The Sunday after Easter is sometimes called “low Sunday.” We’ve been through the euphoria of Easter, the fantastic music, the Easter brunch. The good news in its most exciting form.
And the next week, we’re asking, “Now what?”
The second Sunday of Easter, traditional time off for nearly all fulltime or senior pastors, is also known as “empty the bench Sunday,” when the starting players take a rest and associate pastors, student pastors and other bench players step up and shoot for the hoop. In my 10 years preaching, this is my 7th low Sunday in the pulpit. I love it.
As Pastor Mary told us last week, Easter begins while it is still dark. We know the story, so we go with the women to the tomb and we hear, “He is not dead, he is risen!” And we sing triumphant halleluias on this most joyous day of the Christian year. This is all familiar ground, and we’ve been waiting since Christmas to hear the rest of the story.
But just for a moment, imagine what it would have been like if you did not know the story. If this story was new to you, and you were experiencing it for the first time. For the disciples of Jesus whom we read about on this Second Sunday of Easter, the story unfolded more slowly. The news had to break through layers and layers of pain, suffering and defeat.
These witnesses saw him get arrested. They heard the hand-picked crowd that called for his crucifixion. They saw him, maybe even heard him struggle through the streets carrying the cross. They saw the broken body on the cross. They heard that he was buried in a tomb.
They knew the danger they themselves were in, even admitting to know him might get them killed as well.
It’s the anger, deteriorating into despair that I have new feeling for. Imagine for a moment how the people in Jesus’s inner circle felt in those first few days after his death.
Just let it sink in for a few seconds. I know all of you have experiences you can draw on, when all your hopes were dashed. When you suffered the most awful losses.
At some point in that pain, you lifted your head to ask, “Now what?”
Imagine yourself as a disciple, a follower of Jesus trying to make sense out of a senseless death of this great, gentle, godlike man. Imagine surveying your options after following him for months, maybe years, and now he’s gone.
Now what? You ask. Where do I go? What do I do, now that he’s gone? Can I believe anything he said, since they killed him and God didn’t stop it?
Imagine yourself, feeling so sure of Jesus’s words and teachings, having seen or heard of his miracles, his healing. And then having it all collapse with his death.
Now what? You ask.
Imagine, as the news filtered out, well, gossip really, that the body was gone, that some of the women and then some of the men had seen Jesus alive. At first people said it was an idle tale. They didn’t believe it. How could they?
If you heard it from someone who had actually seen Jesus, you might have seen joy in their faces and that might have been enough to convince you of the truth of their story.
But if, like Thomas, you heard it whispered from someone who heard it told furtively from someone who heard it uttered in cautious wonder from someone who heard it from an eye witness… you might be afraid to believe such a fantastic tale.
Now what? You think. What am I to make of such gossip?
Dismiss it and get on with my grief? Go back home and pick up the pieces of the life I left to follow Jesus?
Or maybe check it out, seek to find out more. Now what? What is this story of resurrection?
That’s where Thomas comes into our story.
Earlier in the gospel of John, when Jesus has decided to go to Bethel to raise his friend Lazarus from the dead, some of the disciples remind him that the authorities around Bethel, which is close to Jerusalem tried to stone him the last time he was there.
Jesus is adamant that he will go. And Thomas says to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Is this empty bravado? I think not. I think Thomas was sincere in his belief in the strength of his belief. He was saying, as Peter did later, “I will follow Jesus to the death.”
And then Jesus did die, but Thomas didn’t follow him there.
I imagine Thomas dealing with his grief by reading some of the psalms of lament. Maybe even Psalm 122, which Jesus began to say on the cross – My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?”
He’s rolling in grief and suffering, rocking back and forth with the pain. And he’s wondering if there is more bad news to come, of companions arrested and executed, of a general search for followers, perhaps.
Now what? He worries.
And then he begins to hear different stories about Jesus and his followers. Stories so giddy with hope, he can’t believe them.
Thomas was probably among those men who dismissed the witness of the women who first saw the resurrected Jesus. You know, an idle tale such as women tell.
Then more of Thomas’s fellow disciples are saying that THEY saw Jesus alive. Some of them describe a scene where Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into them. Thomas sees the transformation of the eye witnesses. But the layers of despair are thick. He wants his own eye witness experience. He wants his own moment of euphoria.
His pain is so great, he needs to hear and see and touch Jesus to believe the good news of the resurrection.
But he has an answer to the question of Now what? He will stay with the witnesses and hope to see Jesus for himself, the way they did.
Please notice that some of the witnesses, like Mary Magdalene and the other women who went to the tomb, were seeking Jesus when they saw him.
But others, like the people locked in the Upper Room on Easter Evening, they were the recipients of God’s free grace. They did nothing to merit being witness to Jesus’s appearance, except lament his death and fear the same.
Thomas, like the first people that the women told, didn’t believe these eye witnesses in the Upper Room. But Thomas sought to confirm the news for himself.
Jesus is gentle with these waves of witnesses, as the news radiates outward. He appears to several people, gradually increasing the circle of those who have seen with their own eyes, heard with their own ears, touched with their own hands, the resurrected body of Jesus.
These people have a new, fresh, exciting answer to the question of “Now what?” Jesus told them, As the father sent me, now I send you.”
“Forgive the sins of others,” he said, “and they are forgiven in heaven.” And go tell what you have seen.
Imagine, then, the glow, the euphoria that would course through their bodies as Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into them. They would surely forgive Thomas’s doubt, as their doubt had been forgiven by the first witnesses, the women.
But Jesus and the witnesses have a problem. Will Jesus have to appear to every single follower before they believe? This is the crux of the story of Thomas. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” Jesus says.
Oh, but that’s not the end of the story.
The writer of John ends with a promise: Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.
In fact, Jesus and his disciples have been answering that question of “Now what?” for 2,000 years. Receive the Holy Spirit, forgive others and tell them the good news that their sins are forgiven.
The passage we read this morning from Acts tells how Peter answered his question of “now what?”
The Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Court, blasts the apostles for “filling Jerusalem” with Jesus’s name and teachings. “You are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood,” the high priest says.
Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
And they’re going to keep right on teaching and witnessing in the name of Jesus.
Tradition has it that the apostles spread out, each taking a territory to spread the good news.
Says one historian of the 5th Century, Matthew goes to Parthia, Thaddeus to Libya, Philip to Phrygia and Thomas to India.
In fact, there is an ancient Christian Church of Thomas in northern India, and evidence in several ancient documents that an evangelist named Thomas was among the first to spread the good news there, among all castes and classes. He found especially fertile ground among the dalit, the so-called untouchables of India, who welcomed Jesus’s message of good will to all, freedom for captives and those who are oppressed.
Earlier this year, Pope Benedict decided to retire, and cardinals from around the world gathered in Rome, asking “now what?” The Holy Spirit breathed into them and they chose a man born in Latin America who chose to live, not in the archbishop’s palace, but in a small apartment, where he cooked his own meals and took the bus to work.
And he breathed in the Holy Spirit and asked “Now what?”
In his first Holy Week as pope, Francis I washed the feet of some selected prisoners — that was a tradition. But the prisoners included two women and two Muslims, and that was not traditional. The world’s Catholics, indeed, the world’s Christians saw a new thing happening and we’re asking, “now what?”
The grace of Jesus Christ is STILL appearing to us, perhaps at our greatest moments of despair, when we go seeking him as the women did at the tomb. Or perhaps when we are in a locked room with our companions, fearing the authorities. Or perhaps as someone born into a group of people who have been told their whole life they are the dregs of the earth. Or perhaps as a muslim woman whose feet were just washed by one of the leaders of the Christian world.
Or perhaps, like Thomas, when we are sitting in a pew among believers, trying to see for ourselves what all the gossip is about.
Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into us. Now we are witnesses.
Praise God. Amen.