One Easter Sunday morning, a minister looked out on his congregation and noticed many people who had not been there for a long time. Before he began his sermon he said, "Since this will probably be the last time I see many of you for awhile, let me be the first to wish you 'Merry Christmas' "
Today is sometimes called Low Sunday. This term has a perfectly respectable origin. We can think of Easter Day as the start of an octave, a period of eight days that runs through today and thus contains two Sundays. The first of these Sundays is Easter Day, the greatest of all Christian feasts. Today, the other Sunday in the Easter Octave, is by comparison Low Sunday.
But the term has gained another connotation-one that refers to church attendance. Attendance on this Sunday is not as high as on Easter Day. It is by comparison low, hence the term Low Sunday.
The name I prefer, along with many other ministers, for this Second Sunday of Easter is Thomas Sunday. The Gospel reading for today is always the story of how Thomas became to believe in the risen Christ. And while this Sunday is sometimes slighted for its low attendance, so its featured apostle Thomas is frequently dismissed as a doubter-hence the origin of the term "Doubting Thomas".
Jesus' appearance to the disciples in today's Gospel reading is actually the second time he appeared to them after his resurrection. He made three promises to them this time:
• "Peace be with you"
• "Receive the Holy Spirit"
• "Do not doubt, but believe"
The last promise was a response to Thomas' doubt. There are three different kinds of faith. Faith comes in different ways and different intensities to different people. People have different needs and find various routes into faith.
The "locked door' referred to in the Gospel represents the fear the disciples had, but it also represents Christ's power, because nothing can stop him. The disciples have Christ's peace in spite of persecution by a world that hated them. Those who have faith in Christ today and show it publicly also have Christ's peace in a modern world that more often than not also hates them. One only has to look at how Christians are treated in some Middle Eastern and Asian countries to see concrete examples of this hatred as expressed by persecution. The Holy Spirit is a defender of victims through forgiveness-even forgiveness of the victimizers
When Jesus said to the disciples, "Peace be with you", the kind of peace he gave them was the one set in motion by forgiveness. The disciples' future, along with Christ's forgiveness, was their main qualification for being chosen to continue Christ's work. Their fear, as represented by the locked door, showed their human weakness. Forgiveness was the core of the message Jesus gave to his disciples as he sent them out into the world. He gives us the same message today. We must all be ready to mediate God's grace to all those who are ready to receive it. Christ stands before God as our representative, pleading our case. He re-establishes our broken relationship with God. God used the resurrection to give Christ victory over sin and death.
Christ's promise to "receive the Holy Spirit" is an affirmation of the Great Commission. The authority of one who is sent is the same as the authority of the one who sent him. God is present in Christ's work, and Christ will be present in the work of the disciples-just as he is present in our work. When he breathed the Holy Spirit on the disciples, he transferred his mission to them and gave new life to them. Faith does NOT depend on the physical presence of Jesus, because the Holy Spirit accompanies us on our faith journey-just as it did for the disciples..
"Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe". These words encouraged early Christians who felt slighted, having missed Jesus by only a few months or years. They also encourage those of us who are among those who have not seen but who believe. Happy are those who have made a decision to assert that life is stronger than death, that good is stronger than evil, that love is stronger than hate-despite all they have seen that suggests the opposite. Thomas didn't believe what the disciples told him. He had to see before he could believe. We believe even though we haven't seen.
This 2nd Sunday of Easter reveals as mistaken the myth that Thomas's faith did not remain dead. It was also resurrected. Belief and doubt can be marred by fear, close-mindedness, lack of trust, pride and laziness, as well as the honest doubt we have when we struggle with hard questions and circumstances. Sometimes this is caused by hurt, but the doubter remains open to belief and faith like Thomas did. He moves ahead on faith when he sees the risen Saviour. When he was presented with the chance to see proof of Christ's resurrection, Thomas didn't need the evidence. Jesus lived for Thomas as Lord and God. Faith in Jesus gives life to the believer. We can also move ahead in faith when we see the wondrous heart of Creation, the witness of other Christians or even an event in life that shows us that God is at work.
Faith begins with honesty, and doubt is the foundation of honesty. Faith is the overcoming of doubt, NOT an absence of doubt. The most endearing things in life can't be proven-they have to be accepted on faith. We must move beyond doubt to faith. There are those who say that because of the bad choices you have made in the past, you have sinned and fallen so far away from God that you can't get back. Well, God says, "I doubt it!!!!!". Doubt can lead to solutions and a better understanding. It doesn't matter what the cause of our doubt is. Living beyond a doubt means living as encouragers through prayer concerns for others, preparing meals for those who are sick or mourning the loss of a loved one who has just passed away, or sending notes and cards. Belief includes some sense of experience.
Jesus' breathing of the Holy Spirit on the disciples is a metaphor for God breathing life into us. The disciples were made into new beings for the work for which Christ called them. Every word of Christ received in faith comes with this divine breathing of the Holy Spirit. Without it, there is neither life nor light. Christ doesn't require perfect faith from the start. What he asks for is an open heart, one not closed to belief or by belief. He asks for the open heart so he can lead us, and keep leading us, from honest doubt to honest faith.
When we assemble in Christ's name, especially on his holy day, he will meet with us and speak peace to us. If we are faithless, we are Christ less, graceless, hopeless and joyless. Thomas was ashamed of his disbelief. Sound, sincere believers, though slow and weak, shall be graciously accepted by Jesus. It is the duty of all of us who hear and read the Gospel to believe and embrace the doctrine of Christ. At the time of John's Gospel, there was a trend toward Gnosticism, especially to a Gnostic belief that Jesus just SEEMED to be human. The disbelief in the Thomas story was more about the crucifixion than the resurrection and was an attempt to answer Gnosticism.
Christ appears most often within the community of believers that we call the church. When we gather with fellow believers, when we meet with those who feel as we do and have touched the hands and side of the Lord in faith, when we break bread and have fellowship together, it becomes more than words. When we greet someone at our door who is an answer to a prayer we have never uttered, the words become real and they change things for us. Blessed were the disciples who met in the Upper Room on the night of the resurrection to comfort one another and have Jesus appear to them. We too are blessed when we gather as a community in his name and share his love with one another. When we separate ourselves from the church by not attending services regularly, we take a chance on missing his unique presence.
Thomas could not believe that God could raise Jesus from the dead, even though the resurrection of Lazarus was still fresh in his mind. He could not believe that a shamed Messiah was worthy of resurrection. After all, how could the one who was powerless against the violence that killed him be the one who saves us from it? What peace does Christ bring to the world? The answer is simple-it is the peace of God, which passes all understanding, and it is also the peace of righteousness. This peace is always in conflict with the fears and violence of this world. Christ sent his disciples upon the most appropriate mission the world has ever encountered.
Christ's resurrection was a both new creation and a parallel of springtime. It represented a rebirth, a re-awakening after a long, dark, cold winter. Christ's appearance in the Upper Room was intended to overcome the disciples' doubts. Jesus comments about the power of the resurrection to create faith in Luke 16:31-"If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead". The resurrection is a new way of looking at ourselves and at life. The story of Thomas's honesty and forthrightness gives us hope and empowers us in moments of doubt. It is OK to be confused, bewildered, afraid and doubtful. We do well by facing the truth of these feelings. It is harder for us to take things on faith because we are so good at finding scientific proof for so many things today. We are obsessed with Christ's death and resurrection that we sometimes ignore his life.
Many people today think that seeing is believing, but the opposite is true-believing is seeing. Believing something opens to us the possibility of experiencing it, of seeing it come to pass, and of having that which we believe produce in us many kids of blessings. What will it take for us to believe? What proof are WE looking for? When we are ready to believe, Jesus is ready with tasks for us and to give us the Holy Spirit. Jesus' abundant grace, as shown by his acceptance of Thomas' doubt, wants nothing more than to move every person and all of society toward faith.