Second Sunday of Easter, Pastor Javen Swanson
Today’s scripture readings: 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
The sickest I have ever been was three Easters ago. I had just gotten back from a trip to Guatemala with a group from Gloria Dei. We returned on Palm Sunday, and by Maundy Thursday, I was starting to feel crummy. I remember that morning we were all getting ready for the midday Maundy Thursday service and I told Pastor Bradley and Pastor Lois I needed to lie down for a bit because I wasn’t feeling well. Pastor Bradley said, “Why don’t you just go home and rest. We can handle Maundy Thursday without you, but we need you well by Easter.” Well, I wasn’t any better by Easter. In fact, I kept feeling worse and worse. I had a sore throat like nothing I’d ever experienced before, and I was completely wiped out. I ended up missing not only Maundy Thursday but all of Holy Week, all the Easter services, and then an entire week of work after that as I lay around at home waiting to feel better.
Especially as a pastor, missing Holy Week and Easter was a surreal experience. Easter is the center of the church year, and that journey through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil, and the festival of Easter Sunday is the holiest and most important thing we do as a church all year. We had spent so much time planning and preparing for those services, and leading 10 services over the course of that holiest week of the year usually provides an enormous sense of meaning and purpose, not to mention a huge sense of accomplishment, and maybe just a bit of relief when it’s all over. But that year, I missed all of that. The days all blurred together as I lay in bed day after day, sick. All I really remember about Easter Sunday is that was the day it got so bad that I finally made a trip to urgent care (only to discover I was dealing with a viral infection and was just going to have to wait it out).
When I finally got back to work, I realized all my colleagues had shared that incredible experience of Holy Week and Easter, walking together with all of you on the path with Jesus from death to new life. They—and all of you—had that sense of having gone through something big together. And I had completely missed all of that.
I have to think that’s sort of how Thomas felt.
The gospel lesson today is one we read every year on the Sunday after Easter. Two days after Jesus’ crucifixion, sometime in the evening, the disciples are huddled together behind locked doors. They’re afraid, and they’ve hidden themselves away. For whatever reason, Thomas isn’t with the rest of the disciples. Maybe he was the one who drew the short straw and had to don his mask and leave quarantine to go get some groceries or pick up the take-out order. While Thomas is out grabbing dinner, suddenly Jesus is standing among the disciples. He says, “Peace be with you.” He shows them his wounds and their fear melts away. He breathes on them, filling them with the Holy Spirit, and commissions them to bring his message into the world. Sometime after Jesus has left, Thomas returns. The other disciples tell Thomas they’ve seen the Lord, but he isn’t convinced. He missed it. Unless he sees and touches the wounds in Jesus’ hands, like all the other disciples got to do while he was out, Thomas won’t believe it. Eight days later, Jesus appears among them again. This time, Thomas is there. Jesus greets them all and then he turns to Thomas and says, “Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Do not doubt, but believe!”
Thomas gets a bad rap. He will forever be remembered as “Doubting Thomas.” But the truth is, there are a lot of doubters in the story. Jesus’ first resurrection appearance is to Mary at the tomb on Easter morning. She runs off to tell the disciples that she has seen the risen Lord, but they don’t believe her. In the very next scene, we find the disciples locked away in a room, anxious and afraid. They need to have their own encounter with Jesus before they will believe Mary’s report. It’s only when Jesus appears to them and shows them his wounds that they believe.
So it’s not just Thomas who doubts. It’s all of the disciples. They all need to experience the living, breathing, wounded Christ—because they had watched him die. If there was one thing they knew for sure, it was that they had seen Jesus crucified, they had seen him in agony, they had watched him die. They had looked on as Jesus experienced the very worst the world has to offer. That memory was seared in their minds. So Mary running into the room on Sunday morning and telling them that Jesus had risen, that he was alive—they weren’t buying it. The suffering they had witnessed was too much. It had all been so real. They couldn’t believe it until the risen Jesus actually busted through their locked doors so they could see it for themselves—experience the risen Christ in their midst and finally trust that despite all the tragic, horrific things they had seen, life somehow triumphs over death.
But Thomas missed it. I don’t blame him for doubting. All the others were doubters, too, and in the face of such bad news, it can be impossible to find any reason to hope. So when the others tell Thomas they’ve seen the risen Lord, he’s not having it. He says he simply won’t believe it—can’t believe—unless he sees Jesus for himself and can verify that the one who suffered and died now lives again. He demands evidence, and the amazing thing is, Jesus provides it. He shows up a second time, once again opening those locked doors and finding the disciples holed up at home, and he invites Thomas to touch his wounds. Jesus lives after all.
If you ask me, doubting resurrection seems perfectly reasonable right now. We have seen too much pain and suffering. We’ve seen it up close. It’s fresh in our minds and we know it is real. As of last Thursday, one in eight Americans has applied for unemployment. One in eight—and that’s just the people who managed to get their names into the system. One in eight includes many of you. And that doesn’t include people who have taken a pay cut—people who are not unemployed, not eligible for those additional benefits, but are now forced to make do with less. This month, one in three renters were unable to make rent, and next month is almost certain to be even worse. Many of our friends and loved ones have contracted COVID-19. Some have died, usually in isolation, separated from their families. Some of us had been preparing for so-called “elective” medical procedures that don’t feel so elective to us right now, and it’s unclear when it might be possible to reschedule. Those of us who are healthy are confined to our homes, unable to visit grandma and grandpa, trying to help our kids figure out how to do school online while also working from home ourselves, if we’re fortunate enough to still have a job, all while feeling anxious and uncertain about the future. So Thomas’s doubt seems pretty reasonable to me. Having seen first-hand everything that happened to Jesus, I can understand why he would dig in his heels and refuse to believe the news about resurrection until he saw the risen Jesus for himself.
A week after Easter, locked in our homes, having seen everything we’ve seen in recent days and feeling afraid, we might be feeling a little bit like Thomas. Resurrection? Yeah right. I’ll believe that when I see it. I’ll believe that when Jesus busts through this locked door and shows up in my living room and I can experience resurrection for myself.
Which, actually, is exactly what’s happening right now as you’re sitting at home on your couch watching this on your iPad, or at your dining room table around a laptop, in your pajamas drinking coffee, or maybe still struggling to get yourself out of bed, but nevertheless tuning into this worship service hoping to hear some good news. Right now, Jesus is busting into your house. If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed by all the hardship you’ve experienced in these days, and joining this online worship community with a few hundred of your siblings in Christ from Gloria Dei makes that burden a little easier to bear, that’s the risen Jesus there with you in your living room today. If you’ve been feeling heartbroken about all the suffering you’ve seen around you, and singing along with the incredible music you’ve heard today gives you strength to endure another day, that’s Jesus there next to you showing you his wounds and assuring you that life triumphs over death. If you’ve been feeling dejected or afraid and hearing ancient Bible stories has helped you feel connected to generations of faithful people who found hope in these scriptures, that is resurrection working on you right now. Resurrection despite everything else. Jesus is saying to you today, “Do not doubt, but believe.”
Alleluia. Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!