We’re used to death. But are we ready for life?
Second Sunday of Easter (Year C) – April 3, 2016 – John 20:19-31
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
Easter Christians – Pastor Evan Davis
It’s Sunday night on the day of the Resurrection. Do you know where the disciples are? There’s an old pastor joke about Easter. Do you know why Jesus climbed out of the tomb? So the pastor can crawl in! Yes, we all need to rest after the journey of Lent and Holy Week. But perhaps the disciples have heard the joke. Because they’ve crawled right in. Jesus climbed out, and the disciples have crawled right in his tomb.
They’re locked, barricaded in, for fear, John says, “of the Jews.” You always have to remember when you read John that everyone in this story is a Jew, including Jesus and all the disciples. John is simply referring to those fellow Jews who disagree about who Jesus is. Those who saw not a Messiah when they looked at Jesus, but a threat. Those who cried out for Jesus’ death and now might be looking for someone else to put on a cross.
You and I can understand this. Self-preservation is a strong instinct. Mary had come back talking about the Lord calling her name. But she was a little out there, you know? Peter and the beloved disciple had seen the linen wrappings lying there, but what did that really mean? Whoever took his body could have left those. Here’s something they knew for sure: if they went back into town saying, “oh yeah, that convicted criminal who was executed the other day, we’re his friends, and um, he’s risen from the dead!” they would soon be facing crosses of their own.
The disciples are locked in their tombs. Surrounded by walls of their own fear, by their clear understanding and expectation of death. Could they even see the walls? Can we see ours? Are we locked in? Like the disciples, we know all about death, about long, slow declines and sudden tragedies. We know the drill about loss and grief. We know how to lock ourselves up, to live in protection mode.
But not Thomas. We all know the story that he’s not there. But have you ever wondered why? Here’s what I believe. I believe, that while Jesus passes through the chains barring the door and unlocks their hearts, breathing the Holy Spirit into them, sending them as his witnesses, while all that is happening, I believe Thomas is out there still fighting the good fight. When everyone else had packed it in, Thomas was out there still ministering in Jesus’ name, aware that Jesus’ challenge to the powers that be had earned him plenty of powerful enemies, but not about to back down. You might remember that Thomas is the one, when the others told Jesus basically that he was crazy to go back to Jerusalem where all these people wanted to kill him, he said, “let us go also, that we may die with him.”1
Thomas is a serious, mature follower of Jesus. He knew that Jesus was headed to the cross and he was willing to go with him. He’s a Lenten kind of disciple. He’s willing to go all the way to the end for his Lord. He believed Jesus that the cross was supposed to happen. So what he was supposed to do was keep faithful, doing the same things Jesus was doing before – healing, feeding, challenging accepted truths, accepting unacceptable people, especially if it might cost him his life. He’s not about to believe this cop-out Peter and Mary are trying to sell about Jesus being risen, and he’s not about to chicken out and hide like the others.
Death is believable. Tragedy is commonplace, hardly even newsworthy. We’re used to boarding up our hearts, not risking hope with all its joys and sorrows, its commitments and disappointments. Sometimes we feel like we have to just hold on to what we still have, and we become only the bearers of memories, only the tellers of stories in the past, preserving what once was, locking it up, because once it’s gone, it’s gone. Who expects life? Who expects to be delivered from ever-present tragedy and death?
Well, not any disciple in this story. Resurrection is harder to believe than death. Grace is harder to believe than punishment. How did they believe? The disciples received an unexpected visit from their risen Lord. Thomas demands to see the marks in his crucified Savior’s hands and side – the marks of the death he knew all too well. Only then can he believe this unbelievable story. And is his request met with disapproval that he could not “take it on faith?” Absolutely not. Jesus gives him what he surely knew this disciple needed, what the other eleven already received – an up-close and personal encounter with his risen Lord. And far from doubting, when he receives this sign he declares what is the most complete statement of faith in John’s gospel – “my Lord and my God!” The faith of the first witnesses of the Resurrection didn’t come out of thin air, they didn’t find it within themselves, it was a total gift given to them by Jesus himself! And so it is with us.
The resurrection life of Christ breaks into our lives. It has no time for our expectations or fears. It comes uninvited like a disturbingly empty tomb…like a strange gardener calling out your name….like your Lord passing through the doors you’ve locked to look you in in the eye and say “peace be with you.” It takes your breath away. But the risen Christ isn’t content to just enter your life, to only bust you out of your own tomb, no, he has an agenda – the same as before, the kingdom of God. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He breathes the Holy Spirit, the living breath of God, the rushing wind of creation, into you, sending you out to be his Body in the world.
The glorious news of Easter is that Christ is risen and all bets are off! The conventional wisdom, for instance, that dead people stay dead, is wrong. What else is wrong? A small group of committed people can change the world. The Cubs can win the World Series! Even this year, Republicans and Democrats can be friends and work together!
We’re the people who expect that, eventually, God will win. We’re the people who expect life, and redemption, who dare to hope. This place, this community of people we call church – it’s not about the past, it’s about the future. You are the living, breathing Body of Christ, called into a future whose ending has been written, but the journey to get there is being written in you, each and every day. We are Easter Christians, people who expect the unexpected, who believe in the surprise, who trust that in the deepest darkness, light will find a way to shine. Because light has already conquered the darkness.
We are not just historians, preserving a tradition from the past. We cast a vision into the future, a vision of what might be, what should be, because God is still creating and everyone and everything can and will be redeemed. Christ is not in the tomb and neither is his church. We have work to do. We have people to serve, to invite, to listen to, to forgive, to feed. Christ is going to surprise you. He is going to challenge you. He will put you in places you do not expect and help you love people you never thought you could love. Amen.