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April 19, 2020

Even though the doors were locked

Passage: John 20:19-31

Good morning, everybody! Happy Second Sunday of Easter, properly called the Octave Day of Easter, which is to say, the eighth day after Easter. Our Anglican cousins often call today Low Sunday—I imagine you can guess why. Traditionally the week was full of celebration, with special hymns and prayers; our Orthodox cousins call it Bright Week, considering it a single bright day, and eat celebratory food and don’t fast at all all week (though technically this coming week is their Bright Week, since today is the Orthodox Easter). But even that celebration will come to an end, and it leaves us here: The Sunday after Easter. Low Sunday. Do you know what I mean if I talk about “that day-after-a-holiday” feeling? Like the morning after you spent the previous day at the fair, or stepping on limp confetti from a parade held yesterday? How about… today, the Sunday after Easter?


The dip of an after-time, an in-between time, couldn’t have been a stranger to those who knew Jesus. Imagine his parents, after the tension of his conception and surreal glory-in-lowliness of his birth, waking up for midnight feedings and changings, telling him not to run so far ahead that they couldn’t see him, teaching him to work and to pray. Imagine how Peter felt, soaked with Galilee seawater after his failed attempt to walk with Jesus on its surface, sitting in the boat with everyone else as they rowed toward shore. Imagine the crowds walking home after a healing, the teachers and lawyers going back to their books after a public confrontation with the weird upstart from the countryside. Imagine the silence in Pilate’s court after Jesus was led away and the people dispersed. Remember Holy Saturday, that stretch of quiet between death and resurrection. No, we are no strangers to the strange lull that comes after something has happened.


And can there have ever been a more lurching dip than this past week for Thomas? We read his story every year on this Sunday, because this is the day that it happened, the eighth day after it all happened—for everyone but Thomas, who was not there that night, the night of Easter, to see the resurrected Jesus. That Sunday morning the women who loved Jesus had had their grief transformed into astonishment and joy. That Sunday night the disciples had seen him too. —Ten of them, anyway. But where, I wonder, was Thomas? Thomas, who had been ready to die with Jesus when their journey to Lazarus’ house took them back towards those who were already seeking Jesus’ life, yet who deserted him and fled with the others at Gethsemane. Where was he the night of Easter? Was he too ashamed to look his companions in the face? Was his grief still so deep that he couldn’t stand the possibility of consolation? Something kept him away from his friends that night, and he did not see what they saw. They told him about it, sure, but how easily could any of us have accepted news like that? People stayed dead in circa 33 CE the same way they do now. So this lull week after a happening was not the same for the rest of the disciples as it was for Thomas: They were all wondering at a miracle, in the heights of joy, and Thomas was left outside, still in the darkness of Good Friday.


I am sure many of us know the feeling: Surrounded by believers, as though belief is easy or self-evident, and it feels like you’re the only one who can’t get with the program.


We, I mean the Church, live most of our lives in the week after Easter, and most of us, I think, are closer akin to Thomas than to everyone else. We are told there has been a miracle—people we know and even respect, even love, insist upon it. Yet we have seen nothing with our own eyes.


Of all the silences, all the lulls, in the church year, I think it is this week, this silence, I find most compelling. World-tilting for all of them, but with such a disconnect of experience between Thomas and the rest that I cannot imagine how they could even speak to one another. But they did: Thomas was not there Easter night, so they went and found him and told him, and he did not believe him because he had not seen. And then they stayed together. It is crucial to see this: that though Thomas could not accept what the others said until he saw his beloved master with his own eyes, though they could not convince their companion of what they had seen, the next Sunday night found all of them together in the locked room. The disciples did not push Thomas away. And Thomas stayed.


We live in a country in which it is thought that the individual is the first, most basic unit, and society mostly a loose collection of voluntary associations and/or something against which to struggle, as many novels of the middle of the last century told us. Community is largely a buzzword. We do not really have anymore a robust sense of our dependence on other people and their dependence on us except as a problem to be solved. But it is truer to say, especially for God-fearers and followers of Jesus, that that interdependence is exactly how and for what we were created. The second human was made for the first because the first human was lonely, and our need for each other is not only a given but a positive good throughout the rest of scripture. The relationship we have with God and with each other through Jesus’ work is described with familial language as often as anything else, as adoption, siblinghood, childhood, co-inheritance. We belong to each other. And the disciples knew it. They were a community in a way much deeper than simply choosing to associate, a way that had little to do with their choices and much to do with God’s.


Etymology isn’t everything, but I cannot get over the roots of that word, which in Latin suggest the bringing together of burdens or obligations, the sharing of the heaviest and most important things we carry. Community, as scripture would teach is, is less a social club and more a fishing net, woven strong and flexible to carry us and all the things we bring to it. It carried Thomas’s uncertainty and the others’ insistence. It carried all their shared memories. It carried their grief and their joy, their frustration and their delight, their misunderstanding and their loyalty. It carried all of them together and brought them back into the locked room again, behind those doors which could not keep Love out.


Thomas is remembered as doubting, but I cannot imagine a greater faith than the one that kept him there, in danger with his friends, expecting nothing but going anyway. If we have become accustomed over the last several centuries to thinking of faith, of belief, as mostly intellectual assent to a list of propositions then we have really lost the plot. The truer faith is not the recitation of facts like so many decimal places of pi, but the faith of the father of the boy with an unclean spirit crying out to Jesus for the healing of his son, “I believe; help my unbelief!” The truer faith is the trust of a child in their parents and a friend in their friends. The truer faith is the determination of the ones who dug through a roof to lower their friend’s mat down to Jesus, and the willingness of the friend on the mat to be lowered down. The truer faith is Thomas alongside the others climbing the stairs to the upper room again. The truer faith is what we do with and for each other, what we work out in community. The truer faith is found inside the net that carries each of us back to where we all are, the place where Jesus appeared, where he may appear again whether or not we expect him, perhaps even when we expect him least. Even though the doors were locked, and we may still lock them, the doors of our houses and the doors of our hearts alike. Resurrected Love is no respecter of locked doors.


Jesus does not chastise Thomas. We chastise, even reject doubters, we have for centuries, and we castigate ourselves for doubting, but neither castigation nor rejection comes from Jesus. He only observes that happy are those who will believe without receiving what Thomas did, and certainly that’s true. But if Thomas had been wrong to ask for Jesus to come to him, Jesus would not have come. And he did. Thomas was given what he asked for, what he needed, what, I imagine, he desperately wanted, deep down where he could barely even admit it to himself, which was nothing more than what the others had been given already. Doubting at all is something only the faithful can do; we do not call a happy atheist a doubter. And for those of us who trace our lineage to the men and women in the locked room, all our doubt and all our faith is worked out in community. We doubt and we believe, all of us, with each other.


Today, the day that Jesus appeared to Thomas, the disciples’ hiding inside from a world that was not safe for them is more resonant than it has ever been. We are in our homes today to protect ourselves, our families, our friends, and total strangers, trusting that it is for the best for now. Yet even in this isolation we are more closely bound than ever, as though we are feeling the ropes of the net that connects us each to the others. My goodness is found in you; my sadness you will carry; and our faith, the faith we can only have together, will hold us, until we can hold each other in the flesh again. Amen.

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