My sermon from Easter 2 at St. Peter’s by-the-Sea, Narragansett.
Here we are on the second Sunday of Easter – Easter 2 – commonly referred to as low Sunday. We’ve come out of the energy and excitement of Holy Week and Easter Day: of the anticipation building up to that most joyful celebration of the resurrection. We have traveled through this past week, Easter Week, which is traditionally a rather quiet time. In some parishes, this is seen as a recovery week where everything, even the parish office, shuts down. No wonder people take this Sunday off: No wonder it is called low Sunday. So now what? Where do we go from here?
In preparing for this sermon I spent some time looking at the Gospel lessons for each day of Easter Week. Every year the same readings are used and each Gospel lesson recalls one of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. It seems to me that a major theme throughout the week is doubt.
Last Sunday we heard from Luke’s Gospel where the women went to anoint Jesus’ body and they found the tomb empty. When they went back to tell the others the women were not believed. In fact as Luke writes, “But these words seemed to them an idle tale.” Peter had to go and see for himself what had happened.
Wednesday’s Gospel picks up right where last Sunday’s ends. “Now on that same day . . .” Luke goes on to tell the story of the road to Emmaus. Two disciples were walking home from Jerusalem to Emmaus and they encounter a stranger along the way – a stranger who doesn’t seem to know what has happened. “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place?” You can hear the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me tone in the disciples voice. Finally they arrive at the disciples home, where they invite the stranger to join them. It is in what happens next that the disciples see who this stranger is. “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other; “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?” These two disciples had to see, they had to touch to believe.
On Thursday we heard from Luke the same encounter that begins this morning’s passage from John. Luke is however, clearer about the state of mind of the disciples. Jesus says, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? . . . Touch me and see” Luke also describes the disciples joy a bit differently than John, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.”
In yesterday’s Gospel from Mark, the eleven hear about Mary Magdalene, whom Mark says was the first to whom Jesus appeared. They heard about the two traveling from Jerusalem into the country, and yet they – the eleven – did not believe either account. They had to see for themselves in order to believe.
And then we arrive at today’s Gospel, John’s account of the evening of that same day – the first day of the week: When Jesus appears to the disciples in that locked room. It is only once he shows them his wounds that the disciples rejoice for they have seen the Lord. And then there is Thomas. Thomas, who gets the short end of the doubting stick.
Thomas is no different than the other disciples – he needs to see in order to believe. It is unfair to criticize him for doing exactly what the others did. Instead of Doubting Thomas we should call him Hearing Thomas. Because in this passage, Thomas is whom it is announced to first that, from now on, hearing would do it all. Here Jesus doesn’t just show or act – he speaks an invitation to Thomas to touch and see. Jesus said, and Thomas answered. Thomas answered in the most profound way – more profound than any other response to a resurrection appearance. He answers, “My Lord and my God!” Hearing caused transformation. The word did it, touching becomes irrelevant. In fact, the Gospel does not say that Thomas actually touches Jesus. Shortly after this takes place – in a historical perspective – those who walked with Jesus, those who experienced the Risen Lord would all be dead. Touching and see would no longer be possible. For centuries since then, people around the world have come to believe and know Jesus the Son of God – the Risen Lord. They are not able – we are not able – to touch and see. But, we are able to hear. This ability to hear and receive the Word is our way of living into the blessing Jesus gives in the Gospel, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” But we cannot stop at hearing, we must also proclaim so that others may hear.
It is easy to participate in Easter Day, in egg hunts, family dinners, and festive celebrations of the Eucharist. But, it is challenging and risky to participate in the Easter season – in resurrected life. Look how many people were here last Sunday compared to how many are here today. Look at the doubt and disbelief of the disciples, people who were there to experience it. Look at the encounter Peter and the apostles have with the high priest and temple authorities in this pericope from Acts.
The Book of Acts is a prime example of what it means to accept the challenge and risk of this life to which we have been called. Two chapters earlier from what we hear today, finds Peter and John going to the temple to pray. There at the Beautiful Gate was a man who has been lame from birth asking for alms. When their attention was fixed on one another Peter says, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” The man got up and went into the temple leaping and praising God. It is this action – and others like it – that brings the apostles to the high priest. It is what gets them into trouble.
Peter says to the high priest, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” Now that is a risk. The high priest has just questions them, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name . . .” This scene is not long after Jesus’ crucifixion and these are the same authorities that have Jesus killed. And what does Peter do? He effectively tells them off. “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” Faithfulness, resurrected life, being a disciples of Jesus – as demonstrated by Peter and the apostles – requires discernment, wisdom, and most of all, risk.
Peter’s risk highlights for us the complexity of living the Gospel faithfully. How do we, with so many and varied forces pulling for our attention and loyalty discern God’s mission and invitation to participate in God’s plan for salvation? How do we express our faithfulness? How do we stand up against human authority that tries to stop us from obeying God’s command? It is not easy, it is, to say the very least, challenging, difficult, and life changing. It is what so many throughout the generations have given their life to do.
Learning to “obey God rather than any human authority” demands a hard look at how we spend our time and live our lives. It requires kingdom living: It requires those things to which we recommitted our lives to last Sunday. To the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers; to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; to seek and serve Christ in all persons; and to respect the dignity of every human being. And, when we fall short of the glory of God, when we fail to do these things, to repent and return to the Lord. It is these things, this way of life that allows us to continue the proclamation of Thomas for future generations. That they may believe and come to know, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus – as we hear in John’s Gospel – breathes on the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This is the same breath God breathes into creation that now enlivens the disciples to go out and do their ministry. It is the same breath we now draw into our lungs, that breath that is infused with that of the Risen Lord; the breath that joins us to the Kingdom of God.
May we hear the Word of God setting our hearts a blaze as scripture is revealed to us. May we recognize the Risen Lord in the breaking of the bread as we prepare to approach this altar. May we receive the breath of God – the breath of all creation – and be enlivened to take on the discernment, wisdom, and risk of the resurrection and kingdom life. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.