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

John 20:19-31

It is the Sunday after the resurrection of our Lord and, like every year on this Sunday, Jesus is showing his scars.

And now that I’m preaching and talking on camera so much, I’m ever aware of some of my scars because they’re probably more visible to you in this format. The main scar I’m thinking about is the one right on the top of my head. I wish I had some cool story to go along with it, something I could share that would leave you amazed and fascinated with my past, but unfortunately for me I got this scar when I went to take a drink from a water fountain during a basketball game when I was in seminary about twenty years ago. I ran and jumped up to touch an Exit sign and didn’t calculate my ups very well and my head hit a metal door frame at full speed. The impact didn’t knock me out, but it did send me to the emergency room pretty quickly. The whole team of nurses and doctors gathered around me because they’d never seen such a deep cut on anything but a cadaver. They put stitches and staples in it to help it heal.

I can feel that scar.

A couple of weeks later when I went to have the staples removed, the physician let out a gasp. A terrible scar had formed because of the way they’d stapled me up, and he recommended I go into surgery for a scar revision. He had looked at my chart and seen that I was going to be a pastor and he figured the scar would be too ugly and distracting for a person who would be talking in front of people all the time.

I can’t see the top of my head, no matter how hard I try, but I can run my fingers over it and tell it’s there. The doctor actually had a technical, medic term for how bad the scar was. I just remember that he said it would “catch the light.” Does it? Can you tell?

In the end, I never got the surgery to revise my scar, and almost no one ever makes a comment about it, but it’s funny how we so often think of scars as distracting and ugly. Jesus does not find his scars as distracting. They are the opposite of distracting. His scars are fundamental to his identity. The story about how his scars got there is essential to understanding who he is. He does not cover them up, does not go for a scar revision. He rolls his sleeves right up and says, “Look guys, look Thomas.” And if that’s not enough he says “Go ahead and run your hand over these things. It’s me. I suffered. But now I’m back.”

This is a week after Jesus’ resurrection, and what has just happened is still not clear to everyone. The night right after Jesus rose from the dead the disciples are huddled together in one place and they are primarily afraid. That is somewhat understandable given all the tension and the violence that has led up to this point. The religious authorities who came after Jesus would very likely be on the hunt for Jesus’ followers.

“The Incredulity of St. Thomas” (Carravaggio)

But another week goes by and still his closest companions, the men and women he travelled and worked with and worked hard to form close bonds between, the guys whose feet he actually washed are not quite fully aware of what has happened. Thomas gets all the attention for doubting because he wasn’t there that first night Jesus appeared, but my guess is they all struggled to believe.

The first thing Jesus does when he appears to them behind locked doors, after he says, “Peace be with you,” is to show them those scars on his hands and side. What do you struggle to believe? What do you think people struggle to believe these days about God or life in this world? Do you believe my story about how I got my scar? Why do you believe it? Do you trust my testimony? You weren’t there. Unless you’re Travis or Jason. if they are watching today, they saw it. they were there. And they tried not to laugh at me.

This initial reaction from Jesus’ closest followers right on the heels of his resurrection presents to us a basic element of having faith and building trust. Doubt. Doubt is just part of the equation. Like an uninvited guest behind the locked doors of that room, like a permanent stain on new white robe, like a sniffly, itchy nose on an otherwise bright spring day in Richmond, doubt never completely goes away.

All of the gospel writers, but especially John, mention doubt among the disciples almost as soon as the resurrection happens, and we should be thankful for that. We should be thankful for that honesty because doubt is a perfectly natural reaction. It’s not the reaction that Jesus is looking for, but it is still natural, and it’s helpful to explore it.


Many of us probably doubt the resurrection of Jesus here and there. And many of us probably have doubts about a lot of other things related to God. It’s helpful to me that the gospel writers include this, that they tell us the disciples are huddled in a locked room, that at least one of them demands to see proof. Doubt and faith kind of go hand in hand, and that is clear right from the beginning of the Christian message. Belief vacillates to some degree in most of us, like a river that rages at some points but at other times is dry.

We tend to trust science so much for that reason. Science, with its methods and proofs, with its different checks and balances, seems to be a more dependable as a source of truth and knowledge. And that is a good thing. But at some point we realize that not all questions in life worth answering can be answered with science or its methods. Science is only good for a certain kind of knowledge. At some point we realize that life is built on other kinds of knowledge. Life is more than just scientific facts and material evidence.

And that’s how John ends his gospel. That understanding is built right into the ministry of Jesus. Blessed are those who have not seen, he says, and yet believe— blessed are those who have not had the opportunity to test everything with their eyes and their hands and their test tubes and their graphs and their degrees and yet have come to develop a relationship of trust in God. Blessed are those who lean on this belief in such a way they begin to understand the good life God gives them. Blessed are those who trust without the cold hard evidence but only the testimony of those who were there.


Doubt will still be there…the key is how Jesus addresses it. He is kind about it. He is loving with it. He seems to make space for it even before we do, as he walks into that locked room and shows them his side and hands before the disciples even say one word. We have a God who has raised his Son from the dead, and we also have a God who helps us receive that news on our terms. Doubting is not ridiculed. Doubters are not expelled. They are welcomed and included.

What actually might be harder swallow in all of this is not the fact that Jesus is risen from the dead, or that God exists and has been glorified in the cross, but that this God sends us just as the Father sent Jesus.

Jesus wastes no time in getting that point across. There are no high-fives, no atta-boys, no kickback and relax moments after the resurrection. Jesus didn’t die so we could, you know, take it easy. The disciples do take a deep breath that afternoon, but it’s a breath that gives them a mission, pushes them out into the world. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” Jesus says, Forgive others.” So if God sends Jesus to love and Jesus winds up with scars, then guess what we should expect when we go into the world as one of his followers?

We are presented with another fact of this good news of Jesus’ risen life: the resurrection of Jesus Christ rescues us, but it does not preserve us. Bearing God’s Holy Spirit into the world and entering the lives of others as Jesus did means, well, I think it means we’re liable to get wounded too. And the scars will not primarily be on the surface. They’ll be internal. They’ll be in our heart, on our mind, with our emotions. But the stories by which we accrue these wounds will be stories of redemption and hope and salvation. The stories through which these scars develop will, thanks to God’s presence and grace, be stories of love in action. I bet if you look at the life of anyone who has truly loved you you will see that you have hurt them in some way. And I bet if you look at the times you’ve grown the most there are deep wounds that have done some healing. Miraculously.

This is where God is active in the world—in the nitty-gritty details of building and repairing trust among human beings. It’s going to take a power stronger than sin and death, a force stronger than science alone to do it. We will be hurt in much the same way as Jesus was, but God’s love will rescue us and be victorious.

I wonder about the scars we will bear from our culture’s current situation. Scars of fear, scars of grief, literal scars from surgeries and injury due to illness. Scars of from homeschooling. Scars from countless Zoom sessions. surely there are other ones. One recent article I read suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic will impact the economy and different industries for years but that Generation Z, people born after 9/11 and coming of age and missing school right now, may have their worldview impacted for the rest of their lives in the ways that kids who grew up during the Great Depression habitually saved bits of aluminum foil for the rest of their lives.


Time will tell. Time will tell how this affects them and us. But nevertheless, Jesus sends his followers as the Father sent him. Doubting or believing or a mixture of the two, we are sent. Beyond those doors we’ve locked.

And it may be a big no-no to breathe on each other right at this moment, but we can share the breath of the Holy Spirit with one another. Will we teach this young generation ways of living that embody peace and forgiveness Will we inspire with our comments and actions hope in our present circumstances, or despair? Will people of faith model for them and for all of us how to receive with grace those who don’t trust the God of Jesus yet or don’t know him? Will we let our heroes be the people who heal and love sacrificially, who show the effectiveness of humility?

I think they will be. I think in many ways they already are—whether those examples of faith are widely known or not. God is already providing us people who are willing to show their vulnerability and give of themselves. God is already raising up servant leaders who are exhibiting peace and calm when the rest of us are reaching for panic. One physician in our congregation who serves on staff and faculty at MCV has arranged special webinars through Zoom whereby kids can submit questions directly to medical professionals to get real answers about the COVID crisis, and she has enlisted youth to moderate these panels. I got to witness one of her panels this week and it was encouraging to see that kind of resourcefulness in action. Children able to speak directly to doctors. imagine what kinds of seeds that may plant.

We can’t see Jesus like those first disciples did, but may we still know him walking and talking among us today. And may we know we are blessed just to trust the testimony of those who did seen him. And may it inspire us to breathe again. and tell the story. and to share our scars.. and know, by the grace of God, lo and behold, they do catch the Light. the light of the Risen One.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr

Where We’re Expected

a sermon for the Resurrection of Our Lord [Year A]

Matthew 28:1-10 and Colossians 3:1-4

What a place to deliver an Easter message…our columbarium! You are probably not expecting me to be here, are you? You are probably expecting to see me back in the sanctuary where a preacher usually is. That’s what we’d all expect because we’re used to it. Preachers preach from a pulpit, or at least from a sanctuary or a church. This is a little strange, to be honest. I wouldn’t expect to find myself here, but here I am, and to be quite honest, this might be the best place to deliver an Easter sermon. I mean, after all, the first Easter sermon, the first truly good news, was preached at a tomb and no one expected to hear the message there, either.

columbarium garden

And so I’m not the first to do this, by a long shot. It’s been done countless times before. The Moravians in my hometown of Winston-Salem begin their city-wide Easter celebration by gathering in the cemetery. People come from all across the city in the early morning hours, just like the first women we hear about this morning, and stand among the gravestones and announce the news of Jesus’ resurrection.

One may initially think of such a location as dark and forlorn. Most of my meetings here, like the one we had yesterday to lay one of our dear, long-time members to rest, are somber gatherings, laden with grief and sadness. However, we know that a place like this is actually a place of hope. Because Jesus is risen, every columbarium, every cemetery, every tomb is a place of that bears the good news. That first Easter sermon went like this: “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here.”

We may be surprised, but the news is not fake. Jesus has risen from the dead, releasing from death’s grip all who have died, releasing from sin’s grip all who are living. Christ is risen, here and everywhere!

Our particular columbarium here at Epiphany is gripping. It is designed to grip you, physically, once you walk in. The walls, which are perfectly circular, completely embrace you. It creates an atmosphere of calm and silence, which is good, but it also effectively shuts out the world around you. I like this design, but it is clear that when you are in, you are really in. It grips you, encloses you, surrounds you.

It occurs to me that this is actually how many of us are feeling about life right now.

We are gripped by a public health emergency that may last several more weeks. Still under certain restrictions, we are literally surrounded by the walls of our homes, barely able to leave. How many of us are ready to break free? We are also enclosed by the anxiety of financial hardship, feeling that the world we once knew has been shut out or is gone. We are hemmed in by news of death and disease.

map of the COVID-19 pandemic

But the resurrection story is full of God’s ability to break through and break down the things that grip and enclose God’s people. Just listen to what happens as the women show up to see Jesus’ tomb. First, there is the stone at the entrance to the tomb: a blockade if there ever were one! These stones were enormous and designed to make the grave a one-way passage. But the stone is rolled away as first an earthquake occurs and then when an angel of the Lord comes down to sit upon it, as if to say, “No big deal.”

Matthew is the only gospel writer to record an earthquake at the resurrection. Matthew uses the word for earthquake in several places to signal a major change of the future, to shift our attention to what God is doing to bring about the final vision of his kingdom. At the tomb that morning, an earthquake moves the stone away—the stone that still grips life— and reveals God’s vision for the kingdom has no place for death.

Then there are the men who guard the tomb. We can imagine them with big weapons and a menacing posture, standing there ready to grip anyone who may tamper with it. The angel of the Lord takes care of them. They shake and become, we are told, like dead men.


And then there is perhaps the most gripping force of all: fear. Fear, that force that comes from within, is often the most immobilizing of all. The women must feel so much fear that morning, that they twice they hear, “Do not be afraid”—once from the messenger and once from Jesus himself. It is the Word of God that breaks through. It is the Word of God, ever alive, always living, that comes to shatter our chambers of doubt and fear—the Word of God that can break through the walls that surround us and bring us new life.

In what ways are you seeing the Word of God claim victory over worldly threats and break through the powers that grip you? How have you encountered the Word of God busting you loose from the bonds of sin and darkness that hold you fast? Where have you found God’s grace and love where you didn’t expect it?

Once the stone and the guards and the fear are overcome, the story continues. The women leave the tomb because Jesus is not where they expected him to be. He has been raised and is already ahead of them in the world. And that is precisely where God expects to find us. When Jesus goes looking for his people, he expects to find them out and about, filled with the hope of new life. He expects to find them on the move, out there, announcing by their very presence and witness that God is victorious over death.


This is what the writer of Colossians means this morning when he says our life is hidden with Christ in God. If Christ is out of the tomb, beyond the fear, no longer in death’s grip, then somehow we are, too. In a world that still often operates out of fear and anxiety, Christ’s people are people of life and possibility. This life of hope and joy we share is not always obvious and immediately apparent because the world seems so dark sometimes, but it is there, hidden in the everyday, hidden in plain sight. The people of Christ, the people of Easter, are sent out in the world to be and look for God’s new creation, to set our minds of things that are above in the midst of scenarios that try to focus us on the fear.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a webinar given by Philip Jenkins, a professor at Baylor University and one of the world’s pre-eminent scholars in the history of Christianity. I guess this is the age of webinars, isn’t it? I tried to avoid using that word for so long because it sounds weird: webinar. I remember when I first heard of them I thought there’s no way this will last. But here we are, webinars all the way! Anyway, the subject of the webinar was Christian responses to epidemics throughout history, and he was quick to explain right at the start that things like plagues and widespread diseases like we are dealing with now are actually the norm for Christian history. One early bishop of the church, Dionysius, who served during an outbreak of one plague that killed thousands, described plagues as a “school” for people of faith. Why would he say something like that? Why it is a school, a time of testing?

Because, as we have come to see ourselves, life in a time like this gives followers of Christ and exceptionally intense but wonderful opportunity to practice the central tenets of their faith. To put it another way, life during the kind of widespread suffering that can claim anyone is a perfect time to live as people of hope and healing and resurrection. It is time to have no fear, to venture out into the world’s suffering because Jesus is risen from the dead. It’s a time to have no fear, to hunker down if it’s called for because it may alleviate the world’s suffering. And whatever happens, it is a time to trust that anything that stands in the way of God’s love for us has been conquered. Our life is eternal, hidden in Christ, at a time when so much seems uncertain.




Behind me you can see elements of our church construction, where for months workers have been ripping up the old parking lot and the old structures and laying a foundation for a renewed one. It is a wonderful image of new creation. Earth being moved around. Even some very large stones have been moved away. One day not too long ago I was chatting with one of the workers on site while he was taking a break. He was particularly excited to talk to me that day because he wanted to share with me that over the weekend he was going to be attending the baptisms of his two grandchildren.

I could tell there was something more he wanted to share. Sure enough, as he explained, his grandchildren were not going to be baptized in a church, and while he didn’t seem disappointed, it was sure he didn’t know what to make of it. As it turns out, both of his grandchildren were of military families and they were going to be baptized aboard a ship down in the Norfolk harbor. He wasn’t sure what it was going to look like, how it was going to feel, if there was going to be a congregation there, if he would like it. But then he proudly reached for his phone to show me pictures.


I’m not sure what a baptism on a ship would feel or look like, but as I’ve thought about that conversation, and as I’ve thought about this world, I think a ship is a perfect place for a baptism. If Christ is out of the tomb and we are now hidden in him, we should expect that God’s grace for us should set us on the move, on the waves of life, always abroad and even adrift at times.

The church, God’s people, the Easter believers—we are people of a ship. That is one of the oldest images of the church, and what many sanctuary designs are based on. The place where we would normally be sitting is called the nave, like the word “navy.” The point is—whether we are here this year or not, the church’s place is out in the world. The church’s stance is unafraid, ready to learn, full of hope, ready for the earthquake. The church’s tasks are looking to heaven, preaching life, expecting Jesus to meet us exactly where God expects us to be! So let’s move, people. Anchor’s aweigh. Have no fear.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.



One Act of Obedience

A sermon for Maundy Thursday

1 Corinthians 10:23-26 and John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Typically on this night we are together. Typically on this night we have the table set with the bread and the wine and we gather to remember the events surrounding our Lord’s last meal. Typically on this night, year after year, we are celebrating with our fourth graders who have completed their Holy Communion classes, many of whom would be joining us around the table for the meal for the first time. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, none of those things will occur this year, and I don’t know about you, but I feel a sense of loss and sadness. I was looking forward to working with those fourth graders during Sunday School in Lent and watching them finally take the bread and wine with that look of mystery and joy on their faces. I was looking forward to seeing them kneel at the altar rail with their family members and then be surrounded by their church family too. I know they were looking forward to it all, too. Some of them have been asking me about when they get to receive the Lord’s Supper since the fall. One of these days very soon we will all be back and one of the things we will put at the top of our list is receiving those young disciples at the table. That will be a joyous day.

first communion
First Communion class of 2016

We have wanted to find some way to share this Supper during this time of physical distancing, but each way we can think of to do so would very likely exclude quite a few people and complicate the message of what Jesus’ meal is really about. We could try sharing the meal digitally, so-to-speak, but not everyone has access to internet or is able, for whatever reason, to access these services on-line. Furthermore, there is no way to ensure that everyone would have access to and be able to receive bread and wine, the elements we would be sharing here. There would be too much potential for disunity and confusion, which is precisely what the apostle Paul was addressing in the Corinthian church in our second reading this evening.

Paul had heard there was division among them, especially at that moment when they celebrated the Lord’s Supper. Some had food available, while others were needy. These divisions of haves and have-nots were undermining the unity and love the meal was supposed to foster and symbolize. Paul gently reminds them they are to do what was passed on to him, nothing different—they break apart the blessed bread and share it around, and then do the same with a common cup. It is his way of reminding them of the heart of this meal and the main message of tonight, which is love. The commandment that Jesus teaches his first disciples that night he shares his last supper is that they are to love one another as he had loved them.


Friends, the best way for us to love one another at this uncomfortable point in our common life is to refrain from celebrating Holy Communion until we can all be together again. The best way we can nurture our congregational community and our bonds of love with one another is, ironically, to fast from the table, because we will all be fasting together. We will remain steadfast in God’s Word, rely on the promises of our baptism, and join in prayer for one another and the world around us.

Speaking of going through things together, I have been hearing more and more talk lately about what kinds of lasting impacts this pandemic lifestyle might have on our society and our individual lives. Will this have some type of legacy, some enduring or at least lingering effect on the ways we view life and our relationships? I saw a statistic the other day about Google searches over the past four weeks. Searches for things like “home workout,” “jigsaw” and “make bread”  have skyrocketed over the past month. People share about how they’ve been reminded of the uncertainty and fragility of life, but they also talk about enjoying the slower pace of things and cherishing time with family. Some, who are more isolated and lonely than usual, talk about how much they had taken certain fellowship opportunities for granted. I’ve enjoyed watching the creativity that some families in our congregation have displayed with meals each evening. They have themes and each person dresses up—sports theme, beach theme, Star Wars theme. Will all of these kinds of things and feelings be a lasting trend, incorporated into our lifestyles, or will they fade like mist once the heat of our old patterns return?

It is hard to say, but legacy is on Jesus’ mind this night. Jesus wants to be remembered by love, and not just any old love. Jesus wants his followers to hang onto this kind of self-sacrificial love, costly love, love that puts us at our neighbors’ feet. At one point after his last meal, Jesus gets up from the table and takes off his outer robe and ties a towel around himself. It’s like Jesus puts on his PPE—his personal protective equipment. He then places himself at the dirtiest, most germy place of service. He grabs the feet of Peter and begins to wash them. Jesus exposes himself to all the places Peter has walked, all the dusty and mud-caked roads Peter has been on. The water pours over Peter’s feet and gets more and more dirty, but the lesson becomes more and more clear: their life together and their witness to the world will be forever linked. The ways they humbly care for each other and the ways they even sacrifice dignity and power and privilege in order to serve the other will be the way Jesus’ love is experienced in the world.

foot washing

Exactly 75 years ago today, a German Lutheran pastor by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis at Flossenburg concentration camp after accusing him in an assassination plot against Adolf Hitler. The world remembers Bonhoeffer for many things, including his compassion for his students and parishioners, his faithful opposition to the fascist powers in control, and his writings on theology and scripture. He, too, is remembered as a humble man but one of strong Christian faith, a person who continued to serve his fellow prison inmates as a pastor and a spiritual guide right up until the moment of his death.

Bonhoeffer once said, “One act of obedience is worth a hundred sermons.” That is what Jesus teaches his followers as he shares this meal with them and washes their feet. One act of obedience to that kind of love, one act of obedience to a neighbor in need, will be a force far more powerful than anything they say. This kind of obedience sends Jesus to the cross. It is not just the feet of Peter than he intends to clean with his mercy and compassion but the entire world.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Feb 4, 1906 – April 9, 1945)

We only need to open our eyes and see thousands of acts of obedience around us today. Nurses, physicians, scientists, lab techs, pharmacists, and all kinds of medical professionals are literally kneeling at the needs of people in this dark hour of need. Mothers and fathers are stooping to teach their kids at home. Teachers are bending over backward to put materials on-line and nurture young minds. Restaurant owners who can barely pay employees are delivering free meals to overworked hospital staffs. Thousands of acts of obedience are worth millions of sermons.

And Jesus invites you and me into our own acts of obedience. Our feet are washed—our whole lives are washed—and we can put the towel around our waist and get to work. And here’s the thing: Jesus is not just remembered as we do this. He is not dead, and he does not just leave a legacy. He lives, and his Spirit brings his presence to each of us and to the world each time we enact this love. Furthermore, guess what? Each time we gather for this meal there is a theme: the self-giving of God. And we get dressed in Jesus’ righteousness. This is no legacy. It is a rebirth! It is a new life that lasts—it lasts in you and it lasts in me and it lasts in us and in each act of humble service.


We give thanks to God for these humble acts that make the whole world whole again that make dirty souls clean again and broken hearts ready to love again. One act of obedience is worth a hundred sermons. Let us be silent and adore the obedience to love we are about to see unfold.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.