John 20:19-31, Acts 5:27-32, Revelation 1:4-8
I’ve joked with Jenn and Nate that I feel like I tend to get some really tough lectionary readings on the Sundays that I’m asked to preach. Lots of passages about death, destruction, judgment, and Jesus’ command to give away all our possessions to the poor. I know it’s good for me to preach on passages that challenge my own lack of faith, but it can also be exhausting. It’s easy to feel like I’m a total failure as a Christian!
Today’s Scripture readings are a nice change of pace for me. They’re inspiring, challenging, and give me space to examine my own doubt without feeling like I’m completely doomed. After all, the apostles abandoned Jesus at his time of greatest need. And then, when Jesus rose from the dead, the male apostles wouldn’t believe the female apostles who were first to see the risen Lord.
And as if the people closest to Jesus hadn’t doubted enough, we’ve heard in our gospel reading this morning that, even after almost all of the male apostles had their close encounter of the third kind with Jesus, poor Thomas missed it, and he refused to believe their story. It made more sense to Thomas that his entire community must be lying than that Jesus could have possibly risen from the dead.
I can relate to Thomas’ predicament. When I first became a Christian, I wanted to be a follower of Jesus. I had read the Bible and was amazed at the power and authenticity of Jesus’ ministry. In the Quaker tradition, we believe that God can speak directly through ordinary men and women today. Literally. We believe that the Holy Spirit can and does move in our community and inspires prophetic ministry.
I had witnessed the truth of it myself. There were a number of occasions where individuals in the Quaker community had stood up and spoken in the power and authority of God. It was clear that they were not just speaking out of their own desires or opinions, but that Christ was addressing us directly and specifically, speaking to our condition in the present-tense. In this kind of environment, where prophetic ministry was expected to be a regular part of our life together, I learned to recognize when the power of truth was present in the words and deeds of those around me.
This really came in handy when I finally read the New Testament for myself. I was blown away by the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. It was clear to me that when Jesus spoke and acted, he did so in the same life and power that accompanied the truly inspired ministry that I had witnessed in Quaker gatherings. The Holy Spirit spoke so clearly through Jesus. I sensed in a visceral, gut-level way that his claims on my life were authentic. This was no mere human teacher addressing me. He spoke the very words of God.
It took me a while to embrace the label, but I eventually came to identify as a “Christian” when I realized that I could say with integrity that Jesus is my lord. For me, to call Jesus “lord” means that he is the governing authority in my life. I take my cues from him. He’s the one who shows me how to live. He’s the standard by which my character and choices can be judged.
So I considered myself a Christian now. But, although I was able to say that Jesus was my lord, I still had a really tough time with some of the more orthodox theology of the church. I didn’t really know what it meant for Jesus to be “the son of God”, and the idea of the bodily resurrection seemed like an obviously mythological story. It’s a great image of death and rebirth, sure; I could accept it on a metaphorical level. But taking the story literally seemed scientifically unfounded and silly. It felt impossible for me to embrace such a story without sacrificing my own rational faculties. I could no more accept the bodily resurrection of Jesus than I could force myself to believe that the sky is green. Such things do not happen.
Don’t get me wrong – I could really get into the story. My first Holy Week as a Christian was really impactful for me. I participated in a Love Feast at the local Church of the Brethren in Richmond, Indiana for Maundy Thursday. On Good Friday, I fasted and went down to the Salvation Army to watch a screening of the Passion of the Christ. I really connected with the crucifixion. Christ’s suffering was something that I could understand. It made sense to me that Jesus had to die because of the twistedness and evil of humanity. Like so many martyrs since – Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, the early Quaker prophets, and the brutalized early Anabaptists – Jesus exemplified the power of God in undeserved suffering. I could see that God’s love and sovereignty are made visible in weakness and submission to the point of death.
Easter is harder for me. I know this sounds weird. For most normal people, Easter is the easy part, the time when we get to celebrate and give thanks for the triumph of life over death, courage over fear, love over hatred. And I can definitely get on board with all of that on a conceptual level. Just as spring follows winter and death provides the seedbed for new life, it makes rational sense that the suffering and death of the saints would be instrumental in making space for new life to arise.
But the resurrection is more than new life. We’re not just talking about a new flower that grows in the manure of dead plants. We’re talking about a plant that grows out of its own death. This is a story of a flower that dies, only to be planted again and raised up – an incorruptible flower that will never wilt again. This is a flower that fundamentally breaks the cycle of life and death, triumphantly proclaiming that winter will never come again.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a flower like that.
The Christian claim of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is profoundly supernatural. It contradicts everything we know about how our world works. As C.S. Lewis once said of Christianity, “It is a religion that you could not have guessed.”
I remember my first Easter as a confessing Christian. I was at West Richmond Friends Meeting in Indiana, and everyone around me was proclaiming, “Christ is risen!” with the inevitable response, “He is risen indeed!” I was surrounded by people who were making a completely fantastic claim with a seeming casualness and lack of reflection that took my breath away. What do you MEAN “Christ is risen”? You think he literally rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples? You think he showed the apostles the wounds in his hands and feet and side? You think he ate fish with them beside the sea of Galilee weeks after his death on the cross?
I was incredulous. These were highly educated, cultured people, but they were making claims that seemed totally ridiculous to me. That’s not to say I didn’t want to believe. But how could I possibly make a decision to hold such a clearly impossible idea in my head? I was intrigued, but my common sense would not allow me to join in the Easter liturgy with those around me.
So you’ll understand when I say that I have a pretty easy time relating to the apostle Thomas. All of the other disciples were around me, declaring their faith in the resurrection of Jesus, but I needed proof. Not only did I need proof, I demanded it! I was positively furious with the idea that I should be expected to accept something so spectacular on blind faith. I needed evidence, not hearsay.
In a lot of Christian communities, my doubts would have been scandalous. For me to question the bodily resurrection of Jesus would be beyond the pale for many congregations. Sure, I could visit, but no one would accept me as a follower of Jesus. That kind of doubt is out of bounds.
I feel fortunate that, just like Thomas, I was part of a community that accepted me in my doubt. The other apostles didn’t chase Thomas away, shunning him as an unbeliever. It was a full week before he got his chance to encounter the risen Jesus face to face. That whole time, Thomas had been hanging around with the other ten, hearing their stories about Jesus – and probably arguing with them. “Show me the body, and I’ll believe you. Let me touch the wounds in his hands and side, and I’ll accept this impossible thing you are telling me.”
I found myself in a similar situation. I couldn’t accept what the community of believers around me was saying, and they couldn’t offer any proof that would satisfy me. Many of them had never seen the risen Jesus themselves, yet they believed based on the testimony of others, and the witness of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. For me, this wasn’t enough. I believed that these brothers and sisters of mine were sincere in their faith, but that didn’t mean that I had what I needed to be convinced of the resurrection.
But I stayed with the community. I kept listening to the story as they retold it. I continued to read the Scriptures and open myself to God in prayer, willing to accept anything he would show me. I asked Jesus to reveal himself to me, to open my eyes to the reality of his resurrection. And, to my amazement, I found that he did.
I, too, have seen the Lord. In so many ways and on so many occasions, he has appeared in my life and the lives of those around me, to reveal his continuing presence and loving power. I have seen the way he gives power and courage to us when we walk with him and trust him as our present teacher and Lord. He has breathed his Spirit on me, and he has breathed on this community, liberating us to follow in his way of prophetic witness, battle with the powers, crucifixion, and resurrection into new life.
Having seen Jesus in his resurrection, we know that love triumphs over death, and that we have nothing to fear. Because of him, we are empowered to obey God rather than any human authority that would silence the prophetic voice and keep us and our neighbors captives to the power of falsehood, fear, and death. As witnesses to the resurrection, we are freed from the spirit of fear.
We are part of a new order, in which the coercive power of violence is overcome by the authority of love. We will stand before rulers and authorities, judges and politicians who have power to destroy our lives, just like Jesus and the apostles did. We will stand firm in the knowledge that our God and Father has given us the victory over all the powers of this world. Christ Jesus has overcome the power of death and determinism. We don’t have to be afraid.
On the contrary, we know that the only thing we should truly fear is the God who raised Jesus from the dead. His power is being revealed, and soon every eye will see Jesus, alive and at work in the world. Every single one of us will be witnesses to the reality of Jesus’ resurrected power. The only choice to make is whether we will be the ones rejoicing at his revealing, or whether we will wail with the nations who continue to rebel against his loving leadership.
Whether you are a faithful Mary, or a doubting Thomas (like me), I want you to know that you can trust God to give you what you need. If you need to touch the wounds and see him face-to-face, Jesus isn’t above it. He’ll come to you and reveal himself to you. But he also reminds us that the truly blessed are those who are able to receive faith without signs and miracles. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”