April 12, 2015

2nd Sunday of Easter Year B 

It's strange when you think about it--the disciples spend the evening of Easter Day behind locked doors.  Peter and another disciple have seen the empty tomb.  Mary Magdalene has spoken with the risen Christ, and she has told the disciples about it.  You'd think they would be off celebrating, announcing to anyone who would listen that Jesus is alive again.  Instead, they hide out.  They act like disciples whose leader is dead. 

On the other hand, protecting themselves makes perfect sense.  It was only a couple days before that they were traumatized by the death of their leader on a cross.  They know that as he was apprehended and executed, so they may be as well.  And thus they wait behind locked doors, as quiet as they can be, fearing every footstep in the street below.  And a number of them will die, sooner or later, for their connection with Jesus.  This room contains many of the first Christian martyrs.  

Whether or not their attitude is justified, it is apparent that fear dominates them.  That puts them in the same group with so many other people.  Those dominated by fear include many of the people we see around us every day and even some of us here this morning.  These disciples have plenty of company on the evening of the first Easter Day when fear keeps them inside a locked room. 

It is to his fearful disciples that the risen Christ chooses to appear.  He has passed from life through a gruesome death to a life greater than we can imagine.

He comes back, not concerned for himself, but for them.  He senses their profound fear.  So he speaks his peace to them.  He shows them his wounds, still apparent on his glorified body.  Their fear dissolves, and they rejoice to see him alive again. Then he gives them his peace and their mission.  He breathes the Holy Spirit on them, and tells them to forgive sins with his authority.  

This action is a second creation, an early Pentecost, a commissioning of them for ministry.  Their business is to be forgiveness, the reconciliation of humanity with God and each other.  The prototype for their work is to be the forgiveness he has given them.  From this upstairs room, forgiveness is to spread like wildfire.  Set free from fear themselves, they are to help set others free. 

The Gospel read on this second Sunday of Easter is always the story of Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ. And while this Sunday is sometimes slighted for its low attendance, so its featured apostle Thomas is frequently dismissed as a doubter, "Doubting Thomas." 

The label is an unfair one. The Gospel we heard this morning recounts a remarkable trajectory, like that of a meteor flashing across the night sky. Thomas moves, in the space of the Easter Octave, from discouragement, disbelief, a wounded heart, and an outcry against the other disciples to a confession of faith in the living Jesus––"My Lord and my God!'––that remains unexcelled throughout the entire New Testament. Thomas does not remain dead in his unbelief. He does not remain faithless––if he ever was. He experiences his own resurrection in his encounter with Jesus. 

Often we compartmentalize and judge people, including ourselves:

We designate some as friends and others as enemies.

Some as good, others as bad.

Some as believers, others as skeptics. 

But reality is more complex, more promising. Lives are never static; lives are in motion. What matters is not anything so simple as do you believe or do you doubt. The quality of doubt or belief must be considered.

Belief can be marred by such things as fear, close-mindedness, lack of trust, pride, and ingratitude. Belief like this can turn toxic. We don't have to look far to find toxic belief in today's world, some of it with a Christian label. 

Doubt can be marred as well. It can turn out as something less than honest. It also can be marred by such things as fear, close-mindedness, lack of trust, pride, and ingratitude. Doubt like this can become toxic. In today's world, you don't have to look far to find dishonest doubt. 

But there can be honest doubt as well. People with honest doubt may, perhaps, want to believe, but struggle at great length with hard questions, hard circumstances. They will not accept a belief unworthy of the troubles of the world. Sometimes the doubter has been hurt, perhaps severely, and honors the reality of the resultant pain. The honest doubter refuses answers that are too easy, that do not recognize the dignity of the questions. In many of us there may be at least some of this honest doubt, this hesitancy to believe, this unwillingness to commit too easily. 

Yet the honest doubter is not a closed person, even doubt can be doubted. So the doubter remains open to belief. This person is available to move from honest doubt to honest faith. This person remains open to receiving the gift of faith..

All of us are on the road. None of us is home yet. Both the close-minded doubter and the close-minded believer are mistaken. All of us still have a distance to travel. The signs directing us forward are there for us to recognize. They do not appear when we find them convenient, but when it is time for them to direct us. 

Thomas moves ahead when it is time for him to do so––eight days after the other disciples see the risen Lord. Jesus appears among them a second time, radiantly alive, and this time Thomas is present. Jesus graciously invites Thomas to satisfy his need for proof, to examine the scars and believe. 

There's no evidence that Thomas touches the scars––he may or may not have done so. What's clear is that he encounters the risen Christ and moves ahead in faith. From honest doubt he moves like a meteor to honest faith, a faith open enough to recognize that the man standing in front of him, this man he knows, this once-crucified, once-dead friend, is also his Lord and his God. 

Jesus says, "Blessed are those who have not seen, and have believed." Jesus does not require perfect faith, what he asks for is an open heart. He asks for this open heart so he can lead us from honest doubt to honest faith.