Third Sunday of Easter, April 30, 2017
Acts 2:14a, 36-41, Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19, 1 Peter 1:17-23, John 20:19-31
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
If I didn’t know today’s Gospel story, and I had to pick which disciple was going to not believe that Jesus was risen, I would not have figured Thomas as the one. Peter, maybe; Peter was always getting things wrong and not understanding what Jesus was doing. But Thomas? In John chapter 11, Thomas was the only disciple who seemed to get that going nearer to Jerusalem seriously meant risking death, and wanted to go anyway. True, that was partly out of grief over Lazarus’ death, but at least it was something. And then later, at Jesus’ Last Supper, Thomas asked a very good question, which Jesus used as the foundation for one of the great statements of who he is. Thomas, in other words, gets closer to understanding Jesus than the other disciples before Jesus died. And, unlike Peter, he’s never had a major mistake. He’s never said or done anything so bone-headed that you just have to sit there shaking your head at it. So why is it that Thomas, out of all the Disciples, is the one who doesn’t believe Jesus has risen from the dead until Jesus comes back to actually show him?
Let’s consider the larger picture. Jesus died, and on the third day he rose again. The disciples spent that time terrified that the authorities were going to come and arrest them, too. They stay inside a locked room, where it’s safe. Or at least, it feels safer than being out on the streets, among the people who so recently cheered Jesus’ crucifixion. Let’s get real, if either the chief priests or the Roman governor decided to get rid of the rest of the group and sent troops? A locked door would not keep the centurions and Temple guards out. If all their fears come true, there is absolutely NOTHING the disciples could do about it. They are absolutely helpless in the face of the powers that want Jesus’ movement crushed. Nothing they say or do could possibly save them if the powers of the world truly decided to crush them. But I’m sure that locked door made them feel safer. It was absolutely, completely, and totally useless for any practical defense. The lock on that door has one purpose, and one purpose only: to make the disciples feel better.
I’m sure it was very comfortable inside that locked room. They could sit there and talk about how awesome Jesus was to their hearts’ content. They could sing songs, and share stories about Jesus, and what he had done in their lives, and feel safe and secure and warm and happy. They never had to take the risk of someone not understanding them. They never had to take the risk of anyone looking at them and going, why do you care so much about a dead guy? Or worse, wow, you guys sure are stupid for following him for that long. And they never had to worry about putting Jesus’ teaching into practice. Jesus asks hard things of his followers. Jesus told us to forgive those who sin against us, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, love our enemies and people who are unloveable, and a lot of other hard things. It’s a lot easier to talk about how we should feed the hungry than it is to actually do it. It’s a lot easier to say, of course we should love our enemies, when we don’t have to actually put that love into action. And if you’re hiding away in a locked room with only the people who agree with you, you never have to worry about any of that. It’s very comfortable.
Which may be why, after Jesus appeared to them on that first Easter Sunday, and breathed the Holy Spirit into them, and sent them out to spread God’s peace and forgive sins, they … just keep sitting on their butts in that locked room for another week. I mean, this was a dramatic moment! Jesus appeared in a locked room! Jesus, who had been DEAD, was ALIVE. And although he could apparently walk through walls when he wanted to, he was no ghost, no spirit. His body was as living as the rest of him. And then he gave them the Holy Spirit. Now, when the Spirit comes, things are supposed to happen, right? The Spirit is life! The Spirit is fire and water and the breath of God and inspiration and it takes people, shakes them up, gives them faith, and sends them out into the world! Look at what happened when the Spirit came into the disciples fifty days later, at Pentecost—they went out and spread the Gospel and baptized thousands! Our first reading, Peter’s preaching to the crowd and three thousand people were baptized? That’s from Pentecost! That’s what happens when the Spirit moves people! And here, the disciples have just seen the risen Lord, and he has personally breathed the Holy Spirit into them, and what do they do?
Nothing. Zip, zero, zilch, nada, not one thing. They keep sitting on their butts in that locked room for another week. I think we can all agree that this was not the fault of the Holy Spirit. It’s not that Jesus was not at work in their lives! Jesus was really, physically present! Jesus had personally and tangibly given them the Holy Spirit! Jesus had told them to get out into the world and start spreading his peace! And the disciples responded by going, well, that’s awesome, we’re really happy Jesus, but the world is a big and scary place and this locked room is pretty comfy, so we’re going to stay right where we are, instead. But we’ll make sure to tell Thomas all about it! I can just imagine Jesus standing there face-palming.
And where was Thomas when all this was happening? Well, that’s the interesting thing. Thomas was the only one of the disciples who WASN’T cowering in a locked room. He was out and about in Jerusalem somewhere, and that’s why he didn’t see Jesus when the rest of the disciples did. Maybe he was doing the grocery shopping. Maybe he was visiting friends and family. Maybe he was doing what Jesus had told them to do all along—feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, forgive the sinner, spread God’s peace. I don’t know, because the Bible doesn’t say. But whatever he was doing that first Easter Sunday morning, he was braver without even knowing Jesus was risen than the other disciples were after a personal appearance by Jesus and a personal, tangible gift of the Spirit.
So Thomas was out and about in Jerusalem while the rest of the disciples barricaded themselves in a locked room. Then he gets back and they tell him awesome news! Jesus is risen! He gave us the Holy Spirit and told us to spread peace! Isn’t that wonderful! And if I were Thomas, I would have said something along the lines of, okay, great, what happens next? Because whether you believe Jesus was risen or not, nobody can stay in a locked room forever, right? So where are we going, what are we going to do, how are we going to start spreading that peace and forgiveness like Jesus commanded?
This is where the disciples start hemming and hawing and coming up with excuses for why they can’t actually go out and start sharing the good news, spreading God’s peace, forgiving sins, or doing any of the other things Jesus has taught them and commanded them to do. Well, you know, it’s too late to start today, we better wait until tomorrow, when we can get a good head start on it. And, you know, people don’t want to listen to messages of peace, the city’s pretty tense right now and everybody is busy with cleaning up after Passover and getting back to their normal lives, so they probably wouldn’t listen right now. And we can’t possibly do anything until we’ve got a good plan, and we’ve never done this before so we don’t know what would be best. And people might get mad if we tell them that Jesus, the same guy they crucified, is God’s Son and rose from the grave! And what if the Romans hear about it, they’d get mad. What if the high priests hear about it, they’d get even more angry, and so we can just stay here sharing peace with each other and forgiving each other when we make mistakes, okay? Any excuse that will justify staying up there in that comfortable locked room.
I can just imagine Thomas standing there staring at them, listening to all their excuses for staying where it’s comfy and cozy and they never have to actually put their faith into action. Do you blame him for not believing them that Jesus rose from the grave? Do you blame him for not believing that the Holy Spirit had come into them? They’re not acting like Jesus is risen! They’re not acting like they’ve been given the Holy Spirit! They’re just sitting there like bumps on a log! Why should Thomas believe them?
Why should anyone believe us? Because we do the same! We have been given the Holy Spirit! Many times! We were given the gift of the Holy Spirit in our baptisms, and again at Confirmation, and again throughout our lives whenever God wishes to inspire us. But how often do we act like it? How often do we let that Spirit, that relationship with the risen Christ, drive us out into the world to start spreading God’s peace and love? We come for Easter services and say He is risen, alleluia! And then we go back to our homes and have a nice family dinner and an Easter Egg hunt. And then we go right on about our business like nothing has changed. We stay firmly in our comfort zone, in our safe and ordinary lives, coming up with all the reasons why we can’t open up to what the Spirit calls us to do. Just like the disciples stayed up in that locked room. And then we wonder why no one listens to the Good News we have to share.
The disciples don’t look like Jesus is risen. Sometimes, neither do we. Jesus says that those who have not seen and believed anyway are blessed, but most people are like Thomas. We need to see something. If not Jesus risen with our own eyes, then at least the Holy Spirit sending us out into the world. May we follow the Spirit wherever it sends us.