Alive

April 23, 2017: Second Sunday of Easter
John 20:19-31
Meghan Florian

Last week, on Easter Sunday, Isaac talked about Mary, the first preacher, about Jesus’ noncoercive call, and about naming. I carried this message about the mother of our faith around with me this week as I thought about the message Mary brings to the disciples, about what happens next, when Jesus begins visiting the others, about the ways Easter continues as Jesus reinitiates these relationships.

The disciples, minus Thomas, gather fearfully in a locked room later in the evening of that same day, and Jesus comes and stands among them, greeting them with peace, and shows them his wounds – hands scarred by nails, his side cut open. They rejoice at his return, and Jesus commissions them, breathing on them with the breath of the Holy Spirit.

Thomas missed all that. We’re not told where he is or why, only that he is the first one they go to after Jesus’ sending words, as best we can tell from the text. Thomas is skeptical, though. It’s one thing to see Jesus in front of you, to hear him say your name, or to greet you with peace; it’s another for your grieving, exhausted, possibly not thinking clearly friends to claim that a man people saw die is not, in fact, dead. They had been grieving their beloved rabbi, someone they had left their whole lives behind to follow, and on top of that grief they were scared for their own well being, locked up in a room together when Jesus appeared.

The whole situation must be so disorienting, and I’m beginning to think that Thomas doesn’t so much give us a lesson about doubt as he does a lesson about asking for what we need. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” The others got to see him. Thomas wants to see, too, and he wants to touch – and really, what could be a more appropriate response to our embodied God, than to touch his real flesh, wounds and all?

A week passes. They’re gathered again, behind closed doors again, and Jesus comes to them, again – but this time, Thomas is with them. Listen to how Jesus responds to Thomas. He doesn’t reprimand him for his doubt, doesn’t even mention it at first, except to offer this invitation: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe.” Thomas is invited into an intimate embrace. And how does he respond to this invitation? By claiming Jesus as his own: my Lord and my God!

Rather than saying Thomas doubted, one could argue that he had been waiting for Jesus to call him back, that what he needed was this invitation. Perhaps he wandered the streets, away from his community, the other disciples, on that first day, carrying feelings of frustration or sadness. Some of us draw close to others in unsettling times, gathering like the disciples, but others flee, needing to sift and sort through our sorrow alone. Grief takes many forms, and I think we forget sometimes that yes, in fact, the disciples must have been grieving.

Maybe Thomas is angry, and maybe that anger leads to a kind of stubbornness, an unwillingness to believe Jesus is back based on second hand information. Maybe he’s mad at God. Maybe he’s heartbroken. And so, for that reason or something else, maybe he needs Jesus to reach for him, to show up and say, come here, touch me, I am flesh and bone and blood, and I have not abandoned you. Please, come closer, draw near, I need you. I am here, for you.

Sometimes we need the other person to make the first move before we can receive their embrace, accept their love, believe that what they’re promising us is real. Despite his request to see and touch, Thomas’s response when Jesus shows up is not that of the carefully calculating thinker, testing and proving – it’s that of a confused, hurt human who thought he lost his beloved teacher, and hesitates to risk believing that he’s back.

So when Jesus shows up, Thomas’s response comes from his gut – or his heart, whatever you want to call that kind of spontaneous, joyful response – my Lord, my God! A declaration of love welling up from his broken-hearted grief.

Thomas’s words bear witness to the risen Lord, to love that conquers death so that God can draw near to us. Thomas’s story isn’t so much about empiricism as it is about the intimacy of a God who wants so badly to be with us that God lives, suffers, and dies, as we do, journeys through hell to come back to us. Jesus wants to be with Thomas, with the disciples, with you and with me.

How do we witness to that kind of life in a culture of death? How do we embody the intimacy of Jesus’ invitation to Thomas, to feel Jesus’ wounds, to embrace? To respond with joyful exuberance to God’s call, with my Lord and my God?

I hear joy in Thomas’s reply, his knowledge that Jesus died overcome by what’s in front of him, his desire to make sense of things by seeing and touching shoved aside as instead he offers that joyful exclamation of relationship.

In times of anxiety and fear, we must remember, here in this space as well as outside in our fellowship, that Christ is risen. We cannot be a church of Good Friday only. Christ is alive. To touch the wounds, as Thomas does, means testifying to Christ’s healing power, triumph over the grave. It means cultivating joy amidst sorrow. The scars remain, but there is life, and there is love, and there is joy.

Last night I read one of humor writer Mallory Ortberg’s email newsletters in which she joked in that serious poignant way some people know how to joke about things that matter, about how she’d really like to listen to a podcast without any murder in it, or maybe watch such an episode of SVU. (If you’re into Serial of S-Town, you can guess that she’s probably responding to those a little.) She writes about detectives,

…walking around Manhattan with white paper cups of coffee, sitting down for long talks on park benches and interviewing daycare center workers and bartenders and personal assistants about where would be a good place to get their next cup of coffee. “Wow, thanks for telling us about Ruth-Ann,” they’d say to the daycare center workers and bartenders and personal assistants after they got done asking them questions. “She sounds like a really interesting person, and I’m glad she’s still alive.” Then after a while they could go back to the station, I guess, and everyone would be alive there too.

I love this image Mallory gives us, of detectives having nice conversations on park benches, drinking coffee. Of podcasts detailing stories of life rather than death. There are so many wonderful people, who we only hear about after they’ve died. But they mattered all along.

We cannot ignore death, of course – it’s everywhere, it seems. But Jesus’ triumph over the grave promises us death doesn’t have the last word. It calls us to imagine a different world, and to work toward that world – a world where no one carries guns, a world without prisons, a world where borders are crossed freely – or cease to exist entirely. A world where we sip coffee and swap stories of good news more often than sorrow.

“Wow,” I’d like someone to say to me someday, in such a world, as we sit on a park bench while we sip our coffee, “thanks for telling me about this Jesus guy. I’m glad he’s still alive.” And then maybe we could walk over to church together to sing some songs and have a potluck, and everyone would be alive there, too.

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