April 28, 2019: Easter 2C

Easter 2C: John 20:19-31
Zion Lutheran Church, April 28, 2019
Pastor Anke Deibler

Grace be to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The disciples are gathered in their upper room behind locked doors. Suddenly, Jesus stands in their midst. The disciples are shocked and scared and bewildered. Jesus has to offer them peace twice and show his wounded hands before the disciples calm down.

If this appearance had happened out of the blue, I could understand their reaction. Seeing a person I thought was dead now standing before me and talking to me, would shock me, too.

But this did not happen out of the blue. Jesus had told his followers at least three times that he would die and after three days rise again. On top of that, Mary Magdalene had told them just that morning that she had seen the risen Lord.

So why are they all so surprised or confused by the Easter event? Why do they cower in fear when the risen Lord comes for a visit? In all of the Easter stories in the gospels, there is not a single follower of Jesus who is told of the resurrection and shouts “Hallelujah!” or “Praise the Lord”. Not one of them screams “I knew it!”. Why?

Maybe the resurrection was so far out of their realm of experience that they just couldn’t imagine it in real life. Yes, Jesus had told them he would rise, but maybe it was too hard for the disciples to picture what that would actually look like in real life.

I grew up along the Baltic Ocean in Germany. Several times, I accompanied guests to the beach who had never seen the ocean before. We had told them about it, had described the surface of water that stretched all the way to the horizon. They had probably seen photographs of it.

And yet, when they actually stood in the sand and looked out over the sea, their jaws dropped. They were stunned by the view, by the amount of water, by the vastness of it all. Hearing about it and actually seeing it for yourself are two completely different experiences. Words fail to convey the reality of it.

It’s similar with veterans and their war experiences. My grandfather served in World War II, my father-in-law served in Korea. Neither one of them ever talked much about their service. I asked other veterans about this, and the answer I got time and again was that there are no words to describe what it is like. Those who have been there understand. Those who not been there will never be able to grasp the reality of warfare. Words fail to adequately describe it.

Words failed Mary Magdalene when she reported the resurrection to Jesus’ followers. Full of excitement and joy and astonishment, she met the group with the news and describes what she had seen and heard, but the disciples just don’t get it.

Then the disciples get to see the risen Lord for themselves. And again, words fail them when they relate their experience to Thomas. Thomas had missed Jesus’ visit and he is not able to believe the Easter news just on the basis of the words of his friends. Words alone fail.

We today have the same problem. We want to tell others how marvelous it is that we serve a Lord who is alive and is present with us and has promised us new life and life after death. Yet our conversation partners just shrug their shoulders. They don’t get it. Words fail to capture the joy, the peace, the hope we receive from the Easter news.

Gospel writer John points us to what might help us in our witness – and in our own faith, for that matter.

The first point is the connection between seeing and believing. In the Easter story last week, the beloved disciple sees the empty tomb and believes. Today, the followers of Christ see the risen Lord, recognize him by his wounds, and then they believe and rejoice. Thomas demands the same proof: If he is to believe in the resurrection, he needs to see, and even touch, Jesus.

This connection suggests that if we want to help others believe in the resurrection, as well as grow in our own faith, we need to find ways to make it visible, maybe even tangible. The world is full of people like Thomas who need to see and feel the risen Lord’s power in order to come to faith. How can we make this happen?

The second direction in which John points us in our gospel is the importance of the community of believers. The disciples are all gathered together. Together, they encounter the risen Savior. Together, they rejoice in his presence among them. Together, they receive the Holy Spirit. Together they are tasked with the ministry of forgiveness. Together, they are sent into the world as messengers of the Easter news.

All except for Thomas. He was not there. I always thought Thomas wasn’t there because he was running an errand or something like it. But this year I read the commentary of someone who dug into the original Greek text of this gospel. He says that the verb forms John is using here don’t describe a momentary absence. Rather, the verb tense suggests a lengthy, ongoing absence. It sounds like Thomas was no longer part of the group.

We can’t really blame him for giving up on the Jesus movement. He had been such a fervent supporter of Jesus. When the other disciples counseled Jesus, not to go to Jerusalem because to was too dangerous, it was Thomas who said he would go with Jesus and die with him if necessary. Yes, Thomas was really excited about Jesus and his mission.

But now Jesus was dead. He had died a very crushing, brutal, shameful death, too. It was over. Thomas left the group. Maybe he was one of those people who rather processes grief and disappointment alone. Maybe he was getting ready to walk back to Galilee and his old life. Whatever was going through his head, Thomas was no longer among the disciples.

Therefore, he missed the visit of the risen Christ.

However, the disciples go after him, look for him to tell him the amazing Easter news. Thomas, of course, remains skeptical. Even though he is talking to first-hand witnesses who are bouncing off the walls with excitement and joy and exuberance, just hearing the story is not enough for him. He needs more than just words. He needs visible and tangible proof if he is to believe the resurrection news.

But he is willing to give it a try. He rejoins the group. A week later, he is with the other disciples when Jesus comes back. He receives the proof he had demanded. He sees and he believes. “My Lord and my God,” he calls out. From a skeptic he morphs into the first person ever to express faith in the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ.

After this experience, nothing will ever shake Thomas’ faith again. He becomes a hard-working apostle, sharing his Easter faith tirelessly. Legend has it that he travelled as far as India to preach the Easter news. To this day, an old branch of the church there calls themselves “Thomas Christians”.

What, then, did it take for Thomas to grasp the truth and power of the resurrection? Having that power made visible and being surrounded by the community of believers. The group of disciples was on fire after seeing the living Lord. Propelled by their Easter faith, they go after Thomas. They care so much that they look for him, talk to him, forgive him for giving up, welcome him back with all his doubts, surround him wit care, support him in his search for assurance.

It is in the midst of this caring group that Jesus shows himself again. Thomas receives the visible proof he needs while he is part of the community of believers.

Jesus knew that people would have a hard time with the resurrection news. Out of great concern for our faith, our hope, and the future of the ministry Jesus had started, our Lord therefore gave us a way to access the same two things that helped Thomas overcome doubt: visible proof in the midst of a believing community. Jesus gave us Holy Communion as his way to be visibly present with us. Every week, we come to the altar and receive bread and wine. The body and blood of Christ are placed into our hands to see and touch and taste.

And we are receiving that gift in the midst of the community of believers. We are surrounded by people of faith who love us and nurture us, who accept us in times of solid faith and in times of doubt, who are sad when we wander off and joyfully welcome us back.

Through their ministry to us, they make the power of the risen savior real to us: their love, their forgiveness when we have failed, their caring touch when we struggle, their greeting card in times of trial or celebration, their prayers, their willingness to be there for us – all these are expressions of their Easter faith, and all these make the presence of Jesus real to us.

We are blessed. We have the story of Easter; the gospels tell us what the women told the disciples and the disciples told Thomas: “Jesus is alive!” But we have more than just words. We have the sacrament of Christ’s visible presence and we have the community of believers that makes Christ’s love tangible.

May these gifts strengthen your faith and your commitment to live as the Easter people of God. May your lives proclaim that alleluia, Christ is risen – he is risen indeed. Alleluia.

And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

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