You may listen to Mother Johnson's sermon here.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
A wonderful, affectionate, smart, effusive little boy who happens to be a dear friend of mine drew a picture for his grandmother a few years ago, when he was very little indeed. It was Easter, and he wanted to give her an Easter picture, so I guess he looked around and figured out what Easter was and he drew it for her. Turns out he was a bit mixed up. It was a picture of a crucified Easter bunny. Yes, the Easter bunny on the cross, with Easter baskets hanging from his outstretched paws. My little friend was trying earnestly, but he really didn’t get it.
Or maybe in one sense he did. It may not be biblical, but the picture does unintentionally capture something important about the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus. It captures the way our understanding fails us when we try to think about, and talk about, what we are celebrating in these fifty days of Easter. My young friend’s mistake is also our mistake. Try as we might to meet the crucified and risen Jesus on his own terms, we keep making him into something we can live with. We keep turning the risen Lord into a figure who will bring us what we think we want.
Try as we might, each one of us will from time to time replace our crucified and risen Lord, the Lord who lives among us and knows us and forgives us, with an image that we think is a little more user-friendly: an image of a God who feeds us not with his own flesh and blood, but with the spiritual equivalent of Easter candy. We are each looking, as Rowan Williams puts it, for a way to turn grace into something that meets our own needs as we define them. But the great challenge of Easter is to see that what we really need is a God who will break open our hearts and our agendas and our schedules and our wallets and the front doors of our homes. A God who will change what we crave instead of mindlessly feeding our cravings. Jesus, who will painstakingly set us free to love the world instead of needing the world to conform to our standards.
You know how this works, right? I will believe in God as long as God doesn’t make me look foolish. (Good luck with that one.) I will believe in God as long as God doesn’t make me associate with people I don’t like. (Ditto.) I will believe in God as long as God can fit into my busy schedule. Religion is great as long as it keeps me feeling functional but when church breaks my heart or scares me or challenges me to think about how I spend my money, I may take a few weeks off until the feelings die down. I might turn God off as though God were a pledge break on NPR.
Prayer is great for many of us, as long as it leaves us feeling refreshed. Have you noticed those studies that tell us that prayer lowers our blood pressure or improves our powers of concentration? That cracks me up. Where do we fit the crucified and risen Lord into that scenario? Can you imagine the disciples at Gethsemane saying “Lord, we want to stay with you but we think we feel our blood pressure rising?”
Then again, that’s pretty much what the disciples did, isn’t it? They fell asleep. They denied the whole scary story. They fled until the feelings could die down. And they locked themselves in a room for fear. Like us, they were in way over their heads with the crucified and risen Lord.
And that’s exactly where Jesus met them. That’s exactly where they were when he breathed his Spirit on them and turned them into apostles.
All of them, that is, except Thomas. Thomas is a harder story. What do you think of him? Do you find him to be a brave champion of independent thinking, or a rash, headstrong skeptic? Would it be possible to say that he is both? That his greatest strength is also his greatest liability?
I guess on one level I know what Jesus is rebuking Thomas for in this morning’s Gospel. Thomas, I guess, knows what he wants the risen Jesus to be. He is willing to imagine believing if Jesus will simply submit to a physical inspection. Thomas wants proof. I imagine Thomas’s version of Easter candy is a Jesus who can rise from the dead without disturbing Thomas’s power to judge.
It makes sense; what we know about Thomas from John’s Gospel suggests that Thomas is a pretty tough guy. Pretty bold. Back when Jesus was going to go to Bethany because he had received word that Lazarus was ill, most of the disciples worried that going to Bethany was too dangerous, that Jesus would be killed if he traveled through Judea. But Thomas’s commitment at that moment is absolute. Alone among the disciples, Thomas proposes that they accept the danger of returning with Jesus: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” That’s admirable, isn’t it? You wouldn’t expect someone with that kind of toughness to fall for the resurrection on mere hearsay.
For all we know, Thomas may not have thought very highly of the other disciples at this stage. Maybe he thinks he is brave and they are cowardly. Bravery is admirable, isn’t it? Remember, the disciples have barricaded themselves in a house with the doors locked because they are afraid, even though Mary Magdalene has already seen Jesus and has already gone to them to tell them the news. Have you ever wondered why Thomas isn’t there with the other eleven? It’s odd, isn’t it, that he just happens not to have locked himself up behind closed doors for fear of his life? What, he had better things to do? Errands to run? Maybe he just wasn’t fearful in the same way that the others were. Maybe he was out looking for answers. Maybe his courage in that moment put the other disciples to shame.
All we know is that, for all his admirable toughness, when the other disciples tell him the truth, that they’ve seen Jesus, he is unwilling to believe. Because he thinks he knows what proof of the resurrection will look like. He is apparently a certain kind of person, not gullible, not easily dissuaded from facing danger, not easily persuaded to rejoice. Not comforted by illusions. He’s not going to live his life in a happy state of fantasy about Jesus. If the others, those cowards, want to tell themselves that they’ve seen the risen Lord, Thomas won’t reject them. But Thomas is not going to fall for a shared illusion. I imagine he would get a good chuckle out of my young friend’s Easter bunny picture. Sure, let kids believe in magic. Thomas is an adult.
And even that admirable adult maturity, it turns out, can get in his way. Even the determination that we will meet the real crucified and risen Jesus, it turns out, can be an obstacle to meeting Jesus.
There is no such thing as an encounter with Jesus that will leave us unchanged. There is no such thing as an encounter with God’s overwhelming generosity and gentleness that will keep us from feeling like we’ve been taken apart and put back together differently. There is no virtue we can bring to the foot of the cross that will allow us to escape from the need for God’s mercy. Knowing Jesus means knowing our weakness and our foolishness. If you reach out your hand to touch the risen Lord today in church you will give up something you were holding onto. Whatever it was. Just let it go. Let Jesus reimagine what you are, what you need, what you have to give.
That’s the beauty of what Thomas went through. Thomas the bold, Thomas the tough, Thomas who didn’t mind telling his friends that he wasn’t going to fall for their ridiculous fantasies, Thomas who is too smart for Jesus—that’s the Thomas who, alone among the disciples, can recognize Jesus as God. Did you hear it? Nobody else calls Jesus “My Lord and my God.” Only Thomas. Nobody else understands the power of the resurrection in quite the way that Thomas does. It’s only by being embarrassed in front of his friends, by losing the stature he felt he had earned among them, by becoming a byword—“Doubting Thomas” we love to call him—it’s only through this awkward, inadvertent surrender that Thomas helps to reveal Jesus as God.
Only the failure of Thomas’s agenda could teach him and us about the height and the breadth and the depth of God’s forgiveness and God’s grace. I guess that’s why we love to trot out his story year after year, right after Easter. It’s Doubting Thomas week. We are once again going to relive the story of his painful misunderstanding.
It’s embarrassing, isn’t it, this childish, Easter bunny sense of expectation that we bring to Jesus every Holy Week? It’s mortifying and immature to face Jesus honestly and tell him that we would like to be God and we would like to control God’s agenda. And every year, maybe every day, maybe several times a day, Jesus meets our childish need for control with outstretched arms. And our need to control God may be eaten away, if we let it be, like last week’s chocolate bunny.
Thanks be to God. And thanks for Thomas.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
27 April 2014
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia