A Sermon for Easter 2C (John 20:19-31)
About fifteen years ago,not long after my younger son was born, a friend sent me a card that had an interesting photograph on the front. There was a little boy wearing a 1950‘s era cowboy outfit riding a cow through the living room of a house, firing his toy pistol left and right. And behind him were the signs of all kinds of havoc - the front door knocked off its hinges, pictures dangling crookedly on the walls, the lamp lying on its side and furniture overturned. His apron-clad mother stood on the stairs, looking on with widened eyes and an O-shaped mouth expressing startled surprise. Inside the card, the caption read: “You can childproof your house, but they still get in.”
When we read the story from John’s Gospel today as if it were simply about Thomas the Twin, evermore unfairly dubbed as “Doubting Thomas," well, that would be like looking at the card my friend sent me and saying it was about the mother. The story is about Jesus and about the work of the Spirit.
In the Gospel, Thomas tells the disciples that he does not believe the story the others have told him about how Jesus appeared to them after his death. So people like us call him Doubting Thomas. Because he demands proof before he will believe their story. But all of the disciples had the opportunity to hear Jesus speak to them and he showed all of them the wounds in his hands and side. Thomas is not the only one who needs to see the risen Lord in order to believe. They all did. So it seems unfair to single Thomas out.
But at any rate, the story is really about Jesus and what he does after God raised him from the dead. Not just that he miraculously appeared in a room in which the doors had been locked - Harry Houdini probably could have done that. But that after he was raised,he came to the disciples in love, he met each and every one of them, where they were and gave them the gift of the Spirit so that they might have the eyes to really see what had happened and was happening. That they would have the eyes to see not just an empty tomb, but to see the resurrection.
For Mary in the garden, he met her in her grief, and she recognized the voice of the Good Shepherd,
calling the name of one of his sheep. For the various followers who gathered in the locked room,
the secret clubhouse, he met them in their fear, and they recognized him by his words of peace.
And for Thomas, who had suffered the same disbelief that had plagued all of them, Jesus met him in his disbelief and offered Thomas the very thing Thomas needed so that Thomas was able to see and testify to the truth that Jesus is both Lord and God. Which is a pretty radical claim for a monotheist Jew. It must have left his mental picture of God swinging wildly in his imagination.
Jesus came to all of his followers in love - for God so loved the world that the resurrection was made known to them! and gave them what they needed - his presence and reassurance that what he had said to them and taught them was true. That he and the Father are One. That he gives them peace.
That resurrection is not just a concept but a reality, a reality that gives life and peace to themhere and now. The resurrection life for all has begun in the resurrection of Jesus and he brings the news to his followers himself in their own experience, whatever it is.
And all of this is facilitated by the gift of the Spirit. For John, the Spirit is given on the day of resurrection. Unlike in the book of Acts, there is no speaking in tongues or prophesying in John, nor a separate Pentecost event fifty days later. Easter equals resurrection, and resurrection is new life, and the Spirit enables that new life to be given and received. It’s all of a piece.
This new life is not just for Jesus but for everyone. Jesus breathes on those gathered in the locked room just as God breathed life into the inert earth-being Adam, just as Ezekiel prophesied that God would breathe on the dry bones in the valley and bring them to life. This is the gift of the Spirit, and it is what enables the community to do what Jesus commissions them to do in a disbelieving and hostile world. It is the Spirit that enables Thomas to see and to testify: Jesus is Lord and God.
The whole Gospel, as it says at the end of our reading today, is about witness, about testimony. The Gospel is John’s Testimony. And through the work of the Spirit, the whole community is now empowered to testify that Jesus and the Father are One; that Jesus is the one who shows us God.
Jesus told his disciples exactly that while he was teaching them before he died, that when the Spirit comes to them they are to testify because they have been with Jesus from the beginning. And now they have also been with Jesus after God acted to bring him out of death and into new life. Now they have seen what new life is - not a pretending that death does not happen not erasing the wounds and the grief,but knowing that death is not the end. Knowing that God vindicated Jesus who died having refused to play by the world’s rules that rely on power and violence and self-centeredness. Knowing that death has no sway over God’s work in this world. And knowing that there is always the hope of new life in God no matter how much destruction and rejection is wrought in and through this world. And those who believe through the disciples’ testimony will be able to believe the same as the disciples who believe because they have seen. Jesus lived only for a short time in Palestine, and those who had actual contact with him are few. But through their testimony, (put succinctly by Thomas: my Lord and my God!) which they will give through the power of the Holy Spirit, who believes can be the beloved of Jesus as well. The work of the Spirit is to give new life, to bring the peace of God, to enable the testimony to be given and the testimony to be received.
Further, the Spirit is among us to help us discern the new things that God is doing in the world. Jesus told the disciples before he died that he has many other things to tell them but that they could not bear them at the time. He explained that the Spirit would guide them into all truth when the time came. All is not written in this book, John says. There is more, there will be more, always, as time goes on, God doing new things and the Spirit to help those who have believed the testimony to discern how God is still speaking today.
This is where I recall the card my friend sent to me. There are times when the new things that God is doing in the world might look to us like what that mother saw in the wake of the child breaking into
the childproofed house. It might look like upturned furniture and broken down doors and light shining at a weirdly different angles. We can lock up our certainties that life in God was revealed once and for all 2000 years ago to a few people in Palestine in a secret hideout, but the Spirit will get in anyway.
The Spirit will get into our locked up selves and certainties and push us back out into the world where God is always present, always creating, always speaking, always transforming, always giving life. The Spirit helps us make sense of what we see through the eyes of someone who knows that the new things God does are life-giving things,and gives us the vision to discern that a broken down door brings freedom to those who were locked away behind it,that light shining from a new angle gives us a new perspective on something that was previously hidden from view, that upturned and broken furniture gives us a chance to clear a new path unencumbered by old stuff that no longer gives life.
The spirit breaks in and demands that we look for resurrection, even when what we see looks like a mess, to look for new and abundant life, by broadening our perspectives and being willing to let our own mental and spiritual furniture be re-arranged.
Jesus met Thomas, and Mary, and all the disciples and followers in the places that they were - in grief, in fear, and in doubt. Through his loving gift of himself and his breathing new life into them, they were able to understand Jesus in a new way, as a new thing that God was doing in the world, creating new life from what was lifeless, through the work of the Holy Spirit. Mary and Thomas and all the disciples are given new eyes to see this new thing for themselves to get past their certainty that the recently dead stay dead and the crippling fear that made them lock themselves away in the wake of what looked like failure but was in fact just the prelude to God’s great new thing.
Our job as those who were sealed by the Holy Spirit at our baptisms is to develop the eyes to see God’s new things too, as we walk through our own lives, to allow the Spirit to help us discern what life-giving work God is doing in our world every day, knowing that wherever we are, even in places of doubt and grief, places where we have locked ourselves up in confusion and fear, Jesus is there, ready to gently love us through the work of the Spirit into all truth.
Thanks be to God.