April 27, 2014

Easter 2 Year A

The resurrection stories reveal to us some things about how Jesus remains the same and how he is different as a result of having been brought back to life. But it seems to me that these resurrection stories are also concerned with what happens to the disciples: how they are different as a result of encountering the resurrected Christ.

Today’s Gospel begins on the evening of Easter Day. Fear has overcome the disciples. The blood has drained from their faces. Their leader has been put to death by the authorities and hastily buried, and they fear that they will be next. So they hide out in a locked room with the curtains drawn, listening carefully to every sound in the street below. They regard themselves as dead men. And what happens? A dead man come back to life appears among them, a man they know well. This is the same Jesus whose crucifixion took place two days before.

They weren’t much help to him then. One of their number, now gone, turned traitor and arranged for his capture. All but the youngest fled when the going got rough. The senior one among them followed at a distance, but when questioned by a servant girl denied he had ever heard of Jesus. These so-called disciples showed themselves to be washouts. Now Jesus is back. They have failed him, and it’s time they paid the price.

His appearance in that locked room startles them to the marrow. So does what he tells them: "Peace be with you." He does not condemn them, or even rebuke them. Instead he dissolves their fear. He heals their grief.

He does not ignore the past, but graciously moves beyond it. The disciples are forgiven for their failure. This forgiveness sets their distraught hearts at rest. That is his gift of peace. This is no quiescent peace; it is a peace that makes action possible, and so Jesus issues a command: "As the Father has sent me, so I send you."

As the disciples have received, so they are to give to others. They are to spread the gift of peace to any who are trapped, as they once were, in failure and grief and fear. Christ who forgives them sends them out so that to others they can be the Christ who forgives. He exhales a great, warm breath into their faces, and in this way bestows a new source of life, the Holy Spirit, who will be as necessary to them as the air they breathe. Thus they are empowered to extend the dominion of forgiveness in which they have been included.

These clustered disciples remain in many ways the same. But in important ways they are different from what they were before. Once they were failures. Now they have passed beyond the point of failure. Once they were overcome by fear. Now they have encountered their resurrected Lord that alone deserves their allegiance.

The story has a sequel. Thomas was absent from the group when Jesus appeared, and later his wide-eyed buddies tell him what happened. Neither their excited words nor their changed lives are enough to convince him that what they say is true. He demands other proof, familiar evidence: the sight of Jesus’ face alive again, the feel of his warm and wounded flesh. It is for this reason that he has been called Doubting Thomas.

But give him some credit. His doubt is no detached, intellectual game; it engages the center of who he is. Thomas doubts from the heart. The final scene occurs a week after Easter Day, in other words, today. Jesus appears again in that closed room, uninvited. Again he says, "Peace be with you."

Then he addresses Thomas. Jesus does not rebuke him for his desertion during the long hours of the Passion, nor for his absence the previous Sunday night. Instead, he helps resurrect Thomas from his own particular narrow grave of uncertainty and doubt.

In some ways he remains the same Thomas. Those acquainted with him still recognize his face. Yet the encounter with Jesus changes him. He goes from a heart full of doubt to a heart full of belief.

The refusal to believe without tangible proof that came so easily to his lips seven days before gives way to a bold confession of faith, the salutation he blurts out: "My Lord and my God!" Throughout the Gospel there appears no better statement of who Jesus is than these words from the one we would do well to call Thomas the Believer. Thomas moves from being dominated by doubt to being set free by faith.

The disciples in that locked room leave behind a life of failure, guilt, and fear in order to enter a real life where they experience the deep peace of forgiveness and share that peace with others.

The New Testament tells us of still more who are raised up by the raising up of Jesus: people who remain themselves, yet are somehow different.

There are places in the story where Peter is prominent. He moves from being the arch coward during the time of the Passion to the one whose restoration represents the restoration of every disciple. Peter, who denied Jesus in the face of a servant girl’s flippancy, appears in today’s reading from Acts as someone very different. To a turbulent crowd that could easily grab him and beat him, he does not hesitate to announce that Jesus lives despite their malice, and that Jesus offers them forgiveness and hope. Peter is still Peter: boisterous, emotional, passionate. Yet he is different.

Paul is another raised up by the raising up of Christ. He is not simply lifted up from the dust of Damascus Road after being thrown by his horse. He is also lifted up from a persecutor’s career to an apostle’s ministry. The faith he once tried to destroy he is given a commission to propagate. The fire of hatred inside him gives way to the living flame of love. Paul is still Paul: intense, intellectual, zealous. Yet he is different.

We too are raised up by the raising up of Jesus. We remain our familiar selves, yet we become different. The worst part of ourselves hears the message of peace, the call to a new responsibility, and is restored to a true life. We rise up, we rise up from our own particular narrow grave to join the company of those--Thomas, Peter and Paul and the other disciples--who now live on the far side of death. “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe.”