Must be present to win?

sermon on John 20:19-31


There’s a lot in this passage. It’s John’s version of Pentecost, and also of the Great Commission, his culmination or final clarification of the story. The believers receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and are sent with the power that God alone could have, with forgiveness and grace. Oh, and the small detail that the risen Jesus appears behind locked doors to offer greetings and blessing.

incredulityBut for all of that, we are still most drawn to Thomas, this one who missed out and then is struggling to believe.

This is a standard story for this 2nd Sunday of Easter, since it’s set today. Or at least the second part is. In the first, the followers of Jesus were together on Easter evening. After hearing the morning’s news from Mary Magdalene that Jesus was risen and had come to comfort her and wipe away her tears and reassure her faith, after that Jesus’ followers for some reason evidently decided it was a good time just to lay low, to hide out, to linger behind locked doors.

Before we get to Thomas, let’s pause with that fearful crew trying to barricade themselves in, pause to ponder: Why does the resurrection make them more afraid and not less? Is it supposing that the authorities who couldn’t kill Jesus and keep him dead will come after them instead, since they might be easier to bump off?

Or are they actually afraid of this newfound power? That the good news of life somehow becomes for them bad news? That precisely no longer having anything to fear from death means that they should be encouraged to stand up and confront the deadly powers and violent authorities? Does having the assurance of hope, the promise of nothing to lose actually seem riskier?

Or is it confining that they would not want to share this good news? Is it easier to keep enemies as enemies and not have to face the possibility of reconciliation, not have to see that forgiveness and God’s love could be for those we’d prefer to despise or keep ignoring? Did it all get too big, that they liked the teachings of Jesus, but actually having him as the Lord and Creator of life means having to share more broadly than we’d selfishly want? It’s not a very desirable commissioning, to be sent back out to those who would oppose you or cause you worry, with a message that God desires better life for them, along with you.

But against that trying to stay secluded, to keep others at bay, Jesus broke through the locked doors and won’t allow belief or blessing to stay cooped up and so directly sent them out. For these followers stifled in anxiety and sorely at odds with those around them, Jesus speaks peace: peace for them, and peace to share.

Already what I hope you’re hearing, then, is Jesus showing up to confront and fulfill the deepest need, meeting people, restoring them, and expanding it still further. It’s about life continuing. He did it with Mary, isolated in her grief, and sent her instead with good news of relationship. He did it for those trapped followers, in sharing and spreading peace and reconciliation.

Then we get to Thomas. Thomas who missed out. Thomas who wanted to believe about the resurrection. Thomas who needed the good news. Thomas who longed for Jesus.

Now, we don’t know why Thomas wasn’t there Easter evening…if it was an excused absence…where he was instead. Maybe it was that his grief or his fear was so intensely isolating he just really needed to be alone by himself. While I don’t disparage that—and can deeply feel that introverted need myself—still we have to notice that in this case it came with liability: if Thomas wanted to be alone, it left him separated from the rest of the believers.

For them, even though they also were sad and scared and all of that, still being together as community was the right place to be, as it enabled the chance to receive the Holy Spirit’s reassurance and encouragement. That is a valuable note about our practice of community here: it is risky to be away, since this is the surest place to meet Jesus, as we’ll hear, to be able to receive blessing and good news and what you need.

Maybe Thomas just happened to miss out. One of my colleagues liked to suggest he was out on a falafel run, picking up some supper to go for the rest. So maybe it was an errand. Maybe he thought the gathering was pointless, not worth his time. Maybe he had a conflict on his calendar and wanted to be with the believers but couldn’t, and made the hard choice to go with his previously scheduled programming. Maybe you were still on spring break last week and missed our Easter gathering here. Maybe you awaited guests and felt the obligation to them instead. Maybe it was just…something else. There’s always another place you could be and may even want to be, other good things happening.

Still, it’s worth observing that Jesus didn’t encounter Thomas in those other places, wherever else he was. Or, perhaps to say it better: Thomas didn’t encounter Jesus. Jesus knew what Thomas needed; as soon as he came into the room he was addressing Thomas’s request. So we could presume that Jesus might have been trying to find Thomas, to deal with his concern and meet his need the whole rest of the week.

I’d say it’s reasonable to expect that Thomas encountered the risen Jesus as the lady behind the counter at the falafel shop. And amid the crowds he was passing in the marketplace. And Jesus probably showed up in the hotel clerk on spring break. And was pumping gas by an off ramp. He arrived amid the awaited guests, and also outsiders kept at bay. And he was wherever it was Thomas thought he had something better to do. And Jesus was also very likely there with Thomas when he was so sad and lonesome.

But Thomas couldn’t recognize it. He didn’t know. He couldn’t spot Jesus in those places. Even if Jesus was coming to find him and help him, still Thomas figured he was lacking, was missing out, didn’t get what he needed…until that second Sunday gathering.

So it’s certainly not that Jesus is locked in this place, that here behind our closed doors is the only place Jesus could show up to meet us. He’s surely on the loose and working in the world and present absolutely everywhere you go. But you may not recognize him. You may not be able to receive from him. You may in some way first need to be here amid the gathered community to be found by him.

The other really remarkable thing is that amid those gathered believers on that 2nd Sunday of Easter, Jesus seemed to come specifically to find Thomas in his need. He has barely said a howdy to the rest of the clan, but zeroes in directly on Thomas and shows up especially because Thomas needs him.

That must be true in this place, too, though it can feel like a counterintuitive truth. We often expect that we’re closer to God when everything is going well, that on our best days is when we’re most blessed, that cleanliness is close to godliness, and that we’re ready to praise when we ourselves are so happy and excited and enthusiastic, that faith is riding high at the top of the wave. But this truth is that Jesus comes into the mess and the sorrow and isolating grief and low points when everything is going wrong, precisely to find you in your moment of need.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, in other places Jesus leaves the 99 sheep to go in search of the lost one, and he says that he is the doctor who has come not for those who are feeling healthy and doing just fine but for the sick. He finds the outcasts and welcomes them in. And restores sinners to holy community. And takes the children in his arms. And on and on. He is a scarred and heartfelt Lord, on the lookout for our scared and hurt-filled lives, our times of need, our deepest longings and worst worries.

So if you arrive amid this community today and think you’ve got it all figured out and are happy and not needing much, well, if that happens to be your position, I’m really glad you’re still in the right place, but I’ll say with only a little overstatement that Jesus might not need to bother much with you today.

But if you arrive here and all is not well, if you’re longing and hurting, if you have felt left out, if you’re overwhelmed by what scares you or saddens you or what has failed, if it seems that everyone is against you or that everyone else got to have what you’ve missed out on, and exactly if none of this seems like you can quite believe it…then counterintuitively and with immense difficulty, it is exactly for you that Jesus shows up.

It may be the hardest for you to see, to believe, to know—but Jesus comes today and right now into this room, comes directly to you, and says, “I am here for you. I am here with life everlasting that cannot be stopped. I am here to wipe your tears. I am here to embrace and surround you with love. I am here to forgive you. I am here to foster the reconciliation that’s more than you could hope. I give you peace—peace such as the world cannot give—for your fears and anxieties. I breathe my Spirit into you, inspiring you, filling you with purpose. I am here to respond to your needs, offering my very self, that you may go back out from here and live, that you may have life.”

It is for you that Jesus was risen. He was raised to resurrect you, too, to demonstrate your injuries can no longer ultimately harm you. And so precisely in the lowest moments, we exclaim the highest praise: Alleluia! Christ is risen!


Persistent Wounds, Unexplained Hurts, and a God of Life

2nd Sunday of Easter (12Apr15)

Our faith is surprising for its ongoing encounter with suffering. Even at Easter it’s life through death, gladness amid sadness, answers still shrouded in mystery. In spite of the resurrection, it is not that pain and sorrow are simply undone or erased.

I had a professor who talked about trying to peer under God’s robes, meaning wanting to peel back the coverings that are hiding God, to get a glimpse of the so-called naked God, to remove the mystery and see what’s really there, an unobstructed revelation. The larger point is that we don’t get that view of God. We can’t sneak a peek under God’s robes.

But as a consolation prize (if you will), I’ll show you mine. When I was dressed as a dove for BBQ and Soul Food, Dolores Gust commented on my chicken legs. So I’m not trying for a bawdy peep show, but to point out a scar. In elementary school on the first nice spring day, I was running out to recess in boots that were too big for me, and I biffed it across the pavement, getting a big scrape. About two weeks later, before they’d cleaned the sand from winter off the streets, I was on my skateboard and got a rock lodged under the wheel and tore off the fresh scab and re-gashed the same wounded knee, and still have a scar as a reminder.

Here on my arm is one where I upended my mom’s hot tea when I was a toddler. I don’t even remember it, but it still grieves her. On my hands you can see where I almost sawed off my finger at Scout camp and where I crashed my motorcycle.

If my hair is buzzed short, you can see a scar from the chicken pocks and also where I collided with a corner of the ceiling when I was in college playing Nerf guns with my friend’s little brother.

This front tooth is chipped from a BB gun. I didn’t shoot my eye out, but was in the ER long enough that I was late for my performance in The Sound of Music that evening. The longest lingering of my residual damage was the least traumatic. Despite orthodontists’ efforts my teeth and mouth are still weird from sucking my thumb until 2nd grade.

So there you go, both the literal and the figurative glimpse under my robes. And you may rightly ask, “What’s the point of all of that?”

Showing those past injuries and the after-effects can have a couple of typical reactions, between two poles. One side would be the observation that we never really recover from old wounds. The opposite would be the standard claim that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Neither of these are exactly expressions of our faith. But both can be persistent mantras, because they have some truth. Not just from old skateboarding injuries, but especially for our emotional suffering, we never can fully heal. The opposite of the old “sticks and stones” rhyme, we know that words sometimes hurt the worst. Old injuries always continue to affect us, whether we fall into the same old traps or are so cautious to avoid them. It may be your sense of trust, or your sense of shame, or some part of your inner spirit that’s been damaged and just can’t quite be as joyful, as good, as you’d wish.

We can still try to put a positive spin on that, which is where we come around to the “makes you stronger” perspective. Having been wronged may make you eager to stand up for justice. Maybe you view yourself as more resilient. Maybe we do learn from our mistakes and take them as growing experiences. There can be positive value in trying to take what has hurt us and make sense of it somehow. It can strive to redeem senseless suffering.

The thing is, though, that life is more complicated than we’d like, and God is more mysterious than we’d like. So your wounds and injuries aren’t necessarily because there is some bigger lesson for you, or because God has a plan for you to figure out, or because you need to get stronger. I might learn that playing with Nerf guns and jumping into a low ceiling is going to make my head bleed. My 2nd grade self probably would not be so easily reasoned with, to be convinced that thumb-sucking would be problematic later on in life.

But, much more importantly, there are too many ways we suffer that don’t make any sense, that are for no good reason, that are beyond any sort of measure we should expect. Trying to look for a larger, better “why” when you lose a job, or if you’re suffering abuse, or when a poor diagnosis comes. In financial, relational, or health catastrophes. Much less in the bad news scale of dumb governments, greedy corporations, military genocide, or natural disasters—those don’t come with simple, positive explanations. They just plain are wrong. We are trapped in sin. It doesn’t make sense. So aside from some suffering that may be intentionally constructive, be sought for a reason (like the incision for a surgery or the nonviolent resistance of the civil rights movement) if it’s forced or coerced or inflicted unwillingly—even if it causes a turning point in society, a beneficial improvement—even if the Holocaust makes us say “never again” or Tony Robinson makes us work on racial relations—still that doesn’t make those deaths okay or the suffering perpetrated on them somehow “worth it.”

And none of this gives us the chance to look under God’s robes and explain it all away. See, our God is not revealed in trying to rationalize some master plan for suffering. Our God isn’t about putting you through troubles and trials just to see how you fare or what you can learn or if you’ll grow from it. God is not seeking to make you stronger or to die trying. In fact, based on our cliché, Jesus was killed and not made stronger.

And it’s a death we can’t really rationalize or explain away. We have to hold in mystery. He died because we humans are too sinful and violent. He died because our institutions are corrupt. He died because he stood up to the religious authorities and resisted the Roman Empire. But we can’t say that his suffering was proportional, that he earned it, that it was justified. And, since this is a question of God, we’re left wondering why God couldn’t try to change Caesar some other way, to make evil powers have a change of heart or make them reform or never let them be born in the first place.

All of this makes Jesus’ death for us pretty well inexplicable, unjustified, unfair, terrible, brutal, wrong.

caravaggioThat, at long last, brings us to today’s Gospel reading, telling us what we may know of God in Jesus. With it, here’s what I find to be a great representation, one of my favorite pieces of art. The artist is Caravaggio and it’s called “The Incredulity of St. Thomas.” I love Thomas’ raised eyebrows and the anxious onlooking of the others, indeed that it’s almost unbelievable that death didn’t win, that wrongs were righted, that Jesus is with us, in our midst.

This is a vital and meaningful portrayal of what our resurrection faith means, what our hope is. It marks this Easter season and is the very center of our faith. Again, we don’t get the full view under God’s robes to understand all that is behind the hiddenness and mystery. We don’t know why this is. But we can see that God didn’t stop the suffering and death. Neither does God simply erase it. For Jesus, those marks of being wronged and wounded are still there. There was no divine intervention that spared him from dying on the cross or that lashed out to smite those who were causing him pain. Neither does that all just go away after he rises from the dead. The terrible things are not ignored or forgotten as if they never happened. Jesus still bears those scars, those gaping holes, signs of the very thing that did him in. But those wounds are now only filled with wonder. They can do no more harm. They aren’t there for ouch or ew, but wow.

What does this mean for you? Even if we wish it were otherwise, God—for whatever reason—doesn’t work by yanking you out of harm’s way or sparing you hurts. Some problems you can use your wisdom to avoid. Others befall you without you being able to help it. If you put a positive spin on it, placing it as something small amid the larger flow of your life or of the universe, that may put the injury to good use, but still we can’t say that the bad was actually good. We simply don’t know enough to say that God was causing harm in order eventually to bring about some benefit.

Yet amid suffering, amid all that goes wrong, when life hurts too much and it’s more than you can bear, what you may indeed know, what you may trust, what you may cling to is that suffering and injury and injustice and death will not have the last word. Evil may do its worst, but God has more to say. God will overcome, will conquer death, will put it in its place. It is not ultimate. What has hurt you will not and does not define you. That you are loved by God, that you have life in God, that you are a child of God and member of this family is who you are. As horrible as things may be, as much as you have to face what you shouldn’t, as overwhelming as it gets, our God of healing, peace, forgiveness, life has more to come. Thomas is right; what we proclaim is almost unbelievable: Alleluia. Christ is risen.

Hymn: The Risen Christ (ELW #390)