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Second Sunday of Easter (2)
Have you ever done something wrong and you know you deserve to be punished? Sometime doesn’t your dad pretend he doesn’t know? It appears you got away with it, but you still wait for punishment and you know you won’t do it again. What you received is a gift of mercy. Sometimes, you do something bad and your parents know, but they let you off with a “talking to”? That is a gift of mercy too. Sometimes, you do something bad, you get punished but your parents never mention it again. That too is a gift of mercy.
Today is Divine Mercy Sunday. The Church does not require us to believe all the apparitions there are, but the message is not new. God is merciful, that is the reason for this Sunday, But it is also the teaching of the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. So is every Mass a reminder that God loves us and is always ready and willing to forgive us just like in the Gospel of the Prodigal Son.
Well, it’s over. The eggs have been hidden and gleefully found. The leftovers are mostly eaten. Family visits are complete and we’re all looking forward to warm weather — and to settling back into our routines. This whole Easter celebration thing is a little bit tiring, don’t you think? I note that a few folks have chosen to stay home this Sunday. Don’t worry. I am not trying to mention names or point fingers! In fact, many pastors take Easter Monday off after this time of intensity and worship. Who doesn’t, after all, need a break?
It’s true. Everyone gets to take a break now and then, even your Chaplains! But I wonder if this lull following the celebration of the resurrection might be about something more than just being a bit tired? Could it be that there may be something subtle working in all of us that makes it tough to face church on the Sunday after Easter Sunday? Our numbers are down. Do you think we could we find and explore what might be described as a kind of post-Easter timidity?
Think back to what is happening in this scripture today. We have a whole crew of Jesus’ followers gathered together in a place of relative safety. It’s probably not an exaggeration to suggest that they were not exactly running around shouting joy to the world. Just look at them! Behind locked doors and trembling in fear, it’s a bit of a stretch to believe that they were witnesses to the risen and living Lord. And in my own mind, this is where Thomas gets a raw deal.
Usually, we read this scripture while wagging a finger at poor old “Doubting Thomas.“ Most of us, I think unconsciously, picture ourselves as one of the good guys shaking our head at a Thomas who demands proof of Jesus’ resurrection. We step away in vague embarrassment from a Thomas who is too weak to accept the reality of new life in Christ Jesus. Is that true for you? I know it is for me. I read this story and hear the words of Jesus, who says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” And I think to myself, “Boy do I feel bad for the Thomases of the world.” Though this is my inside voice, which no one actually hears, I must confess that in my thoughts the tone is sometimes I feel like I’m one of them.
It’s tough to step back and think about a bigger picture here. Could it be that there’s more going on here than the machinations of a cynic who needs proof? Maybe, just maybe Thomas is the only brave one in the bunch. Maybe Thomas is voicing feelings that no one else has the nerve to articulate?
I once had a friend who had this quality. The truth of the matter is that he was a generally unpopular guy. He was one of those people who could come up with questions and comments that were, well, embarrassing. He would ask that question that somehow was on everyone’s mind but no one had the courage to actually say the words. This did not faze John. One time we went together to a concert of avante garde music. This music was truly out there, and unlike anything most of us would identify as music. After the concert, we all attended the reception where the composer of this music was holding court. We stood, nodding politely while the musician discussed his music and explained what he was trying to express with it. Suddenly John piped up and said, “I don’t know. It kind of sounded like someone was trying to strangle a chicken.” Silence — no one said a word.
After a moment, everyone started to make fun of John, chiding him because he didn’t appreciate this wonderful eclectic music. The real truth, though, was that John had voiced the feeling of just about everyone in that room. What if this was the case with Thomas? I mean, it’s all well and good to point the finger at the one who brazenly demands proof. It’s another thing, however, to step back and look at the room full of people hiding out from the police like common criminals. Who are these people and what is their real story? If Jesus was truly risen from the dead; if these people really believed that, then what were they doing cowering behind locked doors in some out of the way room?
What I’m trying to think about with you is this. Is it possible that the sheer magnitude of the resurrection makes us a little queasy? Could it be that on this Sunday after Easter Sunday we too are hiding out in our own upper room? After all, the implications of all this are staggering. If we embrace this it will have a profound impact on our lives. Because this is a pretty big deal, I wouldn’t mind actually seeing that wound, would you?
Yet Thomas spared the crowd by asking the question that rested uneasily in everyone’s spirit. Thomas wanted to know. Thomas wasn’t afraid to find the truth. He wasn’t afraid to demand proof, to literally challenge God.
This doesn’t mean we throw out the blessings that Jesus has for those who can believe without seeing. For this kind of vulnerability is also a piece of our calling. Yet, let’s not forget that doubt, and the daring spirit to ask the question, to risk the knowing, is also an important part of our faith.
The philosopher Renes Descarte coined the phrase, “Cogito ergo sum,” which means “I think, therefore I am.” But for we who follow the path of faith, one could articulate these words along with Thomas. “Dubito ergo sum,” or “I doubt therefore I am.” Doubting is an essential part of faith. As St. Thomas Aquinas tells us. If we didn’t doubt our childhood image of God, we couldn’t have an adult understanding. Or do some still believe their childhood image of God.
If we simply accept things as they are without asking the questions, without probing our own minds and hearts, then we cannot be very seriously pursuing faith. Today, let us give thanks for the Thomases in our lives. Today, let us acknowledge that without Thomas, those followers of Jesus might have stayed hidden in that room for quite a while. Think with me for a moment, about those people in your own lives who dare to ask the uncomfortable questions, who push the envelope, and who all the time are the ones who have the courage to ask the questions we are unwilling to utter.
And as we lift up poor old Thomas, let us claim that dynamic conversation of faith that includes doubt and certainty, questions and answers, and the willingness to share and love deeply.
Second Sunday of Easter (1)
Do you remember the name we used for last Sunday? Easter! What a wonderful Sunday it was with so many people here that we hardly had room, and the people sang with such beautiful voices and flowers were everywhere. It really was a special day. Did you know that every Sunday should be Easter, or like a little Easter? That’s right, the first Christians called every Sunday the Lord’s Day because they remembered that it was on Sunday that they saw Jesus alive again after he had died on the cross and was put in the grave. The disciples used to worship every Friday night and Saturday, but after the Easter experience, they started having their big service of worship on Sunday, the little Easter. We still do it today just as they started it almost 2,000 years ago.
Sometimes people find it hard to understand why we love Jesus so much. They read the Bible, and some even go to church, but they still wonder why Jesus means so much to us. Some say they wish they could love God as much as we do, but for some reason, they just don’t know him the way they should. Well, we feel bad for those people, but we say there is something they can do about it if they want to. Let me show you a little experiment that might help you understand how God works with us. I have to use my special glasses that are kind of dusty and dirty. [Have a volunteer examine the glasses and admit they are hard to see through.] Now you must remember that when the disciples first saw Jesus after the resurrection, they didn’t know what to believe. They were sad that Jesus had died, and since they didn’t understand the fantastic way God can work, they were very puzzled to see Jesus alive again. But Jesus came and breathed on them and told them they were about to receive a special gift called the Holy Spirit. Once they had the Holy Spirit, they would believe.
This is where the experiment comes in. Have you ever seen someone clean his glasses? How does he do it? That’s right, he breathes hard on his glasses, and when he wipes them off, he has clean glasses. Though he couldn’t see before, he can now see well. Just by breathing on the lenses and wiping them off, a person can see clearly whatever he wants to see. Now Jesus breathed on the disciples, and when he did he breathed into them the Holy Spirit, and they could not only see, they could see things they had never seen before.
The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to people, and it helps them to believe what they could not believe without him. We need the Holy Spirit if we’re going to believe like the disciples. Without him, we are like people who look through dirty glasses. They see a little, and if they don’t take off their glasses and check they might even think they can see pretty well. But people with dirty glasses are missing so much in life that they could have if they just cleaned them by breathing on them and shining them with a handkerchief. It’s the same way with God. Here God has this beautiful gift to give us called the Holy Spirit, who is just like Jesus except that you cannot see him or touch him or hear him speak with a voice like your voice.
We need to pray for people to receive the Spirit so they can see as you do.
Harold F. Bermel tells of driving through Pennsylvania Dutch Country with his daughter and seven-year-old grandson. They passed an Amish horse and buggy, and the grandson asked, “Why do they use horses instead of automobiles?” Bermel’s daughter explained that the Amish didn’t believe in automobiles. After a few moments, the grandson asked: “But can’t they see them?”
I’d say that’s a reasonable question, wouldn’t you? Once you’ve seen something with your own eyes, it’s hard not to believe in it. That’s why followers of Christ are so often considered fools. We believe in a God we cannot see, in a Savior who performed miracles and came back from the dead, and a Holy Spirit who lives in us and guides us in the way of truth and of love. No wonder so many people reject our faith.
There is one kind of doubt that is mostly about knowledge. Was there a conspiracy, for example, behind Kennedy’s assassination? Do we know why the stock market goes up or down? Another kind of doubt is about ourselves: whether we will pass a test, or get a promotion, or be able to face something difficult. Yet a third kind of doubt is the appearance of doubt, when it’s convenient, and when we want to get out of something. I doubt I’ll be home in time to help with painting the bedroom, sorry! Or, I don’t think I’m going to do well in this course.
Each Sunday after Easter, when we read the story of Thomas, we mostly want to think of this as some kind of intellectual doubt, that Thomas was this intellectually honest and rigorous thinker who had specific criteria—and the stories of his brother apostles just didn’t meet the test. But the more I think about Thomas, the more I see his doubt as something apparent, something convenient.
Why else would he change his tune so quickly? All Jesus has to do is say, “do not be unbelieving but believe,” and presto! Thomas has a new view on things? The other apostles must have told Thomas about Jesus’ appearance—including his words. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” I suspect that Thomas was reluctant to be sent, so it was easier to say he didn’t believe.
This may not be just an ancient tactic; in fact, it might be very contemporary. All kinds of studies show people saying they do not have a church, they are agnostics, they do not believe. This is particularly true among younger generations. There certainly are things that make faith more difficult today, and younger generations certainly grow up with different assumptions about church. God knows between scandals and distractions, people can claim many reasons to be distant from the Church.
But I wonder if Jesus appeared today as he did that Easter morning what people would really say? Would we run up to Jesus and ask for some kind of proof? Would we have some sort of philosophical conversation about risen bodies, space, and time? Or would we see what Thomas saw, that God has broken through our questions and doubts, that God has crushed death, and now Jesus stands before us, offering himself once again?
We can see from the first reading that the Easter presence of Jesus continued on in the life of the believers. People were so filled with Easter that it spilled beyond them, in the healing and hope that they gave to others. In different ways, isn’t this our task a well: to be an Easter presence in today’s world, an Easter presence especially in the face of doubt and disbelief. Doesn’t Jesus say to us: “Be not unbelieving . . . but believe.”
A few Sundays ago the world watched as a golfer crushed the doubts that people had about him, and undoubtedly that he had about himself. For years people asked if Tiger would be back. For years most people doubted that he could make a comeback. In fact, the betting odds were so against Tiger that someone won over a million dollars on the bet he made. Whatever he says about the game of golf, Tiger said something more about hope overcoming doubt.
To overcome years of illness, surgeries, scandals, well that is indeed notable. But to overcome the forces of sin and the destruction of shameful death, that says something entirely different. It is Christ, now raised, who stands before us as the conqueror of doubt. He leads the way, a path that leads to the fullness of life, wondering why we hesitate to follow. Jesus, the beginning and the end, takes everything into his Risen glory, all time and space. Only our refusal to hope and commit can keep us away from that.
This Sunday is Divine Mercy Sunday. Look at the picture of the Divine Mercy. Look at the Lord risen, with the tomb behind him and white and red beams flowing from his side, and then read carefully what is under the picture: Jesus, I trust in you. We trust in his care and concern for us and all the people of the world. And when we hear about horrendous things happening, as we do every day, we trust that the Lord will care for the victims. St. Peter says that in the war against evil our ancient enemy, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. He tells us to be strong in faith and stand up to him. We cannot let Satan’s temporary victories turn the tide in the war for God’s Kingdom.
There is a wonderful group of contemplative sisters from Watertown, New York, the Sister Adorers of the Precious Blood, who have promoted this short prayer from a hymn written by Lucy Bennet:
Trust Him when dark doubts assail thee,
Trust Him, when thy strength is small;
Trust Him, when to simply trust Him,
Seems the hardest thing of all.
Trust Him. He is ever faithful,
Trust Him! for His will is best;
Trust Him! for the Heart of Jesus,
Is the only place of rest.
“Jesus help those parts of us that don’t trust, that don’t believe.”
On Divine Mercy Sunday we pray: “Jesus we trust in you.” Casting aside our doubts.