4 April 2018

A week late to the resurrection

[RCL]: Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

Today, the first Sunday after Easter is traditionally known as Low Sunday, which is an unfortunate and unflattering nickname for the Church. Last week we presented the triumph of the church year. We announced to the world the Good News of Jesus Christ: Jesus died and rose again to new life for love of us. Why is it called Low Sunday? Well, it seems to be that the Sunday after Easter is often the lowest attendance of the whole church year. (So I thought I would import a bunch of families, to swell the numbers). I don’t know the real reasons why Low Sunday happens across denominations and churches, but it may have been something that was said during the Easter services.

How so? Well, the gospel shocks us with the brutal story of Good Friday, and then a resurrected Jesus talking with his disciples, is pretty hard to believe, apart from taking a big leap of faith. It was hard to believe for people who knew Jesus in person while he was alive and witnessed his many miracles. Today we look at the story of Doubting Thomas, the apostle who had to see to believe.

Thomas, much like Peter, is the most like most of us. He is described as, well, just an ordinary man who had lots of interesting questions about human existence. The first thing that we notice is that Thomas has missed out on Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples. It is Sunday night, and they have been locked in the Upper Room, afraid for their lives since Friday night.

But not Thomas. Where is he?

Perhaps he was terrified and trying to hide by himself, not wanting to be found by the Romans right in the middle of a pack of ringleaders of Jesus’ rebellion? Perhaps instead, he was full of courage, the only one brave enough to venture outdoors? Perhaps, he had gone off to get food for them all? We do not know.

Whatever it was, he was definitely not in the room when Jesus appeared in the Upper Room (which was locked and secured by the way). Thomas missed the Resurrection moment the others had in that room.

I think that quite a lot of us can identify with the way Thomas must have felt – frustrated to have missed a huge moment, the big reveal of Jesus, risen just like he had said. We hear of wonderful things happening, from what others tell us, and yet somehow we are never there to see it happen.

I think that a lot of us simply miss out on the power and result of the Resurrection in many places in our lives — places where God is longing to act, to help, to lead, to show — raising things to ‘new life’ for us — but our attention is elsewhere. We have mentally checked out from God, we have become ‘missing in action’, just like Thomas.

Thomas does eventually get back to the group, the disciples, and they tell him, “We have seen the Lord.” Now hat is he supposed to think? If he was the only one who had been brave enough to leave, he has watched his brothers and friends driven nearly crazy with fear and grief over the past three days. He probably feels great compassion and love for them. They so desperately want their dead friend and leader not to have been condemned to death and executed, that they have dreamed up this vision they experienced.

And who knows, Thomas wouldn’t put it beyond Jesus to come to them as a ghost. Lord knows he did stranger things than that when he was alive. But he is no longer alive. He is dead, and Thomas knows that denying that won’t help anyone. It’s never brought back any of the rest of the family and friends he’s lost over the years, and it won’t bring back Jesus.

Thomas remains unable to trust the word of his friends, for an entire week. What was that week like for him? The rest of the disciples were floating on air knowing that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But where was Jesus for that week? And why did he leave the disciples alone?

It’s a little like Low Sunday. Last Sunday we saw him raised from the dead. Hallelujah! party time! Death defeated, sin defeated, Satan delivered a blow that will eventually kill him. One week later and we’re away from all the Christendom makes of Easter, and we are starting to wonder: did we really see what we thought we saw? At least we have witnessed him alive. Thomas has had only his own stubbornness to keep him going.

Stubbornness and maybe a tiny spark of hope. What made Thomas stay around for an entire week with friends he thinks have been driven to delusions by their grief?

If Jesus was truly dead, there was nothing left for him anymore with this group of people. By all rights, he should have gone home to his fields or his fishing boat. Remaining with the disciples was a dead end — the longer they stayed together, the greater the danger of being arrested by the Romans. And spending time with them would only serve to bring home every minute of every day that their friend Jesus was dead.

But Thomas did stay. Is it possible that a small part of him wondered if this story his friends were telling him might possibly be true? He reveals himself a bit in his answer to their claim that they have seen the Lord. He says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

He doesn’t say, “You people are nuts, I’m leaving.”He sets up a hypothetical condition under which he will believe in the Resurrection. He’s laying out the challenge to Jesus. He’s saying, “Come and show me, Jesus, come and prove it to me. Just come to me, Jesus, on any terms.”

Thomas wants to be tough and uncaring and sceptical, but he loved Jesus. He is grieving as deeply as the others, and although they are now joyful since seeing him alive again, Thomas has had no such comfort — fellas, I need to have seen this for myself. It’s a bit of a challenge to Jesus, a provocation — because Thomas just wants to see his friend. Ghost or vision or the real person, it doesn’t matter.

And Jesus does not disappoint him. Thomas has had a grim week, the lone sceptic among the believers. But as soon as Jesus arrives, as soon as he bids them peace, he calls Thomas to him and says, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it on my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

How fascinating and revealing that even in his resurrected body, Jesus’ wounds remain. And how very appropriate to Thomas’ story, and our own story. Resurrection is possible for us in so many areas of our own lives. But our wounds remain, the scars that, painful as they were in the making, have made us indelibly who we are. Jesus is resurrected to new life, but he’s still himself. And he helps Thomas recognise him through his wounds. That is a potent lesson for us.

When we look at ourselves and at each other, part of the proof of our true resurrection is that the past is brought forward to coexist with the present. Our wounds are never erased as though they had never existed. They are still present but no longer cause us pain. They are proof to one another that we are new and whole, but it was our woundedness that got us to this day of resurrection in the first place. I have several sisters-in-law, but I think of two of them, Rita and Fran, who years apart from each other, both came to fully experience and understand Christian faith, in the time between the Easter weekend and Low Sunday. Both times, Rosie and I were privileged to be around them when that happened.

There was one other thing that happened on Low Sunday in the early Church. A tradition developed where those who were baptised on Easter received a new white robe and wore it all week. On Low Sunday, they took it off and went back to wearing their everyday clothes. There’s something very poignant about that, and our story of Thomas.

Today is the day when the loud and public Easter festivities are over, and we return to our normal, everyday lives. Except the supermarkets are still trying to flog loads of leftover lamb and hot cross buns and Easter eggs. Today is also the Day of the Resurrection for Thomas. It is the day when the new white robe falls away and Thomas sees the wounds on Jesus’ body, the same physical person that he knew and loved and now recognises as both wounded and whole, alive and breathing.

(The exchanged life)

Our sin            Christ’s righteousness
God’s anger        Peace with God
Condemnation (Hell) Father’s house (heaven)
Death              Life
The ‘old man’      The ‘new man’
Law              Grace
Our weakness       His strength
Our impurity       His purity
External morality   Holiness of God
Self strength      God’s power
Tribulation      Peace
Defeat           Victory
Sorrow           Joy

Can we recognise that same type of resurrection in ourselves? In each other? When the fancy Easter dresses and suits are put away for another year, what is left? Our same wounded selves that we fear to show to one another. But we need proof of the Resurrection, and we will only find it in each other. If we are brave enough to show each other our wounded places, we will find that they don’t hurt quite so much. We will find that we are indeed both wounded and healed.

Thomas was a week late to the Resurrection, but he made it all the same. Where do you find yourself today? There is still time for you to come back to life. Reach out to touch the wounded, living Jesus and feel him touch your wounded, living soul.