My confirmation classes taught nothing that prepared me for my first Easter as an Episcopalian. Easter Sunday at St. Andrew’s Cathedral was just amazing. The flowers, the clergy vested in white and gold, the choir, the organ, the orchestra, an African American gospel anthem shaking the nave, the acolytes carrying banners, the children, all beautiful, carrying ribbon streamers and flowers for their cross just overwhelmed my novice senses. Dean Ed Bacon preached one of his amazing sermons. Bishop Duncan Gray celebrated the Eucharist. Dr. John Paul had pulled out all the stops on the organ it seemed. The charismatic parishioners, both of them, seated in front of me were glorifying and praising God. As a former Presbyterian, I’d never seen or experienced anything like the spectacle and joy of such a service. After all, Presbyterians aren’t known for a lot of showing lots of emotion and, as for the Episcopalians, well, nothing was held back. Because of that exultant celebration, I entered emotionally, experientially into the joy and mystery of the Risen Christ. Easter changed forever for me. I was caught up in what Bishop John Shelby Spong calls The Easter Moment.
However, such emotional intensity and fervor really can’t be sustained, and the Church in her wisdom celebrates the Second Sunday of Easter as Low Sunday. The Gospel lesson today grounds us and draws us back to the reality of the upper room on that first Easter day, where the disciples hide distraught, grieving, and full of fear. They locked themselves in a room where a host of doubts contests their beliefs. After all, their beloved Jesus — their Rabbi, their Beloved — had been brutally tortured and crucified just days earlier. No doubt, they thought, they too, would soon die. Then, in the darkness before the dawn after the Passover Shabbat, Mary Magdelene goes to the tomb to anoint Jesus’s body, finds the stone rolled away, and the tomb empty. She runs to Peter and the other disciple, who were also in the garden, and tells them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have taken him.” Peter and the other disciple enter the tomb and find it empty. John’s Gospel says the other disciple, John himself, who entered the tomb first, “saw and believed even though they did not yet understand Jesus was to rise from the dead.” While the Peter and John return to the upper room with the news of the empty tomb, Mary goes again to the tomb, meeting a man she believes is the gardener. He asks, “Woman why are you weeping?” “They have taken him away, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Then Jesus speaks to her, “Mary!” and she recognizes him, “Rabbouni!” (my great one). Jesus sends her with a message for the other disciples, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary Magdelene goes to them with the astonishing news that she had seen, touched, and spoken with the risen Jesus. We can imagine their reactions, “Was this real? How is this possible? What did it mean?” Later in the evening, in the upper room, the disciples are gathered with the doors locked “for fear of the Jews.” With confused emotions flying all over the place, the ascended Jesus mystically and miraculously appears, and stands among them. “Shalom,” he says, bidding them peace with the customary greeting. Jesus shows the disciples his wounded hands and side to convince them that it is truly he. Then, as Teri told us last Sunday, in John’s account, Pentecost and the Great Commission happen right then and there. Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into them and sends them into the world to forgive or retain sins of humanity. Next, John tells us, uniquely in all the Gospels, that “Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve was not with them when Jesus came.” So, who is Thomas?
In John’s Gospel, earlier we meet Thomas twice, and those encounters let us glimpse Thomas’s character First, when Jesus goes to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead, knowing the rising danger to Jesus from Jewish religious leaders, the disciples urge Jesus not to go. Of course, Jesus doesn’t listen to their plea. Thomas says to his brother disciples, “But let us also go, that we may die with him.” Here we meet Thomas, the realist, who is far from a coward. Next, in the upper room discourses when Jesus tells them, “my father’s house has many dwelling places … I go to prepare a place for you …and you know the way to the place I am going.” Thomas, the literalist, confused and confounded, says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” On that revelatory Easter evening, Thomas returns to the upper room and hears this incredible tale from the other disciples that they have seen the Lord. Thomas, the realist and literalist, says “Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the marks of the nails and my hand in his side. I will not believe.” Thus, Thomas, becomes Doubting Thomas.
Jesus in his resurrected body, which alters his appearance, gives to those he encounters that Easter day what they need to recognize him and believe he has risen. Jesus gives John, the Beloved Disciple, an empty tomb, and he believes. He calls Mary’s name, she recognizes him, falls at his feet adoring her Beloved, and she believes. He shows the ten disciples his wounds, speaks with them, and they believe. Now Thomas has set a higher standard of proof because he will only believe if he can actually touch Jesus’s wounds.
A week later, Jesus, out of love, comes to the upper room just for Thomas’s sake. Thomas is like the lost lamb of the parable in which the Good Shepherd leaves the ninety-nine behind to go in search of the one lost lamb. Not one of his own shall be lost. Jesus appears again and says to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Though Jesus’s conversation with Thomas is often read in the western church as a rebuke, a closer look reveals something else. I think Jesus understands that Thomas’s doubt isn’t unreasonable for we all doubt, and doubt can very much lead to stronger belief and strengthen faith. Thomas doesn’t need to touch the wounds, his seeing the embodied Jesus is enough, and he proclaims, “My Lord and my God.” There are two things happening here. First, Thomas makes an emotional affirmation, truly remarkable for a Jew, that Jesus is God. It is an affirmation much stronger than proclaiming Jesus as Rabbi, Rabbouni, Messiah, or the Son of God, all names laden with Judaic traditional meanings. Thomas in this moment understands Jesus’s earlier cryptic teaching that “I and the Father are one.” Moreover, Thomas’s affirmation “My Lord and my God” is personal and possessive. It is this affirmation of belief and faith that is stressed in the Eastern Orthodox churches’ reading of this Gospel. However, for most of us, we’ve never gotten beyond the rebuke to the Doubting Thomas. It is easy to interpret what Jesus says next as addressed only to Thomas but, in context, recalling Jesus’s appearance the week prior to the other disciples, who also see the wounds and believe, Jesus says, I think, to them all, “Have you believed because you have seen?” This prefaces what Jesus says next to them, and I truly believe it’s given to all the disciples as part of their commission as apostles, now including Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This saying is in the form of a beatitude. Jesus gives one last sacred teaching to the Apostles. This beatitude is given to the Apostles and their successors to proclaim the Gospel — the Good News that Christ is risen — to our faithful ancestors and others like us who, though unable to see Jesus, will come to believe by grace alone.
Returning to Spong’s Easter Moment, he writes that “Whatever Easter was, it was the Moment when human eyes were opened to see the full meaning of this Christ and to meet God in him in a way God had never been met before.” This Easter Moment radically transformed Mary Magdalene and the other Apostles. They come forth from the locked upper room, no longer fearing, but boldly proclaiming the Risen Christ. We see the effect of the Easter Moment in the other readings for today. Luke in Acts writes of the Apostles’ Pentecost preaching, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” John in his second epistle writes of Jesus’s resurrection appearance, “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life that this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it.” Paul in his first epistle to the church at Corinth writes at length about the importance of Christ crucified and proclaims, “for as all die in Adam so all will still be made alive in Christ.” The Risen Christ is the heart of our faith.Friday, we gathered for Dick Smith’s burial service and heard, “I am the Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord. Whoever has faith in me shall have life even though he dies. And everyone who has life, and has committed himself to me in faith, shall not die for ever.” Nearly ten years ago, I sat surrounded by you for Cal’s burial service and heard, “Our brother Cal was washed in baptism and anointed with the Holy Spirit; give him fellowship with all your saints. He was nourished by your Body and Blood; grant him a place at the table in your heavenly kingdom.” Hearing that in my lostness, reminded me of Cal’s baptism and a part of the blessing over the water, which says, “In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” Dick, Cal, and all our beloved Saints gone before, are present in the eternal light of Christ. In few moments, we will celebrate the Holy Eucharist and proclaim again the mystery of our faith, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”