Monday, April 12, 2010

Second Sunday of Easter

April 13, 2010
St Alban’s Episcopal Church
John 20:19-31
The Rev Deborah Magdalene, OSH

Jesus suddenly appears to his disciples in a room – without opening a locked door. He has fatal wounds, yet is vitally alive and peaceful. He shares his peace with them, sends them out into the world, and then blows a holy breath of heaven on them all, baptizing them into a new creation.

He breathes on them and says, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit,’ and God’s breath of life and truth abides in them, as he had promised them it would. Earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus said, “If anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” Then John tells us that “by this he meant the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, for Jesus was not yet glorified.”

What happens in this locked room, when the risen Christ appears to his confused and frightened friends is the beginning of a new creation. It is God’s own breath that Christ blows over his friends. It is the stream of living water, the fountain of all life. Jesus is now glorified. But not everyone who sees him understands what they have seen.

In Genesis we hear that when God formed the first human from the dust of the earth, God’s breath brought the human to life. Ezekiel told the dry bones, “Dry bones, hear the word of Yahweh, I am going to make breath enter you and you will live!” And God tells Ezekiel to say to the breath itself, “Come from the four winds, breath; breathe on these dead, so that they come to life!”

The disciples gathered in the locked room are not at all clear what this breath of life is. They are frightened. They are isolated. They are full of doubt. Jesus suddenly appears to them and says, “Peace be with you.” And after he shows them his wounded hands and pierced side they glow with joy. It is really Jesus. The joy of Easter morning is breathtaking and mysterious and full of hope. But that is not the full story. In fact, in the Gospel of John, if it weren’t for Thomas expressing his doubts in such a bold way, we wouldn’t hear the truth of the resurrection. We have much to thank Thomas for.

When I was 17 the faith of my childhood died. I’m sure this happened over a period of time, but as I remember it, I suddenly realized during the recitation of the Creed that I didn’t believe anymore.

I stood outside of myself for a moment and watched my body recite the Creed like a wind-up doll. I looked around me and everyone looked like they possessed something that I suddenly didn’t have any more. The wave of doubt pounding over me didn’t appear to be touching them.

They went on with the liturgy like everything was normal. But inside of me everything felt changed and unfamiliar. I was now outside the group. This used to be my group. I prayed that the feeling would go away, and yet I understood at a gut level that something mature was waking up inside of me.

The next week it happened again. This time I stopped saying the Creed. And nothing happened to me. I didn’t feel guilty. I felt honest and adult. But I felt frightened and completely without familiar landmarks. I felt very alone. The reality of doubt filled me head to toe. And it never occurred to me to share my angst with anyone.

I didn’t know then what I know now. I didn’t know that doubt is the beginning of mature faith. I didn’t know that there were others who had experienced exactly what was happening to me. In my teenage hubris I believed I had to walk this path alone because I felt so alone. So I left the church.

It is painful to sit, week after week, in the midst of people who believe in something that you don’t understand. Many people experience the isolation of doubt that Thomas did, but very few are brave enough to ask the hard questions.

Lack of understanding and the fear it instills causes many of Jesus’ own disciples to abandon him. His friends anxiously whisper about him. What is it this man teaches? What do the healings mean? No one dares put words to what they instinctively know is true for fear of what people will think. But, what is it exactly that they are afraid of?

John’s Gospel tells us that the Jewish authorities have the power to exclude the faithful from their place of worship for saying out loud what they believe to be true – because what they believe confronts and questions the Jewish faith of their fathers and mothers.

At the time John’s Gospel is being written the people who boldly pray in the name of Jesus – who are courageous enough to say who they believe Jesus is – are thrown out of the synagogue and shunned.

In the year 70, after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the Jewish authorities make an historic decision. They excommunicate all the Christians from the synagogues, forcing them to choose between Judaism or following ‘the way’ of their Jewish leader Jesus.

When John writes that the disciples locked the doors because “they were afraid of the Jews” he is naming the fear that has consumed the community since Jesus was condemned to die. The band of early Christians are being shunned, excommunicated and put to death because what they believe threatens the faith of their own religious family. It is a family feud over how to interpret the truth.

What horrifies the Jewish leaders is what the confused and frightened disciples finally started saying about Jesus. And it is Thomas who said it first.

The doors are locked for fear of the Jews and Jesus suddenly appears among them. He says twice, ‘Peace be with you’, and he shows them his wounds. The disciples don’t understand what they have seen. They tell Thomas that they have seen the Lord. They have yet to comprehend what seeing him means.

Thomas is no fool. He thinks they have seen an apparition – a ghost. He doubts because he is human and is trying to be calm and logical. They must all be crazy with grief. He wants to see for himself and actually touch his teacher before he will allow himself to believe he is alive.

Eight days later, or one week from Easter morning, which is today, Jesus appears in the locked room again. This time Thomas is there. Jesus again says, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then, in an intimate moment, he looks directly at Thomas and says, "Put your finger here and see my hands.
Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe."

Thomas answers him with the supreme Christological pronouncement of John’s Gospel, "My Lord and my God!" It is the profound truth of the resurrection. All that Jesus said and did in his lifetime were signs pointing to the nature of his being. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the final sign.

It is not a resuscitated Jesus who is alive again, but an entirely new form of life. Because of Thomas’ insistence that he see more evidence before he can believe, Jesus comes to him and gives him more than he asked for. Contrary to popular understanding, Thomas never actually touches Jesus. He sees, and believes, and proclaims him to be God.

Thomas’ words “My Lord and my God” are spoken on behalf of the entire Christian community. They are the last words spoken by a disciple in the Fourth Gospel and are meant to have a covenantal aspect. It is these words which invite us to look again at what Jesus says in the midst of his friends, behind doors shut tight against their powerful fears.

Peace be with you. He has said this before. At the Last Supper, when he was predicting his death, he said pointedly,
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.....
"I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.
In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me;
Because I live, you also will live.
On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you”. (John 14:18-20)

This is what Thomas realizes as he gazes on the wounded risen Christ before his eyes. It’s not the wounds, but the memory of Jesus’ promise that penetrates his fear. It is an “Aha!” moment that allows everything to fall into place.

All the mystery of Jesus’ strange yet familiar post-resurrection presence coincides with the realization of who he really is. He is the man they remember, yet he is changed. This is what he promised them would happen. But who, in their right mind could believe such a thing was possible?

What finally moves us all from fear to faith is a profound shifting of the ground we walk on. We remember with clarity that everything was leading up to this moment. We see with new eyes that the moments in our lives are all connected. We are just a tiny piece of God’s miraculous creation.

This is the day, in the darkness of a room filled with fear when the disciples finally understand that Jesus is in the Father, and they are in Jesus, and he is in them.

When he breathes on them he blows new life into them, just as God breathed the breath of life into the first human ‘Adam’, and blew a living spirit into Ezekiel’s dry bones. This Holy Breath of God is now what sustains them, advocates for them, and draws them together in community.

The disciples are to go out from the dark, closed room, into the light of day and fear no more. The Holy Spirit within them is now breathing the truth of Jesus into their DNA, and they will never be the same again.

When we share the peace with each other it is this moment that we remember. May the Peace of the risen Christ be always with you. Amen.

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