SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER
TEXT: John 20:19-31 and Acts 4:32-35
But Thomas … was not with them when Jesus came … 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)
Poor Thomas. Every year, on the second Sunday of Easter, we hear about his doubt. He must be the most famous doubter in human history. Shortly after Jesus’ death and burial, all the others—the male disciples, and presumably also Mary Magdalene and the other women—came to Thomas and said, “We’ve seen the Lord! Jesus is alive!” But Thomas refused to believe it. Thomas needed to be shown. He had to see for himself. And a week later, he did. Jesus returned in the same way, to the same room behind the same closed doors—but this time Thomas was present.
“Peace be with you,” Jesus said. Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
Now Thomas was convinced, but Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Like I said, Thomas must be the most famous doubter in all of human history. Even faced with the testimony of so many of his friends, he refused to believe until he had seen for himself. He wanted to see Jesus’ wounds, before he would believe it was really him. Thomas needed to be shown.
But you know … so did all the others! Remember last week’s gospel reading? After Mary Magdalene encountered the risen Christ, she ran to the other disciples to tell them—but it seems they didn’t believe her. In chapter 24 of Luke, we read that—when Mary Magdalene and the other women told the disciples they had seen Jesus alive—the men dismissed their account as “an idle tale” (Luke 24:11).
In chapter 28 of Matthew, we are told that—even after Jesus himself appeared to the remaining eleven disciples—“some doubted” (Matt. 28:17). And—referring again to last week’s gospel lesson—you may remember that even Mary Magdalene considered bodily resurrection so unlikely that she did not at first recognize Jesus when he appeared to her outside the tomb.
Do you see what I’m getting at? None of them believed that Jesus had been raised, until they had seen for themselves. And if Matthew’s gospel is correct, some of them did not believe, even after that!
They all needed to be shown. They all needed to see for themselves. On that first Easter evening, everyone but Thomas received tangible proof. All Thomas wanted was to see the same evidence that the others had seen.
Most of us need some kind of evidence (don’t we?) before we will believe the unbelievable. Personally, I think that Jesus is always giving us proof of his resurrection.
On one level, the Church itself is tangible evidence of it: we are Christ’s Body, and we are the living proof that he is risen. At least, we’re supposed to be. We’re supposed to be living his resurrected life in such a way that others will notice that we are different—and different in a good way!
You might ask, “What would that look like?” What would we look like? What might a congregation look like, if its members were really living a resurrected life? Well, one answer—one description—is given in today’s passage from the Book of Acts:
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35)
Now, I’m not suggesting that we have to adopt that kind of “Christian Communism” here, today. I don’t read that passage from Acts and hear it saying we have to bring everyone down to the lowest level. I don’t think the text is promoting that. But it does promote taking care of others in the name of Jesus.
The early Church was a small family. They were misunderstood and regarded with suspicion. Even with the grace of God upon them, they had to stick together. Their unity was expressed in reaching out, in thinking of others. It wasn’t dinners or proclamations or cliques that they were known for, but for helping the community of believers. They took seriously the words of Jesus, who—after taking the role of a servant and washing his disciples’ feet—said to them: “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).
Their behaviour was part of their testimony to Christ’s resurrection. No wonder great grace was upon them all!
How did the people of Jerusalem and Palestine know that Jesus really was alive? There were more than 5,000 followers of the Way by then. But it wasn’t only by the testifying of the apostles. It wasn’t only by the joy on their faces. No. Above all else, the truth of Christ’s resurrection was demonstrated by their giving spirit, their caring ways, their concern for the less fortunate.
But what if they had not done this? What if they had not responded to the grace which was upon them? Would people have believed their message? I don’t think so.
People were attracted to this community of believers because they could see that they were different. They could see the risen Jesus shining in the faces of his followers, whose hearts and hands were as open as his empty grave.
In a book called From This Day Forward, Paul W. Kummer tells the following story:
Ruth Peterson reached out her door to get her mail. A very plain-looking envelope caught her attention first. It had no return address. Inside it was a one-page letter with these few words written on it: “Dear Ruth, I’m going to be in your neighborhood Saturday afternoon and I’d like to stop by for a visit.” And it was signed, “Love always, Jesus.”
Her hands were shaking as she placed the letter on her kitchen table. “Why would the Lord want to visit me? I’m nobody special. I don’t have anything to offer.” With that thought, Ruth remembered her empty kitchen cabinets. “Oh my goodness, I really don’t have anything to offer. I’ll have to run down to the store and buy something for dinner.” She reached for her purse and counted out its contents: $5.40. “Well, I can get some bread and cold cuts, at least.”
She threw on her coat and hurried out the door. A loaf of French bread, a half-pound of sliced turkey, and a carton of milk. That left Ruth with a grand total of twelve cents to last her until Monday. Nonetheless, she felt happy as she headed home, her meager offering tucked under her arm.
“Hey, lady, can you help us, lady?”
Ruth had been so absorbed in her dinner plan, she hadn’t even noticed two figures huddled in the alleyway—a man and a woman, both of them dressed in little more than rags.
“Look, lady, I ain’t got a job, ya know, and my wife and I have been living out here on the street, and, well, now it’s getting cold and we’re getting kinda hungry and, well, if you could help us, lady, we’d really appreciate it.”
Ruth looked at them both. They were dirty, they smelled bad and, frankly, she was certain that they could get some kind of work if they really wanted to.
“Sir, I’d like to help you, but I’m a poor woman myself. All I have is a few cold cuts and some bread, and I’m having an important guest for dinner tonight and I was planning on serving that to him.”
“Yeah, well, okay, lady, I understand. Thanks anyway.” The man put his arm around the woman’s shoulders, turned and headed back into the alley. As she watched them leave, Ruth felt a familiar twinge in her heart.
“Sir, wait!” The couple stopped and turned as she ran down the alley after them. “Look, why don’t you take this food? I’ll figure out something else to serve my guest.” She handed the man her grocery bag.
“Thank you, lady. Thank you very much!”
“Yes, thank you!” It was the man’s wife, and Ruth could see now that she was shivering.
“You know, I’ve got another coat at home. Here, why don’t you take this one?”
Ruth unbuttoned her jacket and slipped it over the woman’s shoulders. Then, smiling, she turned and walked back down the street … without her coat and with nothing to serve her guest.
Ruth was chilled by the time she reached her front door, and worried, too. The Lord was coming to visit and she didn’t have anything to offer him. She fumbled through her purse for the door key. But as she did, she noticed another envelope in her mailbox.
“That’s odd. The mailman doesn’t usually come twice in one day.” She took the envelope out of the box and opened it.
“Dear Ruth, it was good to see you again. Thank you for the lovely meal. And thank you, too, for the beautiful coat. Love always, Jesus.”
The air was still cold, but even without her coat, Ruth no longer noticed.*
Do people see God for who he really is by what they see in you … and in me? Do they see the mark of the nails upon our hands?
Some people will never come to believe the Good News until they see us getting down and dirty for them, sacrificing ourselves for them, giving up some of our comforts for them. Then they will finally see Jesus—alive and well, showing his wounds … and offering his peace.
Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! The grave is open; let our hearts and hands be open, too! Amen.
* quoted at http://www.sermonsuite.com/free.php?i=788013960&key=hmsvCPvd5py7tghj