St. John's Episcopal Church

Sermon given Sunday, April 28, 2019

Second Sunday of Easter

The Rev. Carol Hancock


St. John's, Centreville
April 28, 2019
Second Easter B
John 20:19-31
     God of new beginnings, meet us where we are in our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
     Last Sunday, we celebrated Easter, the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. We had large congregations at the two services. The music and the choir were incredible, the flowers were beautiful. It was a glorious day. The presence of the Lord was in this place. The refrain, "Alleluia! Christ is risen!" began our celebration and will continue to be repeated throughout the Easter season.
     Every year, on the Second Sunday of Easter, we hear the story of Thomas in the gospel of John. It is the evening of the resurrection. Mary has found Jesus' tomb empty that morning and she has told the disciples that she has seen the risen Lord. But the disciples do not believe her. They have to see for themselves, just like Thomas later in the story. Peter and the beloved disciple race to the tomb and find it just the way Mary has told them. But they do not encounter the risen Christ.
     That evening, the disciples, except for Thomas, are hiding behind locked doors for fear that the authorities will find them and kill them like they killed Jesus. Or they will be accused of hiding Jesus' body so they can say he has risen from the dead. They are terrified. They don't know what to do, now that Jesus is gone. So they stay hidden behind locked doors, hoping things will soon blow over.
     Then Jesus appears to the disciples, coming through locked doors. The first thing he says to them is "Peace be with you." Peace be with you. The kind of peace that the world cannot give, the kind of peace that the disciples are lacking; the kind of peace that only Jesus can give, to give them the strength for whatever lies ahead. Jesus knows they are terrified and so he gives them his peace. In fact, Jesus says this to them three times in this passage alone. Jesus is the only one who can give this kind of peace that the disciples desperately need - freedom from fear of the unknown, freedom from fear of what will happen to them, freedom from the fear of how to live and spread the gospel without Jesus on earth to lead them.
     "As the Father has sent me, so I send you," Jesus says, and he breathes on them, giving them the power of the Holy Spirit to continue his work in the world. They now have the power to forgive sins, just as Jesus did. Jesus calls them forth out of hiding, and back into the world, back to proclaiming the love of God.
     "But Thomas, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord!" But Thomas says to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will NOT believe." Thomas was not going to take someone else's word for it. He had to see for himself. He needs to be sure for himself, without any doubt, that this is the same Jesus of Nazareth who he has been with for the past three years and who had been crucified, and not someone playing tricks on them. He will not surrender his mind to second hand news.
     The second time that Jesus appears to the disciples, Thomas is there with them. It is now one week later and they are still behind locked doors, still living in fear. When Jesus appears, the first thing he again says to the disciples is "Peace be with you." He doesn't scold or criticize them for not being with him when he needed them the most. He shares his peace with them. Thomas does not ask to touch his wounds and we have no indication that he did. But Jesus says to him, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." And Thomas replies, "My Lord and my God." Thomas encounters the risen Lord and he believes. This is one of the greatest exclamations of faith in the bible. "My Lord and my God."
     I think that Thomas, often called Doubting Thomas, is sometimes criticized too harshly. Yes, he doubted that the disciples had seen the risen Jesus and he had to see Jesus himself in order to believe. But all of us as Christians have doubts and questions and uncertainties from time to time about God, Jesus, the bible and the Christian faith. I think God wires us to ask questions, to inquire, to think, to sort things out. Sometimes we can't or shouldn't take someone else's word for it. We need to see and come to our own conclusions.
     And that is not a bad thing. When we wrestle with our faith and beliefs and we work them out, they become our own, not someone else telling us what to believe. We have the freedom to question, to think, to pray and to make our faith our own. When we own it, it becomes stronger.
     We cannot prove our faith with empirical evidence. Faith depends on our beliefs, depends on our hearts, depends on our openness to God. Jesus tells Thomas that those who have not seen Jesus but still believe are blessed. We have faith because we believe. We believe because we have faith.
     Today's gospel lesson is not just about who Thomas is, but it is also about who Jesus is. Jesus comes to Thomas in the midst of his doubt and skepticism. Jesus meets Thomas where he is. Jesus knows Thomas' need for proof that Jesus is alive and Jesus gives that to him. Jesus knows Thomas' needs as he knows our own. Jesus did not let locked doors or doubts get in the way of his reaching Thomas. Nothing will block Jesus' love and attention toward the one who has doubts, and that includes us.
     Anyone can meet the risen Christ because "Christ can burst through any boundary - boundaries of time and tomb; closed and locked doors; barriers of hatred, prejudice and social and economic oppression; and glass ceilings of gender inequality. Christ's love breaks through rolled stones, bolted doors, solid walls, and closed and locked hearts so that no one is left out the reach of God's love." * No one is beyond the reach of God's love.
     God meets us where we are, in our doubts, in our despair, in our fear, in our hopelessness, even behind locked doors and locked hearts. God will reach out to you and me as God reached out to Thomas, not in anger because of his doubts, but in peace because of God's love for each and every one of us. Amen.
*Syntheses, April 8, 2018; K. Jeanne Person, Canon for Pastoral Care, Episcopal Diocese of New Yor
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