Yesterday evening I had the profound honor of officiating a memorial service of a young vibrant woman whose life ended tragically in a small craft plane crash last week. As a pastor, it’s certainly not the first tragic death I’ve encountered and needed to be present to, but I never really get used to it. Especially when someone still has so much life to live, so much more spirit to share. A fiancée she was planning a wedding and life with, a plethora of life goals that she was actively pursuing, and a community of people she loved and nurtured that was so big that we had to set up a screen on the back lawn of the chapel to accommodate the hundreds of people that showed up for her service.
As I rose to open the service. I looked out at all of the faces, faces already wet with tears, faces expectant, faces waiting for some word, some comfort, someone to reach out and touch them and let them know they weren’t alone. I opened by sharing that we were there together to celebrate, celebrate the amazing life and spark and vibrancy of this woman and we were there to grieve, to grieve the incredibly hole that such a large life leaves in the world. As people spoke and as the service went on we laughed and we cried, so many tears were cried, and people kept speaking to these two things.
Celebrating and honoring the legacy and the mandate that this life left: “Be strong,” “Live fully,” “Don’t let anyone quiet your voice,” “Be yourself,” “Care deeply for your loved ones,” “Live joyfully”
And weeping, deep deep grief, because this friend, daughter, lover is no longer there, is not there for them to reach out and touch.
“If only I could hug her one more time, if only I could reach out and hold her hand.”
Being immersed in the deep grief of a community in shock and loss, it put a different lens on this gospel text and I had to go home and re-write much of this sermon. Witnessing this large and varied community experiencing loss after a shocking death, I wondered again about the disciples and about Thomas, and our gospel text today, and about how Thomas longed to reach out and touch Jesus.
Now, you may have heard of Thomas, you may have heard him referred to as “doubting Thomas,” which frankly, I think, is an unfair rap. Thomas was not the only disciple who didn’t get it after the resurrection, who was still confused by this whole “Jesus coming back to life” bit, and who certainly wasn’t confidently living in the hope and reality of new life.
After Jesus was crucified, those early followers of Jesus—the disciples—didn’t hold their breath, despite Jesus’ telling them of his death, and promising that it was not the end, they were not expecting his resurrection. They were not waiting for Easter. After Jesus died, they were stunned. Sobbing. Fearful. Running away. What they had known had crumbled, the one they loved was dead. They weren’t waiting for his return; they weren’t looking for resurrection.
And so when it came, when they found the tomb empty and Jesus risen from the dead, they were stunned, caught off guard, shocked, and in the various accounts we hear these closest disciples “didn’t even recognize him.”
Until he reached out and spoke Mary’s name, and she recognized him and exclaimed, “Rabboni! Teacher!” Until, after walking for hours talking with them, the disciples recognized him as he lifted and broke the bread. Until, he appeared to Mary, until Peter saw the empty tomb. And still so many of the disciples did not believe—they did not see him. And so they hid away, huddled together in grief and fear of the people and the powers of the empire that had crucified their rabboni, their teacher.
And it’s here, in this week after Easter, that we find the disciples in our scripture today. The tomb has been found empty, Mary has reported seeing the risen Lord, resurrection has been proclaimed. And what is the disciple’s response? Well, it seems from our story today that a good collection of the disciples are huddled together inside a house, with the doors locked, afraid. And it’s here that Jesus comes in. Jesus came and stood among them, and said “Peace be with you.”
“Peace be with you” Jesus says to his frightened disciples, and then, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced as they saw and recognized the Lord. And Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
And with this greeting and blessing—Peace be with you—Jesus filled the disciples with his very breath of the Spirit, the Divine Proceeding, and proclaimed that he was sending them out, with this spirit, to spread peace and to forgive and disciple to all they met.
On Easter Sunday we celebrate new life and hope and spring and resurrection, right here in our church. And we were given the invitation to “practice resurrection.” That resurrection, transformation, bringing new life out of that which has died, new growth out of withered seeds, new hope in places of our being where we didn’t know if we could have hope, that resurrection is a practice. It’s something we engage in.
Following in the way of resurrection means changing the way we interact with each other. It means greeting each other with a sign of peace, and being willing to consider what it really means to follow this radical example of love and compassion that the risen Lord gives us.
Thomas was not there when Jesus first appeared and gave the disciples instructions. And I wonder if maybe his doubt is less about Jesus, and more about his fellow followers response to the resurrection. “Let me see, show me, what is the result of this resurrected Christ?”
If this resurrection thing is real, if Jesus really showed up and breathed on you and gave you this message of peace and sent you out to grant forgiveness and work towards reconciliation and humanity in the world, what are you doing here? Why aren’t you scattered out into the community, across the countryside, embodying this work? What are you doing huddled up in fear locked in a house? Maybe he’s asking the question: How is life different after Easter? What does life look like when we’re following in the way of resurrection? And frankly, I have the same question today.
It’s on a regular basis that I read a news article of some conflict where those who claim the name “Christian” are acting in ways that would make me ask, “What is the positive result of this resurrected Christ?” I can relate to this. Ghandi who said, “I like your Christ, but not your Christians.”
Maybe what Thomas offers us is not as much a question of doubt. (Though let me go on the record and say that I believe the process of “doubt” is deeply important part of our faith journey, and being a community where we can question and doubt is deeply important. Disciples, please don’t kick Thomas out. It’s okay that he doesn’t believe. We’re all on our path.) But what if this is less about blind belief vs. needing tangible proof, and more about raising the question of, “Okay, what’s next?” How does this embodiment of love continue to impact the world?
One of my favorite Swedenborgian theologians and writers, Helen Keller once said: “No matter from what angle Jesus started, He came back to this fact, that He entrusted the reconstruction of the world, not to wealth or caste or power or learning, but to the better instincts of the human race—to the nobler ideas and sentiments of people—to love, which is the mover of the will and the dynamic force of action. He turned His words every conceivable way and did every possible work to convince doubters that love—good or evil —is the life of their life, the fuel of their thoughts, the breath of their nostrils, their heaven or their destruction. There was no exception or modification whatever in His holy, awesome, supreme Gospel of Love.”
Who am I and how am I’m supposed to be part of this resurrection movement? What does it mean to follow the way of Jesus, to show love, to reach out and touch, to, as the psalmist says, “taste and see that the Lord is good.”
We began to see in those first followers of Christ, as they integrated the message of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, we see that something was different. They interacted with the world differently. In the early church, they shared for the common good of all the community. People were fed. Widows and orphans were cared for. People gathered together to pray and to worship and share a meal, and care for each other. “Peace be with you, as my Father sent me, I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit.” People reconcile with estranged family. Places of conflict in our cities are transformed into havens of peace. People love, and nurture, breathe and find hope. Peace be with you. People reach out and wash each other’s feet, and hands.
In our post-Easter morning state, we look for these tangible things, as well as the etherial, these signs of resurrection about us. We look, as the psalmist offers us, to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” We listen for that voice of embodied love when Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” Not to remove our feelings and responses, but to be in them with us.
Peace be with you as you continue to grieve. Peace be with you as you discover what “new life” looks like. Peace be with you as you learn to curb your anger. Peace be with you as you open to the possibility of love. Peace be with you as you courageously look into another person’s eyes. Peace be with you as you take a deep breath and respond differently. Peace be with you as you reach out and touch, and see—this is how Jesus shows love. Peace be with you as you practice resurrection.