April 16th, 2023
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
Here it is the Sunday after Easter. The Sunday after we have shouted “Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen indeed!” The Sunday after we filled our sanctuary with beautiful flowers and aromas of spring. The Sunday after Mary has had a personal meeting with the risen Jesus, and a personal resurrection. The Sunday after…
It is a little like waking up after a big party at your house, exhausted and slightly unbalanced. There is still cleaning up to do. Everywhere you turn you imagine all the people, all the laughter, all the joy that used to fill the space that now seems tired and empty. What do you do now? I think that is what the writer of the gospel of John is trying to get at. A perennial problem—what happens after Easter? Do we just go back to living our lives as if the world hasn’t changed? Or do we have a new life? And what does that new life look like?
And maybe, since John is written about the turn of the century, as those people who could have been there first-hand were beginning to disappear, he is also thinking about what happens to a movement that is so tied to one on one encounters—in the night, at the well, as a blind man, at the tomb of Lazarus, at a foot washing, at the cross, and now beside an empty tomb. With a risen and no longer an “enfleshed” Christ, how do new people achieve that one on one encounter?
I even see the writer of the first letter of Peter grappling with such a question. “Although you have not seen him, you love him, and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy…” Thomas becomes our stand-in, the ones who weren’t born at the right time, or who missed the after-party for whatever reason. Thomas is the one who says, I still want my one on one encounter.
And until I’ve seen, until I’ve done more than see, until I’ve put my hands into those wounds, until I can hold onto Jesus once more, I won’t, I can’t believe.
We live in a world where we cling to the motto, “seeing is believing.” And yet, we believe all kinds of things we can’t see. We can’t see all the vast universe out there—but we believe in it. We can’t see the tiniest particles that make up our world—sometimes we can only see what they have left in their wake, but we believe in them. In the last few years, time and time again, we have been shown that people will believe in things that are just not true, that have been proven and proven again, but that doesn’t mean people don’t still believe in the lies. (Take the anti-semitism that John’s own gospel has produced over the years with his insistence on making “the Jews” the nameless, faceless villain—with thousands of years of hatred and millions of eradicated lives to show for this mistake in his story-telling).
And even though for Thomas it is about seeing with his own eyes, and touching with his own hands, as a preacher in 2023 there is an inherent problem in preaching this as a model for ourselves. For the only seeing we can do is in our mind’s eye, or in a glass darkly, because Christ is risen, he is risen indeed, and the Spirit that has been left behind isn’t flesh and blood, isn’t able to be touched and prodded, isn’t able to shake us out of our unbelief. But let’s leave that aside for a moment. I promise, we’ll get back to that.
So what might this story of Thomas tell us about the early days after Jesus’ resurrection, and more broadly about Christians in general. In a way, Thomas is the odd man out. Thomas is the one who missed the boat. Thomas is the one who is asking to have a different experience of resurrection. And because of Thomas, we are told that we too might be able to have our one on one encounter as well.
This goes all the way back to the stories of creation, about how we are all created in the image of God. And yet we know that we are different people. We look different, we sound different, we think different thoughts, we imagine different things. Why should we imagine that God would appear to us in the exact same way? Wouldn’t you think that God, since we who are so different are created in God’s image, God would have so many different ways in appearing in our lives? And here is the hard truth, the religious authorities, the church proper, doesn’t really want this to be true. It is much easier to know if something is of God if we have a blueprint for it. If it is (to use Presbyterian language) “decent and in order.” I mean, if God is appearing to people in all these different ways, how can we control that? How can we know if that is really God, or just a figment of another’s imagination? You can see the problem for the institution.
But God isn’t trapped in any institution. God can appear as God wills. And God willed that Thomas not be left out. That those who need a more sensory encounter than Jesus appearing behind closed doors could provide. In one resurrection appearance story, Jesus even eats fish to prove that he is really alive—whatever that means when he can also appear and disappear at will, and walk through objects like doors.
Thomas needed more. And Jesus gave him more. Gave him the same greeting, “Peace be with you.” He afforded him the same “sight” of seeing his wounds. But then provided what Thomas himself had put up as the bar to be jumped over—Thomas putting his hands in Jesus’ wounds, his hands in Jesus’ side, touching and feeling as well as seeing and hearing.
What good news to Christians who come to an already established community, to be told that they don’t have to do things the way “it has always been done.” To have an example from the earliest times, that we come to God with different needs and God meets those needs, and expects the community to widen the circle, to learn more deeply about our link to Christ.
For I imagine that some of those gathered there (other than Thomas) might also have wanted to touch and feel—just as Mary had wanted to hold onto Jesus. I imagine that some of those gathered might have grown in their faith with such a demonstration, but hadn’t wanted to speak out of turn. Hadn’t wanted to seem greedy. The risen Christ was already a mind blowing experience—why ask for more?
So, we learn from Thomas that God is willing to meet us where we need to go in order to believe. We learn from Thomas that we come to God in different ways, and that is okay. But how does what we learn from the Thomas story fit in with us today? What do we do with Jesus’ words, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Is that statement for us, the ones who will never get to “see”? The ones who have to believe hearing the story, having glimmers of Jesus—risen, present, and yet not able to be touched to be felt. What about the Thomas’ of today Jesus? What about us?
And here is where I’m going to blend John and Matthew once more. Because Jesus has spent his ministry (at least the ministry that we are told about in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke) telling us stories of how we meet God and God’s kin-dom in our own world. We learn about the kin-dom from a mustard seed, and from seeds falling on various soil, and from a lost sheep. We learn about how we are to act in the kin-dom from a master leaving talents with his servants, and a master paying those who have worked the least the same as those who have worked the most, and a wedding banquet that needs to be more important than anything else.
And we learn about where to find God most especially in the parable of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25. A parable that asserts that whatever we have done to the least of these, God’s children, we have done to him.
Even if it doesn’t look like we are in the presence of Jesus, when we feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, when we welcome the stranger and clothe the naked, when we take care of the sick and visit the imprisoned, we have actually been doing all that to him.
And in this widened view of how we might touch and feel as well as see and hear Jesus, the Apostle Paul’s vision is helpful as well. The vision that we become the body of Christ. Now Paul was thinking about the church and how all the various parts of the body worked together (again the idea that different gifts and different skills and differences among people does not make one better or more ready for relationship with God). But what if we push this idea a little further, and say that the body of Christ really becomes enfleshed because we are all a part of it. That in being present with others, all kinds of others, especially others in need, maybe especially those we might not think have “earned” the right, in treating all others as if they were the body of Christ, we have the opportunity to touch and feel and see and hear Jesus each and every day.
Now I know that other people are only an imperfect image—aren’t we all. But what would happen to our world if we all looked at one another as beloved pieces of the body of Christ? What would happen to our locked door mentalities—our wanting to be safe, and away from all that aren’t like us? What could life become? Would we be able to have one on one encounters that challenge us, and maybe enrage us, and maybe make us sad, and maybe push us to be better people?
For we aren’t left with just what we can imagine in our human brains. We aren’t left with just what we can put our hands on, or change in our world. We aren’t left alone with each other to provide the Jesus touch in our world. Jesus has breathed Spirit on us—Spirit that changes us, changes what we do with what we cannot see. Spirit is like hope in Emily Dickinson’s poem,
“’Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—“
Spirit gives us courage to make visible the things that we can’t see. Spirit urges us on to press for fairness, for a better tomorrow. Spirit has been with us, helping us to paint a clearer picture of what it is that God intends, and moving us towards bringing it into existence. I can hear Jeremiah seeing God writing God’s word on people’s hearts, so that it might be ever near. I can hear Isaiah seeing a time when sword is converted to plow and peace reigns over the land. I can hear Jesus seeing that the kin-dom of heaven is near, close enough to touch, right over the next hill. I can hear the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. seeing a day when we will be judged on the content of our character and not on the color of our skin.
Maybe that is part of Thomas’ legacy. Seeing isn’t enough. Believing isn’t enough. Until we can touch, until we can feel, until it has come to pass, until it is right before our eyes, we have work to do. And so, on this Sunday after Easter, I know our numbers have shrunk. On this Sunday after Easter, I know we are still recovering from Lent and Holy Week and the big day itself. On this Sunday after Easter, I hear the good news once again—don’t go hiding behind locked doors. Don’t go thinking that we can sit back on our laurels until Christmas. We can’t rest on our belief.
For Jesus has need of us; Our world has need of us.
Come taste and see, Come touch and feel.
Come, our next adventure with God is here.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.