Tom Sorenson, Pastor
Monroe Congregational UCC, April 7, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen
Once when I was a young adolescent, my father described me to someone, I don't remember who, as a "doubting Thomas." I remember being surprised and puzzled by that statement, as well as perhaps a bit put off, although I don't remember why, since in fact at that time I wasn't what you'd call religious in any way. I don't think at that point in my life I had given faith enough thought even to be a doubter. I really had no thoughts on the subject at all. Nonetheless, I've always had a rather special feeling about this scripture passage, or at least about the famous term that springs from it, and not a particularly positive one. So, you might think that today I would be talking about doubt and our need to have things about God proved to us. But as has happened so often when I go to write a sermon about a scripture passage I found myself being drawn to some other aspect of the story than the obvious or better known one. So I'm not going to talk to you today about doubting and proof and seeing. Rather, I want to talk about the connection between two other aspects of this story and what they have to say to us today. Those aspects are Jesus' blessing of peace and the crucifixion, two things that would seem on the surface to be diametrically opposed to each other rather than necessarily connected to each other.
The scripture lesson this morning recounts two resurrection appearances of Jesus to the remaining eleven disciples. In the first of these appearances, ten of the them are hiding in a room behind locked doors--ten because they've lost Judas and not yet replaced him, and Thomas wasn't there. The story doesn't elaborate on their condition other than to refer to the disciples "fear of the Jews" --a rather strange and disturbing way to put it since they too were Jews. Actually, I've mentioned before that some scholars think "Judeans" is a better translation here. Jesus and all of his closest followers were from Galilee, in the northern part of Palestine. Now they now found themselves in Judea, in the south. Judeans tended to look down on Galileans as unsophisticated country folk. However that may be, it is clear enough, though, why they were huddled behind a locked door. They were suffering through the worst time any of them had ever experienced. The leader to whom they had devoted their lives, for whom they had given up careers and homes and families, the one whom they thought was the one to deliver Israel and usher in God's kingdom, had just been executed as a political criminal. They did not yet know about the Resurrection. Peter, despite his protestations of loyalty unto death, had had to deny his allegiance to Jesus to save his life. All of them had fled, leaving only some of the women (who for some reason don't seem to be with the eleven remaining male disciples) to stay with Jesus to the bitter end. They were demoralized, disillusioned, and in fear for their lives. All they could think to do was hide behind locked doors and hope it would all just blow over. And they probably didn't even have much hope of that. I suspect they really believed that they would be the next to go to the cross. They were dispirited, disillusioned, and terrified.
It was precisely in this place of fear and despair, when all hope was lost and the future looked as bleak as it could possibly be, that the miracle happened. Jesus came to them and stood among them. Isn't it remarkable that that's all the story says about this guy who is, as far as they know, as dead as dead can get, appearing among the living? It's just like his appearance to the two Marys that we discussed last week. No earthquakes. No thunder. No choir of angels. No whirlwind. No burning bush. No thundering voice from heaven. Nothing. He's just there, standing among them. And he didn't say anything dramatic. He didn't say: Surprise! Guess what?! The most amazing thing just happened! No. He said: "Peace be with you." And then he did something else. He showed him his hands and his side. That is, he showed them the wounds of his crucifixion. It was only when he did that that they recognized him. When they did he again said: "Peace be with you." Now, the story has him saying some more things after that, but these are the ones I want to focus on here today. During the second appearance, a week later when Thomas was there, the same thing happened. Although the door was shut, Jesus appeared, and said "peace be with you." He showed Thomas his wounds, this time directing Thomas to touch them, apparently as proof of their reality. Let me just note in passing something that I hadn't really noticed before, namely, that Thomas didn't actually accept this invitation. He didn't touch the wounds. The invitation itself was enough for him. I want to stress, however, that in both appearances of the risen Christ to the disciples in this story, the blessing of peace for them was directly coupled with a stark physical reminder of the crucifixion, that is, of a horrendous episode of mortal violence and unparalleled injustice inflicted upon the Son of God.
What's going on here? Why does the Gospel of John insist on that direct correlation between Christ's message of peace and a reminder of the way in which his life ended anything but peaceably? To answer that question, we have to go back to the crucifixion. What happened in the crucifixion? A man was executed. A tragedy to be sure, but one that has been repeated probably every day of human existence somewhere in the world. That's the historical fact. But for Christian faith, something much more profound happened. The Christ, God's Anointed One, to use the terms of this Gospel the Word of God made flesh, or to use the language of Christian confession for at least the last 1500 years, the Son of God Incarnate, true God from true God, the one who in his divine nature is one in being with God the Father, was executed, murdered by the political authorities. It is an oversimplification, but in this context it is not wrong to say: God was crucified. God suffered and died in the person of Jesus. The significance of this fact for us is that in the crucifixion God took upon Godself and endured the worst that evil can inflict upon us. God took into Godself death itself, overcame it, and in doing so sanctified it for us. In the crucifixion, God demonstrated in the fullest measure God's presence in the suffering of the world; and in the Resurrection God demonstrated in the fullest measure God's desire and ability to overcome that suffering, to bring new life out suffering and even out of death itself. In the Passion of Jesus Christ, God entered into every aspect of human life, even unendurable physical suffering and death itself, demonstrating in the fullest possible way God's solidarity with us when we suffer and when we die. To the eyes of Christian faith, that's what happened in the crucifixion--so much more than the unjust death of a single person, horrendous as the unjust death of any person is.
So, when Jesus showed the disciples his wounds, he wasn't being morbid or sensationalist. He wasn't seeking sympathy. Although a superficial understanding of why he did that might be to prove to them that it was really him, since someone without those wounds would not be someone who had been crucified two days earlier, I think he was doing a lot more than that. He was, I think, reminding them of what he had been through. He was saying to them in this simple gesture: I know that you are suffering. I know that you are afraid and feel hopeless. I know that you are disillusioned and that your faith has been shattered. I know all of these things because I have been through them myself, and worse. I have shared in and known your suffering not from afar, not as an observer, not even merely as one who loves you and has compassion for you, not as God immutable, unchangeable, aloof, transcendent, above it all. No. I have shared in and known your suffering in my own person. I've been where you are, and worse. In showing them his pierced hands and side, he is saying to them, I am truly with you; and because of who you know me to be, God is truly with you in and through me.
OK. But what does this have to do with his saying: Peace be with you? Well, suppose you or I walked into that room (they'd have had to let us in, since unlike the risen Christ we can't appear through locked doors, or at least I know I can't), and said to them: Peace be with you. What impact would that have had? Not much, I suspect. Coming from you or me it would have sounded empty and frivolous. They might have appreciated our good will and our kind wishes for them, but that's about all. I very much doubt that we would actually have given them much peace. But when Jesus, the risen Christ, said peace and showed them his hands, what did they do? They rejoiced! In the midst of abject despair and terror, they rejoiced! How is that possible?
A superficial reading of the story might say that it is possible because they were glad that their friend and leader wasn't really dead. That was surely part of it. But isn't there more to it than that? Isn't the good news here more than just: Jesus isn't dead? Isn't the Good News that because God in Christ has taken into Godself all of the misery, the suffering, the agony, and the despair that life can bring, and even taken into Godself death itself, that we can indeed have peace? Aren't the disciples rejoicing here because they know that when Jesus says peace be with you he, and not just he but God, is speaking out of personal experience of human suffering and out of the proven truth that God has the power to assume and overcome that suffering? The wounds give meaning and power to Christ's blessing: Peace be with you. You can have that peace because in Christ you know that God is present in your suffering and that in God the suffering is not the last word.
Friends, that truth is not just for the 11 disciples nearly 2,000 years ago. If it were, why would we be talking about it? No. That message is for each one of you, and it is for me. Most of us, I suspect, have been where the disciples were on that night. I know I have. If we haven't, we almost certainly will be at some time in our lives. Fear, grief, anguish, pain, and despair are part of life. None of us avoids them entirely. But we have the Good News. We know that Christ came to the disciples, showed them his hands, and said Peace be with you. If we will let Him, Christ will come to us in our time of despair too, show us his hands, and say: Peace be with you. And we will know that in Christ God has been where we are, that God is with us where we are, sharing our pain and wanting to give us comfort and hope and peace. We will know that in God there is life, there is joy beyond the suffering and even beyond death itself. Friends, believe the Good News. Christ suffered and died for you and for me, and in that suffering our suffering is made holy and is overcome. God is with us in our suffering and will lead us out of that suffering into peace and joy if we will just let God in Christ do that for us. It isn't always easy. Suffering has a way of closing us off, of making us lock the door the way the disciples did. But know that Christ can get through that door and does come through that door. Open your eyes and recognize him the way the disciples did, and Christ's message of peace can come to you and be effective in your life. The peace of Christ which passes all understanding can indeed be yours and mine.
Let us pray: Loving God, we thank you that in your Son Jesus you have taken upon yourself all of the circumstances of our lives. You know and experience our joy and our sadness, our longings and our satisfactions, our sufferings and our pleasures, our life and our death. We rejoice that Christ is risen, that Christ has not only taken on our suffering but overcome it. Christ is risen, and in the rising we too are sanctified and united with you. Thank you, God, for this greatest of all blessings, that Christ is risen indeed. Amen.