Sermon: A Late Easter
A Late Easter
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 4-23-2017)
Sometimes Easter comes late. Actually, oftentimes, Easter comes late. It came late for Thomas, but it also came late for his male colleagues. On Easter morning, the Risen Jesus meets Mary in the garden after which she runs to tell the boys, “I have seen the Lord.” That first Easter night, though, they do not throw the party to beat all parties. They lock the door and bolt it, close the curtains, and huddle together, awash in a puddle of fear, giving Mary’s report almost no credence.
Then the Risen Jesus arrives. He is clearly the crucified Jesus, because the marks of torture cannot be missed, but at the same time, he is the resurrected Jesus, something more than a disembodied ghost on the loose. He arrives not to lecture them, “Why in the world didn’t you trust what Mary told you this morning?!” He arrives to reassure them, to show them that resurrection is the final word of God. Unfortunately, Thomas is gone; on that incredible night, Thomas misses Easter.
When the missing disciple returns with the groceries, his colleagues stumble over themselves telling him exactly what they had not believed when Mary told them earlier that day. After they tell Thomas all about the wild and mysterious visit by the Risen Jesus, he does not shout, “Amen! Hallelujah” nor is he wracked with doubt – “Maybe what they are saying is right, but I am just not sure.” No, Thomas is dead certain that his good friend Jesus is still good and dead. He is not “Doubting Thomas,” a flawed nickname if there ever was one. He is “Dead Certain” Thomas. The Greek is extraordinarily emphatic here, something like, “I will never believe what you are saying; do you think I have lost my mind?”
The Gospel writer also tells us that Thomas is a “Twin.” I would suggest that is more than a genetic statement. In fact, most folks walking around today in and out of the church are Thomas’s twin. One of his most famous “twins” was our own Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was a big fan of Jesus, but only the all-too-human, good moral teacher, Jesus. In the “Jefferson Bible,” Jefferson gets rid of all the miraculous stories of Jesus with razor precision, including the Easter miracle. In Jefferson’s Bible, the story of Jesus ends this way: “Now, in the place where He was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulcher, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus. And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher and departed.” Like the disciple Thomas, his “Twin,” Thomas Jefferson, did not doubt that Jesus was somehow both human and divine; Jefferson knew that Jesus was only human.
As far as we know, Easter never came for Jefferson, but as the story unfolds, it does finally come for Thomas. It comes one week later when the Risen Jesus returns to the same house and this time Thomas is home. The Risen Jesus enters the room and says what we say every time we worship together, “Peace be with you.”
Jesus then turns to Thomas and invites him to do what most of us would love to do – to prove that the dead Jesus has risen, to confirm that by God’s grace the tomb or the urn is not the final reality for our loved ones or for us. Jesus tells Thomas to: "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing" (John 20:27, Author’s Translation).
Instead, “Dead Certain” Thomas does exactly what he swore he would never do. He does not take Jesus up on the offer. Thomas believes without completing the empirical test. In fact, Thomas makes one of the most profound professions of faith in all the New Testament. He looks at the crucified and resurrected Jesus and proclaims, “My Lord and my God.”
Traditionally, the Sunday after Easter is called “Low Sunday.” The crowds are gone, the music a bit more subdued, the Hallelujahs a little less boisterous, the lilies out the side door. My friend, Martin Copenhaver describes the day well: “To be in worship on such a day can feel a bit like showing up at a party after most of the guests have left and those who remain report on what a grand time you missed by coming too late” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 2, p. 394).
It was “Low Sunday” when Easter came for Thomas, when he went from “Dead Certain” that all the Easter talk was so much wishful thinking to being dead certain that somehow the crucified and Risen Jesus was standing right before him and he exclaims, “My Lord and my God.”
Notice how Jesus receives this burst of devotion from Thomas. Jesus does not pat Thomas on the back and congratulate him on this new found faith. Instead, Jesus asks Thomas a question and then makes a sweeping statement. Jesus asks: "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (v. 29).
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Somehow, the Risen Jesus knew that for most people Easter will come late, must come late, because Thomas was one of the few who saw the Risen Jesus, crucified marks and all. Easter comes at all to any of us because the Risen Jesus still comes to us in the lives of people who help us to say “yes” to faith, people who teach in winsome ways or preach with persuasion or write with too much conviction to be ignored.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Easter came to me because of so many people who passed on the faith, who dared to say “yes” to the Risen Jesus even though they could not prove it. Easter came to me because of my maternal Methodist grandmother who taught me to love the God I meet in the Psalms, especially the King James Version of the Psalms, even though I could never convince her that Jesus did not speak King James’ English.
Easter came to me because of parents who did not talk the faith often, but who lived the Christian faith in ways that I understand better each day. Easter came to me because of special adults who were not repelled by my doubts and questions as a youth, but instead, invited me to do what the poet Rilke advises: “Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer” (Letters to a Young Poet).
Easter came to me because of women and men in every church that I have served who have been walking examples of the goodness of God, women and men who loved me and forgave me, even when I was unlovable and unforgivable. Easter came to me because of Christian social activists who taught me that God loves this world and has little use for pastors and people who want to hide in church. These are the ones who have modeled for me the Risen Jesus’ blessing of “peace,” teaching me that strength does not create peace but peace creates strength.
Easter came to me because of Wellford Hobbie who taught me that it is a profound privilege to stand in the pulpit, so do not waste God’s time; because of Bud Achetemeir and Jim Mays and Sib Towner who taught me that the Bible is like walking through a magical door into a room with the greatest mysteries of life, so do not treat it like a bland, moral cookbook; because of Bill Oglesby who peeled away the pretty niceties of pastoral care, so I would never be tempted to think that you can call in care for those in need.
Easter came to me as a gift from unsuspecting men and women throughout my life who gave to me the gift of Easter faith. Yes, I know the correct theological answer is that the gift of faith comes from God’s Spirit and it does. But its delivery system is living, breathing, women and men of faith. Take a moment and think about who delivered Easter to you, who helped you believe beyond all your uncertainties, amid all your questions, who makes it possible for you to pray to God even though not one of us can prove that God exists, much less is listening to us.
If Easter has not yet come for you, is still running late, look around. You are surrounded by a community of Easter people, not “dead certain,” not “without a doubt” people, but Easter people nonetheless. They did not come to faith by themselves and I suspect they would welcome the company as they journey past their unbelief into the mystical and marvelous land of belief.
Yes, sometimes Easter comes late, but thanks to our generous and generative God and thanks to generous and generative communities of God’s people, Easter comes.