By AmbStew | Monday, April 24, 2017 | 8:38 AM
Sermon for April 23, 2017
Second Sunday of Easter
1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20: 19-29
May the Risen Lord be in these words and may our hope be in him. Amen.
Peter vs Thomas
Happy Second Sunday of Easter. Contrary to popular belief, Easter is not just one Sunday, and Jesus is still risen! Easter is actually a season of the church that lasts until Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit fueled the early church with courage and fire. More than that, every Sunday is considered a "mini-Easter" because we gather in praise and recognition of the Lord of Resurrection, and even beyond that, every single day of our lives brings opportunities to notice, or practice, or offer new life. Yes, last Sunday was glorious with its abundance of flowers, brass instruments, triumphant music, and people, but surely Jesus meant Easter to last more than one day. Surely Jesus did not give his life for us only to have us celebrate his victory one Sunday in the spring and then go back to business as usual. Surely there is more to it than that. Jesus Christ is still risen, and we are still Easter People who are called not only to celebrate the resurrection but to live it.
But let’s be honest on this Second Sunday of Easter. Living the resurrection is not as easy as celebrating it. Take Peter, for example: the disciple that denied knowing Jesus. Take Thomas, as well: the disciple who doubted the resurrection. Is one really better than the other? What can we learn about living the resurrection from two faulty fishermen who lived over two thousand years ago in a culture so different from ours? Let’s find out.
Peter first. Of all the disciples portrayed in the gospels, Peter gets the most air time and is the most human. He is the first to proclaim boldly that Jesus is the Messiah, and then the first to deny that he even knows Jesus. He is the one ready to follow Jesus, even out on the water, and the first to sink when reason sinks in. Peter is the one who wants to contain the majesty of the “Mountaintop Jesus” by erecting a tent or some kind of shrine in which to keep him, and he is also the one that tries to prevent Jesus from moving forward in his ministry to the point where Jesus addresses him as “Satan.” And on the morning of the third day, when the women come with the news that Jesus is alive, Peter refuses to believe them, even after witnessing the empty tomb himself. Despite the fact that Jesus tells his disciples what will happen on three different occasions before he is arrested, Peter will not be convinced until he see the Risen Lord himself.
As I said, Peter is the most human, and his spiritual journey matches ours. If we have been on this discipleship journey long enough, we, too, can confess that we are far from perfect. We move forward in faith at times, and then take two steps back. We claim that Jesus is our Lord, and then we deny him by our unkind words, our gossip, our prejudices, our judgment of others, and our self-centeredness. Jesus says, “Follow me,” and off we go, only to sink when we realize that we’ve been counting on our own resources, not asking for his. Like Peter, don’t we really prefer to keep Jesus here, contained in the sanctuary where we can worship him with others just like us, instead of going with him down the mountain and into the valley to serve others, even those not like us? In regard to the resurrection, if we are honest, we, too, have struggled believing the message of others who claim that Jesus is alive. Sometimes we, too, walk away from the story, “wondering,” like Peter.
But here is the thing about Peter. He wept those tears. Once he realized that he was not able to keep his vow to Jesus, he wept those tears, and in those tears, in understanding his limitations, in remorse of his failure, he made room for resurrection to happen.
Even in his remorse and embarrassment, Peter stayed the course. Perhaps that is the ultimate praise we can give Peter and the most important lesson we can learn from him. Despite his doubts, despite his failures, despite his miscues and mistakes, Peter kept trying. In so doing, not only did Jesus love and forgive him, but Jesus marked him for such profound leadership that Peter was able to write to a new community of believers, struggling believers who had not seen and would not see the risen Lord, and say to them, “God has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead”(3). Like them, through this new birth, we can take heart and glorify God, love Jesus Christ, and believe in Jesus even though we don’t see him.
Like Peter, we follow, and we stumble. We follow, and we run off course. While we have to own our mistakes and our weaknesses, we do not let them define who we are. We stay the course, and let Jesus define us, and in doing so we find new life.
So what about Thomas? Of all the disciples in the gospels, Thomas is the one who gets the permanent nickname: Doubting Thomas. Renaissance paintings keep his doubt alive as they portray him touching the wounds of Jesus, though Thomas actually did not do that. Is Thomas any worse than Peter or the others? I don’t think so. Thomas had to figure out his own journey to resurrection, just like Peter, just like you and me. He had to walk his own walk, not accept someone else’s. There is a difference between consensus, proclaiming our united belief in Jesus Christ, and uniformity, expecting we all meet him and relate to him in the exact, prescribed manner.
It is no sin to doubt. In fact, doubt often leads to a more intensive search for faith and a deeper meaning of it. Such a search may find its reward in a far richer experience than second-hand reports could ever yield. At first, all Thomas had were his doubts - loudly spoken (vss. 24-25) and sounding a bit like a brash Peter. Thomas no doubt struggled with those doubts in his own private fear, grief, and denial, just as many of us have done or are doing. Yet this human capacity to doubt makes Thomas an example for any of us seeking an authentic relationship with Christ that actually changes our lives and helps us grow in our journeys. Thomas wanted to see: “Unless I see the mark of the nails . . .I will not believe.”
So often we do not want to go to the trouble to see. So often it is easier to simply accept what others have seen or what others spoon feed us or what others claim is so. It is easier to keep God in a box, or Jesus on a mountaintop, safely contained in black and white, instead of letting him out to experience in the shades of gray. As Thomas demonstrates, being a person of faith is not about carrying on the family tradition or going along in quiet submission; it is not about doing something out of duty or habit or fear. Being a person of faith, again as Thomas demonstrates, is born out of our response to the truth and grace we find in the love of Christ.
Further, John’s gospel story is about more than Thomas' disbelief. This story is actually about Jesus Christ and his abundant love and mercy as he meets Thomas exactly where he is, point for point. Nowhere in this passage does Jesus scold Thomas for doubting, nor is he angry with him. Jesus does not condemn Thomas or kick him out of the group but, instead, says, "Peace be with you," the same greeting he used with the other ten when Thomas was absent. Then Jesus extends his hands. "Here, Thomas," he says, "touch me as you requested. Experience me. Make your belief authentic,” in the same way he showed the other ten his hands and side before they believed.
The disciples rejoiced when they realized the reality of Jesus’ presence, but Thomas goes even farther. A true Easter person, Thomas acknowledges Jesus with the most powerful confession of Jesus' identity in the Gospel: "My Lord and my God!" Peter had once said similar words, but couldn’t follow through. Thomas confesses and lives them. Because both disciples, despite the obstacles of remorse and doubt on their rocky road to discovery, stayed with it, they received the peace of Jesus Christ and the reality of new life. That is the way we live resurrection.
It seems to me that the truth that Jesus is still risen and we are still Easter People is very good news for each one of us, but also to a congregation in transition like First Presbyterian. What has been is not now, and what will be is not yet. Yet the Risen Christ comes to those whom he loves wherever they are. Where does he come to you in this in between time? Where do you need him to come? Can you place all your hope, all your trust, all your faith in him while you walk this part of the journey? Just as Jesus breathed the words, “Peace be with you” on his small group of friends, so he breathes them on you, on this particular church, and on the broken and suffering parts of our world. When you stay the course, when you live the resurrection, even with setbacks and failures, when you hold to the hope of new life and stay in community, Jesus Christ shows up. Peter and Thomas got to see the Risen Lord, “but blessed are you who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29). That Resurrection blessing is meant for you.