Sermon on John 20:19-31 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on Sunday, April 7, 2013.
My favorite part of the house I grew up in is the second floor hallway. The walls of this hallway are completely covered in photographs: ornately framed pictures of milestones like weddings, births, and baptisms from many generations and simply framed photographs of more mundane events like pool parties, Little League games, and dinners with old friends. I think that my favorite photograph on the wall, however, is a grainy image of my great grandmother when she is in her late seventies. In the photo she is wearing a carefully tailored dress with a subtle print and her silvery white hair is drawn into an elegant bun. At the same time, the photo captures this tiny woman heaving a basketball at a backboard with all of her might. In the picture, the ball is hovering a foot or so from her outstretched hands and she has a look of pure joy on her face. I love this photograph because it shows a side of my great grandmother that I never knew. By the time I was old enough to remember her, my great grandmother had had a stroke and could no longer talk very clearly. During the final years of her life, she was essentially confined to a high-backed chair in her living room, having lost the youthful exuberance she exhibited that day she decided to shoot a basketball. This photograph that hangs in my parents’ house, then, is a reminder of who my grandmother once was, a reminder of the exuberance and energy she once had, and it always makes me a little nostalgic. It makes me want to go back to the way things were, back to a time when my great grandmother could talk coherently and move around and presumably play power forward for the Dallas Mavericks. The thing is, this photograph makes me nostalgic for a person I didn’t really know. It makes me nostalgic for a situation that might have been completely unique (after all, I don’t know of any other time that my great grandmother played basketball). It makes me want to go back to a time that may never have existed. This is the tricky thing about nostalgia; sometimes we want to go back to a past that we have completely imagined.
This dynamic is at play in our gospel reading for today. Generally, when we read this story from John’s gospel, we focus completely on Thomas. We read it as a warrant for the bodily resurrection of Jesus, as a way to prove that Jesus rose from the dead. We hold up Thomas as an example of either healthy curiosity or hardheaded skepticism. We point out that Thomas has a change of heart when the resurrected Lord presents himself to the uncertain disciple: Thomas goes from saying “I won’t believe unless…” to “My Lord and my God.” This is a perfectly appropriate way to approach this familiar story, but this interpretation ignores the vast majority of the people involved. When Jesus first appears, he appears to the rest of the disciples. It is what happens when Jesus appears to the rest of the disciples that is crucial for us as we strive to understand the meaning of Christ’s resurrection.
It’s important for us to remember where this story takes place in John’s gospel. We always read this story of Jesus appearing to the disciples the week after Easter, and I think this deceives us into thinking that a significant period of time has elapsed since Peter and the other disciple discovered that the tomb was empty. But this is the very same day. Instead of going out and proclaiming that Jesus, who had been crucified, was no longer in the tomb, that he had been raised from the dead just as he promised, the disciples were hiding in the same room where they had met before Jesus had been betrayed. They went back to where they started, because they weren’t sure what to do. Naturally, they were frightened, and confused, and apprehensive; no doubt they had heard Mary Magdalene’s story of seeing the risen Jesus in the garden and they weren’t sure what to make of it. In their haze of confusion and grief, they returned to that place where Jesus had explained everything, where he had had all the answers, and they locked the door. The disciples did what so many of us do when faced with uncertainty; they returned to a familiar but imagined past, comforting themselves in the uneasy certainty of nostalgia.
John tells us that while the disciples were locked in their nostalgic fortress, Jesus appeared among them in the evening on the first day of the week. Most translations don’t get this exactly right; in Greek, “on the first day of the week” is actually “on the eighth day.” Now we all know that according to Genesis, God created the world in seven days, and so seven days is the normal pattern of creation. The way that Jewish calendar was structured was based on a seven day cycle, which is why our calendar is based on a seven day cycle; when we get to seven we go right back to one. But John signals to us that something entirely new has happened on this day, on this eighth day when Jesus Christ rose from the dead. When John uses this phrase, we get the sense that there is something brand new and unprecedented happening, that a new creation has been inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. On the eighth day, Jesus shows up among the disciples, who are clinging to what they had known before, who are holding fast to their understanding of the old creation with its uncertainty and violence and degradation and Jesus informs them that all of that is passing away by saying, “Peace be with you.” This is not the mere absence of conflict; this is a deep and abiding peace, a peace that the world cannot give, a peace that passes understanding, a peace that proclaims the reality of the resurrection and transforms the world. Jesus then sends his disciples. The resurrection is not a private event that is to be shared only among Jesus’ closest associates; it is meant to change the world. The presence of Jesus among his disciples informs them that the old ways of doing things are passing away and that a new creation is coming into being. Jesus sends his disciples out into the world so that they can live new lives of transformation and change the world in the shadow of the resurrection.
And yet a week later, a week after the eighth day, a week after the disciples had been given that peace which the world cannot give, a week after Jesus had commissioned them, a week after the resurrection, they’re back where they started, back in the upper room with the door locked. Were they not listening? Were they not paying attention? The resurrection of Jesus meant that everything had changed and the disciples went along nostalgically pretending that nothing had changed at all. They were in the same place doing the same things. No wonder Thomas doubted! The most important event in the history of the world had happened and the disciples acted as if it were business as usual. They wanted to go back to the way things were and pretend that the world had not changed forever. But Jesus returns, poised to commission the disciples, poised to send them out to proclaim the transformative power of the resurrection, no matter how long it took. Jesus returns to shake them from their nostalgic devotion to the past and remind them that God has done and is doing a new thing through the resurrection.
We have just concluded that season of self-denial and fasting known as Lent. And let me tell you, there are few things that the Episcopal Church does better than Lent. We’ve got incredible liturgies, engaging educational programs, and glorious music. We all work a little harder, sit up a little straighter, and pray a little longer. We expend so much energy working on our personal holiness that by the time Easter rolls around, we are all completely exhausted. After the marathon that is Holy Week, the most that some of us can do is say, “The Lord is risen indeed” and then take a long eighth day nap. Gradually, we go back to the way things were before Lent: we spend less time in prayer, we are less focused on how we use our time, and we once again neglect our relationship with God. In some ways this is understandable; it’s difficult to maintain Lenten intensity 365 days a year. And yet, it’s important for us to remember that all the things we do during Lent, all of the prayer and discipline and intentionality are meant prepare us for something. Easter Day is not meant to be a finish line at the end of a marathon; it is meant to be a launch pad, an opportunity to do something completely new. After all, while Lent only has forty days, Easter has fifty! The season of Easter is meant to be a time when we proclaim the resurrection with our whole beings, when we live transformed lives that are a part of the new creation that God inaugurated on the eighth day. And so during this season of transformation and resurrection, I invite you to discern how you might live this resurrection life and how you might make the resurrection known to others. Can you volunteer to drive for Meals on Wheels or to cook for Breakfast on Beech Street or to be a mentor to a local student in need of guidance? Can you visit an elderly relative in their home or call your mother every day or write a note to a friend you haven’t seen in a long time? Can you think of ways that we as a church community can make the new creation a reality right here in Abilene? We must not be tempted to return to those familiar and nostalgic places, to those upper rooms in our lives where we can lock the door against a changing world; we must be willing to live lives transformed by the resurrection, and we must obey Christ’s call to proclaim that God has brought about a new creation in Jesus Christ.