A Sermon on John 20:19-29
by Rev. Elizabeth Meador Strobel
Preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church of Independence, Missouri
April 8, 2018 – Second Sunday of Easter (B)
19When 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.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So 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.”
26A 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.” 27Then 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.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Like many of you, last week on Easter I watched the live television concert of“Jesus Christ Superstar.” I thought it was great and would love to talk about it with you, but there’s one moment I’ve been chewing on all week. We were watching it with friends, and someone said “Here’s what I’ve never understood: If Jesus knew that he was going to be crucified, why does he say ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Shouldn’t he have known that’s how it was going to work?” After a little bit of silence I said, “I don’t know. All I do know is that when the going gets tough, even people with seemingly unshakable faith get down and have doubts.” And then I turned to this story of Thomas and his questions, and all I can think is that he’s not suffering from doubt so much as he is suffering from despair. And I think Jesus has some things to say about that in this passage.
I am of the opinion that human beings, at our baseline, wish to be happy. I realize that any of you who have ever worked in customer service are probably laughing at me, and yeah, people can be jerks. But hear me out. As a pastor, one of the holy things I get to do is sit with people on the worst days of their lives. I’m always at the funeral. I am usually at the bedside. I am often one of the first to hear about the diagnosis or the breakup or the pink slip or the miscarriage. When I was a hospital chaplain, I would daily walk into a room already knowing that people were about to get devastating news, and I watched their faces change from hope to shock to despair. It is part of my call to journey with people through their darkest valleys and I promise you, almost universally, within the first couple of hours and certainly the first couple of days, human beings revert back to happy. It amazes me, but it almost never fails. That happiness may be temporary, and it may be tempered by grief for quite some time, but usually within an hour of whatever bad news sinking in, someone brings up a good memory. Someone looks for a silver lining. Someone cracks a joke. And the laughter may come through tears or gritted teeth, but human beings have this stubborn inclination toward happiness. It’s just how we work.
And because of that very human tendency, it changes how we do church. It is very in vogue these days to host not a funeral but a “celebration of life.” And while I always stubbornly keep calling it a funeral, I also always make sure to specifically use the word “celebration” early on in my funeral services, because I’ve noticed that when I do that, those gathered who don’t know me well visibly relax, as if they were waiting to see if I’m the kind of pastor who might inflict either gloom or fiery judgment on them. Generally, I’m neither. I’ve also noticed this insistence on happiness in our own church. Have you ever noticed that we cut Lent and Advent a little short, and start celebrating what’s really Easter and Christmas early? Sure, we leave up the purple paraments and we keep lighting the Advent candles but, really, we’re doing pageants and cantatas before the season really ends. We often end up celebrating purple-colored-Christmas or Easter.
I think that’s just part of our tendency to move to happiness, to zip past the waiting or the repentance and just get to the good stuff. This is what uplifts us, and even the most cynical among us choose to put our focus on the positive.
I’ve heard some sermons and some church lessons on grief. We deal with grief a lot, and we can always cast it in the light of resurrection. So, even when we have to talk about sad stuff, we remember that God promises light and heaven and goodness, so our sadness doesn’t have to be that sad. That’s all true. But what I haven’t heard is the church talk much about despair, or emotional pain, or diagnosable depression. Those don’t fit with our positive focus, and so we do what we do best – we skip past it and get to the good stuff. We read this passage about Thomas and with our 20/20 hindsight we think “Oh, the disciples must be so sad and scared. Good thing Jesus is really back! And Thomas is just doubting – if he hadn’t doubted, he’d feel better.” That’s also true.
But today, even just briefly, I want to talk about the reality of despair and emotional pain and depression. Easter and resurrection are a lot more fun, but the reality is that all of us get to be where the disciples are – shrouded in sadness. Even the most optimistic and cheerful among us have had moments like this; many of us will experience this in seasons; and some experience this kind of despair as a daily reality. And I want to tell you that even though we like to default to happy, it is ok to feel what you feel. And I think Jesus lets Thomas feel what he’s feeling in this passage.
For just a moment, really think about how Thomas might have felt. For at least three years, he had left everything to follow Jesus. He’s called the Twin, so he may very well have had a twin sibling he left behind. He probably had a wife and children he had left, maybe parents and other siblings as well. He’s probably no longer welcome in the synagogue he grew up in – imagine if you weren’t welcome to worship here with your family. He had given up whatever livelihood he had for a while, he had lived as an itinerant preacher and healer for years. One of his closest friends, named Judas, betrayed their Lord and then killed himself. Despite three years of friendship, Judas is gone forever. He watched Jesus, also his friend, who he believed to be the Messiah, be convicted of a crime he did not commit and be executed even though the alleged crime didn’t merit it. He had watched God die. He knew that the people who had killed Jesus were probably coming after him and his friends next.
I know what some of that feels like, but not all of it. I have never feared for my life. Perhaps you have. I have never experienced God’s death – at least not without knowing that resurrection was just around the corner. But I know what it’s like for a mentor to die, and for a friend to die from suicide. I know what it’s like to be unwelcome at church. And my response to those things has never been anything as rational as doubt – it’s always simply been despair. I think most of you have had that feeling. It comes out of us in different ways. Some of us get angry, others can’t stop crying. Some of us try to make ourselves feel better through over indulgence, others might forget to take basic care of ourselves. Some people want to get back to normal life immediately as if nothing happened, others can’t seem to talk or think about anything else. When I’ve felt like that, I tend to feel numb, and I lose interest in anything except sleep. It feels different for everyone, and it lasts different lengths of time, but we’ve all been there.
One of the things that’s very common when we despair is that we build walls around ourselves. We keep out things that would either hurt us or help us. We also can be so overwhelmed that we can’t quite be reached by things that would normally be meaningful for us. When it comes to these darkest days of the soul, many people doubt God. Many people question whether or not God is really loving, really present, really able to help. The emotional weight doesn’t let us access our regular theology. I think that’s exactly what’s happening to the disciples here. Think of all they’ve been through. It’s not just doubt, it’s despair. The disciples who first see Jesus don’t believe until after he shows them his wounds. The text tells us that “he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced.” Thomas says it a little more plainly, refusing to believe until he’s given proof. After all these disciples have been through, while they’re hiding out for fear of their safety, I don’t think they dare even imagine a miracle. They’re hearts are just too heavy to hope.
And so I want you to hear what Jesus says: “Peace be with you.” He says it twice, even. He doesn’t give them some argument for why they should believe better, he doesn’t remind them of all the miracles they’ve seen, he doesn’t quote scripture at them; he looks at these disciples whom he loves and who are suffering and just says “Peace be with you.” Beloved, I think that’s what God says to us when we are burdened with that much despair. “Peace be with you.” And more than that, I think that’s what we should say to each other. There is a time to talk theology, there is a time to quote scripture, there is even a time to talk about what we should feel. But there are days, sometimes whole seasons, where the example our Lord sets for us is to simply offer peace. And he didn’t just offer peace – the disciples needed something practical; they needed to see his wounds to know it was him. And so Jesus says “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Jesus meets that practical need they have. He gives them what they need to believe, and in helping with their doubt he also helps with their despair. He doesn’t scold them, he doesn’t quiz them, he just offers them what they need, and then offers them peace.
There will be times in your life when you feel down, and there may be times you feel like you’re at the bottom of a pit. There may be times that you doubt God. I hope those times are rare for you, but I know that they might not be. So hear this: Even the disciples despaired. Even Jesus despaired on the cross. Even I despair sometimes. Just because we err toward happiness doesn’t make your other emotions wrong. Just because you doubt on occasion doesn’t make your faith any less strong – in fact, I’d argue it makes it stronger. So, when you despair, know that you don’t do it alone. It is as common to people as anything else. And while you’re welcome to find joy as soon as you can, it’s also ok if it takes you a while. You have brothers and sisters here who have been through much the same. I am always available to talk. On occasion, when things get really bad, God has given us the gift of primary care physicians who see this all the time and can help. Despair is sometimes just a part of life. But even in the midst of despair, we can cling onto the hope of a God who promises renewal.
I want you to hear that Jesus came to the disciples when they were in despair. I want you to hear that Jesus climbed out of the grave to get to them, because nothing in life or in death can separate us from God’s love. I want you to hear that Jesus didn’t tell them to feel or to think differently; he just spoke to them of peace. And most of all, I want you to hear that’s what Jesus offers you, as well. The promise of the resurrection isn’t that everything is happiness and rainbows every day. The promise of the resurrection is that Jesus is alive, that God is with us, and that even in the darkest days we can reach out and find peace. And when it’s hard to find, thanks be to God, we can help each other find it. Amen.
*If you are reading this sermon and need someone to talk to, you are welcome to call Pastor Elizabeth at (816) 252-5893 between 9am-1pm, Monday-Thursday.
*Your safety is important to God and it is important to our church. If you are considering harming yourself or others, please go to your nearest emergency room or call 911 for assistance; or, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You are welcome to then contact Pastor Elizabeth or the church for prayer and spiritual comfort.