April 19,2020 The First Sunday of Easter

The Second Sunday of Easter
April 19, 2020
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; I Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

From the Gospel according John, “Jesus said, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, risen Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     On the surface, today’s scripture lessons appear to offer a glimpse into the early message of the Christian Church: the message that Christ is, indeed, risen from the dead just like he promised. In our reading from Acts, we have Peter’s own eyewitness testimony to the resurrection. He tells the gathered crowd, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.” In our second reading, James speaks about being witnesses to the resurrection simply by faith alone. And in our gospel lesson we hear Jesus’ own words about belief in the resurrection. He asks Thomas, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

    In many churches today, the Second Sunday of Easter is called “Doubting Thomas Sunday.” Fortunately, in our faith tradition, the Anglican tradition, there is no such thing as a “Doubting Thomas Sunday” just as there is no “Denying Peter Sunday”, no “Loaves and Fishes Sunday”. Our lessons today really are not about Thomas, or Peter, or James or any of the disciples. Our scripture readings this morning point us directly to the miracle of Easter and invite us to grasp more deeply how Christians can affirm that Jesus has, indeed, risen from the dead and is very much alive and at work in the world right now, especially during this time of pandemic. And that lesson, that learning, begins with a careful reading of our text from the Gospel according to John.

    John tells us that when Jesus first appeared to his disciples after the resurrection, they had locked themselves away out of fear that they would be arrested and put to death. It was common practice in those days to round up a criminal’s closest followers and execute them. So, their fear was justified. Jesus passes through the locked door and greets them with the customary, “Shalom” and yet, his greeting is so much more than a wish for peace.

Jesus shows them his hands and his side to both confirm who he is, as well as, to confront them with the evidence of their own cowardice and abandonment of him. These men are grief stricken, guilty and fearful, and yet, Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” They know that they had run away and hidden during Jesus’ trial and execution and yet, while his wounds are evident and clearly visible, they do not threaten. There is no vengeance in Jesus’ words. No seeking retribution in his voice. On the one hand Jesus shows them the evidence of their own sin and tacit betrayal, and on the other, that they are absolved, forgiven. Because, when all is said and done, forgiveness is Christ’s Easter gift to the world and what better place to demonstrate that forgiveness than to be present with his friends and make no mention of their shortfalls.

Then Jesus breathes on them saying “receive the Holy Spirit” and these once guilt-ridden, fear-filled men were empowered to go forth as witnesses to the resurrection. They tell Thomas what happened, and he does not believe them. He needs proof. Now, before we judge poor old Thomas, let’s remember that according to Luke, when the women first proclaimed that Jesus was alive and had risen from the dead these same disciples, (and I quote) “thought their words an idle tale and would not believe them” (Luke 24:11). So, it is not surprising that Thomas had doubts.

     A week later, Jesus appears to the disciples again and this time Thomas is present. Jesus says, “Peace be with you” just like he did before. And then he turns to Thomas and invites him to touch his wounds, to prove to himself that Jesus is very much alive. What matters to Jesus in this moment is not being able to say, “I told you so” or to show Thomas up, but rather, to do everything possible for his friend to believe, to be present to him and demonstrate his love for, and forgiveness of, him; to enable Thomas the chance to recapture a sense of faith in God’s providence and grace, and not be afraid. Just like when he appeared to the disciples a week earlier, what matters to Jesus in thismoment is not guilt or creating a sense of shame, but rather, offering an invitation to be at peace, to be relieved, and to go forth as witnesses to the resurrection; witnesses to the redemptive power of forgiveness, of new life in Christ.

     And these men, including Thomas, did go forth and proclaim to the world the good news of the Gospel: that in the risen Christ sin is forgiven and all are welcomed home into God’s presence simply by faith in Christ alone. Now, Peter, Thomas, and the others were able to tell folks they had seen the risen Christ with their own eyes. But what about us? Well, James, in his Letter to the Church says, “Although you have not seen (Jesus), you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him.” So, James affirms the power of faith alone over faith that comes from seeing. But, still, even with our faith in Jesus Christ, what proof can we offer the world that the he is, indeed, risen and alive?

      And that brings us to the depth of today’s scripture lessons. See, it is one thing to have faith, it is another to putthat faith into meaningful action. It is one thing to say with our lips we believe Christ is risen, it is another to believe it so deeply in our hearts and minds that proof of the resurrection shows forth in how we choose to live; choose to embrace, uphold and foster in our way of life, in our families and communities, everything he taught and showed us.

      In these days of self-quarantine and social distancing, churches nationwide and across denominational lines have reported a dramatic increase in the number of people tuning in to watch online worship services. That has happened for Holy Cross as well. People are not only seeking proof that Jesus is, indeed, alive and risen from the dead, but even more important, they are seeking proof that this resurrected Christ makes a difference. They not only want to seeJesus, they want to see Jesus transforming lives, directing Christians in their choices – choices in their words, what they post on social media, and choices in their deeds, how they choose to respond to fear and uncertainty about the future. People are looking for Jesus, but all they can see is us. And therein lies our challenge.

     For years now, “millennials” most of whom describe themselves as having no church affiliation nor any interest in organized religion have told the Church that what they seek is not faith but an authentic faith: a faith that makes a difference in everyday life. That’s the kind of faith I believe St. Teresa of Avila had in mind when she wrote, (and I quote) “Christ has no body now, but ours. No hands but ours, no feet but ours. Ours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion looks into the world. Ours are the feet by which he walks to do good. Ours are the hands with which Christ blesses the world.”  Beloved, that kind of living and service is the authentic faith people are seeking right now; the kind of faith that enables them to truly see Jesus.

     The message and challenge to the Church on this Second Sunday of Easter is simply this: If people need proof of the resurrection and its transformative and life-giving grace, they should need to look no further than to us.

     Jesus said, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” By God’s grace, may people looking at Holy Cross, whether online or in person, see the risen Christ, see Jesus not judging or excluding or making light of someone’s doubts, but rather, see Jesus welcoming, loving, and forgiving; see Jesus in us, in our words, and how we choose to live, so that they, too, will come to believe. Amen