Texts: John 20:19-31 and Acts 5:27ff
By all rights, I should have a good Easter joke for you on this Sunday known among our eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters as Hilarity Sunday. Alas, all I have to offer is this seasoned joke more appropriate to Lent.
It seems that Friday night after work during the season of Lent, Bubba would fire up his outdoor grill and cook a venison steak. But, all of Bubba’s neighbors were Catholic. And since it was Lent, they were forbidden in those days from eating meat on Friday. The delicious aroma from the grilled venison steaks was causing such a problem for the Catholic faithful that they finally talked to their priest. And so the Priest came to visit Bubba, and suggested that he become Catholic. After several classes and much study, Bubba attended Mass…and as the priest sprinkled holy water over him, he said, ‘You were born a Baptist, and raised a Baptist, but now you are a Catholic.
Bubba’s neighbors were greatly relieved, until Friday night arrived, and the wonderful aroma of grilled venison filled the neighborhood. The Priest was called immediately by the neighbors, and, as he rushed into Bubba’s yard, clutching a rosary and prepared to scold him, he stopped and watched in amazement. There stood Bubba, clutching a small bottle of holy water which he carefully sprinkled over the grilling meat and chanted: “You wuz born a deer, you wuz raised a deer, but now you is a catfish.”
It is not without forethought that I retell this old joke: for if you think back to the two passages of scripture that we read this morning, putting them alongside one another, it is almost as if we are talking about two entirely groups of people: in John’s Gospel, the followers of Jesus in the first week after the crucifixion and first experience of the resurrection are still hiding behind closed doors; and in the Acts account, which might have been just barely 2-3 months later, we find Peter and the apostles standing without any fear at all in the same court where Jesus had been tried, before being passed on to Pilate.
It’s like the transformation of venison to catfish in the joke. They are not the same critters, and in less than 3 months time they have moved from hiding in fear to standing boldly in the same chamber where Jesus had been tried by the Sanhedrin, and confronting those authorities with what they had done: YOU HAD JESUS KILLED BY HANGING HIM ON A TREE.” That took some gumption, as my mother used to say about people who were willing to stand for something. Fear, clearly, had been replaced by something else: by courage (a word that means, literally, a strong heart), so by courage, yes; but more obviously, by faith—not belief, but absolute trust in the God whose love they had seen in the flesh and who was revealed in the living Jesus and the risen Christ.
In today’s Gospel reading for the 8th day following Easter Sunday, we read that the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus the first time he said, “Peace be unto you.” Only when he showed them his hands and his side did they rejoice.
In other words, the reception of the resurrected Christ comes slowly even to those most devoted to him. I love the words at the end of this Gospel reading from Jesus: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Belief does not happen in one fell swoop. It has to come to us over time, in time, in communities, as I said last week, of remembrance.
The central character in the Gospel reading is Thomas, whom we often hear called “the doubter.” Apparently Peter, James and John, the three disciples closest to Jesus were still in hiding. Only Thomas, it seems, had the courage to go out from the hiding place in that first week after all those stunning and terrible events. But John’s Gospel calls Thomas by another name, “didymus” which also means, “the twin”.
Frederick Buecher, who was one of Mildred Buster’s son’s teachers in prep school, and a wonderful writer, has a beautiful sermon on this text, in which he confesses that “…if you want to know who the other twin is, I can tell you. I am the other twin, and unless I miss my guess, so are you.” We, like Thomas, want the facts, please. Among all the disciples, Thomas is presented to us as the one with the most inquisitive and challenging mind. Bill Coffin often said that the “primary religious task these days it to try to think straight.” And that means to dig deeply in our thinking, in our efforts to comprehend the Easter faith; to allow, as Coffin’s famed predecessor at Riverside Church, Harry Emerson Fosdick, once said ourselves “to doubt until we can doubt our doubt.” We should see ourselves as twins of the apostle Thomas.
Frederick Buechner goes on to say in that sermon that “…for Thomas, perhaps it was the first time that he saw not just ‘the fact of Jesus’ but the ‘truth of Jesus and the truth of who Jesus was for him.” “My Lord, and my God,” Thomas exclaims when he, who had been bold enough to leave the hiding place and so had missed the first experience of the disciples with the risen Christ, meets the one whose pierced hands and side he wishes to see and to touch.
Only with a mind that is thinking straight, as Bill Coffin suggested, does Thomas, or do we, come to see not just the fact of Jesus but the truth of Jesus. Or as Buechner says, we begin to see with “our hearts”. “To see him with the heart,” Buechner says, “ is to know that in the long run his kind of life is the only life worth living. To see him with the heart is not only to believe in him but, little by little, to become bearers to each other of his healing life until we finally become healed and whole and alive within ourselves. To see him with the heart is to take heart, to grow true hearts, brave hearts, at last.” [Buechner, Frederick. Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons]
Fear tends to make cowards of us, and so imprisons us behind whatever closed off walls we try to hide behind. In the name of God, I find too much of the Church today to be absolutely appalling, and certainly not very appealing: Too often, it was my experience with denominations working together in the Council of Churches that the Church tries to be the least offensive to the least committed, so that we bring the whole gospel down to the least common denominator that asks nothing of us, and, in the end, gives us nothing either that could legitimately be called good news. No wonder the whole enterprise of institutional church life is so disheartened these days.
In contrast to this milk-toast, fear- proscribed (for that is what it really is—fear of being different, of having to put forth some energy, of having to make a stand), kind of religion, the story in Luke’s book of the Acts of the Apostles shows us people whose lives have been transformed to the extent that they will say: “we must obey God rather than any human authority.” Their testimony to the Sanhedrin, which was probably composed of both Saduccees (who did NOT believe in resurrection, which, by the way, is not something Christians invented but has been part of Jewish tradition for long before Jesus, and who could appropriately be correlated with our modern day biblical literalists) and the Pharisees, who DID believe in resurrection of God’s faithful at the “end of the age”, was that God has turned hideous death into a gift for the “restoration for Israel.” (Note that the phrase is not “restoration OF Israel”, as if they have somehow gotten cut off, as too many Christians even today seem to believe, so justifying their terrible persecution throughout the centuries.) But this gift of Jesus and his death and his rising is for Israel.
It is Gamaliel, the great rabbi of the Pharisees, who argues not as a censorious legalist but as a warm and compassionate teacher who knows enough of the ways of God to know that God continually surprises God’s people by moving beyond their limited horizons. “If this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”
In our own time, Gamaliel’s teaching might be beneficial. There are so many divisions in the life of the church—over homosexuality, over who can be ordained and who cannot, over church state separation, over war, not to mention the divisions in our world, and American society with its growing incivility and insipid social Darwinism, especially amongst those who most deny Darwin’s scientific achievements, that argues for the survival of the fittest in society. God forbid that we as a society should create a safety net for the most vulnerable of our fellow human beings. We could use a little “wait and see” if various matters are “of God” or not, before we rush to close doors and lock them up.
But more beneficial would be the gumption, the believing heart to live, as Jesus did, as the Disciples who came to believe, and as countless Christians across the ages gradually came to believe and trust, knowing in our heart of hearts that his kind of life is the only life worth living. Friends, we aren’t called to huddle behind our closed doors. A handful of people, fewer in number than we are today, turned this world upside down. If we give our obedience to the nice polite safe ways of people who never rock the boat, we are, as Paul says, most to be pitied. Easter tells us that we are called to be witnesses to resurrection, to the ways in which God moves us from death to fullness of life. And by golly, it’s time to change from being God’s little lost lambs to becoming the lion-hearted people, like Peter in front of the Sanhedrin, that God and our world needs for restoration. Amen.