Second Sunday of Easter
John 20:19-31

As I begin this morning, I’d like to make note regarding some of the language in our passage this morning. You heard it in the very first line that of our Gospel lesson, where the story starts “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.” Let me be clear in saying that we have to be very careful with biblical language that talks about Judaism and first-century Jews, because a lack of precision and responsibility begets harmful theology.  Earlier in this same Gospel of John, Jesus is talking with a few Jews who are asking him questions, and at one point says to them,

If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. [1] 

John’s Gospel is not alone in language like this. In the passages that we read during Holy Week, Luke and Mark seem to suggest that it was “the Jews” who were responsible for the death of Jesus, whereas the Apostle Paul explicitly says that they are responsible. [2]

And this kind of language in our holy texts—and even in the words of Jesus—has laid the groundwork for nearly two millennia of violent antisemitism, flaring up most recently in the shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in October and yesterday’s tragic shooting during a Passover celebration at the Chabad of Poway right outside of San Diego.

Yes, the language in what we call the New Testament was predominantly written by Jewish followers of Jesus, who in fact was himself Jewish. Yes, there are translation issues in how we’ve come to interpret these texts that refer to “the Jews”. Yes, the Gospels and Epistles were written in the context of “an inner-Christian debate in which there were also others who were stressing instead the Jewishness of both Jesus and authentic forms of Christianity.” [3] There are ways to explain how we can read our holy texts while avoiding anti-Semitic and racist readings, but the fact remains that our texts have been used for evil. In many cases, such interpretations were promulgated by the Church, and often things that seem as inconsequential such as the language that we use around our scriptures can foster violence. And we in this moment cannot be silent in condemning this violence that is done in our name.

Our text this morning can easily be read in a way that promotes antisemitism—“for fear of the Jews.”  But let us proceed knowing that these are ancient texts speaking to a particular situation within a particular community grounded in a particular context. Nor can we simply explain away this language—we still must grapple with textual and theological issues within even the earliest Christian communities. But we certainly cannot read these writings with our modern preconceptions of religious identity and race. And we must read these texts conscientiously, knowing the power that they have had for both goodness and grace in our world as well as hatred and violence.

With that said, let us pray.

O God, in you we live, in you we move, and in you we have our being. Grant us the ears to hear your Word to us this day, the heart to receive it, the wisdom to understand it, and the courage to follow your calling. Amen.

Mary Magdalene has seen the risen Christ. And so she runs to the other disciples to tell them what she has seen and heard, and, unsurprisingly, they don’t believe her. Instead, the first verse of our lesson today tells us how they reacted: they barricaded themselves in a house because they were so afraid. Our story seems to focus on a disciple that we have come to know as “Doubting” Thomas, but the other disciples cast just as much skepticism when Mary first told them. It’s not until Jesus appears behind that locked door week them, offering peace and showing his wounds that they finally believe and rejoice in his presence.

But Thomas, it seems, is nowhere to be found, and the story doesn’t provide any clues as to where he was. Perhaps he was out just getting some fresh air, or perhaps he was out getting food for dinner. But no matter where he was or what he was doing, I can imagine what it is that he was thinking and feeling.

After all, he had spent three years of your life following Jesus. This is a man who proclaimed a kingdom in which love and mercy reign, in which the oppressed are liberated, and in which the hungry are fed; a kingdom marked by miracles that couldn’t be explained. This was a kingdom that seemed in direct contradiction to the Roman Empire that ended up crucifying him. Thomas saw Jesus walk down the streets of Jerusalem as he was flogged, carrying a large wooden cross. He saw him crucified and watched as he took his very last breath. He saw his body taken down and placed in a tomb. And now Jesus was dead, and Thomas was left in grief to pick up the pieces and figure out what was next.

He gets back to the house at some point later that evening, and all of the other disciples are ecstatic. “We have seen the Lord. Jesus is alive!”, they told him. But Thomas knows that this isn’t how life works.

True, there are a lot of unknowns in our lives. From the moment we are born, we are ushered into a world that is largely unwritten before us. Questions of education, of careers, of relationships, of children, and of hobbies are unanswered, and there’s no telling what’s going to happen to us in our finite time on earth. But the one thing that we know for sure is that our time is finite; we all will die, and even the Earth and universe at some point will no longer exist. This is the way reality works. As the writer Christopher Bullock wrote in what would become one of the most famous lines in the English language: “’Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes.” Most of us can’t escape taxes, and none of us can escape death.

But now the other disciples are trying to tell him that Jesus is somehow alive; he’s back from the dead. We’ve come to name Thomas “Doubting Thomas”, but I think it might be more appropriate to call him “Pragmatic Thomas.” Everything that he knows about life tells him that it’s impossible. And so he sarcastically demands that he has to put his finger in the mark of the nails on Jesus’ hands and his hand in his side to be believe any differently. What his friends are claiming is ridiculous; that’s not how life works. That’s not how things go. People die and they stay dead.

Yet between verse 25 and 26, between his response and Jesus’ second appearance to the disciples, Thomas does something fascinating to me: he sticks around. Even after refusing to even consider believing the disciples, he stays with them for a whole week. When everything that he knew about the world told him to move on—to pick up the pieces of his life and start fresh; when his understanding of life and death made it so abundantly clear that Jesus was dead and that he was going to stay dead, he still sticks around.

I don’t know why he stayed. Maybe he thought that they were too hysterical to think straight, which means there had to be someone logical enough to cook meals and get chores done around the house. Maybe he was just staying long enough for the other disciples to come to their senses, to get past the denial stage of grief and into acceptance.

Or maybe—just maybe—there was a strange hope. A hope in the impossible. A hope that what he thought about the world was mistaken; that reality was not what it seemed.

Two thousand years later, I don’t think that we’re going to get the confirmation that Thomas was able to get. I don’t think that we’re going to see that Jesus himself is going to walk down the aisle, that we’re going to get the chance to put our fingers in his hands and our hands in his side. But I think we need a little bit of hope in the impossible—to be those blessed ones of which Jesus speak, who have not seen yet still believe.

I think we need to believe in the impossible and hope for the impossible and love in the impossible, because—my goodness—we need some resurrection. We need our reality to be shaken to its core and re-envisioned—to be reimagined. Because the way things are now cannot be sustained, and we need the vision that something else is possible; that there is another way to live and work and love within this world.

We need to have the imagination to think about what a beloved community would look like where death may still be inevitable but isn’t the end. We need to have the curiosity to envision a world where a synagogue or a mosque does not have to worry about a white supremacist coming in during worship with a gun. We need to have the boldness to embody a United Methodist Church that does not bar our LGBTQI siblings from the pulpit or from the wedding altar. We need to have the creativity to imagine a reality where we are not actively killing the Earth, living in proper relationship to our resources and our environment. We need to have the courage to live as if the Reign of God on Earth is no longer some kind of utopian dream but a very present possibility. Because, my friends, Christ is risen! A man who was dead has been made alive; our God surrendered to death yet came out vict

And so I think that we need to stretch our imaginations a bit. To blur the line a little bit between reality and the Neighborhood of Make Believe. To imagine a new world. To hope in the impossible. Because, my friends, this Easter season we celebrate a man that died and was resurrected and still lives. We need some resurrection, and it’s the opportune moment to embrace the story of Jesus for our own lives. Because if resurrection is possible, there is very little that is impossible.

1 John 8:42-44 (NRSV)
2 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15