My first call after seminary and ordination was to a church in the country about one hour and fifteen minutes west of Washington, DC. To Dwight and my great surprise, the locals didn’t lock their homes or cars. Everyone in our church and the surrounding town thought we were quite funny – and perhaps paranoid, though they never said it – to lock ours. We continued to lock our doors and our cars even after living there for more than a year. We were clearly city slickers, and it was hard to overcome habits and fears instilled over the course of a lifetime.
Our Gospel story takes place in the evening on the day of Resurrection. Jesus is risen, and his disciples are fearful. There is no joyful celebration, no egg rolling contest, but only Jesus’ followers hiding behind the locked doors of the house where they are staying, for fear of some of their fellow Jews.
While they are hovering behind locked doors, wondering if they are going to be killed, Jesus appears and says “Peace be with you.” He says this not once, but twice. He also tells them that just as God has sent him into the world, he is also sending them.
Thomas unfortunately missed Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance. Like most of us, he wants proof, something tangible, something he can see, touch, and know intellectually before he can believe that Jesus has truly risen from the dead.
I sympathize with Thomas, and imagine many of you do too. When I first got interested in Jesus and the Christian faith, I looked for proof – not only in biblical stories, but also historical evidence that Jesus really lived, died, and rose from the dead. The hardest thing for me to wrap my head and heart around was Jesus’ resurrection. I remember hearing about the book Who Moved the Stone, written by a lawyer who became a Christian after writing an extended brief on why no one would have been able to move the stone blocking Jesus’ grave. There were plenty of books out there proving why Jesus was the Messiah or that the resurrection really happened.
But the way I encountered Jesus most powerfully and learned more about his compelling Way of life was through his followers. God brought me into relationship with some of the most amazing, deep, thoughtful, and compassionate people I have ever met, and they made me want to learn more about Jesus and the Christian faith. They defied my negative stereotypes, picked up mostly secondhand from newspapers, magazines, and television. Perhaps Jesus’ first followers also made a powerful impression on those around him, once they decided to trust him and to go forth into God’s world as bearers of God’s light and love.
Some of you already know that I did not grow up as a Christian or in a church, and that’s why I’m so very happy for Alice Rose this morning. She is already deeply immersed in the Episcopal path to the Christian faith, surrounded by lots of amazing people who know her name, care about her, and will notice her absence when she’s sick or has had a long night.
Thanks to her parents, Alice Rose has not only been attending church on Sundays, she has been coming on Wednesdays for the noonday Eucharist and lunch. Lately she has become very good at intercessory prayer, and maybe even speaking in tongues as she makes joyful sounds throughout the service. The prayers, and relationships with the Wednesday regulars are already forming her in faith, giving her a taste of what it is like to participate in God’s life with people from many different backgrounds.
In the coming years she will learn the story of God and God’s people from her parents and in our Godly Play classrooms in which she will wonder about these stories with other children and adults. She will wonder who she is in these stories, and about things like why the man was willing to sell everything he had to buy the pearl of great price.
Over time she will learn more about a God whose love cannot be earned or bought, a God who offers us a fresh start when we fail or fall short. She will learn about a God and a community formed by grace and blessing, in which we do not need to work our way to God, but where God comes to us, meeting us wherever we are. This God is not a God of success or triumphalism, but a God known most fully through the cross, in times of suffering, and through the people and places most of us have given up on. The Christian faith is a faith of deep truths and many paradoxes, a faith that must be lived, a Way of life whose riches come after a lifetime of commitment in relationship with others. It is a faith in which our entire identity is rooted in God and God’s purposes, a faith in which we and others exist not just for ourselves, but for the sake of the world.
It’s easy to poke fun at Jesus’ first followers for hiding behind the locked doors of the house where they were staying, but their lives and futures were uncertain. When Jesus’ body went missing some Jewish religious leaders worried that their people might believe that Jesus was indeed risen from the dead, and the Romans were worried about a riot. And yet when Jesus comes to them and twice utters “peace,” he is not saying “greetings” or “I wish you well,” but may the peace of God, the peace only God makes possible, the well being of all people and all creation be with you my friends. He then told them that if they wanted to participate in God’s life they needed to be a sent, not a hidden people. They would need to go into the world, and rely on the world’s hospitality, just as Jesus did. They would need to love God’s world so much that their lives, dignity, security, and sense of identity would have to come second. Jesus then breathed on them, giving them the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was and is the animating force, the powerful public presence that would remind them that God had not forgotten them, comfort them in times of struggle and hardship, and give them the words and encouragement to continue to love, heal, and offer others the possibility of reconciliation in the face of hatred, violence, and rejection. The Holy Spirit would give Jesus’ followers the courage and ability to accept Jesus’ invitation to be sent into the world.
When Jesus returned to the disciples a second time, Thomas was present. Jesus knew that Thomas would need proof that the person before him was really his risen rabbi in order to believe. While Jesus could have sent a messenger explaining why Thomas should believe, he chose to come in person. Once Thomas had seen Jesus’ hands and touched his side he exclaimed “My Lord and my God.” While Jesus showed Thomas some physical proof, the proof came in the context of a living, embodied relationship. Thomas made this statement as he stood with Jesus, talking to him, deepening his relationship with and understanding of Jesus.
There are a lot of locked doors, locked lives, and locked hearts in our world. May we support Alice Rose as God works through us and her to open doors, lives, and hearts. May the risen Lord open us to one another, to our neighbors and to abundant life.