Jesus said to Thomas,
“Because you have seen me, you have believed;
blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed.”
I wonder what it would have been like to be alive in the days following the resurrection of Jesus and being among those who saw him alive again in person. Can you imagine that? How might we have reacted, do you think?
My daughter was telling me that, surrounded by chocolate bunnies, she was trying to tell the real Easter story this year to her older daughter on the verge of turning 5. She said to me afterwards, “Maybe you could give it a try, Dad. When I was doing it, it was coming out a bit like a Zombie movie and freaking her out!”
What words might describe the spectrum of our possible reactions to seeing Jesus alive again? Weird? Scary? Amazing? Skeptical? Joyful? Confused? Probably a mixture of all of these, and more. We read last week of the first appearance of the risen Jesus – to two women, both named Mary. Their reaction was described as a mixture of confusion, fear, and joy.
In other passages in the Gospels, we hear of Jesus appearing to Peter and John, to a couple returning to their home in Emmaus, to Jesus’ inner circle of followers, including once when they had gone home and gone fishing. Later on, in one of his letters, Paul relates that all together there were upwards of 500 people who had seen the risen Jesus first hand.
Paul himself had an encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, though, in his case, it was more of a mystical experience: he saw a light and heard a voice, but he did not actually see or touch Jesus the way some of the other disciples had done. That didn’t stop it from being a completely life-changing experience for Paul, though.
What would that have been like, do you think, for Paul, for the Marys, for Peter and John, and all those many others? What would it have felt like at the time? What lasting impact would it have had on each one?
Do you wish you were there? Do you wish it could happen for you even now somehow? Well, I think it can. And I think the particular passage we are focussing on this morning can help us with that.
In the passage from the 20th chapter of the Gospel of John, we hear of an appearance of the risen Jesus to a gathering of his disciples, probably in the same room in which they had shared their last supper with him before his arrest. This incident is reported in two parts. First, on the very night of the resurrection itself, Jesus appears to this group but with Thomas absent. Then, as a follow-up to that appearance, the same disciples have a similar experience a week later, this time with Thomas present. To give my daughter credit for trying, this incident is a bit “woo-woo” – if not zombie-ish, certainly a bit ghostly. For Jesus suddenly appears in their midst, in a room we are specifically told is locked. So, somehow, Jesus was able to materialize inside the room.
In John’s telling, this little incident seems to combine the story from Matthew of the risen Jesus conferring upon the early church the Great Missionary Commission and the story from Acts of the Spirit’s Pentecostal empowerment. Listen for these elements as I recall that part of the story. “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And having said that, Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone their sins, they are forgiven.”
But the focus of this story soon becomes Thomas. When he returns and the excited disciples try to tell him what happened, he is understandably skeptical. “I need to see it for myself,” he says, “before I will believe it.” So, a week later, he is given that chance. And seeing the risen Jesus for himself and being able to touch him – particularly his wounds and his scars – Thomas is moved to belief, to commitment, and to devotion. In awe and humility, he dedicates his life to Jesus saying simply, “My Lord and my God!” Although the passage doesn’t say it, I cannot help seeing Thomas fall to his knees as he says those words.
And that is the point at which the focus of the story becomes us, gathered here today in this room or reading this in the coming and going of our daily life. “Because you have seen me, you have believed,” Jesus says to Thomas; “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Blessed are we – blessed are you, each one; blessed am I – who have had our own experience of the risen Christ, which has led us to believe, and which has utterly transformed our lives as his devoted followers.
The pattern of Thomas’ experience can be translated into our experience as well. Like Thomas, our commitment to Jesus needs to be based not on what someone else has told us but on something we have experienced for ourselves. We need not just to know about Jesus, but to know him in a very real and personal way.
It is the very ghostly nature of the appearance of the risen Jesus that is the clue in this passage, I think. Let me just change that word though: from “ghostly” to “mystical”, as it was again later for Paul on his Damascus Road journey. We may not be able to see, hear, or touch the risen Jesus in a physical, tactile way as some of the early disciples did, as Thomas did, but that does not mean that we cannot still experience his presence, his reality, his life, his love, his vitality, his inspiration in our own way in our own day and age. For our faith, our commitment, our devotion, our faithfulness to have depth and vitality and staying power, it needs to be founded upon having met Jesus in a very real and personal way somewhere along our life’s unfolding journey and story. We do not have to have the same experience in the same way. But I am convinced that for the transformation of our lives, for the renewal of the church, for the salvation of our world, we need to have had a very personal brush with Jesus somehow, somewhere, sometime in our lives. Jesus needs to be more than a story, more than an idea, more than a ritual, more than a moral code, more than a password, more than a lucky charm; Jesus needs to be real and personal and a living presence within our souls and by our side always and everywhere. However he comes to us, we need to experience him as real and alive and present so that, like Thomas, we fall to our knees and say with him, “My Lord and my God!”
That kind of experience is absolutely real, even if on a mystical rather than a physical plane. It is deeply personal. It is utterly transformative. We are overwhelmed by love and devotion. Our whole life – for the rest of our lives – now revolves around that brush with the risen Jesus and his constant presence with us ever after. God and God’s love is overwhelmingly real to us because Jesus has become overwhelmingly personal to us.
How have you encountered the risen Christ somewhere along your life’s path? Because it is such a personal experience, it will be a very unique story. Was it at camp, perhaps? Maybe in church even - I suppose that still happens! Could it have been through a close relationship with a friend or family member at some point in your life? Maybe even a chance conversation with a stranger along the way. Was it through prayerfully or desperately reading scripture? Did it come in the midst of a crisis in your life when you were needy and searching for some answer to pull you out of a mess? Perhaps it was while surrounded by the beauty of nature: walking in the woods; hiking in the mountains; listening to the water lapping at the shore of a lake, or the waves crashing on a seaside beach, or the rush of river flowing by; lying on your back and watching the panorama of the stars spread out above you; maybe just sitting in your own backyard inhaling the scents of a fresh-cut lawn and summer flowers in full bloom. Could it have been falling in love and having your heart expanded beyond any capacity for joy that you had ever known possible before? Could it have come from having your heart broken and being vulnerable in a way you had never allowed yourself to be before? Did it come from seeing the suffering of another person, and being strangely moved to compassion? What is your story of your encounter with the risen Christ? Thomas got his story included in the Bible. But, believe me, your story is just as important and just as interesting as his.
Maybe you cannot remember such a story. Maybe you feel a bit disappointed that you can’t. But, please, don’t linger with the disappointment too long. Let it turn into yearning. For, as it was with Thomas, so it can be for you. The risen Christ will honour that yearning and find a way to come to you and make his presence known to you. And when he does, may your heart be opened wide as you fall on your knees saying as Thomas said, “My Lord and my God!”
The Rev. Ted Hicks