The Rev. Thomas McAlpine preached on Sunday, April 23. The lessons are here.
Alleluia. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.
Today’s Gospel sets before us a rich feast; here we’ll only be able to sample a little of it.
The first thing we might notice is that the Evangelist describes a scene that’s heavy with fear. The doors are locked “for fear of the Jews.” Fear permeated all of what we call Holy Week: the Jewish leadership fearful of things getting out of hand, Pilate fearful of how it will look if he lets Jesus go, the disciples fleeing in fear at Jesus’ arrest…
And this lethal stew of fears is one of our obvious connections with the text. Today there is plenty to be afraid of, and plenty more that various voices are trying to make us afraid of. But in contrast to the emcee in Cabaret, the Church’s invitation is not to leave the troubles and fears outside, but to bring them in—and see what Jesus might do with them.
And in the Gospel Jesus appears. Not a ghost or a resuscitated carcass, his body is…unique. He eats, invites his friends to touch him, goes through locked doors, and often isn’t recognized at first glance. N. T. Wright makes the intriguing suggestion that this body isn’t less physical but more. Jesus walks through locked doors with the same naturalness that we walk through the mists.
There are hints in this first encounter of a new creation: he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit…” As in creation God breathed into our nostrils the breath of life, so here Jesus breaths the beginning of a new creation.
New creation: In the world that Scripture portrays there are two Big Bangs. The first at the beginning of creation: “Let there be light.” The second: that Easter morning.
But it doesn’t stop with new creation. Here’s where it’s important to let each Gospel writer tell their own story. Our Church Year follows Luke’s chronology: the Holy Spirit’s given on Pentecost, 50 days after Easter, & at that point the disciples engage in mission. In John’s chronology, it’s Easter that morning and Pentecost that evening. This Jesus wastes no time: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
By the end of that encounter it looks like Jesus has done pretty much all he needs to do, and there’s no reason to think that he’ll show up again. And this creates a problem, because Thomas, one of the Twelve, was absent, and unwilling to accept the others’ testimony: “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.”
So there’s a whole week in which the other disciples are all “Alleluia” and Thomas is holding out for some evidence. And no one has reason to think that this difference is going to be resolved anytime soon.
So it looks to me as though there are two sorts of miracles in today’s Gospel: Jesus’ appearances and the Twelve still being together at the end of that week. It would have been so easy for Thomas to have been excluded. In the midst of that lethal stew of fears it would have been even easier. And everyone would have been the poorer: Thomas, not encountering the risen Jesus, the others not learning from Thomas’ striking confession “My Lord and my God!”
So here’s our other obvious connection with the text, for pretty much in every age there are issues that threaten to divide Christians. We all—in Paul’s language—“see through a glass, darkly,” and nevertheless find it quite easy to communicate—usually nonverbally—if you think or feel that you don’t belong here. The fears in our environment make that even easier.
Well—it’s hard to think of an issue more basic than whether Jesus is alive or still in the tomb. Yet there Thomas is with the other disciples at the end of the week.
I wish the Evangelist had spelled out how that happened. But I think the Evangelist has given us some clues. Here are three; you may see others.
· Just a few days ago Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet and said “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” My sister’s or brother’s feet matter more than my dignity, my perceptions. So perhaps that had something to do with the disciples’ being together at the end of the week.
· Later Jesus had said “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Love is easy and natural when we’re in agreement on the important stuff… So perhaps the disciples actually heard some of what Jesus was saying and so stayed together.
· And later Jesus had said “You did not choose me but I chose you.” The disciples aren’t together because they chose to be together but because what they have in common is that Jesus chose them. (What if that’s true today? Take a look around the sanctuary. What if we’re together because the fundamental thing we have in common is that Jesus chose us?) So, perhaps they’re still together at the end of the week because it’s sunk in that being together is not a matter of their choice.
Whatever the combination of reasons, a week later they’re together, and Jesus again appears. Jesus gives Thomas what he needs; Thomas’ confession is a gift to that and subsequent generations.
One of the questions these stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances deal with is how Jesus may be encountered by the readers, by us. So Luke’s story of the road to Emmaus presents a sort of mini-Eucharist, with Jesus explaining the Word, and then breaking bread at the Table. Word and Table. So John here suggests that encountering the risen Jesus has something to do with staying together—Thomas and all.
One final thing to notice: that last verse in our reading. It uses the plural, and so the KJV: “that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” And the story we’ve just heard may suggest what believing together might mean in the midst of disagreements: washing each other’s feet, loving each other, recognizing that we are together because what we finally have in common is that Jesus has called us.