This is the second Sunday of Easter. We celebrate today as much as Easter Sunday itself. The first message of Easter is hope. Jesus lives, the world has changed and we too have hope in the greater life to come. And there is another message of Easter delivered today. The second message of Easter is this: Faith brings freedom. Freedom from fear, freedom from sorrow, freedom to live joyfully in the power of the Holy Spirit. Like the early disciples, we are invited to move on from fear, from hiding behind our locked doors, to live fearlessly and free. The Holy Spirit speaks. If today you hear her voice, harden not your heart.
Hearing the Spirit isn’t always easy. Most of us are better talkers than listeners. Particularly men. There’s a reason why the term “man-splaining” has become a meme. We all pay a lot of attention to what we say; less to what others say to us. We're pretty good at our outbound messaging to God. Think a minute about how you pray. We do as we’ve been taught: We close our eyes and bow our heads respectfully. In church, Catholics kneel, Protestants crouch. We speak quietly and reverently to God. We don’t harangue God or nag. We never, ever raise our voices. We are sensible and rational. Even when we pray silently, it’s usually in a quiet, reasonable mental tone. Maybe we’ve overdone the restraint, but we are okay at our outbound messaging. But somehow we don't pay nearly as much attention to how to hear the inbound voice.
God speaks with us more often than we know. And in often surprising ways. God uses a variety of media. Indeed, God invented multi-media. We get answers and guidance far more often than we know. Maybe there’s a real sense of a message suddenly becoming an earworm in your mind, or maybe it’s the wise voice of a friend, maybe it’s a suddenly noticed detail or “coincidence.” The source may seem vague at times, just out in “Creation,” but it is God’s creation. We know the universe is singing God's song, in God's voice, with God's words and music. We often just don't see or hear it. And while we learned our childhood lessons of how to do outgoing prayer, children have often been taught to shut down the incoming messages - how can it possibly be real? It was fine for the disciples or saints to hear voices or have visions, but we’re living in the real world now.
So receiving God’s messaging is hard for us. It’s hard enough to be a listener at all. God’s messages don’t come in with a "ding" alert and a notification on a screen. There’s no preamble, no, “Listen up. God talking here!” God’s messaging is generally subtle. It’s a still, small voice. It comes from inside your head. It bypasses your ears. When we’re not used to listening, it’s even harder to detect that real signal from the noise. We’re used to easy-to-read headlines. So we can certainly sympathize with how hard it was for Thomas to buy what Peter and the others were trying to tell him happened that evening.
It's now evening. Peter, John, Mary Magdalene and a few others had seen the empty tomb. But the reality of the resurrection is still beyond them. It’s bleak. The little bereft band of Jewish followers of Jesus are huddled together behind locked doors. They're in hiding, fearful of the police who are probably hunting them down on orders from the Sanhedrin. Suddenly they become aware their dead leader is standing in the middle of the room. "Shalom aleichem," Jesus says. He invites them to reach out and touch the nail and spear marks in his hands and his side. "See, it's really me," he seems to be saying. "All this is real." “All this is real.”
Jesus has more for them. Again Jesus says, "Peace be upon you.” Then he adds, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you." Jesus takes a chest-full of air and blows his breath on them. This holy wind of his breath is the Holy Spirit. Jesus blows the wind of the spirit over the disciples now, weeks before Pentecost. They rejoice, now fearless.
The disciples got it. All but Thomas. But let’s not be too hard on Thomas. The other disciples didn’t get it the first time. Remember when the women saw the empty tomb and ran to alert the disciples, no one believed. The disciples had heard Jesus foretell all of this, they’d seen him bring the widow’s son, the ruler’s daughter, and Lazarus back to life. But when the women came to tell them of the empty tomb they didn’t believe. Our English translations sugarcoat this episode a bit. The Greek word used is “leros.” It means utter garbage. Crap. The disciples told the women they were lying. Crazy. And the whole group stayed hunkered down in fear and confusion. Not until Jesus visited them and breathed the Holy Spirit into them could the disciples rejoice.
Thomas wasn't there to experience Jesus' visit. He missed the Holy Spirit breathed into him. The other disciples told Thomas about the visit. "We have seen the Lord!" But Thomas speaks the infamous words, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hand in his side, I will not believe." Thomas was anything but dumb. Thomas was being empirical, operating by scientific method. The scientist says, "Unless I see measurable evidence of an event, I cannot believe the event happened." We’re all a little like Thomas. We believe what our physical senses can register and measure. Anything else is woo-woo. But there’s hope for us. Even though Thomas didn't believe on that day, he had enough faith to hang in with his spiritual community. The following week he got what he needed. Jesus presented Scientific Thomas with the evidence he needed. Jesus was telling Thomas, and us today, that His resurrection is real. He lives. And, He adds, we are more blessed to come to this knowledge on faith rather than needing physical evidence to overcome our skepticism. Before Jesus' arrival, the disciples had been in a state of disbelief and fear. They couldn’t process what had just happened. Their world had been turned upside down. When Jesus materialized in the middle of them, greeting them with a word of peace, they saw and heard Him. He breathed his life into them. He breathed the power of the Holy Spirit into those disciples who accepted his reality in faith. And their fear was gone.
The disciples got the preview of the mysterious power of the Spirit in those first days after Easter. Seven weeks later, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit fell on all the disciples, and on all of us alive ever after. This is not a "once upon a time story," but ever after. This was and is for real.
We next see the disciples confronting the powers-that-be in our reading from Acts. “Who should we listen to, you mortals or God?” These were new men made powerful by the Spirit. They - finally - believed in the Resurrection. Resurrection takes the way things have been done and turns them upside down. The dead live. Our wrongs, our sins, our shortcomings are made right. Resurrection means that we are truly God’s children, that life - real life - is more powerful than death. God has a future for us all. No wonder the disciples rejoiced!
There are many lessons of the Easter season. We want to be Easter people, believing in the resurrection. Like the disciples, like Thomas who has the leading role in today’s Gospel, we all need the boost of the Holy Spirit to support our faith. And the Spirit is here with us and forever.
Our part is to listen. As children, you heard and saw things your parents did not. You knew things were there that they could not see. Sometimes scary, sometimes friendly. But something was there. Children have not yet learned to apply the filters of seeing only what can be felt and touched and measured, only what others see. As we grow, too often academic approaches and social and peer pressure teach us to shut off the non-material world. The scientific method takes us forward in school and engineering, but we forget that it doesn’t apply to everything or every question. We learn the wrong lesson and hide, like poor Thomas, in our empirical box, shutting down the power of the Spirit.
Early in my Christian life God directed me to a Pentecostal, evangelical church. I'm grateful for the experience. Every church I've been in has helped develop some aspect of my spiritual growth, and the richness of life. While Presbyterians jokingly - but with some truth - call themselves, “the Frozen Chosen, ” Pentecostals sing loudly:
“There is power, power, wonder-working power in the precious blood of the Lamb.”
It doesn’t matter what denomination we are. The power is freely available. Thanks to Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit on us, we can experience direct messaging with the Lord wherever we are, whenever God chooses. Now. Oh, yes. And forever. But forever begins today.
There are two sides to prayer. Accepting from God is as important as asking. You’ve heard, “It is better to give than receive.” God is reaching out with gifts to each believer. The more you can accept God’s gifts in appreciation and awe, the more the great Giver of gifts is able to pour out on you.
The disciples experienced the risen Jesus standing in the midst of them in the locked room. Thomas got a special visitation from the Lord. The travelers to Emmaus talked and had supper at the inn with the risen Jesus, whom they recognized only after inviting him to supper. Ask yourself where you’ve seen Jesus this week. What person was the face of God? What unlikely event happened that maybe was calling you to attention? Did God need to light a hedge on fire to get your attention? Did you hear a quiet voice speaking to you between your ears? Did you catch a sudden uplift of strength when you felt you couldn’t go on? Did you experience a moment of peace when everything around you was in chaos?
From antiquity, the Holy Spirit has been considered female, maybe because of her wisdom and power. She used to speak only through the prophets. God breathed power into the disciples at Easter. He gave wisdom and courage and healing and comfort. “Peace be with you.” Today, God speaks directly to faithful believers through the same Holy Spirit.
Hearing can be believing. Our faith enables us to receive. Faith brings freedom. When we believe in the resurrection, we believe that we are loved, we truly are God’s children, we are worthy of this title. When we believe in the resurrection, we realize that love and life are stronger than death; death does not have the final word. We will see those we have loved - and lost - again. We can see God has a future for us all. And anything is possible with God. We have the freedom to live joyfully in the power of the Holy Spirit.
“If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your heart.”