Sunday, May 1, 2011

Those Who Have Not Seen (sermon for the second Sunday of Easter)

A reality check is rarely good news.

We use the words "reality" and "real" almost exclusively as correctives. We bring up reality when it seems that those around us are floating off into delusion or wishful thinking. Reality is often a counterpoint to a past or present viewed through rose-colored glasses, or an unreasonably hopeful outlook about the future.

The great reality check of the gospels comes in the aftermath of the triumphant procession into Jerusalem, when Jesus was celebrated as the Messiah ready to deliver Israel from its oppression and restore it to the glory of Solomon's day. Indeed Jesus had himself predicted this reality check and all but Thomas had refused to believe it. Indeed Thomas was always the one who seemed firmly connected to reality, who insisted on getting the real scoop. When Jesus plans to return to Jerusalem it's Thomas who fully expects and understands that Jesus will be arrested and executed. He's the one who says "Let's go die with him."

But Thomas' nerve, like the nerve of all of the disciples, fails him in the moment. This is his reality check, not so much the crucifixion, which he fully expected, but his own cowardice. Thomas abandons Jesus just like all the others.

And so we might say that the disciples are living in reality as the scene from John opens this morning. They understand that their movement is over, their leader dead, their own safety in serious jeopardy. They have heard the rumors that Jesus is not dead, that he's risen from the grave. But this news came from hysterical women. Certainly understandable that they would give into such a rosy picture. But the men, well, they face reality head-on. The dream is over. The best and wisest thing to do is to hide.

"He'll never change." "Those people will always be fighting." "We don't have enough." Reality checks. It's all well and good to talk about hope and goodness and changing the world. But it's also good to get a reality check now and again. Healthy.

People don't come back from the dead. People don't walk through walls. And most of all, people don't forgive betrayal and cowardice.

A number of preachers wonder about where Thomas was when Jesus arrived and appeared to the other disciples. John apparently doesn't think the reason is important enough to report and I trust John. The point was simply that Thomas wasn't there to see the risen Christ.

Thomas' own wounds can be heard in his anguished response about Jesus' wounds. His heart is broken. He is like the woman who has finally decided to divorce her husband but who is then confronted with some evidence that he has changed. Thomas had accepted the reality of what had happened. Jesus was defeated, and worse, Thomas himself had been unable to stand by the one he loved. Don't tell me that Jesus is risen from the dead. Don't say such things. When I can poke my fingers into the wounds of his crucifixion I'll believe it.

David Lose, a very good preacher, mentions Les Miserables in his sermon on this text. Hugo's hero, Jean Valjean, spends some nineteen years in a horrifying prison for a five-year sentence he got for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. During that nightmare, his degenerates morally and becomes a cynical and vicious criminal. Upon his release, he finds he can't get a job because of his record and he floats from town to town as a vagrant.

In one town a bishop invites him into his home for a meal and a night in a warm bed. Jean repays the bishop's kindness as all criminals do, by stealing some silver plates and running off. But he is caught by local police with the plates, which are recognized, and he is dragged back to the bishop's house.

When the police confront the bishop with the criminal, the bishop takes some candlesticks from the mantle, holds them out to Jean and says, "My friend! I'm glad to see you. You took the plates I gave you but forgot the candlesticks."

Jean is released and spends the night in tears, emerging a new person who goes on to do great good.

Many of us would say that getting robbed was the reality check the bishop needed to correct his silly interest in taking criminals into his home. But the reality check was not for him, but for Jean Valjean, confronted by the most shocking reality check of all: God's all-powerful grace.

"Peace be with you," Jesus says. You who hide, you who are disgusted by your own cowardice, your own inability to live into the hope that God has promised, you who hide in the dark because you fear the consequences of living in the light, because you fear the cost, you who think you understand reality, you who are sure that God really doesn't have the power to come through, you who betrayed and fled your God, to you God says, "My friend! You forgot your candlesticks!"

You will notice that Thomas doesn't have to put his fingers in any wounds. It is when Jesus offers Thomas forgiveness, when he says to Thomas as well, "Peace," that Thomas not only recognizes Jesus, but finally recognizes God.

And strangely, this very gift of grace, this offer to forgive the cowardice and betrayal, is the very power by which those disciples would go on to face their own trials and executions. It's by this power that the same Peter who denied Jesus three times to save his skin will boldly proclaim him right smack dab in the middle of the Jerusalem temple, and for Jesus will himself eventually die on a cross.

I am a little surprised myself by this. It would seem that forgiving such behavior would encourage it to continue. But this is not how it works at all. It is not indulgence we are talking about. The bishop that gave Jean the candlesticks buys Jean's soul back from hell with them, and so does the grace of Christ.

Tradition tells us that Thomas went into India with the gospel and eventually was executed there for Christ's sake.

I know it was my own understanding of Christ's forgiveness for my betrayal of God that opened my heart to the vision that redirected my life. I saw Christ on a cross suspended over a sea of tears. Like Thomas, I believed because I saw.

God has given me many reality checks ever since. And so I have learned that the reality checks that I hear most often from human beings are not reality checks at all, but are expressions of spiritual cowardice and betrayal. They are simply capitulations to the powers of the world, which are indeed impressive and frightening. And the kinds of reality checks most of us give into lead us into dark rooms where we can hide.

But Christ enters even there, and cannot be kept out. Christ comes, risen from the dead, with forgiveness for our cowardice, and with courage in his breath.


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