Last spring my brother got married in Oklahoma, and I had the joy of officiating at the wedding – I was deeply honored to be asked. He and his fiancé had gotten engaged a year before that, and when they called to share the happy news and ask me if I’d lead the service I said I’d love to – what’ the date? They said, April 7. I said, hmmm… guys that’s the day before Easter. I’d need to be in Chicago 14 hours before the ceremony and 8 hours after the reception. Now, I didn’t insist that they pick a different date, but they did, and I really appreciated it.
A year ahead of time I knew when Easter would be – in fact I can already tell you when Easter will be next year, as well (April 20, if you want to mark your calendar). If you ever wondered how the date of Easter gets determined, the holiday is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. It’s actually slightly more complicated than that, but suffice to say that we have system for knowing when Easter’s going happen, these days. And because we know when it’s coming, we develop traditions and expectations for Easter, and for all of holy week, really.
On Palm Sunday, we’re going to read this scripture and sing this hymn and wave palms. On Maundy Thursday we’re going to have the meal and wash feet and hear the story we always hear, and on Good Friday, we sing these particular hymns and on to Easter, when we’ll sing Christ the Lord is risen today, and read about the stone being rolled away. We know when Easter is coming, and we know what to expect, because we’ve been here and done this before.
So it is a challenge to put ourselves in the mindset of the people who experienced Easter, the first time around. They didn’t know what to expect – they didn’t get a Bible when they were in third grade – they didn’t have a happy ending to the Jesus story in their minds. If you are brand new to Christianity, and don’t have any background with this religion, you’ll probably find it easier to relate to the experience of the disciples on the first Easter, than the rest of us. They didn’t know what to expect. It takes real imagination for us to put ourselves in their shoes.
Sometimes we presume that the people who actually knew Jesus when he was walking around and doing stuff had it easy. It would so much easier to have faith, we think, if you could actually talk to Jesus and ask him questions and witness miracles, firsthand. I’m not so sure about that. My guess is that many of the things the first followers of Jesus saw, including most of the miracles, were utterly terrifying. And they didn’t know how it was all going to turn out.
Which is why we’re told in the Gospel of John that on the day of resurrection, even after the tomb had been found to be empty, the disciples were hanging out, scared. They’d locked themselves in a house, they were in hiding. The movement they had been a part of had seemed to fall apart overnight; it had seemed like they were truly changing the world, but then Jesus, their friend and teacher and leader and lord had been taken away, brutalized and killed. And now here they were. They didn’t want what had happened to Jesus to happen to them – they didn’t know what they were going to do, they didn’t know what would happen to them if they were seen. What should they do, where should they go from here?
When Jesus came to them, he had to come through a locked door. I expect that many of us can relate to that metaphor. In the life of faith, depending on the moment, we are afraid, defensive, wary, we hide, just like the disciples were doing on the day of Resurrection. We spend time behind locked doors, don’t we?
So when Jesus came through that locked door, the first thing he said to them was ‘Peace.’ I get that. I’m sure with every fear and worry that was running circles around them, peace for their hearts and minds was the thing they needed most. And as he said this word of peace, he showed them the wounds on his hands and his side, from his crucifixion. The Gospel of John says that they rejoiced, because they knew it was the Lord.
Jesus repeated the word of peace – peace be with you, friends. And he reminded them of something he’d said before he died, just a few days before. On the night he was arrested he’d said to them, Just as I have loved you, you are to love one another. Now he echoed that language with a new message – Just as God sent me, now I send you.
You have the power to share the same love and forgiveness that I have brought you, and I’m sending you into the world to do just that – now go. That’s quite a message to bring to a group of people who have locked themselves away in hiding, isn’t it?
Now, there was one disciple who wasn’t there when Jesus visited the group – Thomas. Thomas wasn’t there because he wasn’t hiding – he was out. We don’t know if he was going for food, or trying to gather information, or if he simply needed to walk and process everything that he’d experienced recently, but we know he wasn’t locked away in fear, like the others. When he returned, the other disciples told him that Jesus had come back to them, and Thomas was thrilled by the idea. So thrilled, he wondered if he really could believe it.
Have you ever been given some news that was so wonderful, so thrilling, so exquisitely hopeful that you felt you had to be skeptical? Like you were obligated not to let your excitement run away with you? You’re ready to believe and you want with all your heart to believe but you know that if you let yourself get swept up in the excitement and then you find out that the people who shared the news were mistaken, it will be more depressing than if you’d never considered the possibility in the first place. And so you force yourself to remain balanced and investigate all the claims.
When the disciples told Thomas that Jesus was risen, he asked to see what they had seen – He wanted to see Jesus, and specifically, he wanted to touch the wounds in his hands and his side, the wounds of his crucifixion.
Sometimes people get down on Thomas for asking for this, they call him Doubting Thomas, but Jesus didn’t call him that. Thomas had only asked to see the exact same thing that the other apostles got to see. And a week later Jesus visited them again and he straight away looked for Thomas. Thomas, he said, sorry I missed you last time. I heard you wanted to see me.
Friends, the compelling thing about Thomas’ doubt was not the fact that he doubted, because all the disciples doubted and you and I shouldn’t think that we’d have felt any differently than they did. The compelling thing about Thomas’ doubt is what he asked for in his doubt. He asked to see Jesus’ wounds. He asked to touch the marks of the cross.
Remember that Thomas and almost all of the other apostles had abandoned Jesus before he was actually crucified. They were afraid and they had run away and they did not actually see Jesus nailed to the cross. They were not there when he died. Anything they knew about what Jesus had been through would be things that they heard second or third-hand, and they would have heard these things from people who might have been hysterical with fear and grief, themselves.
Thomas wanted to know that Jesus had come back, but because he hadn’t been at the cross and seen what, for example Mary Magdalene saw, and there are a variety of things he might have been thinking about, ways he could know it was really Jesus. Instead of asking to see Jesus’ physical wounds he might simply would have wanted to talk to Jesus – To ask him questions only Jesus would know the answers to. To talk to him about private memories they shared, but also simply to hear his voice and listen for the spirit that was always there when Jesus spoke.
But that’s not what Thomas asked for. He asked to see the wounds that Jesus had endured. He wanted to see the marks. He wanted to know that this was indeed the crucified one.
Thomas wanted to know what we all want to know. Is death greater than life? Is hate greater than love? Is fear greater than faith? Can you really live fully into the message of love and peace that Christ embodied and taught and demonstrated, when evidence suggests that the forces of the world are aligned against peace, aligned against love? Can you let yourself be vulnerable and live? Can you respond to violence with grace? Can a person really do that?
Thomas wanted to know if the promise of resurrection was true. He wanted to see the signs that Jesus had gone all the way, and that the brutality and horror of the cross was not the end of the story. Thomas wanted to know what we all want to know.
Because Thomas and all of the disciples knew that they had wounds too, and that there were more wounds, great wounds ahead of them – just like you and I have wounds: wounds we’re living with and wounds we’ve yet to experience. If you’re trying to be the person God is calling you to be, you want to know if resurrection is true. If you live well, you get hurt. If you love deeply, you will grieve deeply when your loved ones suffer or die. If you give boldly to those in need, you sacrifice some of your comfort and privilege. If you stand up for justice you put yourself at risk. There are wounds we’re living with today, and there are wounds in store us down the road.
Thomas wanted to see the wounds of Christ. He wanted to know that the promise of resurrection was true, he wanted to know what we all want to know. He wanted to know, so Jesus showed him: It’s true. New life is real. It’s true.
This morning, as we celebrate Holy Communion, we’re also going to be inviting people to receive the ritual of anointing for healing, if you choose. You’ll be asked your name, and oil will be touched to your forehead, and you’ll be told that God loves you and God heals you. The healing that is available with this anointing may not cure the physical or injury you are living with. This anointing may not eradicate whatever emotional distress you’ve been living with. But there is healing to be had in this place, this morning. It is the healing that comes with new life in Christ, as we become part of the Easter story.
When Jesus rose from the grave, he was restored to life, he was resurrected to life. He was starting something new, not going back to what he’d had before. The terrible things he went through cannot be undone. His suffering couldn’t be undone, he was not uncrucified, and the disciples could never again experience life the way they had before the darkness of Good Friday. All of the terrible things that happened were real, there was no getting around it.
You see, resurrection comes with scars. It comes because of the wounds we’ve suffered. And the promise of resurrection is not that the worst things we can imagine won’t come our way – the promise is that when they do, they do not have the last word. God’s love is greater than the greatest tragedy.
Jesus says look here, it’s me. I’m really here. I’m really here with you. Look, you see? You don’t have be afraid. You don’t have lock yourself up, you don’t have to hide. God is a calling you, and I’m telling you to go. Just as the Father sent me, so I am sending you. Don’t let wounds you have today or the wounds you might get tomorrow stop you. Go ahead, it’s Easter.