The Second Sunday of Easter: April 27, 2014
Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
Welcome back to church on this second Sunday of Easter.
This day has many names in the church –
The Octave Day of Easter (eighth day of Easter);
Low Sunday (which may refer to the fact that attendance is down on this day as compared to Easter Sunday, or may be a corruption of the word Laudes, the first word of the traditional sequence hymn for this day);
Quasimodo Sunday (from the traditional introit for this day from the Liber Usualis – in Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame is found on the doorstep of the Cathedral on the second Sunday of Easter, and so is given this same name);
Divine Mercy Sunday, declared as such by Pope John Paul II in the year 2000 (St. Faustina said in her diary that anyone who receives the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist on this day is assured by Jesus of full remission of their sins and punishments.[i] John Paul II was beatified on the second Sunday of Easter in 2011 and was elevated to sainthood this morning);
And this day is also called St. Thomas Sunday for today’s gospel reading from John.
In addition, this is Rite-13 Crossover Sunday, where we recognize those young people in our community who are beginning their journey to adulthood. In a few minutes we will have a ritual where we will celebrate this transition and commit ourselves to helping them grow into the full stature of Christ. It is an important moment for them, for their families, and for us.
So many choices. And as if all of that was not enough, the gospel reading is full of juicy tidbits; a preacher can find a lot to focus on in these few paragraphs.
As I studied this reading, I was struck first by a statement in the first sentence: “and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear.” This is not really what we would expect from these characters. What are we to make of the disciples’ fear?
Then I turned to Jesus’ simple words: “Peace be with you.” After all that has transpired, this is what Jesus has to say to them, not once, but twice. What is he really offering them with these few words?
And then John’s version of the coming of the Spirit. In contrast to Luke’s elaborate story of the Day of Pentecost, we have the simple act of Jesus breathing on the disciples and declaring with that act the Advent of the Holy Spirit.
But it is the words and actions of Thomas that really draw me in today. I think Thomas strikes a chord that is true for most of us. After all the drama and pageantry, and beautiful flowers, and joyous music of our Holy Week and Easter celebrations, the Second Sunday of Easter is a bit of a letdown. It may leave us all doubting, at least a little.
What just happened? Can we really believe the story we have been told? And can it really change our lives in the ways that Jesus promises?
Thomas is not present at the initial appearance of Christ to the disciples, and he steadfastly refuses to believe the words of his compatriots. He wants more than just words; he wants good solid proof.
I get that. In fact, it is easy to see these events through Thomas’ eyes. These are fantastic stories. A man is arrested, tortured, and executed – a frightening sequence of events.
And three days later, his body is missing. And now there have been sightings of him, not unlike the one that the disciples describe to Thomas.
Everyone is tired, and stressed, and fearful. These sightings of Jesus could all be chalked up to wishful thinking, or even hysterical hallucination.
Filled with anxiety and longing, it is easy to imagine that the disciples see what they desperately desire to see. But I imagine that Thomas is more methodical, more rational, than most of his disciple brothers and sisters. He needs more than hearsay.
And, in fact, Thomas is not the only one who doubts, One theologian says that, “When you read through the resurrection accounts of all four gospels, you quickly realize that… doubt isn’t the exception but the rule. Even after all the predictions, no one says, ‘Welcome back.’ Or ‘We knew it.’ Or even ‘What took you so long?’…No one anticipates Jesus return, and when he shows up, everyone doubts. Everyone.”[ii]
Doubt is part of our human psyche. We believe mostly what we have experienced. And the coming of the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century has only made this more true of us. We want proof. And that can make faith very tricky business.
Back to the gospel. The scene then shifts forward a week, in that same room—and again, the door is closed. It seems that, despite the reassuring appearance of Jesus, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the disciples are still cowering. They received these gifts, but they don’t seem to know what to do with them.
And Jesus appears again. After the same rather enigmatic greeting of “Peace be with you,” Jesus turns to Thomas, and fulfills the challenge that Thomas laid out for him. He presents his wounds as proof of his bodily resurrection.
Jesus does this not in a challenging way, but quietly and with love. It seems that he recognizes the legitimacy of Thomas’ doubt.
With his sincere and earnest response, Jesus seems to acknowledge doubt not as the antithesis of faith, but as an essential element of our journey to belief. The events that have transpired are fantastic. Jesus seems to acknowledge that they test credibility.
Is it really any wonder that we, separated from these events by thousands of years, thousands of miles, and a multitude of cultural and paradigmatic shifts, might have some doubt about the veracity of the events of Easter? Are we really surprised that our rational selves desire to dismiss all of these events only as myth?
Yet we, like the disciples, are called to be people of the resurrection: Our religious practice is built on these very events that we doubt. How do we reconcile our doubt with our faith?
Maybe we don’t. David Lose suggests that, as people who really live into the fullness, and perhaps even the absurdity of the resurrection, we should not, “feel the need to hide, let alone banish, [our] doubts, but believe in spite of and along side of [our] doubts.
Resurrection people [he says]…don’t need to have it all figured out before coming to church, or helping out a neighbor, or feeding someone who is hungry, or caring for someone in need. If we have to figure it all out ahead of time, then we’ll never get started.”[iii]
We must find the way to live by our faith, and with our doubt. We need to live as though it is all true, because the story of Easter is the story of the world the way we would choose to see it.
I want to live in a world where love conquers all; where the least of society are held in esteem; where the greatest calling is to serve others; where God loves us more than we can possibly imagine or deserve.
This is the possibility that Jesus presented to the disciples, and through the ages, presents to us. The darkness of our world is real; there is good reason to doubt. Our questions make sense, and it is OK to ask them. God, who as our creator knows us intimately, is not dismayed or saddened by our questions, nor is God diminished by them.
To Claire, Maya, and Katharine, our three new Rite-13ers: We rejoice that you are taking this step today. And we hope that you will ask lots of questions, and explore your doubts, even as you build your faith. I believe, in fact, that God calls you, and all of us, to those questions. I believe that God rejoices in our doubt, because it means that we are wrestling with the truth! And God desires to bring us to that truth – to answer our questions.
And in the triumph of Easter we see that our human, flesh and bones, incarnate God answers our questions with his bodily self. He offers his very real wounds as proof of God’s truth. And he challenges us to see the wounds of the world, and to dare to touch them too.
Our doubt is real; but so is the miracle of God’s love for us. And as recipients of God’s caring sacrifice, as resurrection people, we are called to hear Jesus’ words of peace as a balm to soothe our doubt, a blessing to quiet our rational minds, and as an urging to send us forth to share that peace.
Despite our doubts, may we come to truly believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through that believing may we find new life in his name. Amen.