The Rev. Jay Lawlor
2nd Sunday of Easter – Year B (RCL) – April 8, 2018
St. David’s Episcopal Church – Bean Blossom, IN
When it was evening on that first Easter Sunday, the disciples were gathered together in the Upper Room behind locked doors because they were afraid. They were afraid because their leader, the one who was going to bring down an oppressive empire and establish God’s reign on earth, had been beaten and a hung on a cross to die. They were afraid because the one whom they believed in, the one whom they loved, was dead and buried in a tomb. All hope seemed lost.
The disciples were afraid because they were a marginalized group of Jews who were part of a movement begun by Jesus that now seemed over. Their “fear of the Jews” in John’s Gospel is more accurately to be understood as “fear of the Judeans.” Jesus was Jewish, as were all of his disciples. Jesus was a Jew from the region of Galilee. The Judeans were Jews who lived in the region of Judea. Jesus clashed with the Judean Authorities: the elites in Jerusalem who collaborated with the Roman Empire. Now Jesus was gone and the disciples were afraid of what might happen next. The movement he began seemed all but officially over.
John’s community – living in the late First Century – could easily relate to the disciples. They too were a Jewish community who believed in Jesus as the Messiah. They too were marginalized and in conflict with those in authority: the leaders of the traditional synagogue. The Johanine synagogue was a fearful community that felt trapped and surrounded in a hostile environment. Locked in an intra-Jewish conflict. They were one of several sects of Judaism with differing beliefs and practices. Not unlike the many Christian groups today — who differ greatly over biblical interpretations, theology, traditions, and worship practices.
It is such an environment in which John’s community is living in the late first century. It is such an environment in which Jesus’s disciples find themselves on that Easter evening as they gather behind locked doors. Full of fear and without hope. Jesus is dead. All seems lost.
But neither their fear nor locked doors keeps Jesus from coming to them. Jesus lives! And Jesus loves! And it is out of this love the risen Christ, the living Jesus, enters the room and stands among the disciples and says “Peace be with you.” A greeting for communal well-being. A greeting offered in love. A greeting to replace fear with witness to the risen Jesus.
The disciples see Jesus’s hands and his side, and they rejoice. Jesus lives! Then Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit upon them. The same Spirit which empowered Jesus then empowered the disciples to minister in Jesus’s name. This same Spirit we received in our own Baptisms: empowering us to minister as disciples of Jesus in this day and age. The same Spirit which pours itself into common bread and wine to make them holy: outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace: Jesus’s Body and Blood, offered to strengthen and renew us, week after week, to do the work of ministry in a world so filled with fear. But our witness is not out fear. Our witness is out of the love of God so freely given to us and to the world. Jesus lives! And Jesus loves!
But one disciple didn’t get the memo. He isn’t present in the Upper Room when the Risen Jesus appears to the other disciples and breathes the Holy Spirit upon them. The Fourth Gospel tells us that Thomas was not with them when Jesus came. So they tell Thomas all about it. How they were locked in the room, afraid, and the Risen Jesus came to them.
And we know the story. Thomas did not believe. But I don’t think we should be too hard on Thomas. He didn’t have the benefit of seeing Jesus as the other disciples had. Until that moment, they too, lived in doubt. Their fear as good an indicator as any that they were in a state of shock and disbelief over the events of recent days.
Perhaps we might even say it was reasonable for Thomas to have doubt. I don’t think it made his love for Jesus any less. He knew Jesus died on the cross and was buried in a tomb. I’m confident Thomas wanted to believe what the other disciples told him. Why wouldn’t he? To know Jesus lives would have been the best news Thomas could have received. Maybe the pain of losing him was more than Thomas could bear. Fear and doubt can be powerful weapons against hope.
So what does Jesus do? He returns to the Upper Room. The doors are shut, but not locked. The disciples, all but Thomas, no longer living in fear. They know Jesus lives and that they are filled with the Holy Spirit.
Jesus again greets them with peace. Then he turns to Thomas and offers that which Thomas said he needed to believe. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” Jesus lives and Jesus loves. And the living Jesus comes to Thomas out of love so that he too will believe. So that Thomas’s fear and doubt will be replaced with a witness to the risen Jesus.
Thomas immediately declares to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus offers a sign of his Resurrection to Thomas. A sign that Jesus lives. And Jesus loves. John’s Gospel tells us Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in the Fourth Gospel. But these signs . . . the Risen Jesus appearing to the disciples on Easter evening, and the Risen Jesus appearing to them again with Thomas present, are written so the Johanine community know Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that there is life in his name.
Contrary to the fear of the disciples that Easter evening, and contrary to Thomas’s doubt, Jesus showed himself to have risen from the dead. He erased their fear and doubt, and empowered them to be witnesses of the Resurrection. To be witnesses of Jesus’s love for the world. The movement they thought had ended was just getting started.
And the Jesus Movement continues today. It continues with us. And the world needs Jesus’s love as much as it ever has, because fear and doubt are still with us. Even heightened at times. Many live in fear, and many have doubt.
Psychologists suggest a little fear is healthy; it helps keep us safe. So, too, is a little doubt (or skepticism), as it keeps us asking questions to arrive at truth. But too much fear is debilitating – even destructive. Doubt which is contrary to fact can be equally dangerous.
Negative fear and doubt can consume us. Can consume a society until our fear and doubt of others, fear and doubt of the unknown, fear and doubt about our very future can lead human beings to some dark and ugly places. Such fear and doubt appeals to the less attractive aspects of human nature, and can, if we are not careful, if we are not vigilant, lead us to those places we do not want to go.
But it is into a world of fear and doubt Jesus came. It is into a world of fear and doubt in which Jesus preached a message of justice rooted in love. It is into a world of fear and doubt that Jesus gathered disciples, opposed the cruel and corrupt powers of the Roman Empire, was convicted and crucified by that empire, and died on a cross.
And on the third day Jesus’s love broke through death and he exited the tomb. That evening he appeared to his disciples. And they believed. Jesus lives! And Jesus loves! Then he appeared to them again so Thomas could believe. Jesus lives! And Jesus loves!
Christians throughout the centuries have been given the gospels as a witness to all Jesus did, so we can believe. Jesus lives! And Jesus loves! We have received the Holy Spirit in Baptism — and that same Spirit renews us in Holy Communion — so we are empowered to proclaim to the world Jesus lives! And Jesus loves!
So we are not to despair. We are not to let fear and doubt consume us. Brother Nicholas Bartoli, of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, wrote in the daily reflection, Brother Give Us a Word, for Holy Saturday last year that:
“About the only thing we can say for sure is that the fruit of our resurrection, our rising by Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, is to live our lives as prayers of thanksgiving, bearing witness to God’s Truth, reflecting the Light of Christ, and serving in the Spirit of Love. So, show me your resurrection. Or, better yet, let’s show each other. Let’s show the world.”
So, my friends, let’s show the world. Jesus lives! And Jesus loves! Alleluia! Amen.