Sunday, May 01, 2011

Doubting Disciples?

Second Sunday of Easter – Year A
Acts 2.141, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1.3-9; John 20.19-31
Sunday, May 1, 2011 –
Trinity, Redlands

The Sunday after Easter is commonly known as “Low Sunday,” due to the fact that attendance is markedly lower than on Easter Sunday, and is typically even lower than regular Sundays. After all the excitement of Easter, particularly as a culmination to all the drama and emotion that comes with traveling through Holy Week, with Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and then the climax of the Great Vigil of Easter, we might think we deserve a break, a little respite from all this church stuff. But scripture says otherwise. In his Gospel, John barrels on ahead, picking up with the disciples on the evening of Easter, immediately after the scene with Mary Magdalene at the tomb, where the Risen Christ reveals himself to her. There’s still a lot of work to do, and we can’t be wasting any time.

Now what most of us tend to focus on in this particular Gospel reading is the part where Thomas, not present at Jesus’ initial post-resurrection appearance to the disciples, says “unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” – leading to the rather unflattering descriptor of “Doubting Thomas.” Now every time I preach on this passage, I am quick to rush to Thomas’ defense. But not today. In fact, many make the other disciples out to be the epitome of faith while denigrating Thomas. But not me. I’m going to drag them all down – every last one of them.

If you really look at the story, Thomas was not the only one of the disciples who doubted. It may not be expressed quite as explicitly, but it’s there in John’s description of events. All of the disciples initially doubted the reality of the Risen Lord. At the end of the Easter Gospel, we are told “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’” (Jn 20.18a). But here, in today’s reading, which, remember, takes place mere hours after Mary’s announcement, the Risen Christ appears to all the remaining disciples minus Thomas, who is inexplicably absent. They did not rejoice upon seeing him. First he had to talk to them – “Peace be with you.” And when that didn’t elicit a response, Jesus showed them his hands and his side. Only then do the disciples rejoice in the appearance of their resurrected Lord. Despite having been told by Jesus himself that he would die and be resurrected, despite testimony from Mary Magdalene, they would not believe until they had seen the wounds that bore irrefutable proof that this was their Lord, risen.

And then, of course, we know about Thomas. After the Risen Lord had appeared to his ten comrades and they tell him about the experience, he responds with his famous statement of doubt. Before he is going to believe, he demands the same proof that the other disciples had been party to – to see firsthand the wounds resulting from the crucifixion. Jesus appears a week later saying, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Upon seeing the wounds, Thomas believes that his master had been resurrected, responding “My Lord and my God!”

But even before the events of today’s Gospel lesson, we have Mary Magdalene filled with doubt about the fate of Jesus. Upon finding the tomb empty, she goes and tells the disciples, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” And later on, she weeps because she does not know what happened to Jesus, maintaining that someone must have taken his body away. This despite Jesus having foretold his death and resurrection. It is only when Jesus appears to her and calls her name that she recognizes him as her Lord, risen as he had promised.

So you see, it was not just Doubting Thomas. It was also Doubting Peter and Doubting John. It was also Doubting Mary and all the other doubting disciples. But what is more striking is the fact that as the story progressed, first with the appearance to Mary Magdalene, and then the disciples, and then Thomas, each party at each succeeding step had more and more information. Each had testimony from previous post-resurrection appearances. Why did Mary doubt when she had Jesus’ word that he would be raised from the dead? Why did the disciples doubt when they had Jesus’ word, plus Mary’s testimony that he had indeed been raised? Why did Thomas doubt when he had Jesus’ word, plus Mary’s testimony, plus the testimony of the other ten disciples?

Overall, it appears that there is a general lack of faith among the disciples. Not so much a lack of faith in what Jesus had told them. After all, no one had ever been resurrected before, at least not under these extreme circumstances. It would therefore be natural for the disciples to question Jesus’ foretelling of death and resurrection. They did not know what that would look like. Rather, the lack of faith that they experienced was in each other and in one another’s witness and testimonies.

Okay, maybe I’ve beat up on the disciples enough. To their defense, this was a very tense time. The general theme of the day was distrust. The local population had a broad distrust of the Roman Empire and its forces that were occupying their homeland. There was distrust of the locals who collaborated with the Roman occupiers. The disciples would have had distrust for the Temple authorities who had conspired to have Jesus arrested, tried, and executed. And now there was distrust of each other. After all, one of their own had betrayed their master for a few pieces of silver. Who’s to say the Romans or the Temple authorities might not come after the disciples next? Who can be trusted in times like these?

In these early days, when so much was still tenuous, so much was still uncertain, the disciples would have been looking for assurance. What the events of Easter Day as portrayed by John tells us is that all the disciples need assurance that this person who appears before them is the one who was crucified, died, and buried. The Risen One must have the wounds in his hands and feet and side – to manifest the triumph of God’s grace and love over death – visible signs of God’s grace and love, visible signs of the ultimate defeat of sin and death. Seeing the wounds would have been assurance that the one before them is indeed the one whom they had been following, and was indeed the one whom they would continue to follow.

So while there may have been some initial distrust, the disciples, through their cautiousness, provided a valuable service. They did the hard work, vetting the Risen Lord on behalf of those who would come after. Because of the due diligence and testimony of Thomas and the other disciples working on our behalf, we are able to have faith and believe. We are blessed because of those like Mary Magdalene and Thomas and the other disciples who have gone before. As Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Jesus proclaims blessing on all those who have not seen the Risen Lord with their own eyes, who have not had the opportunity to see the wounds, to poke their fingers into his wounds. That would be us.

When I look at the initial post-resurrection appearances, like the one we have in today’s Gospel, like the comparable versions we have in the other three Gospels, where the disciples are doubtful, it always amazes me that our religion, based on the foundation of Christ’s resurrection, even got off the ground. In those early days, no one was willing or able to accept what had happened. How do you expect those who had not been witnesses to any post-resurrection appearances to come to believe? How is it that we, two millennia later, have come to believe and continue to tell the story?

In the days following Christ’s resurrection, each of the disciples had to find their own way to process what they had experienced, to find their own way to make such an unbelievable experience real for them. That is what we are seeing in today’s Gospel reading – the initial attempts at processing. Once the disciples got over their initial shock, distrust, even disbelief, once they had irrefutable proof from their Risen Lord, they were able to embrace the story wholeheartedly. They came to believe and to understand in a way that became a part of their very being, so that when they told the story to others, as in Acts, as in First Peter, you can just tell that it’s true.

Throughout Christian history, those like us, disciples who did not have benefit of first-hand post-resurrection appearances, came to believe because of the telling of the story. You feel the passion, the zeal, with which the story is told and retold, and you get caught up in it, coming to believe it yourself. It is the story of the resurrection, along with that passion and zeal that is passed on from believer to new convert, on through history to our own day, to our own hearing of the story. It is that passion and zeal that have kept our faith, our religion, alive these two thousand years.

It is often said that we are an Easter people. That is true. The story of Easter is our own story – told and experienced with passion, with conviction, passed on from believer to convert from the first Easter day until now. Our job as Easter people is to keep that story alive. Like the first disciples, we have to find our own ways of processing the story, making it real for ourselves, and then sharing it with others in our words and our actions. For if we truly believe the story and live it in our own lives, others will see the passion and sincerity and will be open to making the story their own.

It may sound a little naïve, but it’s true. That’s the concept behind our Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program. If you’ve ever talked to their teachers, if you’ve ever talked to our little ones or watched them in worship, it becomes obvious that they know the story, and they know the story to be true because of the sincerity with which it has been told to them and the experiences they have of it. And they are willing to share the story with others, with that same passion. Out of the mouths of babes comes the secret to being Easter people and to perpetuating our Easter faith.

It all boils down to the importance of believing the witness to what happened on the first Easter, as shared by those who have gone before, of continuing to focus on the resurrection – Christ’s resurrection and the hope and assurance of our own resurrection, and carrying that joy and passion out into the world.

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