We meet the disciples this week on resurrection day. In a house with locked doors, they gathered, fearful of the same fate as that of their beloved teacher and friend, Jesus. Last week we read the first half of this chapter in John. We saw Mary Magdalene, Peter and the nameless disciple, the one whom Jesus loved approaching the empty tomb. Mary, having discovered it first told the other two whom then left her behind. She wept. Her grief laid bare. Mary was approached by two angels and turning, she saw Jesus whom she didn’t immediately recognize. He called out her name, and it was in that moment that recognition kicked in and the connection occurred. After this encounter, she told the disciples as Jesus had asked of her. And now this week we have a beautiful passage from John in which the disciples are met by Jesus, risen and alive once again.
Unfortunately for Thomas, he wasn’t with the disciples during this encounter. He had a difficult time believing this story was true. Because of his so-called doubting, over time, he has been given the nickname doubting Thomas. But, let’s put ourselves in his shoes for a minute. Thomas was grieving the death of his beloved friend and teacher. Not even having time to mourn, he was approached by his friends and fellow disciples. Rejoice! Jesus has risen from the dead! They had seen him with their own eyes. You can almost imagine Thomas’ facial expression in this situation. Furrowed brows, squinting eyes, perhaps a grimace on his face. Even if he didn’t say it, he probably thought, these guys are crazy. And being caught off guard, he said, no. And not afraid to speak his mind he boldly said, unless I see Jesus’ scars myself, I will not believe.
Thomas was hurting. He was in pain and his heart ached for that which he had lost. He couldn’t take any more good news or false hope. Those of us who have witnessed the unfortunate event of a death of a loved one can possibly understand what Thomas might be thinking. For Thomas, death was very real and permanent. After all, people don’t just get up and walk, lungs full of fresh air, breath escaping from their mouths just days after being crucified. Thomas trusted his human understanding of the reality of the world in which people die and remain dead. Thomas’ response to his friends was raw, unfiltered and from the heart. He was honest in the midst of confusion, wrestling with the impossibility of something as wonderful as the resurrection. Feeling very alone, Thomas was hoping for the truth, but simply couldn’t recognize it.
Last week as we sang the joyous hymns with the trumpets sounding and the drums stirring up a deep excitement and praise inside of me, I recognized that same excitement from when I was a child on Easter morning. My theology may be different than the tradition in which I was raised just as my Christology may be different. But, the same pulsating spirit inside of me moved me to joyful recognition of the defeat of death by life through love. As I helped serve communion last week I had the chance to glance around to see the magnitude of people present, many strangers. I noticed in the balcony, for some, it was standing room only. I am amazed at the amount of people who come out to celebrate life. Once a year. That’s it. This week as I look around, I see things are back to normal. Nobody standing in the balcony. No drums. No trumpets. Those unfamiliar faces once again gone.
There was a moment in the service last week that I can’t forget. At one point, as we sang, a wave of emotion rolled over me, so much so that I had to simply listen, my voice quieted. I was overcome by the immensity of love found in the resurrection story. The love of God for the son. The love of the son for his parent. The love of Christ for his disciples and friends, and the love of the disciples for Christ. Love is rooted in the resurrection story. That moment last week was very brief, because in the next minute, I was overcome with sadness. I thought about all the people not present in church that morning, not able to celebrate, alone. The Easter message is not good news for all people, is it? It wasn’t for Thomas. He didn’t see any good news in the resurrection proclamation from his fellow disciples. He eventually did come to belief, but in that moment, he probably felt very excluded. Isn’t the Easter message, the resurrection of life, pushing away death supposed to be hope for everyone? If this is true, then why is it that many people are excluded from love and hope? It seems the resurrection promise and joy is often very exclusionist. If you look a certain way, redemption is found. If you think a certain way, you are welcome to join. But if you step out of line, and fumble everything up, if you don’t fit into the tidy box people place you in, forget it. Celebration over. Why do we so often fail to see the connection between all of us as human beings, bound by Christ’s love?
A few years ago before I began my studies here at Boston University I taught church school on Sunday mornings before the worship service to sixth and seventh graders in a UCC church in Brookline. Not quite teenagers and no longer children, these eleven and twelve year olds were figuring out how to claim their independence and still rely the support of their parents. Their minds were working in hyper speed, discovering their own true selves in the world. They questioned everything. I had my own apprehension as to whether or not these adolescents were gaining anything from our Sunday morning classes. I felt like things went in one ear through their ipods and out the other. Then one morning, we were reading from Mark chapter 4 about Jesus and the disciples on a boat during a terrible storm. Jesus slept soundly while the disciples were running around, panicked that their lives were surely ending. In this story, they woke Jesus who then calmed the storm with three simple words, “Peace! Be still!” The disciples were amazed, and Jesus was frustrated by their lack of faith. At this point a boy in class raised his hand and said, “I don’t like this passage. I think Jesus sounds cocky, and I wouldn’t like him.” How honest and true, spoken from the heart, his mind at work trying to understand what faith meant to him. Just a week before this boy’s mother approached me to let me know his grandfather had just passed away. Knowing this, I was able to understand a little better what might be running through his head. This being his first encounter with death, he, more than likely, was confused about what that meant about God.
I thanked him for his comment, and his jaw dropped. He wasn’t expecting gratitude for his sassy statement, but it was important for those young adults to know that it’s ok to feel betrayed and express that. It’s ok to feel pain. And this boy probably felt very alone. Instead of reacting like he expected, in a very teacher-ish way by correcting him or scolding him for speaking negatively about Jesus, I simply asked him to explain what he said so we all could understand in a better way. I opened up space for him to talk instead of criticizing. I wanted to hear his point of view even though it may have been different than mine. I valued his thoughts, and I was present to where he was in that moment. There was a connection, maybe not recognized at the time, but something happened where we bonded, like the encounter between Thomas and Jesus.
I think Thomas gets a bad rap. When put in a situation where he had to choose one way or another, he chose the way that made sense for him in that moment. His limits of understanding and belief were stretched beyond his capacity to make sense of his faith. He stoppe
d and turned away, unable to follow the advice of his friends. And we are told he waited a full week before Jesus appeared again. He wrestled with his confusion and loneliness for an entire week before he finally was able to accept the truth. And how much did his faith grow upon seeing his beloved friend and teacher, once dead, impossibly alive again, reaching out to him. It suddenly all made sense. There was hope. A light bulb went off in his head and he cried out, “My Lord and my God.”
We aren’t as fortunate as Thomas, who when faced with absurdity and deepest loneliness found himself in the presence of Jesus, whom he could have touched with his own hands. Flesh on flesh, human contact, feeling life. When we shake our fists at God, surrounded by disbelief, in the midst of turmoil and hardship, the risen Christ doesn’t appear to us behind locked doors, through our fears to reach out to us. He said those of us who believe without seeing are blessed. But what about those who need some kind of proof, like Thomas? Where is the hope, the proof that life conquers death, the good news for those who have been hurt or are turned away or have a difficult time seeing any good in the resurrection?
The resurrection is supposed to offer hope in the midst of loneliness and proclaim life over death through love, just as Thomas experienced when put face to face with the risen Christ. That boy in my class didn’t experience Christ physically in front of him, but he did experience something that moved him and touched him. In his confusion and anxiety, he was tossed aside, not deliberately, but with the flurry of adults in the middle of funeral preparations, he was simply a child who didn’t understand what was going on. And finally, someone didn’t brush him aside again, but offered to listen. How often do we push people away because we don’t want to take the time to listen? We are busy people consumed with our own needs and wants. In a facebook, twitter and email society, it’s easy to lose touch with others and human contact. Students on campus often have a difficult time fitting in and connecting with others. It’s easy to slip through the cracks and quietly sit alone in your room every night without ever feeling loved or appreciated. It’s easy to isolate ourselves and lead a lonely life.
But the message of the resurrection does not convey a world of isolation or lack of human contact. As we saw with Jesus appearing to the disciples and opening himself up to Thomas, the resurrection not only offers hope for life over death, but it also signifies the necessity of connection between one another through Christ’s love.
We are indeed all connected through the resurrection. It doesn’t matter if it’s the polar opposite of what you claim to believe or if its proclamation is on the tip of your tongue, the effects of the resurrection have the power to reach all people. It may look differently for each of us, like the disciples in the locked room, but it’s there. It may hit us at different times, like Thomas, but it’s there. It may take a while for it to take shape in our lives, but it’s there. We may feel lonely and excluded, but it’s still there. The encouragement of hope is for all. The rising up of life over death is not just for a select group of people. It is for everyone.
And we see this as we come to a beautiful account of the disciples encountering Jesus this week. The first words out of his mouth to the disciple were, “Peace be with you.” He showed them his hands as proof of life. Again he said, “Peace be with you.” Then he breathed the Holy Spirit onto them, into them, through them. What a beautiful picture. Such an act of love – giving new breath, new life, and offering peace in the midst of chaos, fear and turmoil. They were full of the same spirit and the same love, connected together.
Once a month here at Marsh we celebrate communion. Before we partake of the elements, we follow the tradition of passing the peace to one another. I never really thought about this practice until I read the scripture readings for this week. Jesus said to the disciples, “Peace be with you.” Upon hearing that, it’s almost automatic that you and I say, “and also with you” as a response. I think we fail to see the significance and importance of this tradition. The passing of the peace is a time to put aside differences, to forgive one another, and settle disputes. We are supposed to relieve ourselves and each other of burdens or troubles. We do this before we take communion so that our hearts and minds are open and focused. Jesus also said, “As the father has sent me, so I send you.” Passing the peace is an expression of our commitment to Christ as well. It’s proclaiming the good news of the resurrection. Jesus gave the spirit, but in his giving, he placed responsibility. We also, filled with the Holy Spirit are to be continually passing the peace, doing God’s work in the world, moving through human connections by putting love into action.
We often don’t take this seriously, though. We lose sight of the connection. We don’t feel love and we don’t offer love. But there is Christ among us. We read in Acts today about the harmony in unity with one another. The resurrection message is not a proponent of individualism, but community through love. We are the face of Christ. Just as the disciples were the face of Christ to those early believers in Acts, we too are the face of Christ to those whom we encounter. Just as Jesus breathed the spirit onto the disciples and said, “Peace be with you,” we too should be a breath of fresh air to those around us, showing peace and kindness.
The students I work with here at Boston University often come to me with hesitations and anxiety. They struggle with the messages they hear in churches, from their families, on the news and in politics that tell them that something is wrong with them because of their inmost being. They wonder if God really loves them despite their sexual orientation. Is there hope? Why do so many people dislike me? Why do so many people doubt my true worth? They ask me. They watch as Proposition 8 in California takes away gay and lesbian rights; they watch as churches deny them; they listen as politicians act as if they are second-class citizens. And they say, no, I can’t believe this is right. And they’re right.
They stumble across Marsh Chapel and see a place where they can be themselves without being rejected. They can step inside a church without the fear of lightning striking them. These students found a place where they feel a connection and a sense of love. A place where people stop to listen to them without judging. In this space their loneliness dissipates, and they start to see true hope. What once was denied them, the resurrection is made new.
Friends, let us not model an exclusionist resurrection message. Let us not find diversity a threat. Let us not dismiss others because we don’t understand them. Let us put our belief in action. Let the spirit move. Let the resurrection be at work every day, not just once a year. I don’t want to sit here in a year on Easter morning and have my joy be interrupted by sadness at how the resurrection message is often conveyed. No, friends, the spirit is at work. Just as Christ breathed it onto the disciples, he too has breathed it onto us. We are truly connected. Therefore, be continually passing the peace, for just as Jesus was sent, he too sends us to love.