Last Sunday was pretty much my first Real Day at work. My first two Sundays with St. John’s were spent in the whirl of Palm Sunday and Easter, so Easter 2 was my first Normal, Regular opportunity to see how everything functioned when we weren’t concerned with either Welcoming Our New Rector or Celebrating Our Lord’s Victory over Death.
Spoiler alert: everything was terrific. I finally got a handle on how not to consecrate all the wine in the Finger Lakes region. I got a laugh out of the early service crowd with my sermon. And the little girl I had convinced to help me do the dismissal on Easter had written down her line in preparation for this week’s attempt, which was flat-out awesome.
Normal Church contains its own joys.
Here’s what I said.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
April 8, 2018
Easter 2, Year B
Do you remember last week? Remember Easter Sunday?
Think past all the people—the pretty flowers, the chocolate, the jubilant hymns, and the great meal. Remember the story of Mary Magdalene encountering Jesus in the garden, and thinking he was a random gardener?
Did that strike you as strange?
Because here’s the thing. Presumably, Mary has been with Jesus for YEARS now. She knew full well what he looked like. She knew what his voice sounded like. He was a dearly-loved friend.
But suddenly, she mistakes him for a gardener?
The mystery of why, post-resurrection, Jesus’ friends don’t recognize him is one of those mysteries that theologians and biblical scholars like to write books about, and discuss at parties. “Maybe he could only be seen through the eyes of faith!” “Maybe the resurrection reflects both profound continuity and discontinuity with the previous reality, such that the common laws of time, space, and matter were affected!”
It is not always a helpful conversation for those of us who are neither biblical scholars, nor theologians. Which may be why those folks don’t have a great party reputation.
However, looking at the gospel today, you can see some of the same confusion that Mary experienced.
When the disciples are holed up together, in that upper room, convinced they’re about to raided and arrested—remember, it’s only really been a few days since Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, and the practice of Rome was to go after everyone associated with a traitor: family, friends, everyone—to make a public example. Jesus just appears to them. In a locked room. Walks right through a locked door, and tells them to not be afraid.
THAT’s easier said than done—because not only are they convinced they’re about to be arrested, but their good friend Jesus just ghosted through a wall. EVERYTHING seems frightening!
Then, Jesus breathes on them (also, let’s face it—strange) and tells them to receive the holy spirit. Should they retain the sin of any, it is retained. If they loose the sin of any, it is loosed.
Thomas, it should be noted, isn’t here at this point. We don’t know why; maybe it was momentary—he stepped out to get lunch. Maybe he gave up and went home. Maybe he was having a real crisis of faith.
We know from earlier in the gospel that Thomas was pretty committed—when Jesus was talking about going back to Jerusalem to see Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and there was a risk of arrest already, Thomas solemnly proposed going along so as to die with him. Thomas was not a flakey disciple—we don’t have evidence that he fled like Peter at the crucifixion.
But for whatever reason, he is absent on this occasion.
So when he turns back up, he is skeptical about the story the others tell him. It doesn’t sound right to him. I was reading a commentary this week that posited that the language around Thomas’s exit and return sounds like a person who had left permanently and then is sought after—a nuance of verb tense that doesn’t quite come through in English. So this commentator imagined that Thomas had suffered a crisis of faith—a betrayal of sorts, and had left the community for a time to sort it out.
For a person like Thomas who had so much invested in Jesus, and what he represented, that he was willing to die for him, it would follow that to witness a passive Jesus be crucified at the hands of Rome would be a real blow to his faith. And he might need time to discern what this meant for him.
Yet the other disciples, having seen the risen Lord, go and track him down. They tell him the story. They try to get him back in their community.
But Thomas isn’t having it. Because, again—the story sounds ludicrous. Jesus walks through walls? Jesus breathing on them? Jesus being alive after he was most certainly dead? No.
Also, consider that if Thomas is having a crisis of faith, then it’s not so easy to just return. He feels betrayed, and guilty for having left, and is probably unsure of his reception.
Crises of faith are not so easy to bounce back from. Traumas are not so easily healed. Even after we experience new life, the suffering we endure leaves its mark. So when Thomas returns to the fold, and he encounters the risen Christ for himself, is it any wonder that what he asks for is to see the wounds of Christ? Not proof of life, per se, but proof of suffering. Proof that somehow, Christ too knows what Thomas and the others went through, scared and alone locked in that upper room.
What brings Thomas back into community is Jesus’ scars, more than Jesus’ new life. Yes, Jesus is alive again, and he is risen, and that is glorious, but Jesus still bears the wounds of a person who was crucified—of a person who went through the experiences that he went through. The resurrection, as it turns out, does not erase or undo the past week—it transforms it into something new. Something more powerful. Something that can reach out and speak to Thomas.
It is tempting to think of our faith in the resurrection as a ‘get out of death’ free card. As a sort of magic trick that will save us from having to endure anything scary or difficult for long. Jesus, after all, didn’t stay dead, so why should we get too upset about it? Why should we fear or grieve death, if we know its not the end?
But Thomas has a point in his dramatic faith crisis this week. Easter does not wash away the memory of what has happened. Resurrection does not erase the crucifixion, or the misery of Holy Week. Those things still happen; we still endure death, and loss and grief. But God in his wisdom and mercy refuses to let the story end there. God participates in our suffering, to be with us, and to transform it into something redeemed.
For Thomas, it was the sight of Christ’s wounds—the knowledge that Christ had suffered in some sense as he had—that affirmed for him his place in this community again. The wounds of Christ had been transformed into instruments of healing for Thomas and the disciples. Instead of being mere reminders of a painful experience, now they were a bridge to bring Thomas back to his friends.
For all of us, the resurrection of Christ is not just a one time event. For us it offers a chance not to erase our pain but to redeem it, to transform it into something new. To change it from open wounds into scars that can work creative good in the world.
As we journey farther into Easter, let us always remember that the glory of Easter is with us, reaching out to transform the wounded heart of the world into something new, something holy.