Easter 2 April 19, 2009

The Rt. Rev. Arthur E. Walmsley

Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” – John 20:30

I was talking recently with a friend who has for a long time been struggling with her faith. She has for years been alienated from the church in which she grew up. Its preaching and its worship didn’t connect at all to her life. She had stopped trying to pray. And then the bottom fell out of her life. “I suddenly felt as if I had been shipwrecked on a desert island,” she said, “I didn’t know what to think or what to do.” If you haven’t yourself been as wounded by life as she was, you know plenty of people who have.

The story of Easter is about people who were as devastated as my friend.On Easter Day, we read the accounts of the surprise of the women and men who went to the tomb and found it empty. When that day was over, as the four evangelists tell the story from their different points of view, a good many of Jesus’ closest followers believe that the promise he had made to them had been fulfilled – that on the third day he would rise from the dead. But then what? The disciples were, after all, in hiding, fearful that they too would be arrested and put to death. As the Gospel writers make clear, most of them had no idea what to think and what to do.

I find it no surprise then on the second Sunday of the Easter season this year and every year, the gospel reading appointed is the same story, the account from the Gospel of John about the disciple Thomas. Thomas was absent from the others on that Easter day. All week, he has been wandering, saying words much like my friend, “I don’t know what to think and what to do.” The disciples and the women keep reassuring him, “Listen, Thomas, we have seen the Lord.” Thomas answers – and the words are ones which have stuck with him through history, “Unless I have some kind of real evidence that Jesus is alive – actually touch him — I can’t possibly believe that.”

Doubting Thomas is the way history remembers him. When the bottom has fallen out of your life, you don’t put it together again by listening to promising words. You only begin to do so when you can truly face up to how wounded you are. You only can discover the new life of a risen savior when you can literally reach out and touch the broken body and the broken heart of God. The Jesus who appeared to the little band of his followers on Easter day still carried the wounds of Good Friday, the body bloodied by his scourging and the hands and feet pieced by nails. In all the accounts of the resurrection, those wounds are still vivid on the body of the Risen Lord. The way to Easter is and has always been through Good Friday.

Let me tell you a story about faith in the resurrected Jesus. One of the most cherished friendships of my life was with William Sloane Coffin, one which began in the early 1960s and ended with his death three years ago. Bill Coffin was something of a legendary figure, a leader in the forefront of the struggles for racial justice during the civil rights era of the fifties and sixties and later in the struggle to contain the expanding threat of nuclear holocaust during the Cold War, a struggle which is freshly on the global agenda . He was an outstanding preacher, at Yale where he was chaplain and later at the Riverside Church in Manhattan. Critics of his social activism frequently missed the heart of what sustained him in the Christian faith, his deep life of prayer. When he died of congestive heart failure a couple of years ago, I thought, how ironic: he had one of the most passionate Christian hearts I have ever met.

When he died, I went searching through my files for the account of a sermon he had preached. It was not one on the great public issues of the day, but a very personal one spoken at the funeral of his son Alex, who had been killed in a tragic automobile accident.

The part that most people appreciated

, he observed, was that I said I have no comfort in thinking that it was the will of God that Alex died. My comfort lies in feeling that of all hearts to break, God’s was the first as the wave closed over the sinking car….It was an awful tragedy, and you have to go into the depths of pain, and grief is experienced often as the absence of God: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” said Jesus from the cross….It’s always in the depths of hell that heaven is found and affirmed and praised.1That must have been the experience of Thomas in today’s gospel reading. I think we read the account every year to remind us that like every one of Jesus’ disciples, Thomas had been plunged into confusion and grief when the one he had followed and loved, Jesus, was put to death on the cross. Remember, every one of them except Jesus’ mother, the disciple John and a handful of the women had fled from the scene. The loss of their trusted leader and friend was truly devastating. I can hear them pleading, “Where is God in the midst of this disaster? Not only is Jesus dead, but also our hopes, all the trust, all the love we had invested in him!” Didn’t you and I ask questions like that when those airplanes crashed into the Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11? Aren’t we still asking them more than seven years later? And aren’t we tempted to ask them in a global economic crisis when the world seems an even more insecure and frightening place?

I think that hstory has given the Thomas of our gospel story a bum rap, singling him out as Doubting Thomas because he dared to say what was in his heart, indeed all their hearts:

Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of his nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.

How much proof of God’s love do we humans need? I can imagine Thomas saying further, “In the face of what has happened, how can we respond to our peril with anything but anger and despair?” And that is exactly what you might expect from Bill Coffin whose son has died in a tragic accident or a parent whose child has been lost to a bomb on the streets of Iraq. But it was not the response to his son’s death that Coffin made. Listen further:

“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” said Jesus from the cross. But that’s the first words of the 22nd Psalm, and the end of the Psalm is in praise of God….God is not too hard to believe in, God is too good to believe in, we being strangers to such goodness. The love of God is, to me, absolutely over-whelming.

 

 

The love of God is absolutely overwhelming.

That is the message of Easter. Let me give you an assignment. Sometime this week, take time to read the entire account of Easter as told in the Gospel of John. It records how a community of devastated people are in succession turned away from their anger and their despair to trust and belief. Mary Magdalene and the disciples Peter and John go to the tomb on that Sunday morning. They discover that the stone has been removed from the tomb and it is empty. The two disciples run to tell the others. Mary Magdalene stays behind, where the Risen Jesus appears to her and consoles her in her grief. That same evening, when the doors of the house have been locked by the disciples out of fear they like Jesus might be discovered and killed, Jesus comes and stands in their midst. He shows them his hands and his side. “Peace!” he says. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit!” And they believe.

We need to ask, “In what way was Thomas different from the others? Only that he is a week late meeting the Risen Lord. His questions are no different than theirs, or the ones you and I have in coming to believe in God. The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite is not trusting that the journey to faith comes through doubt, through questioning, through facing the struggles of life, the ones which are enough to break our hearts..

Let me tell you why I have talked about Bill Coffin in the same breath as the apostle Thomas. Bill was, as one of his colleagues said of him, “one of God’s chosen prophets.” He made a lot of people angry with his anti-war stance, but we might ask, where are the articulate and powerful voices today which challenge the direction of America’s belligerent role in the world in the name of the Gospel? “He was a great patriot who loved his country too much to leave it alone,.” someone said of him. His was “a lover’s quarrel,” to use words which lift up the mandate of the kingdom of God for peace, justice and compassion.”

If nothing else this day, see both Thomas and Bill Coffin as blood brothers who dared to confront God with the hard questions, and in faith could simply marvel “My Lord and my God!” and in return heard God’s promise made to each of us:”Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Let me close with a story, this one a parable, told by the great 19th century Christian philosopher Siren Kierkegaard. In it he describes

a make- believe town where only ducks lived. It was Sunday morning – maybe Easter Sunday – and as was the custom, all the ducks waddled out of their houses and down the streets to the First Duckist Church. They waddled down the aisle of the church, waddled into their pews, and squatted. Shortly afterward, the duck minister took his place in the pulpit and the church service was under way. The scripture text for the morning was taken from the duck Bible and it read:

 

Ducks, God has given you wings – you can fly.

Ducks, because you have wings you can fly like eagles.

Because God has given you wings, no land animals can trap you.

Ducks! God has given you wings!

 

 

And all the ducks said,

“Amen!”

And they all waddled home.

 

What would happen if we all said “Alleluia!” and waddled home?

What would happen if we all said “Amen!” and flew?2

ALLELUIA!  AMEN!

                                                                        

 

 

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