Second Sunday of Easter
The following sermon was preached by Mark P. Bangert, John H. Tietjen Professor of Pastoral Ministry: Worship and Church Music, Emeritus, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, April 15, 2010.
The calendrical details in this text charm the liturgically minded. I mean: the context in John’s Gospel makes it clear that the “evening of that day, the first day of the week,” is the evening of the very first Easter Day. The disciples were gathered behind locked doors, and we ELW types want to say, gathered likely in assembly. And, if so, our imaginations press on, then in one of the first Christian assemblies ever, apart from the Emmaus bunch.
Listen for the cues: Jesus comes into their midst and delivered what was to become a liturgical greeting. Thomas wasn’t there, we are told; perhaps others too were absent—who knows? But those who were there became so excited over Jesus’ appearance that they made a pastoral call on Thomas to tell of their experiences. Thomas responded by joining them at the next Sunday assembly. Jesus comes into their midst again. Doors still shut. Here in this short account are the minutes from some of the first Christian meetings—maybe.
By this time we know that what transpired at these meetings brings a focus on Thomas. Yesterday Peter V helped us understand that the moniker “doubting,” no matter its venerable history, is inaccurate and unnecessarily damaging. Doubting was not his problem.
And the narrative is further confused for us by the writer’s interjection of Jesus’ sending words, “Receive the Holy Spirit, forgive and retain sins, etc.” Where did that come from, this rush to Pentecost? I know, I know, the linkage of the resurrection and Pentecost makes for delicious theological discourse. But overall Thomas seems to be the focus of this narrative, not the Office of the Keys. Besides the Holy Spirit was apparently in no hurry to get these disciples out the door, for one week later they are still inside, doors shut.
The rush to Pentecost and our own intensifying desires for heavy breathing on our professional lives can detour us from important milestones in the yearly journey from the empty tomb. There is a reason that for centuries we are invited to hear of Thomas one week after Easter. In spite of his energy and commitment Thomas was not quite ready to hit the road for India. For Thomas to be, for Thomas to act, we need a Thomas who first sees and who first feels.
If in fact John 21 is a kind of appendix to the whole Gospel, then the last verses of our text gain more poignancy in their summary statement of purpose for the entire Gospel. These signs were written down that “you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, . . . and that you may have life.” The urgency of John’s witness is directed towards those, it is hoped, who will “see the signs.” A favored few, of course, will also touch. But for most of us—and we are equally blessed—for most of us to see the signs is enough, even as it is opportunity at hand this week of the second Sunday of Easter 2010.
Jesus, mercifully, does not deny Thomas the chance to feel the wounds and see them up close. That Thomas was so overcome by his desire to verify the witness of his fellow disciples, thinking that he could turn his believing on and off, is not his problem. Even as our attempts to comprehend the resurrection with modern or post-modern mental motherboards are not the problem. No, Thomas’s problem was that he was the original chapel skipper.
He missed the assembly that very first day of the week ever. Who knows where he was: Work? Resting from exhaustion? Wanting to be where the real people are? Fact is: he missed the meeting, and missed Jesus coming into the midst.
Blessed are those who see the signs. And, like Thomas, we will find them there in the midst. For when Thomas came to the meeting on the second Sunday, there suddenly in the midst of the community was Jesus, ready to give Thomas all he wanted and thought he needed. There was Jesus, ready to give away the first dose of resurrected life.
In the midst of the community words about the signs take on life. In the midst come signs that were written down; through read and preached signs Jesus again invites us to see that we might believe and have life.
In the midst we see the enacted signs of peace; in the midst we cast our eyes on signs of creation, renamed around the table as signs of Christ’s love; in the midst we see signs of bread and wine that bear the wounds and nail prints right into our hands and hearts.
See the signs, Jesus begs us. Pentecost can wait, even for those of you who have the overwhelming desire to receive the Spirit with laying on of hands.
See the signs. And then, whenever the Wounded One comes into our midst, see and feel how fears are dispelled, see how death, like a deflated balloon, lies in a heap in the corner of the open tomb; see how joy is released, even behind closed doors, see how tears have been dried up. See how doors then are opened, and it is time finally for heavy breathing.
There are signs to see, there are signs to hear, there are signs to touch, there are signs to taste in the midst. Open your eyes, open your ears, open your hand, open your mouth. You will not be disappointed. The time is now.