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April 23, 2017

Second Sunday of Easter

John 20:19-31

Since I was about two or three years old, the week after Easter has always been one of those weeks where I have just a little bit more of a spring in my step. While it started with the sugar high from the Easter Egg Hunt, the commemoration of the holiday really began to take a different shape as I got older. I began to hear stories about Easter that had less to do with a rabbit giving away help beans and chocolate bars and more about the story of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. One of the vivid memories that I have of this time is one in which I’m sitting with my grandfather at his country church in Indiana, singing the chorus to a gospel song written by the Gaithers:

 

Because he lives, I can face tomorrow;

because he lives, all fear is gone;

because I know he holds the future,

and life is worth the living just because he lives.[1]

And even as I have gone through the different stages of life, as my theology and my beliefs have evolved over these years, those Easter hymns and scripture passages always provoke a deeper joy to swell up from within me. After going forty days without them, I will always sing those first “alleluias” in “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” with a giant smile on my face. The gloominess of Lent and the despair of Holy Week can be spiritually and physically draining, as can all of the preparations that go into an Easter service, but the moment that we enter into that celebration, where we proclaim that the tomb is empty and that death has been defeated, I’m filled with a fresh hope and profound gratitude. As I walked out of this building last Sunday, I found myself with a vivid imagination of what could happen in the world around us, and I saw the potential for new life and resurrection all around us. Christ is risen! Alleluia!

As I walk out of the building today, I will be rushing out to get in a taxi bound to JFK. I have a 3 o’clock flight to Indianapolis so that I can go back to that same church in Indiana where I sang with my grandfather so many Easters ago. This trip to the church, however, takes on a quite different meaning than the trips of my younger years. I woke up Wednesday morning still feeling the afterglow and spirit remnants of our services here on Sunday, and as I checked my phone I found a text from my mom that simply read, “Grandpa Fish died this morning.”

His name had been on our prayer list here at Park Avenue for the past couple of months, but I have to say that the question for my family was not the question of if he would be dying but rather when. Over these months, one member of our congregation would find me every Sunday and ask me the exact same question: “How’s Grandpa?” Without fail, I would give the same response: “We’re just waiting at this point.” Stage five kidney failure in a man of his age will really turn any situation into a waiting game. And while he battled so much longer than any doctor thought that he would, and while he managed to hold on to his mischievous and kind ways through all of the tests and the doctors, there came a point at which the inevitability of death finally caught up to him.

 

One week after leaving this place energized by the thought of resurrection in our world, I now will leave on my way to grieve the fact that death is a painful reality. As I have been preparing myself for what I am about to experience in these next couple of days, and as we gather today on this second Sunday of the Easter season, I really have to admit that I’ve found myself wondering when this Easter promise is actually going to come to fruition. For nearly two thousand years, Christians have proclaimed a message that says that death has lost its sting and that the Kingdom of God in which all of our tears will be wiped away is already breaking into our midst. While I don’t necessarily want to bring up all of the examples in the world around us, it’s hard to believe that we’re getting any closer. In some ways, any step forward that society as a collective seems to make forward in some avenue, we’re simultaneously going two steps in the wrong direction. We grieve because we know that death is inevitable for our loved ones; the only question is when they’ll be taken from us and when we’ll be taken ourselves. Last year as we gathered around this same story, I asked the question, “Where in the world is that resurrection? Most days, I can’t say that I see it too clearly.”[2] This year, however, I find a small voice in the back of my mind asking the question, “Is resurrection really even possible?”

The scripture lesson that Michael read this morning is something of a tradition within those Christian communities who follow the lectionary as we do. Every year, we travel through Lent, Holy Week, and Easter Sunday in a different Gospel; sometimes we’re reading in Matthew, other times in Mark or Luke, and occasionally we’ll dive into pieces from John. But today is just like every other Second Sunday of Easter, as we encounter the story of Thomas, “Doubting Thomas.” I’ve always like Thomas, because I’ve never thought that his response is strange; I think I would have responded in the exact same way. If anything, he seems so much like a realist, someone who can help counter the dreamy and utopian vision that it seems like we get from Jesus. He’s not just thinking about what Jesus says; he’s thinking about the pragmatics of it, the reality of what is around him and in what he’s hearing.

I think his nickname is a bit of a biased misnomer, because he is by no means the only one who doubted the resurrection. The story tells us that the other disciples doubted just like he did. If you remember the reading for Easter from last week, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb in the early morning to find that the stone guarding it had been moved. Peter and another one of the disciples don’t believe her, only believing when they run to the tomb themselves and see the linen wrappings lying there.[3] They both return home, but Mary stays behind at the tomb, weeping over what she had found. And in that place she becomes the first person to encounter the risen Christ, who sends her to witness to the rest of the disciples what she had seen. She does so, and the first verse of today’s reading tells us how they reacted: they barricaded themselves in a house because they were so afraid.[4]

Thomas wasn’t the only one to cast skepticism on this miraculous event, because the other disciples first doubted Mary. It’s not until Jesus appears behind that locked door with them, as he shows them his hands and his side and grants them peace that they rejoice in his presence.

There’s bit of an open question as to where Thomas was during this first appearance. The passage doesn’t provide any obvious answers, but I’ve heard some interesting interpretations. Some suggest that he might have just stepped out for some fresh air, to get out of that house for a few minutes. Another interpretation suggests that he might have been grocery shopping. He was, after all, the pragmatist of the group, and a group of disciples has to eat somehow.[5]

But when I consider that the one that he had followed for three whole years of his life had just been so ruthlessly killed, I think he may have been trying to restart. While the other disciples were cowering in fear in their barricaded house, he could have been doing the responsible thing, simply trying to regain some semblance of a purpose and plan for his life. Thomas was a realist who went by what he knew to be reality, and his understanding of reality was so poignantly shaped by the vision of seeing Jesus nailed to a piece of wood and left to die. His reality was one in which his sole purpose for the past three years was definitively dead and buried, and there was no sense in trying to pick up the pieces of that life.

Yet the disciples have their encounter and desperately try to convince Thomas about what they have seen, and we know his reaction: “Unless I look upon the mark of the nails in his hands, and cast my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”[6] We can read this as a need for the physical proof, as if Thomas needs to know for sure that this is the same Jesus that was crucified to believe that he actually was raised from the dead, but I think that’s misreading Thomas. It’s not as much that Thomas simply doubted the story, that he was viewing their witness with suspicion but was still open to being proven wrong. He simply did not believe what the disciples were saying was even possible. Jesus was dead. As terrible as reality was for him at this point, reality is all that he had could trust, and that reality is one in which Jesus is lying in the tomb. His demand to thrust his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in his side is scathing sarcasm, as he is flat out mocking the disciples’ claim. He knows that he won’t have that chance because the idea itself is absurd. What his friends are claiming is so ridiculous that he can’t help but laugh at them. The whole situation is ridiculous. That’s not how life works. That’s not how things go. People don’t raise from the dead.

But I’m drawn to Thomas so much in that space between verse 25 and 26, between his response and between Jesus’ second appearance. Because in the midst of mocking his friends for their irrational and impossible story, he still waits with them. Even after so adamantly refusing to even consider what it was that the disciples’ supposedly saw, he returns to them and is with them for a whole week, getting no closer to an answer as to what, if anything, actually happened. When everything that he logically knew about the world told him to move on, when his understandings of life and death made it so abundantly clear that Jesus was dead and was going to stay dead, he still sticks around.  What prompts him to do such an absurd thing? The cynic in me wants to think that he maybe was just trying to prove his friends wrong once and for all, but that rings hollow.

Rather, I think here we see a glimpse of Thomas’ faith in Christ and the hope he has in what Christ said. Remember, after all, his appearance in the story of Lazarus. All of the other disciples are trying to persuade Jesus to stay away from Bethany, because they had been threatened the last time that they were there. Yet while they were all trying to talk Jesus out of going there, those very same disciples who are the ones that encountered the resurrected Jesus, Thomas is the one who speaks up: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”[7] These words are not coming from his realism, for he has no seeming regard for self-security here. It’s not his pragmatism that is speaking up, because Jesus surely could have raised Lazarus from the dead whenever he wanted to. They are rather the words of a follower, someone who has just enough faith in Jesus to do what seems stupid.

And I think that we see a reemergence of this in between verses 25 and 26. He knows that the resurrection couldn’t have happened; it goes against everything that he believes and what he knows about the world. Yet he finds something that goes much deeper than belief or unbelief, than confidence or absolute doubt: he re-finds his faith in the one that had brought him thus far. And he has the courage to take that step beyond rationality. Even as he waits there with the other disciples, completely disbelieving anything that they are saying, he finds that there is a part of him that goes beyond reality. It’s not an optimism, by any stretch; but it’s still there. And he lets himself be moved by that sliver of faith and hope. It’s the work of simply showing up; just like Mary showed up to the tomb with her burial spices, he shows up to where his friends are. It’s nothing extreme; all he’s doing is staying with his friends for a few days. But it seems that it’s just enough, because after eight long days of waiting and wondering why in the world he agreed to stay, Jesus comes to him. He offers himself, so that Lazarus can see the marks of the nails, can place his hands in his side. But Lazarus doesn’t really need that. He comes face to face with what he was convinced was the most absurd thing to happen; his notions of what is real and what is possible shatter to the floor, and all that he is left with is the presence of the risen Christ. He in this moment manages to answer, “My Lord and my God!”

I think that this is the very nature of our Easter hope.

Because when we look around this world, it is far too easy to find those ways in which Easter is contradicted by reality. We encounter the deaths of our dearest loved ones, we see the suffering around us, and we see how creation itself is getting the life choked out of it. Even now, in the midst of my own loss and confusion, I look at the world and just don’t understand where Easter is going to come through. I have so many questions, and so many doubts. While I genuinely think that I want to believe, there are some days when reality seems to challenge every single thing that I have ever said up in this pulpit.

And yet, I think there’s always the opportunity to act like Mary and Thomas and to just show up. Even as we know that we’ll be singing those songs that we will never be able to believe; even as we somehow manage to pull ourselves out of bed for yet another day of the same old mess; even as we are confronted with the reality of death and presence of suffering all around us; there’s always the chance to show up. Even in the midst of our unbelief, in the midst of our doubts and our misgivings, we are always to show up to the world, to hope for resurrection.

Let us be clear about this hope, however. I’m not talking about some kind of optimism. I’m not talking about being convinced that the world is going to turn out just the way we want it to. Rather, in the words of my former professor, Dr. Cornel West,

hope looks at the evidence and says, “it doesn’t look good at all. Doesn’t look good at all. Gonna go beyond the evidence to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious to allow people to engage in heroic actions always against the odds, no guarantee whatsoever.” That’s hope. I’m a prisoner of hope though. Gonna die a prisoner of hope.[8]

Looking at the evidence for resurrection, it often does not look good at all. Doubt about this resurrection is warranted, because we’re just going to keep finding ourselves confronted with the reality of death.

Yet I think hope makes us take a little bit different view of things. It makes us think about the way things are, absolutely. We must be realistic about the world around us. But hope does not leave us there; hope instead invites us into new, absurd possibilities of what could be. Hope encourages us to use a holy imagination to think about what this world could be like, what life could look like under a new reality. And when we have that hope, when we are grasped by the hope, imprisoned by it, we cannot help but show up. Even in the midst of the same uninspiring routines, hope invites us to take a new look at things. When we find ourselves confronted with church beliefs that we can never accept, I think hope invites us, with all of our doubts and questions, into the unknown anyways.

 

Hope for me will be walking into that little Indiana church tomorrow morning for the funeral while still humming the same song that I sang there so many years ago. It’s the strange, illogical conviction that, even in the face of death, I can face tomorrow, that I need not fear, and that there is something worthwhile about this life because Christ lives. I don’t know if I’ll fully believe it at the time, but I know that I’ll hope for it. It’s a hope that will always have me bound, even as so many other aspects of life try to kill it.

And so, my friends, we will leave in a few moments to go back into a world that contradicts everything we said on Easter. Nevertheless, may we find just enough faith to hold on to hope in the midst of all of our doubts, to show up looking for resurrection in the places where we know it’s impossible. And as we do so, may we find that God meets us like Jesus appeared to Thomas, showing that new reality where death is not the final word, in which we have the promise of life abundant, and where Christ is risen indeed. Amen.

[1] Gloria and William J. Gaither, “Because He Lives” in The United Methodist Hymnal (The United Methodist Publishing House: Nashville, 1989) 364.

[2] Isaiah Fish. “Finding Resurrection.” Sermon, Park Avenue United Methodist Church, New York, NY, April 3, 2016.

[3] John 20:1-8

[4] John 20:19

[5] John Buchanan. “Sent.” Sermon, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, IL, April 15, 2007.

[6] John 20:25

[7] John 11:16

[8] Cornel West, Hope on a Tightrope (Carlsbad, CA: Smiley, 2008), 41.