(A sermon for Easter 2, John 20:19-29)
Birds flying high you know how I feel
Sun in the sky you know how I feel
Reeds driftin’ on by you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
And I’m feeling good
(“Feeling Good,” Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd)
I grew up in Virginia, in homes with yards abundant with early azaleas, dogwoods, daffodils and jonquils, weaving my four-year-old dreams in my little playhouse under the crape myrtle tree, then moving to the house with the flowering crabapple just the right size for a 7-year-old girl to climb with a friend. That is how I want spring to be, these potentially delicious weeks after Easter, the time of year that *really* feels like the new year to me.
Sadly, spring in Vacationland is a bit of a bust to a transplanted Southerner. It comes late, and if the rain is wrong, it hardly seems to come at all. When you have to wait until June to smell the lilacs, it’s just sad. It’s been a long time since I visited the Virginia in the spring, but every year I wish I could.
My mother had a green thumb, and I was a sore disappointment to her. She took me to Junior Garden Club. My idea of an arrangement was rolling that green clay stuff into snakes and setting them up in a Junior Garden of Eden. I guess I had a calling from the beginning?
As I told you last week, the Holy Week storm is pressing us to some gardening decisions, and after looking it over with a more able friend, I’m getting serious about renovating the yards, front and back, this year. My husband will supply manpower as needed, and he did vote for eliminating the quince, since the fruits fall into the driveway, but I know the decision-making about what to remove and what to prune and what to plant new will be mine. I feel quite excited about the prospects, almost as if we’ll have a whole new yard!
I feel hopeful in this transition year of my life that many things are possible. Even though the only "flowers" we saw yesterday were dandelions at the dog park, the air felt warm (okay, it was in the 50’s, but I’ll take it!), and the sun shone brightly. A year ago I felt the clenched stomach of anxiety about the future, fear that God would send us someplace my children might not want to go, wild and irrational concerns about things I cannot control. But this spring, this spring—
Fish in the sea you know how I feel
River running free you know how I feel
Blossom in the tree you know how I feel…
For the apostles, the morning of Easter brought astonishing news, and that evening a bewildering though joyful encounter. It must have left them feeling the sky was bluer and the sun brighter than they had ever realized before. At the beginning of today’s gospel reading, Jesus wafts right through the locked door and he says to his friends, “Peace be with you.” Now, that’s not an uncommon greeting in the New Testament. It appears in four of the epistles, as well as in Luke’s gospel. But Jesus does more than simply greet his friends.
Christ, risen that very morning, appears to his disciples. The gospel writer probably means not just the Eleven, but rather a wider group of followers who had gathered together in a locked room, fearful that the authorities would do to them what had already been done to Jesus. His first words may seem meant to reassure, but as we explore what he means by “peace,” this expression is probably not so comforting. For the peace he passes to his friends and his followers is not simply the relief of their anxiety or a warm and fuzzy feeling. It is a responsibility and a mission to the world.
Before they can receive Christ’s peace—really receive it—the disciples have to recognize him. They look at his hands and his feet, and then they know him. By his scars they know him. And then he says to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He is commissioning them, telling them that they are not just being comforted, but being sent out to do God’s work. In John’s gospel, the Pentecost event, in which the Holy Spirit comes to the disciples, happens right here, in the locked room, on the evening of Easter Day. The Spirit comes on Christ’s breath, just as in the Book of Genesis, life came to Adam on God’s breath.
And with it comes the work they are being sent to do:
When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit.
If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." (John 20:22-23)
Jesus died to bring about our reconciliation with God. And in John’s gospel, that is what forgiveness is all about. Sin, to John, is not about doing bad things but about failing to see God’s love for us revealed in Jesus. Sin, to John, is about being out of relationship with God. So Christ, risen from the tomb, comes through the locked doors of our disconnection. Christ breaks through the man-made barriers and breathes life into the frightened disciples. And he gives them a job to do; they are to continue his work, to be sent as he was sent, and to bring about the reconciliation of others to God.
That sounds like a great job for them, doesn’t it? After all, they had been right there with Jesus throughout his ministry, had seen him in action, had listened to him day after night after week after month for the three years he journeyed and taught. They were certainly well-equipped for ministry. First the disciples recognized him, then they received the spirit, and then they were sent. It would truly be a new day and a new life.
I imagine them all in a haze of joy, in the glow of the Good News, all, that is, except for Thomas. It is good old Thomas who misses the party and raises the questions. Imagine being the only one of the eleven who missed out on seeing Jesus again. Imagine how lonely and defensive a person might feel. Perhaps he grumbled to himself, remembering his journeys with Jesus, his loyalty and dedication to the teacher from Nazareth. Perhaps he felt the hot flush of anger at being left out of a miracle, the prickly uncertainty about his own qualifications to be a disciple, the overwhelming sadness that comes with failure.
Thomas is named in the other gospels, but in John’s gospel he makes three significant appearances. The first is in Chapter 11, the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Jesus has delayed going to Martha and Mary, delayed going to help their brother, and when he finally tells the disciples it is time to make the journey, they try to talk him out of it. Jesus, they say, why would you want to go back to Judea? There are people there who want to kill you! Jesus responds with riddles about light and dark, and sleeping and waking. Then he tells them more plainly that Lazarus is dead. It is Thomas who said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16)
He was brave enough to go with him into danger when others warned Jesus to stay away from Lazarus. Wouldn’t he be able to see Jesus like the others?
Later, in chapter 14, Jesus is speaking to his disciples those words that are so comforting to many of us, so often used in funeral services:
‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ (John 14:1-4)
You know the way to the place where I am going, said Jesus. The other disciples were silent, but Thomas voiced the question in many of their hearts: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5)
He was brave enough to ask the questions nobody else wanted to ask, when none of them understood Jesus. Wouldn’t he be able to see Jesus like the others?
Thomas was prepared to deal with Jesus’ death. He was the only one of the disciples not cowering in the Upper Room. He was somewhere out in the world, perhaps trying to discover just how much trouble they were all in that Easter night.
Thomas was prepared to deal with danger and death, but he was not prepared for the Resurrection. He was not prepared for the new dawn, for the new day. But, when Jesus stood among them once again, Thomas believed without touching, finally. With all his heart he declared, “My Lord and my God!” Finally he was able to join his friends in believing a new day had dawned.
A new day is not all free-running rivers and blossoms in trees. To go where Christ sends us, we must not remain stranded in yesterday. We must resist holding ourselves captive to the world’s opinions. We must overcome our own skepticism or hurt and believe. A new dawn challenges and stretches us with an unexpected wake-up call and demands that we unlock the doors and embrace new possibilities.
It’s a new dawn. It’s a new day. It’s a new life, for me and for you. Amen.