A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on May 1, 2011.
The Second Sunday of Easter
This year perhaps more than any I’ve seen before, Easter has taken on a goofiness I’ve not noticed in the past. Just how many churches made the news this year by pastors who dressed themselves in bunny outfits and dropped plastic eggs from the passenger seat of a two-seater helicopter while hovering over a sea of children? Maybe it’s just me, but this thought kept flashing through my brain: “What were they thinking?” Don’t they realize just how dangerous that stunt is? Hovering helicopters are notorious for falling out of the sky. What if a falling egg hit a kid and hurt them? Worse, what if the helicopter hit an unexpected down draft and the pastor fell out of the sky to his or her death in front of all those sweet children? I hear some of you thinking, “Well now, that wouldn’t be so bad …”
Not to mention what it means that the church itself would willingly complicate the true meaning of the resurrection of Jesus by mixing it so mindlessly with the pagan idea of a springtime rabbit that comes to hide Easter eggs for little children to gather.
The day of resurrection begins and ends in a tomb. It begins early at dawn with the emergence of Jesus from the Sabbath sleep of death. What dawned with his appearance was the resolution of all that was ugly and tragic about his betrayal and suffering and about how he hung on the cross until he was dead on Friday. Just before dusk, they laid his lifeless body in a borrowed tomb and rolled a huge stone over its entrance to seal it. He laid there three days in the cold musty darkness of the tomb until resurrection dawned on Easter morning. Then, by the power of God’s victory over death itself, the stone was rolled away and he stepped out of the tomb into the first light of day!
But that’s not the only tomb opened on resurrection day. Besides the tomb where Jesus’ body was placed, there was also the tomb where the disciples hid themselves. The disciples locked themselves in a safe room because they were frightened and confused and even Jesus’ resurrection power had not given them the courage to come out. They were paralyzed in their inactivity and hopelessness and they had no plans for their own resurrection. Perhaps they had shut the door and turned the key locking them in so they could buy time in trying to understand what had happened to them.
Nevertheless, that’s where Jesus found them the evening of that first day alive from the dead. John’s gospel tells us that they were gathered together (all but Thomas) when all of a sudden there Jesus was standing in their midst. Imagine that ... Jesus had to break out of one tomb and into another to get his message out into the world!
The unfolding of this story is the telling of what the disciples went through as the news of Jesus’ resurrection dawned slowly in their thoughts. It’s an honest telling of their emotions and how Jesus moved among them in the days that followed his resurrection. It may have been Easter morning, but the disciples weren’t Easter people yet. They needed more than just an empty tomb.
I suppose they huddled together in that closed-off room out of fear. There was the general feeling that Jesus had deserted them …that he was no longer with them to lead them and guide them. The party was over! No more great times together, no more excitement from the crowds following them everywhere they went and especially no more notoriety from being one of Jesus’ select group of disciples. The glory of that time following Jesus had vanished. It was over and a sense of emptiness fell over them.
Perhaps they were also huddled together out of guilt. They weren’t there for him when he needed them most. Jesus had warned them that one of them would betray him. Only they didn’t realize that individually, each would betray him in their own small way. Jesus was gone and they weren’t there through the worst of it.
Then, suddenly, there he stood in their midst! Jesus appeared before them and the first words out of his mouth were not words of condemnation or rebuke, but words of healing ... “Peace to you.” He couldn’t have said anything more welcomed to their brokenness and pain than that. It was almost like old times! Jesus was there with them again and the energy from his appearing electrified them. Suddenly the dark gloom of his death had given way to the untold joy of his resurrection.
It was if Jesus understood what they needed most. He knew of their despondency. He knew what they had gone through and how they felt that they had let him down. And so, he said it to them again: “Peace be with you; as the father has sent me, so I also send you.”
And then he did a strange and wonderful thing ... He breathed on them and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit ... if you forgive the sins of any other, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” And by this Jesus wanted them to know that they were now the carriers of the great and wonderful message of God’s love and grace. The disciples were now the messengers in the same way that Jesus had brought the message to men and women.
Curiously, and perhaps out of a sense of fate, Thomas was not there. We’re not told why Thomas wasn’t with them when Jesus appeared to the disciples on that first Easter day. The other disciples tried to tell Thomas about seeing Jesus and that he was alive but Thomas was not one to accept things without testing them. He told them plainly: “I won’t believe it for myself unless I can touch the places where the nails pierced his hands and can put my hand in the wound in his side. Then and only then will I believe.”
In this season, it’s Thomas who helps guide us from Easter back to the world where we live and work and love and struggle. “Thomas the doubter” we’ve labeled him and it’s his vulnerability with truth that gives us a place to participate in God’s kingdom. Not everyone can rise before the crowds and preach a sermon. Not everyone can travel the world preaching about Jesus of Nazareth as Paul and Barnabas did. Not everyone can even serve the tables of the needy as the first servants of the church did; those men and women we later called “deacons.” Thomas spoke for the skeptics among us by standing his ground on reason, seeking proof on which he might believe.
In the world of faith and believing, unfaith and unbelief are quite challenging. Where does unfaith go for expression? Sadly, the church may condemn unfaith as an enemy to faith without recognizing that it’s necessary for real faith to emerge. For this reason alone, the story of Thomas is told in a minor key for the good of the church. Maybe for this reason, Thomas is one of our hidden heroes in the Bible.
One of our problems in the world of faith and belief are the small categories we allow for faith to operate. In the reality of life, faith and doubt are really friends to one another. We are often guilty of setting these two over against each other as if they were polar opposites instead of welcoming the tension that exists whenever we lay them alongside each other as partners that need one another in order to fully exist.
This kind of “reflective faith” as boldly modeled by Thomas, is a gift to the church through the centuries for all who simply cannot move submissively through the issues of faith without wanting more, without wanting the dark shadows illuminated as a matter of conscience.
Ecclesiastes 7:25 says: “I directed my mind to know, to investigate, and to seek wisdom and an explanation.” This kind of reflective person is usually a stone-turner, one who looks for answers in order to assuage the deepest questions of the soul. Reflective believers are naturally attracted to the complexity of things and are open to the complicated nuances of life.
Thomas’ faith was honest. It was every bit as real as Peter’s “action” faith, but different. It was first and foremost an honest kind of faith. Doubt, for the Reflective Believer, is a guardian that helps to see that the things that go into the making of our faith pass the “sniff test.” By that, it is the test of common sense where one is allowed to question the integrity of an issue in order to preserve and protect that very same integrity.
The gift to the church of reflective belief is the dogged approach that Reflective Believers bring to our community of faith. They are committed to truth and honest and integrity and they will go to all means to help the church confront hypocrisy and false-faith. That helps the church‘s faith to be clean and pure. The church needs that kind of belief. Some among us are too quick to look for the good in people and issues and we don’t want to jump to false conclusions and hope that the best in people will rise to the surface.
Thomas helps us realize that the door to faith is open wide and all of us enter it in our own unique fashion. If you wonder whether God welcomes the question askers and stone-turners, take a second look at this story in John. Jesus gave Thomas every opportunity to ask any question he wanted and even allowed him to approach him to touch him in the wounded places. And Thomas’ response? “My Lord and My God.” When confronted with the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection, he committed himself to believing faith.
William Barclay reminds us that when Thomas “came to the point of belief, he committed himself completely to it. He was not airing his doubts just for the sake of mental acrobatics; he doubted in order to become sure; and when he did, his surrender to certainty was complete.” In other words, when one works him or herself through the issues of doubt, a certainty exists that is never true of the one who accepts without dealing with the truth. For in the end, it’s in the crucible of doubt that faith grows.
To be sure, at the bottom of all truth, there is God. We can understand that God is there and is neither disturbed nor angry by our questions. Rather than condemnation, God opens God’s self to our discovery and experience of truth by blessing the diligent search for truth.
In the end, the struggle for faith is not so much about the answers but about the struggle we give to facing the deep questions. Jesus said it suggestively and generously: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed …” (Matthew 13:31, NRSV). So small, so pregnant with possibilities far beyond our imaginations.
In Anne Lamott’s book, Traveling Mercies, she explains why she makes her son go to church: The main reason is that I want to give him what I found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want – which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy – are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people in community who pray, or practice their faith; they are Buddhists, Jews, Christians – people banding together to work on themselves and for human rights. They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful. Then she adds, When I was at the end of my rope, the people of St. Andrew tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on. The church became my home in the old meaning of home, - that it’s where, when you show up, they have to let you in. They let me in. They even said, “You come back now.”
We can thank God this morning for Thomas’ refreshing desire to make sense of the great mysteries he had encountered. We can thank God for his willingness to want to make sense of the deep mysteries he faced. With that model in mind, perhaps we can have the courage to face our own mysteries.