Sunday, May 1, 2011 ~ Easter 2

TEXT: John 20:19-31


But Thomas (who was called the Twin ), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:24-25)

Well, another Easter Sunday has come and gone! Last week, we celebrated the resurrection of Jesus—the foundational event of our Christian faith. As the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “…  if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain … But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died” (1 Cor. 15:14, 20).

Easter Sunday is so important, we spend 40 days of Lent getting ready for it. Something that I greatly missed this year was the opportunity to attend an outdoor dawn service. When I was in active ministry, this was always the high point of Triduum.

I vividly remember my first time leading (or, actually, helping to lead) an Easter Sunrise service. It took place on Tom Campbell’s Hill in Calgary , Alberta. Between the three congregations that took part, there were over 60 people on that hilltop, gathered there at daybreak on a frigid, windy morning to sing “hallelujah!” and praise the Risen Christ. The guitar players almost froze their fingers, but even they said they wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

And yet, to begin with, I was reluctant to take part. When the idea of an early-morning outdoor service was first suggested to me, I thought to myself: “Well, if we get ten people to show up, I’ll be thrilled.” But in the end, six times that many came out for it!

Resurrection morning is always spectacular, isn’t it? The whole day is fantastic. But now it’s over. For those who had time off from work or school, it’s back to the same old grind. For those who traveled to see family or friends, it’s a long wait until the next holiday or vacation. And for those who were so involved in the special activities of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, it’s time to settle back into a more regular schedule.

In other words: it’s time to get back to normal. Back into our daily routine. Lent and Easter were a nice change of pace, but now it’s time to get back to reality. The trouble is, reality—normalcy—can be so unpleasant. Our daily routine—our “same old, same old” pace of life—can feel crushingly boring, can’t it?

But then, sometimes, when that routine is disrupted, it’s for a reason that makes “boring” sound pretty good.

For some, reality swoops in with unemployment or illness. For others, it sneaks in when they run across the wedding photos of a ruined marriage. For still others, reality confronts them when they leave their Easter morning service and return home only to look across a tense dinner table at sullen faces, devoid of joy.

Confrontations with normalcy—encounters with reality—can be hard to take, because they destroy all the hopes and illusions on which we rely. Confrontations with the harshly normal (and normally harsh) realities of life remind us that everything comes to an end. Dreams come to an end. Relationships come to an end. Life comes to an end. And we have little or no control over any of that. In the face of those endings, we feel powerless, oppressed, and defeated.

It is just this sort of encounter with reality that is described in today’s gospel reading.

One week after the risen Christ appeared to Mary Magdalene and the other disciples, he returns to show himself to Thomas. Jesus has come back because Thomas—who was not present the previous week—refused to believe it when the others told him, “We have seen the Lord.”

“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,” Thomas said, “I will not believe.”

Poor Thomas. In my opinion, he has always gotten a bad rap. We know him as “doubting Thomas.” But you know, it seems to me that today’s reading is not primarily about doubt. No. It is about reality.

Thomas is, first and foremost, a realist. We see an example of this in the 14th chapter of John’s Gospel. When Jesus says, rather cryptically, “I go to prepare a place for you … And you know the way to the place where I am going,” Thomas is the pragmatist who replies—truthfully—“Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (14:5).

And in the 11th chapter of John, when Jesus speaks about going back to Judea, Thomas knows that returning to Jerusalem will mean death—certainly death for Jesus, and perhaps death for the disciples, also. Thomas is no fool. He counts the cost before making a decision. Nevertheless, he is the one who bravely urges the others to follow Jesus. He says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (11:16).

Considering all of that, we should not be surprised by Thomas’s reaction when the others tell him that Jesus has risen from the dead. Thomas has been hardened and tempered by his experience in the world. As I said, he is a realist. And for Thomas, reality had hit home brutally just days earlier in the form of a cross, on which his friend and teacher had died.

Reality hit home for Thomas when, like the others, he fled and deserted Jesus; when he realized that the hopes and aspirations of the last three years were as dead as his beloved Lord.

Yes, when he witnessed the crucifixion of his Messiah, everything came crashing down around Thomas. It must have been the worst moment of his life. But he had survived that ordeal. He had come through it.

And maybe the reason he was not present the first time Jesus appeared in that locked room had something to do with him accepting what the others could not. Perhaps Thomas was out looking for a job—preparing to move on, to rebuild his life and get on with things. No wonder, then, that when his friends share their happy news, Thomas is skeptical.

It is as if a terminal cancer patient, at last reconciled to his fate, is told of a new “miracle cure”; or a disillusioned spouse, who has finally accepted that her marriage is over, is told that her husband has “turned over a new leaf.”

Nothing is worse than getting hurt, yet one more time, picking up the shattered pieces of a broken dream.

Thomas has been cut before—too often, and too deeply. He has bled enough already. So he demands proof: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

But, as the story continues … it’s kind of odd. Did you notice? When Jesus comes back to display his wounds, Thomas never touches them, even though Jesus invites him to. No. When Thomas is confronted by the risen Lord—when he is greeted by the forgiveness and grace enunciated in the words, “Peace be with you”—he instantly believes, and he makes the great confession of John’s gospel: “My Lord and my God!”

In a heartbeat, Thomas knows! He knows that he is in the presence of God. He knows that he has been saved and redeemed by that God, and that he will never be the same again. So, you see, this story is not about Thomas’s doubt at all. No. It is about an encounter with the grace of God, incarnated in Jesus the Christ.

Now, right here, it’s important to pause and take note of something. In this encounter, Thomas’s doubt is swept away … but not his realism.

Thomas’s confession—that Jesus is his Lord and his God—is just as much a part of his pragmatism, his ability to deal with reality, as was his demand for proof. It is not Thomas’s realism that has been changed. What has changed is reality itself. When he is confronted by God’s grace in the risen Christ, Thomas enters a whole new reality.

Have you read Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Misérables? Or seen the movie, or the stage play?

The novel really is better. Early in the book, Hugo describes the moral disintegration of Jean Valjean, a common labourer who is sentenced to five years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. His sentence is stretched from five to nineteen years, and his time in prison withers the man’s soul.

Once he is released, Valjean’s descent continues, since no one will give him work, or even food or shelter, because of his criminal record. Hopeless and exhausted, he stumbles into the house of an aged bishop named Myriel, who welcomes him and treats him as an honored guest.

Valjean, though—ever the hardened realist—is confused by his host’s generosity. Unable to accept the genuineness of such treatment, he steals the silverware from the bishop’s cupboard and flees into the night.

However, he runs afoul of the police, who arrive the next day at the bishop’s house with the captured criminal and the silver. Valjean, of course, is utterly dejected at the certain prospect of returning to prison.

Then, the old priest surprises everyone. “I’m glad to see you,” he says to Valjean. “But I gave you the candlesticks, too, which are silver like the rest and would bring two hundred francs. Why didn’t you take them along with your cutlery?”

In Hugo’s narration, we read how, at Myriel’s astounding words, “Jean Valjean opened his eyes and looked at the bishop with an expression no human tongue could describe.”

Forced to release their captive at the bishop’s insistence, the police depart and Myriel hands Valjean the candlesticks, holding him just a moment longer before sending him freely on his way with this blessing:

Jean Valjean, my brother, you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!

In the very next scene, Hugo describes Valjean’s agonized weeping as he realizes the depths to which he has sunk—and as he begins to comprehend the whole new world of forgiveness and grace into which he has been ushered.

In that moment, Jean Valjean dies—and is reborn. He learns compassion, and he becomes a force for good.

In the rest of this long and turbulent novel, we hear about the new reality in which Valjean now lives. It is an accounting of the results of this man’s experience of transforming grace.

To the skeptical, disillusioned Thomas, Christ says, “Peace be with you.” To the hardened, unrepentant criminal, bishop Myriel says, “Jean Valjean, [you are] my brother.”

Grace—mercy—comes in so many forms: in the unexpected apology of a colleague; in the undeserved forgiveness of a sibling; in the all-too-often-unnoticed tenderness and fidelity of a spouse. But when grace comes, it transforms both the recipient and the giver. It transforms them—it re-creates them—by joining them to the mercy of God in Jesus Christ.

However, even though this grace—this mercy—is transformative, it does not replace this world’s reality. In his encounter with grace, Jean Valjean—just like Thomas—is confronted not with opposition to his realism, but with an altogether new reality.

Neither one of them leaves his world. Valjean is still in oppressive and chaotic Paris, facing persecution and death. Thomas is still in Palestine, facing the same opposition which killed his Lord.

So, too, with us. We remain in our very real worlds. But there is something different. There is something new. What we gain is not an escape from the world, or a break from reality. What we gain is a sense—a conviction—that God’s grace, God’s new kingdom, has broken into the kingdom of this world. And now everything is changed. Nothing will ever be the same again—not work, not school, not our relationships, not even life and death.

This is what Easter means. It means each one of us is a “new creation.” We are forever transformed. We are “raised with Christ” (Col. 3:1).

Easter is about knowing that in faith we have been joined to the risen One, Jesus the Christ.

It’s about knowing we live in his new reality, and that we are indeed new creatures. Reality can no longer defeat us.

This is what the apostle Paul meant when he wrote that we are in all things “more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37).

Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!

Thanks be to God.

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