Jesus Appears to the Disciples
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Jesus and Thomas
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”John 20:19-29 (NRSV)
Friends, here we are on the Sunday after Easter, and we still have a lot to celebrate! The tomb is still empty, and we continue to rejoice in the fact that Christ is risen, that death does not have the last word, that this virus will not stop us from being who we are, that social distancing and restrictions on gatherings will not be forever, that evil never wins, and that God loves us and will never leave us, no matter what!
Just a few minutes ago, we heard the story of Doubting Thomas and the struggle that Thomas faced because he wasn’t there when Jesus first appeared to the disciples after his resurrection. Every year, I struggle with this story, because poor Thomas always gets picked on. The disciples give him a hard time for not believing, even though they themselves didn’t believe just a few hours before until they saw Jesus with their own eyes.
But the good news is that Jesus didn’t judge Thomas or try to tell him that he was wrong in his disbelief. Jesus simply reached out to Thomas, caring for him, listening to him, and loving him. Through the unconditional love that Jesus offered, Thomas was finally able to understand and believe.
Friends, it’s hard to believe sometimes when you don’t have all the answers, isn’t it? It’s easy to become frightened, confused, and filled with worry when you don’t know how the story is going to end. The Easter story is a story of great joy for us because we have heard it before. We know what happens next, and we are filled with joy because we know that through it all, God never lets us go. But we have to remember that the disciples were filled with fear and confusion over what had happened because they were caught in the midst of it and they didn’t have the birds-eye view that we do.
I have to say, I don’t know about you, but I find that the story of Doubting Thomas cuts a little deeper for me this year. Not just because the disciples were teasing and judging their friend, but because as we hear the story this year, we too are stuck in the midst of a story, and we don’t know how the story will end.
We are all worshiping from home because of a pandemic — an illness that is taking the lives of many and causing fear and anxiety in the hearts of even more. The hardest part of all of this is the unknowns. When will it end? How many people will it affect? When can we get back to life as it was? Or will we ever get back to life as it was?
Friends, it is easy, in times like these, when we don’t have all the answers and we don’t know the end of the story, to let our minds run amuck. When we are tired and frustrated, it’s easy to start thinking negatively and fearing the worst. I’ll admit it, even as a pastor, I had my moments this week. I allowed the negativity of others to seep in, and I too started to doubt. My energy level dropped. I felt less creative. I just didn’t feel like trying anymore and I felt as though I couldn’t think of a new idea if my life depended on it.
I tried to think of what direction we should go in as the church during these Great Fifty Days between Easter and Pentecost so that you all might be encouraged to do the next right thing when I had no idea what that next right thing was. But my friends, fear not, for the story does not end here.
As many of you know, though I serve a church in Massachusetts, I live in Rhode Island. So during this time of uncertainty, I have been trying to keep up on the process of each state and its restrictions and plans moving forward. You know: how many can gather? Do we need to wear masks and gloves when we go out? Who is considered an essential employee? Important information like that, which we never dreamed we would have to worry about a few months ago.
Well, during a press conference on the Thursday before Easter, Gina Raimundo, the governor of Rhode Island, shared some very good news for young Rhode Islanders. She announced that the Easter Bunny was indeed an essential employee. That he would still be working over the Easter weekend, and that because he is a rabbit, he can’t carry or spread the virus.
Well the Good news that I learned this week is that the Holy Spirit is not quarantined either. The Holy Spirit is definitely an essential employee, and luckily, she doesn’t even have to keep to social distancing. Because sometimes after repeated visits, some of us, your pastor included, just don’t get it.
Friends, as I shared with you earlier, I had a tough time this week seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I think I was overwhelmed by complaints, negativity, and worries from the world around me, and I allowed them to seep into my own way of being. I started hearing people ask if the church would make it through this, if we would ever get to the other side, if we would ever experience a feeling of normal again, or if this was the beginning of the end.
I started to think that in times like this, perhaps the best thing that I could offer to all of you was a sense of comfort — a feeling of being back home in Oldtown. I thought about ways that I could help you feel as though we were back in the sanctuary. I actually even thought about heading to North Attleboro and filming worship from the sanctuary this week.
I searched for comforting scripture because I didn’t think I could handle preaching on Doubting Thomas one more time like we do every year the week after Easter. But then the Holy Spirit began to move. I didn’t pay attention the first few times. Until finally, she just about knocked me over! I quickly learned that I needed to get myself and my negativity out of the way.
Folks, there are always things to worry about. But every day, in every moment, we have a choice. We can choose to focus on the bad, or we can choose to believe in the good! We can worry about the worst, or we can believe in the best.
Back in the fall, we added the name Michelle to our prayer list. Michelle is one of my “Suite A Girls,” one of the girls that I lived with in college. There were ten of us that lived in the dorms together at Rhode Island College. We’re kind of a ragtag group of very different individuals who shared a common experience that bonded us for life. In our group of ten, we’ve experienced lots of things over the years: marriage, children, buying homes, divorce, starting businesses, becoming empty nesters, losing parents and a spouse, and dealing with all kinds of jobs and moves and personal and family issues. We’ve laughed together and cried together, but through it all we have always been there for one another. And coming from different backgrounds and faiths, we each bring a piece of ourselves to the story.
Well, last fall, Michelle, was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, and many doctors said that all they could do was keep her comfortable. But there was one doctor that believed there was another way, and Michelle did too. And she has not given up for a moment, no matter what has gotten in her way, even though she doesn’t know how the story will end.
Friends, sometimes we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. We can’t see the forest from the trees, and we can’t see the beauty of the stars without the night sky. Sometimes we just need to believe.
In our scripture reading today, Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Friends, this week as I was struggling, when I was tired and frustrated and starting to let the negativity of the world seep in, I got a “Suite A” text. Michelle texted all of us, on her birthday no less, to share the good news. Her six-month CAT scan came back showing that all of her tumors were barely visible! The treatment was working! But what she just kept saying to us was, “The doctor believed in me!”
Friends, sometimes believing is the most important thing, because once you begin to believe, you know that nothing is impossible. It may not be easy, and the road may be long and frustrating, but it’s not impossible. Michelle is now sharing her positivity and sense of believing not only with her friends and family, but also with other cancer patients. Because she now sees a light that may not be visible to others, but she is trying her best to help them look beyond the situation they are in.
Her positivity and joy helped me this week as well. I was reminded that it’s not enough to just keep you all comfortable, I need to remind you — just as Michelle reminded me and Jesus reminded the disciples in our scripture reading today — that we are blessed when we believe. Because once we believe, once we have hope, and our hearts and minds are opened to the possibilities all around us, we can face just about anything.
Thanks to Michelle and the constant positivity and support of all of my Suite A girls, I can face the questions that I struggled with earlier in the week. So, will the church make it through this time of uncertainty? Absolutely! Friends, The Oldtown Church has been around since 1712. It’s stood tall through thick and thin, through storms and hurricanes and earthquakes, through the Revolutionary War and the Civil War and every war since, through national disasters, other pandemics, and the great depression. There have been years when our pews were full, and years that they were quite empty, but through it all, the Oldtowners that were left pulled up their bootstraps and did what they had to do. Heck, the Oldtown Church was around before the United States even began, because the people of Oldtown are believers, and they know that no matter what the world throws them, God will always bring them through.
And will we get to the other side of this and experience a feeling of normal again?
Yup! It might take a little while, and our “new normal” might look and feel a little bit different, but friends, we are learning so much right now, and reaching out to so many more people than we normally do on a Sunday morning! Folks, I know that change is never easy, and we never expected to be in the situation that we are in right now. But more than ever, this is the time to believe — to believe in ourselves, to believe in one another, to believe in our communities, to believe in our church, and most importantly to believe in God who walks each and every step of this journey with us, and who will eventually bring us all home to Oldtown!
So, brothers and sisters in Christ, as you do your best to stay safe this week, turn off your tv for a little while. Take a walk outside, or look out your window to see the beauty of spring, and remember how important it is to believe. For, as Jesus told the disciples long ago, he also tells us today, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”
My friends, may it be so. Thanks be to God, Amen!