St. Mark’s, Port Royal
Jesus of Nazareth is risen from the dead. This is THE Easter proclamation, especially in these Great 50 Days of Easter in which we now find ourselves. Of course, this is our central proclamation every Sunday and the reason we declare Sunday our Sabbath as distinct from the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday.
I wonder if you are aware that the very first responsibility of a bishop as indicated in the ordination liturgy is to be “one with the apostles in proclaiming Christ’s resurrection?” Today in Acts we read, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.” So our entire life is to be a witness to this truth – Christ is Risen! We have the great joy of renewing this truth through those receiving the laying on of hands today.
How might Thomas inform our witness as he is presented to us in today’s Gospel? He refused to believe the testimony of anyone else, even that of his closest friends. Then came the night when Jesus appeared to him in that upper room and Thomas was challenged by Jesus’ invitation to touch the wounds still visible in his resurrected body. Thomas yielded with perhaps one of the greatest statements of faith in the entire New Testament: “My Lord and my God!”
What do we do with all of these references to a body? It was C.S. Lewis who said such references “make us uneasy, they raise awkward questions.” To be sure, the Scriptures seem to take great pains to tell us of one after death who speaks, eats fish on the beach, bears wounds from a horrible execution – albeit a different kind of body which appears in a room with locked doors. The Gospel writer, John, is seeking to portray the Jesus in the upper room as the same Jesus who was crucified.
However it all occurred, no explanation is given. Although I always think here of new studies in quantum physics, the behavior of atoms and parallel universes, we’ll set that aside for now. Thomas, and therefore we, are confronted with the body of Jesus, resurrected. Out of this encounter Thomas makes a great leap of faith. I am not an expert in equestrian competition, but my daughter loves to ride. One of the things that impresses me most is how she guides a horse to leap over a hurdle. I marvel at her apparent calmness, not true of her father by the way. I did some reading about this and teachers say that even the greatest riders face a common obstacle: their own perception. Some of the most respected equestrian study guides devote entire sections to the rider’s perception. Unless the rider can approach the obstacles with a certain anticipatory confidence, he or she will never be adept at jumping. One author gave this advice: “Take your heart and throw it over the fence. Then jump after it.”
Although we plaster the moniker “doubting Thomas” on this man, it is not really accurate. The man in the Gospel is not a pessimistic character prone to doubt. He’s just looking for proof – an empiricist of sorts. After all, dead people don’t come back to life. Not the old body and especially not some new resurrected body. Thomas then is a bridge, a bridge for all future believers who find it difficult to throw their hearts over the fence of the threshold of death into resurrection territory. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” The account gives us mistaken turnings, confused demands and puzzled longings. Such is life for all of us. The struggle of faith is not a smooth, level road to perfection. Misunderstanding and a bumpy ride are par for the course. Thomas represents us in our humanity. Rather than judge Thomas, which the Gospel does not do, the Gospel hopes we will identify with him!
And look how Jesus responds. The first thing he does for his companions locked in that room, holed up in death and doom: death by fear; death by guilt; death by alienation; is offer them empowerment and invitation – unconditional, open arms, welcoming us to new life and new possibilities.
Rather than savoring alienation, Jesus responds with complete acceptance. Note that he comes into the room with the traditional Jewish formal greeting, “Shalom Aleichem.” “Peace be with you.” The first thing they experience from Jesus is that he remains in relationship with them. He still cares for them. It is the miracle and power of relationship that is maintained by Jesus. He is the one who continues to have faith in the disciples, in us, even when we are not able to do so ourselves.
The bond is restored through this great gift of love that continues to show up in seemingly impossible situations. He sees them in their confused, fearful state and offers peace and when they see the scars, they know. Jesus honored and restored them. Alienation is ended. He offered what they did not deserve in this moment – love and acceptance. We might call this in the words of I Peter “a new birth into a living hope.” Without it they stay behind locked doors, never make the leap, and never become witnesses of the One raised up.
Christian community is rooted in that love offered in the upper room that night. It is that which empowers us to go forth and be servants of Jesus. We are now set free from all of our locked rooms, whatever they might be, to be God’s person in God’s world. Go ahead. Throw your heart over the fence. He’s already there, waiting to receive you with a word of “Peace be with you.”