Did We ‘Miss’ Easter?
John 20: 19-31 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United Church ~ April 19, 2020
Have you ever showed up after the party had reached its peak and was on its way towards winding down? And you hear stories of the wonderful people and laughter you had missed. Or perhaps you missed the party entirely, only to hear tales about how wonderful the gathering was. This Sunday…the Sunday which falls the week after Easter always feels a bit like that, doesn’t it? The Easter Lilies have bloomed and are gone; the theological highlight and promise of our year has come to a peak; all the Easter fanfare is over. All the festivities are ended: Easter dinners have been consumed and all that remain are soups and casseroles; and all that lingers is the memory of what…was. It always feels like this, to some degree; however, this year, amidst our state of social isolation, I wonder if many of us are asking: ‘did we miss Easter?’ Did we miss Easter where ‘New Life’ was supposed to arrive? Did we miss Easter when death was conquered? Did we miss Easter when Jesus rose from the dead and hope was everywhere? Did we miss Easter?
As most know, Easter is a season that we ‘spiritually walk’ through. Much like a fine wine that is savoured, the glory and mystery of Easter is too much for us to take in on a single Sunday morning. And so, we begin a 50-day journey exploring the meaning of resurrection; delving into the promise of new life; plumbing the depths of God’s hope found in the Risen Christ. And our stop on the second week of Easter, takes us to the hide-away of the disciples. Chronologically, in John’s rendering of the story, we have only moved about 12 hours since last week’s story. We are now in the evening of the first Easter. With the coming of the sunrise, when it was permitted by Jewish custom, the first witnesses had travelled to the tomb and they found the surprise, the mystery, the hope that changed the world! We now find ourselves in the evening of that first day.
One of the main characters in this section of the drama is someone who our faith would prefer to dismiss and sweep under the theological rug…Thomas. Thomas comes with a lot of theological baggage, doesn’t he? In some of the ice-breaker name games that I’ve played at churches over the years, I have discovered that he is among the least favourite of the Biblical characters. There are several we don’t like. No one wants to be Cain ~ understandable, as who wants to be the one responsible for committing the first murder? No one wants to be Judas ~ understandable, for related reasons. And, no one wants to be Thomas, because Thomas will always be remembered as “Thomas… the doubter”. It is important to note that it is history, not scripture, that labelled Thomas with this characteristic, and it stuck. It is like the unfortunate nickname that never seems to leave a high school classmate, even when we gather for a 30th or a 40th year reunion. It is unfortunate because we could have equally remembered him as “the Courageous Thomas”, for he had the courage to come to the Risen Jesus, when others cowered in fear, and ask to be close to him, ask to touch him, ask to participate in what God was doing in their lives. Equally, Thomas could have been remembered as “The Brave Thomas” who had dared the disciples to go to Bethany. Remember back in the 11th chapter, when Thomas challenged the followers, let us go and die with him. Only to be met with the guarded concerns recalling that Bethany was the place where they tried to stone Jesus. No…he will never be remembered as Thomas the Courageous, or Thomas the Foolishly Brave, Thomas will always be remembered as “the Doubter”.
And…as we gather in 2020, amidst the realities of this pandemic that we are living through, thank God Thomas is part of our faith story! This year, is one filled with fear, uncertainty, and doubt. These emotions have been the focus of much of my pastoral work in the church, and our present reality has deeply affected people. It has touched us in places that we took for granted, in areas we took as certain and unshakable, in corners of our lives where we never expected. And this year, we all appreciate Thomas a little more because there is a large part of Thomas living in the hearts and souls of you and me. It is probably helpful to note that, while history hangs a ‘bad rap’ on Thomas, doubting was a natural part of the faith in all Jesus’ followers. Mary did not believe until the Risen Christ had actually appeared and spoken to her. The disciples dismissed Mary until they saw Jesus for themselves. And, while we focus on Thomas’ story as found in the gospel of John, there are doubt stories found in the three other gospel narratives. Thank God for Thomas…thank God for our capacity to doubt…thank God for this opportunity to receive hope amidst our fear and uncertainty.
So, how does hope come upon the first witnesses? Does it come upon them like a powerful sledgehammer? Or does hope arrive like the soft murmur of a dove? The text records Jesus as breathing upon them…he breathes upon them offering peace…he breathes: “peace be with you”. I always appreciate a good story-teller who highlights their point, lest we miss it! John is one of them. He has Jesus breathing peace not once (v.19), not twice (v.21), but three times (v.26) in this story. “Peace be with you”… “peace be with you”… “peace be with you”. In the languages of both the Old and the New Testaments (the Greek and Hebrew), breath is equated with Spirit, with wind, with the movement of God. It recalls the creative breath of God that brings life into being all the way back in the Creation story (Gen 2:7); it recalls the breath of God that Ezekiel prophesied as coming upon the valley of dry bones which would restore New Life after exile. Jesus breathed upon them… “Peace be with you”.
I wonder if these moments at home, in isolation, in quarantine are truly opportunities to experience what Easter was really all about: the gentle, transforming nature of God. In Easter, Jesus did not come in power and might; he arrived in ways of comfort and gentleness. The first Easter was not about dominance overcoming the ways of old. It was about how, in our powerlessness, we are made strong; it was about how the meek will inherit the earth; it was about how the last will be made first. That is what the first witnesses received through the gentle breath of Jesus. “Peace be with you”. And that is what we are invited to receive amidst our uncertain time this Easter.
I believe that this will continue to require a ‘spiritual mind shift’ for us. It is no different than the mind-shift required in our world which rages against the government for letting this pandemic get out of hand; the medical system for failing to cure it; or the shopkeepers for failing to keep our daily essentials on the shelves. I would suggest to you that we will miss Easter if we expect it to arrive as a powerful force, to come upon our world as a fierce warrior, to be seen as a counterattack against the ills we suffer. However, we will discover Easter if we receive Jesus’ gentle breath of peace; we will receive Easter if we open our awareness to the calming ways of God that is resurrection and new life.
I find it revealing that in seeking proof of Jesus, Thomas did not ask to see some more obvious identifiers for identification. Why didn’t Thomas ask to look into Jesus’ eyes? Surely that would have proved that this was the Risen Christ? Why didn’t Thomas examine some other identifiable feature, like a birth mark, that would have allowed him to know that this was really Jesus? What Thomas did examine, rather than looking at the obvious, were the places where Jesus took on pain…the places he took on pain for us. He examined the places where Jesus suffered…the places he suffered for us. For, while Thomas may have doubted, he knew that the presence of Jesus would be found among the suffering, among the pain…that is where we can recognize Jesus. And THAT is where we can find the hope that Easter offers ~ in our suffering, in our pain, in our discomfort.
We know of the separation between the mind, body and spirit. And, we all likely make sense of it in varied ways. But there is something separate between the intellect and the rest of our being, isn’t there? On the one hand, our human mind has the great capacity to search for order, to organize data, and to simply make sense of things. On the other hand, our heart, our soul, our spirit is an entirely separate entity. It is the place where faith resides. And there is an eternal dichotomy which exists between these two parts of our being. Faith resides here in our hearts and souls. We take certain things ‘on faith’ don’t we? We are willing, in certain circumstances, to take things on faith that do not make perfect sense in the mind. And our faith is that eternal mystery of the heart that the mind forever wants to solve. This is the challenge that Thomas felt, and the challenge we feel as well.
Poet, Lord Alfred Tennyson once said: “there lives more faith in honest doubt than in half the creeds”, and he believed that it is our gentle capacity to ‘feel’ which actually leads to the discovery of our faith. And so, I will conclude with his words: “That which we dare invoke to bless; our dearest faith; our ghastliest doubt; He, They, One, All; within without; The power of darkness Whom we guess. I found Him not in world or sun, Or eagle’s wing, or insect’s eye; Nor through the questions men may try, The petty cobwebs we have spun. If e’er when faith had fallen asleep, I heard a voice: “Believe no more” And heard an ever breaking shore That tumbled in Godless deep; A warmth within the breast would melt; The freezing reason’s colder part, And like a man in wrath the heart stood up and answer’d “I have felt”.
Feel Jesus’ gentle breath...hear Jesus’ soft voice…“Peace be with you”. You haven’t missed Easter. It is just beginning.