A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on Easter 1 [24 April 2022]:
Acts 5:27-32; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31
In the Christian spiritual and liturgical traditions, the first Sunday after Easter Day is called “Thomas Sunday”. I think we all know why. The story of Thomas’s famous encounter with the Risen Christ provides the focus of what comes immediately after last Sunday’s empty tomb account. Why do you think this is? In this sermon, I’d like to offer two responses to that question.
The first response has to do with Thomas as an example of what it takes to have Easter faith. The second response concerns a larger perspective: namely, what resurrection life is like.
For whatever reason, Thomas, one of the Twelve, was not with his brothers who had gathered in fear in the Jerusalem Upper Room. Where was Thomas? When the other followers of Jesus hunkered down together for moral support, if not physical safety, why had Thomas gone off by himself? We have no way to tell.
At any rate, in St. John’s Easter accounts, Jesus’ disciples (minus Thomas) regroup on the evening of the resurrection day in what was the familiar confines of the Upper Room – the place where just days before they all shared in that portentous “Last Supper”. In that familiar and secure place, the disciples needed to figure out their next move. It is safe to say that these followers of Jesus had a lot to work through, not the least of which were the reports from Peter and the Beloved Disciple about the empty tomb and the unnerving testimony from Mary Magdalene that she had seen and talked to an alive Jesus.
Gathered in that room, they locked the door behind them, a sign of their level of anxiety and confusion. Evidently, no one asked if this door and its lock would keep what they feared at bay. Nonetheless, what happened next with the door made any concern about its stability a moot point. And you also know what happened. Jesus came and stood among them and then greeted them.
I can imagine that with slacked jaws and wide eyes, the disciples snuck a quick peak toward the door. It was still closed; it was still locked, when (for the life of them) the unexpected figure of Jesus entered and proceeded to show them his crucifixion wounds. His followers immediately put two and two together. Now it was their turn to see and know: The Lord is risen indeed! Quickly forgetting the fearful reason they had come together in the first place, at the sight of Jesus they rejoiced in his new and realized life. But John reminds us (if we have forgotten) that Thomas was not present for this transforming experience, which is a teasing hint that there is more to come in this story.
I have always been drawn to Thomas’s story. I know Thomas. He has my attention and a part of my heart. On the one hand, I think that Thomas’s story about his relationship with the Risen Christ speaks to how many of us can and do deal with Jesus’ resurrection: a kind of “show me!” perspective; and I did say at the outset that Thomas is an example of what it takes to be an Easter person. He embodies one very real road to Easter faith that many of us can identify with. History has afforded Thomas with a telling moniker, and his story speaks to how doubt and faith can work together.
On the other hand, Thomas’s story provides another insight into the reality of resurrection and the larger, on-going reality of Easter. Next to the immediate drama of Thomas’s doubting, we tend to overlook what this story says about the nature of resurrected life. In this case, the Upper Room’s locked door opens to reveal not only new life but a new kind of life.
In his wonderful little book of biblical personalities, entitled, Peculiar Treasures, Frederick Buechner describes Thomas as being a hard-core realist. Not one for flights of fantasy or one with a wild, poetic imagination, Thomas appears to be your basic, “just the facts, ma’am” kind of guy. Before today’s gospel account, we glean some of his basic nature from two other encounters, where as a disciple of Jesus, Thomas’s words are recorded in the text.
The first encounter occurs at the news of Jesus’ dear friend Lazarus’s death [John 11:1-16]. Announcing to his disciples that he intended to go to awaken Lazarus, Jesus’ other disciples recommended greater caution because going to Lazarus’s grave meant returning to the territory where Jesus had recently been threatened with stoning. Amid his colleagues’ concern, Thomas steps up with a full-throated conviction to say, “Let us also go [to Bethany and to Lazarus’s grave], that we may die with him.” Speaking with more passionate loyalty than strategic reflection, Thomas is someone I want on my side, if and when a fight looms nearby.
A second Thomas sighting comes a bit later in John’s gospel [14:5], when Jesus tries to prepare his followers for his journey to Jerusalem and for his execution. After soberly confronting Peter’s bombastic pledge of allegiance and noting that “the Rock” will deny him three times before the cock crows, Jesus attempts to calm his disciples’ raw nerves with words of comfort and hope. Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way where I am going. [John 14:1-4]
As in a classroom of students whose receptive faces belie their utter confusion and their fear of admitting their cluelessness, Thomas is the kid in the back row who, in unsophisticated honesty, raises his hand to speak what everyone else is thinking but would never say: Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way? [14:5]. In reply, Jesus famously says that he is “the way, the truth, and the life”, to which I imagine that Thomas says wryly to himself: “Well, that sure clears it all up!”
So you see how it was that Thomas was absent at the second Upper Room meeting and how in hearing from his fellow disciples about the locked door and the wounds, he was prone to recalcitrant skepticism. The point is that he would not take any second-hand information to heart: “not unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” [20:25]
Let’s leave Thomas and his example here for a moment, simply saying that in addition to what we may fairly call his “block-headedness” about verifying his belief, Thomas’s faith allows for doubt: that doubt is not the opposite of faith. Fear is. The thing about doubt and faith is if we use doubt as an excuse to quit or ignore faith’s call, then we have our way out from being challenged and growing. Yet, if we use our doubts to propel us to greater awareness and engagement, then doubts can and do cause growth and transformation. Thomas is an enduringly primary example of doubt’s faithful side.
And don’t disregard what is at stake for Thomas and the rest of us. As Thomas protests very clearly, the issue at stake is “belief”. Remember, this is not some academic or abstract issue because “belief” means “giving our hearts to”). Have we not learned by now to be careful, thoughtful about to what and to whom we give our hearts? Thomas was. He was evidently very serious about giving his heart away to Jesus and wasn’t afraid to say so. As such, I’d take a whole church full of Thomases.
As for the second response to the question of what does the Thomas story indicate about the reality of resurrected life, the key for me is the Upper Room’s door. The locked door does not prevent Jesus’ appearance. Revealing his wounds to his men eliminates the prospect that he is a ghost. The theme here indicates a refrain that we will encounter throughout the next forty days: namely, the risen Jesus is different but also the same. This is to say that once he speaks the Magdalene’s name, once he reveals his crucifixion wounds, he is recognized. There is a sense of continuity in his presence, a kind retrospective “oh, yeah!” But first, there is a discontinuity, where the Risen One is not immediately recognized because he is, in fact, different.
The door is no longer a barrier; nor is time a defining element of life. That in our day powerful electron microscopes can “see” that what we commonly call “solid” is mostly space, only hints at resurrection’s upending and penetrating reality.
In this unfolding Eastertide, I ask you to look beyond the familiar story and notice how different life with God is and yet still is recognizable, how the reality of resurrected life – life beyond fear and death’s reach; life beyond the physical limits of our time and our space become clear and present in Jesus, both as discontinuity (that is, something new and different) and continuity (that is, the glimpses of eternity that have been and still are in our midst).
There are two essential aspects to Easter. The first is that Jesus was “crucified, died, and was buried; and on the third day was raised from the dead”: the full demonstration of life on God’s terms in our midst, for which we say “Alleluia!”
The second element of Easter is that resurrection life is neither limited to one day or to what happened to Jesus two thousand years ago. Rather, the second aspect of resurrection reality is that it is God’s will that we follow Jesus for the purpose of being in ourselves what we see in the Risen One. For this, we also say, “Alleluia!” and with great humility, “My God, and my Lord!” Amen.