Christ is risen! Alleluia! (Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!)
So now what? If the Lord is risen, if life and love have triumphed over death and evil, what now? How has it made a difference in our world? Because it seems to me that while we rang bells to celebrate resurrection here, children were still being sold into slavery by those who have found a market for underage flesh, and politicians were still ruining one another’s reputations for personal gain, and young black men were still disproportionately well-represented in our prisons, and wars were still raging in lands with rich resources. So what difference does it make that Jesus was or wasn’t in the tomb on Easter morning a couple thousand years ago?
What difference did the resurrection make to those most involved that first Easter—Jesus’ disciples? They were fishermen, gathered in a city where the streets were lined with crosses of anyone the Roman government considered a threat, where their teacher and friend had just been wrongfully executed. When frightened women reported that the tomb was empty, they did not shout a triumphant “The Lord is risen!” They panicked and locked themselves in a room.
Who could blame them? They logically assumed that if Jesus’ body was missing, it had been stolen and that they would be the prime suspects in the theft. They had seen what happened to Jesus, their leader, so they had an idea of what might happen to his followers. So they were hiding. If resurrection meant anything to them the first day it happened, it meant more trouble.
And then Jesus came to them. He met them in their hiding place and stood among them. His physical wounds were still raw. Surely his emotional and mental ones were too. Still, Jesus did not scold them for abandoning him, betraying him, denying him when he needed them most. He showed them what the resurrection was for: not to instill more fear in them, but to dispel fear. Jesus did not appear as a disgruntled ghost, haunting those who had let him down in life. No. Jesus’ first words were exactly what they most needed to hear: “Peace be with you.”
The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, is not just peace as in “an inner sense of well-being.” Like the Hawaiian aloha it means much more. It means, “Greetings. I want all good things for you. I hope you have enough food and water, a sturdy shelter, beauty and harmony in your relationships. I want you to have a full, rich life.” That’s what Jesus wishes for the disciples when he sees them for the first time after his resurrection. Not only that, but in this brief text, Jesus says “peace be with you” three times. Jesus really, really wanted his disciples to know they were cherished, forgiven, and special.
And then, after Jesus reassures the disciples that they are precious to him, he breathes on them. He tells them they are empowered by the Holy Spirit to forgive sins. They are no longer to wallow in guilt and fear, but to actively get out and spread God’s inclusive embrace to everyone, including those who don’t deserve it. Jesus tells them that if they forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven, and if they retain the sins of any, they are retained. Maybe it’s not a special power he’s giving them, as much as it is the psychological reality that when we treat people as forgiven and precious, they feel forgiven and precious. Maybe, in the face of the cruelty that still exists in our world, that seems like a pipe dream, but it was a dream Jesus staked his life on, and the repercussions are still shaking the foundations of systemic evil. The disciples needed to receive Jesus’ forgiveness, and to be reminded of his dream for a world where everyone and everything was cherished. And now Jesus says, it’s your turn. Go and share the gifts and dreams of God.
And how did they respond? How did they behave when the power of God had been breathed into them, when they were instructed to share forgiveness with everyone? Did they run out into the streets, proclaiming the power of God over guilt and shame and death and hate to all whom they met? Did any of them run through the synagogue shouting “Christ is risen!”?
Not exactly. When Thomas, who, for whatever reason, was not locked in the room with them, returned, his friends were all right where he left them. Of course they all shared their versions of Jesus’ wonderful visit with him. But Thomas didn’t believe a word of it. Can you blame him? Can’t you just hear him asking, “If Jesus is indeed risen and you have seen him, then why are you all still here, huddling in fear? If Christ is risen, what has changed for you?”
This is not the first time Thomas questioned Jesus. Once, when Jesus was assuring the disciples he was going to prepare a place for them and that they would follow him there, Thomas interrupted his sermon asking, “We don’t know where you are going, how can we follow you there?” And it is important to remember that Jesus did not get angry with Thomas, but addressed his concern.
Tonight, again, Faithful Thomas does not understand how Jesus works. He wants some proof before he embraces a complicated, unconventional story. Why should he believe his friends? Besides the fact that there was no physical evidence that Jesus had been in the room, he couldn’t see that Jesus’ visit had made any difference in any of them. He might have just guessed they were grief-stricken and sleep deprived and hallucinating. Why would Jesus, who had chosen Thomas to be among his 12 closest disciples, who had eaten and lived and walked with him for the past three years, have come to see the others and not him? Wasn’t it Thomas who just three weeks ago, when Martha and Mary had summoned Jesus to the bedside of their ailing brother Lazarus, was willing to go with him, even if it meant that the conspirators who wanted to kill Jesus would also kill him? He was the one who egged on the other disciples to be faithful to the death! Why couldn’t Jesus have waited till Thomas returned before showing up?
The week that followed must have been a tough one for Thomas. But Thomas proved himself faithful once again. Instead of turning his back on the other disciples, or on the now-risen Jesus,Thomas remained with them, probably listening again and again to their story of Jesus’ visit. Maybe he was afraid to go anywhere else. Or perhaps he needed to be with people who were missing Jesus like he was, sharing—as people often do when a loved one has died—favorite stories and memories of that person. Did Thomas pray with the other disciples? Maybe even commune with them, even if none of them were sure that he belonged in the same faith community?
We as a church could learn a lot from these early disciples. We could benefit from seeing how they stick it out with each other, despite being a little distrustful and unsure about each other. Sometimes we don’t see Jesus the same way or at the same time as everyone else. We may wonder if what the others experience is real, since it is not the way we have encountered God. Others may wonder if we are faithful, since we have not had the same meetings with Jesus that they have. Can we trust that Jesus comes to all of us in our own time and our own way, even if we don’t get it? We could do worse than to wait for Jesus together.
Because the very next week, in the midst of his friends, Thomas DOES see Jesus. And Jesus does not chastise Thomas for his questions. He offers shalom to him and holds out to him the very evidence Thomas requested—the jagged wounds. It may not have been what Thomas really needed, because as far as we know, Thomas never does actually touch the wounds. At least the Bible doesn’t say so. Perhaps all it took to prove to Thomas that this was indeed his Lord and his God was Jesus’ willingness to meet him exactly where he was. Perhaps Jesus, who knew Thomas well, understood what was behind his request. Maybe there is a story we don’t know about Thomas’ distrust of people who do not bear the wounds that inevitably come when someone loves deeply.
Christ must have known why Thomas desired to see the marks of vulnerability and pain on him. And Christ knows what you need too. That’s the Good News for us, in the middle of a pain-filled world. Christ will come to you as you most need him to. He may show you what you think you need to see, though you may find you didn’t need to see it after all. Jesus will walk through your locked doors on your darkest nights and wish shalom for you. He will breathe into you the power of the Holy Spirit. He will forgive you, and will empower you to forgive others. And if you miss it the first time, Jesus will keep on coming back to you again and again, even if you think you’re isolated behind the doors of fear and doubt.
Need to touch Jesus’ body and blood? Here he has provided for that. Need to hear words of healing and forgiveness spoken to you? Here is a community for that. Need Easter on a Tuesday in September? Here are people who will sit with you, pray with you, wait with you until it happens. Here is the place where we pray for shalom, even when you don’t believe it in it. For Christians, Easter is not over when the lilies die. Easter is eternal. This is the promise of our resurrected Lord. This is why we proclaim, against all evidence to the contrary, The Lord is risen!
So what? So we are free to live and to love! The Lord is risen and we are forgiven and empowered to forgive! The Lord is risen and we don’t have to be afraid! The Lord is risen and we can process that mystery at our own pace, in our own way, yet within a community of believers! The Lord is risen and is breathing new life into us! The Lord is risen and is sending us out into the world to proclaim his grace. So let’s get up and get out and live like Easter makes a difference! Christ is risen! Alleluia! (Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!)
~Pastor Susan Schneider