This is the first Easter season in several years that feels almost normal. The past few Easters we were either locked down at home, socially distanced, masked or just confused. Recent Easters were probably more like the original Easter season. Even this year we still feel a little unsettled. Like the disciples that first week of Easter, we still feel potential danger around us.
Last Sunday we experienced the hope of Easter morning in this 21st Century. As today’s gospel reading begins, we’re back at that first Easter Sunday night. When Jesus appeared to his disciples that evening, they were hiding behind locked doors. They were laying low, uncertain of what had happened and what would happen next. The disciples had heard from Mary that she’d seen the empty tomb, and later that she’d seen Jesus himself, but was told not to hold him. They ran down and saw the empty tomb. Nothing made sense. They were afraid they were being hunted down so they were cowering out of sight of the religious authorities. The disciple called Thomas the Twin was not even in the house with them that Sunday night. Maybe Thomas was so scared he just hid at home.
And out of nowhere, behind the locked doors, Jesus came and stood among them. And said, “Peace be with you.” Jesus showed them his hands and his side. WHOA! I’m sure there was a moment of jaw-dropping confusion. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. The disciples “knew” that dead people didn’t come back, yet here was Jesus. Suddenly they were in a new and divine world. God was at hand.
When Thomas finally showed up, the disciples told him Jesus himself had just appeared, greeting them with, "Shalom aleichem," and breathing the Holy Spirit on them. We can almost hear Thomas scoffing, "You guys are seeing things!" That makes no sense at all. John's gospel tells us Thomas said, "Unless I touch the nail holes in his hands and put my hands into his side and feel that lance wound, I won't believe it."
A week later Jesus appeared again. This time Thomas was with the others, and Jesus spoke directly to Thomas. "Touch the wounds in my hands, put your hands into the wound in my side." We don’t even know if Thomas reached out, but "Doubting Thomas" now believed. His heart spoke and Thomas now answered, “My Lord and my God!” Today, we have good reason to be doubting, fearful. We have a hot war going on, military buildups, naked threats, labor unrest, inflation, right-wing nationalism growing around the world, and, oh yes, the remnants of the invisible plague are still with us. There's every reason to isolate, stay behind our doors, maybe pull the covers over our heads. We all worry about our savings, our work, our pensions, what will happen tomorrow. Danger!
But scripture tells us there’s nothing new under the sun. That sense of danger has been with us before. I think I’ve told you about the Passover Seder at my Bubbe's house. The youngest of the children asked the first of the ritual four questions: "Mah nishtanoh hallilo hazeh micol hallelos?" Why is this night different from all other nights? I can hear my grandfather reading the Haggadah, the story of Passover in Hebrew. The sense of doom and danger built as he recited each of the ten plagues in an increasingly stern, clear voice. The plagues begin with water turning to blood. My grandfather would intone "Dom!" which means 'blood.' He would dip his finger into his glass and flick red wine onto my Bubbe’s carefully laid table. Nothing could more symbolize the danger of plague than that drop of red on my Bubbe’s spotless white tablecloth. (I now wonder whether she didn't have a word with him afterward about that tradition.)
Our readings today remind us that we are not alone in the face of danger. The Passover was fraught with danger, our world today is full of threat. In weeks that followed our Gospel reading, the disciples were clearly in danger. Jesus had been crucified and the authorities certainly hadn't given up on stamping out the rest of those heretical Christian Jews. The danger was still there, yet Peter stood up boldly preaching Jesus' message. In our reading from Acts we hear Peter proclaiming from David’s 16th Psalm; I have set the Lord before me at all times: with him at my right hand I cannot be shaken. Therefore, my heart is glad and my spirit rejoices, my body too rests unafraid; for you will not abandon me to Sheol or suffer your faithful servant to see the pit. You will show me the path of life; in your presence is the fullness of joy, at your right hand are pleasures for evermore.
With the Lord at my right hand, I cannot be shaken. The circumstances stayed exactly the same, yet everything changed. As promised, Jesus came, Jesus fell, Jesus ascended. As Peter and the others saw and heard and experienced, Jesus lives; God's promises are real. The mature Christian has freedom from fear. Even now in this time of great change and great danger, we know there is more going on in the world than meets the eye. Life does not just go on as before.
Exactly what is our faith, what do we trust to be true? Jesus spelled it out, our common belief, the common faith which binds the Christian and her Jewish elder brothers; we are bound forever by faith and trust in the one omnipotent, wise, and loving Creator of all.
Jesus called out the most ancient and powerful of prayers, the Sh'ma, as the first of the two most important laws given mankind by God. The Sh'ma is prayed by all Jews: "Hear O Israel, the Lord is God, The Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength and mind." Jesus went on to add the commandment from Leviticus, "And the second is like it; You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
Jesus taught it is equally important to love our neighbor as to love God. Because God from the very beginning intended to lift us up from being animals of earthly blood - "adom" - to being divine sons and daughters of God himself. Jesus was the first human to become a direct family member of God, his Son. We are all invited to join our older brother as sons and daughters of the divine. That is why we love neighbors as ourselves. To love our neighbor is to love the sons and daughters of God. We’re family. God is at our right hand, God will not abandon us, and in his presence, we will have joy.
On that first Easter, Peter was as fearful and anxious as the other disciples. The religious police were still on the prowl. Nothing had changed. But even through the fear, Peter's heart and mind had gotten the message. He burst out of hiding as a powerful man with strengthened faith. This morning we heard Peter's 1st letter to the flock of Jewish and gentile believers scattered throughout the Roman Empire: Praised be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, he gave us new birth into a living hope, the hope of an inheritance, reserved in heaven for you, which nothing can destroy or spoil or wither. Because you put your faith in God, you are under the protection of his power until the salvation now in readiness is revealed at the end of time. This is cause for great joy, even though for a little while you may have had to suffer trials of many kinds. Even gold passes through the assayer’s fire, and much more precious than perishable gold is faith which stands the test... You have not seen him, yet you love him; and trusting in him now without seeing him, you are filled with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
Wow. Quite a statement of promise. In God’s great mercy by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have the hope of an inheritance, reserved in heaven, which nothing can destroy or spoil or wither. Because you put your faith in God, you are under the protection of His power until the salvation now in readiness is revealed at the end of time.
That is our Easter promise. When Jesus appeared to the disciples that first Easter night, he gave them a greeting; Shalom aleichem. We usually translate this as, "Peace be with you." Shalom goes far beyond "peace." The peace of Christ, shalom, is serenity, wholeness, completion. Shalom means it is done, it's all taken care of, everything has been paid for; rest easy now. As Jesus said at the end of his last Seder with his disciples:
Peace is my parting gift to you, my own peace, such as the world cannot give. Set your troubled hearts at rest and banish your fears.
Our friend Doubting Thomas needed some help to get to shalom. He got it. Most of us have not seen The Christ, yet we love him; and we trust in him now, without seeing him, even now in the midst of a troubled world.
Among the troubles of the world, I’ve personally been a little glum this month. My younger brother Marv died last month after a tough year-long battle with cancer. I miss him and mourn him. I tried to think about my message for this service and I was totally stuck, complete brain freeze. Katie was at the computer and I told her I was stuck and doubted I’d think of anything. She quickly asked the Internet’s ChatGPT app to create a Presbyterian message about doubting Thomas.
Within a minute she called me over to read what ChatGPT drafted:
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Today, we reflect upon the story of Doubting Thomas, a disciple of Jesus who struggled to believe that his Lord had risen from the dead. But Jesus' response to Thomas' doubt was not one of condemnation. Instead, he gently invited Thomas to touch his scars and to believe. He reminds us that doubt is not the end of faith but a step in our journey towards a deeper understanding of God. Our faith is not based solely on reason and evidence. It is founded on the love of God, revealed to us through Jesus Christ. We can find comfort in knowing that Jesus meets us where we are and invites us to draw near to him.
Boom! That little manufactured paragraph was enough to remind me that doubt and confusion are okay. That Jesus is always there to draw us forward towards Him. It lifted the spirits of this lowly human to reflect on more than the trials and tests of today; to remember that we are invited to wholeness and serenity by a gentle, loving Christ. To Shalom. We thank God our Father in all things, and for this time we live in. We are thankful for the blessings of life, for hope and for the Peace of Christ.