregation wrote, “All that I have seen teaches me to trust my Creator for all the things I haven’t seen.” I happen to know that this man and his family have been in constant crisis mode for much of the past five years. What a witness for me to hear him share his faith that way. “Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”

From behind the tomb’s stone to behind locked doors, Jesus moves us from doubt to faith, from shadow to sun, from fear to mission. What time is it? I wonder. The sun has risen over the cross. Death has been vanquished, the dark lies behind. We have peace, we have purpose, we have the promise of forgiveness.

What time is it, O Son-dial?

It’s time to sing “This is the feast of victory for our God!”

Epiphany sun and cross

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

 

[1] https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/-where-is-god—-sri-lankans-stunned-after-deadly-blasts-11467340

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