I could have sworn when I read the gospel this week that that last line wasn’t in there — “penance for the remission of sins” — penance? In Eastertide? — hardly! So I looked it up — well it’s there in the New American Bible as large as life. Some other translations have “repentance.” I even tried spelling out the Greek and the word is metanoia — a change of heart, of vision, of imagination — an about-face.
Which is kind of the experience I had with these readings — a little shocked, a little dismayed, a little resentful — at having my Easter joy ruffled by three readings harping on sin and preaching penance. But not just sin and penance: sin, penance, and resurrection. Surprising allies!
There’s a lot of surprise and about-faces in these readings. Peter, a little while ago, coward and traitor, stands confidently preaching to the crowd. The disciples, hearts burning within them after the news from Emmaus, are suddenly struck into panic and fright by a familiar stranger breathing disturbing words of peace. They reach and touch him, they feed him, and still they are agitated but now with what Luke calls sheer joy and wonder. Now the reading doesn’t say so but I imagine they sober up pretty quickly as Jesus reminds them of who he is, of what he’s always preached, and of who they … and are to be—disciples, witnesses, people sent. “Nothing has changed,” he seems to say, “but everything is different.” “Look here I am, flesh and bone, eating cold fish out of ruined hands.”
And he tells them a story, a story they already know, a story we still tell each other, of life and death … and life.
Look how Peter puts it. “This is sin,” he says, “you disown justice and you prefer murder—you put to death the one who brings all things to life.” A better definition of sin than we heard all Lent! Sin is the choice of death when life is offered. And for some reason it’s so easy to die and so hard to live. So easy to repeat the old and so hard to risk the new. We can always find a reason why one should die for the good of the many, a reason why, in my case, laughter is out of the question, a reason why, in the circumstances, darkness is brighter than light.
Jesus chose life—offered to share it—and still we killed him rather than live ourselves. A final confirmation of the wisdom of our reasons. As if to say, “There! Done! Once and for all, proof that life is on a loser!” But just when you think it’s safe to slumber, when you’re sure there’ll be no more interruptions, and God is finally polished off—why then God refutes our reasons, confounds our cases. God denies the world forever the certainty of death. Even death is no longer safe, even hell has been opened and delivered up life, even the grave has become a garden.
“Touch me,” says this new Jesus, “believe I’m alive, believe that death is dead. Touch me and remember.” … Remember! If we have touched his joy we have been made witnesses. If we’ve known him in the breaking of the bread what choice do we have but to testify for life. If we’ve experienced the about-face of Easter then we have to share this with the world wherever it still dwells in the dark, still prefers murder to justice, still puts death to life.
Easter joy has its own challenges. If the Greek word for the about-face is metanoia, the Greek for “witness” is martyr. There’s a challenge, full of irony, that’s guaranteed to send us swaying between sheer joy and sheer panic. “Touch me,” says Jesus, “let my wounds be witness that I am not dead—I am alive. Turn about-face, you are not dead—you are alive. And tell the world—be my witnesses, my martyrs—tell them life is alive.”
April 13th, 1997
Poor Thomas gets such a bad rap for being a doubter, for being a sceptic, for not having the faith to believe when all around him are believing. We remember Thomas for his doubt. It’s kind of comforting for the rest of us to think “Thank God I’m not like Thomas, I haven’t seen but I believe!” But why do we believe? Belief has bad press at the moment—people do weird things because they believe in something too much.
We remember how Thomas doubted: “Unless I see the marks, unless I touch the wounds, I will not believe.” But Thomas had a better line a few chapters before. Remember when Jesus was breaking it to his disciples that he was going to risk travelling to see Martha and Mary and Lazarus, even though the authorities were trying to find a way of getting rid of him. Then, even as all the other disciples are grumbling and afraid and doubtful, Thomas is the one who grasps the true meaning of what Jesus is about to do. Jesus is going to bring life to Lazarus but Thomas understands that Jesus is also starting the journey that will end in tears and blood and his own death. Thomas believes and says, forthrightly, “Let’s go with him and die with him.”
Thomas is the faithful one: he knows who Jesus is, and what Jesus has to do. And he has no doubt that he wants to be there too, with him.
What does it take for someone to be willing to die for their belief? What does it take for someone to be willing to give up their lives for their friends?
The 39 who took their own lives in San Diego were willing? Do we want to be like them?
Thomas wanted to be like Jesus even if it meant losing his life. Was Thomas a fanatic like them? What’s the difference?
The difference can only be love. Thomas believed in a person not a cause, not a theory. And he believed because he knew that person, Jesus, intimately, had seen him close up for years, knew they way he lived, knew the way he smiled, knew what got him angry, what made him sad, what gave him joy.
On that first Sunday the Risen Jesus came to his friends and gave them peace and shared his joy. He breathed on them, in person, warm, human breath. It’s ironic that Thomas, the one who wanted to be wherever Jesus was, wasn’t there—he missed out. (See what happens when you don’t go to church on a Sunday!)
So for a whole week Thomas is in limbo. The other’s are telling him to trust them. They offer him second-hand belief—hand-me-down faith. “Thomas! Can’t you just believe because we do? Can’t you trust us? But Thomas’s faith has been in Jesus not his friends, no matter how much he loves them, no matter how much he trusts them. He followed Jesus, not them. He wanted to be with Jesus, not them. Then this morning, this second Sunday, Jesus is again glad to be among his friends breathing peace. His first thought is for Thomas, Thomas who has been waiting for him. He knows what Thomas needs. It’s not evidence he needs to bring him belief, not argument, but a person, a person he knows. Jesus there, for him, in the flesh, marked by the signs of his love. And when he sees, when he touches, he can’t contain himself, he blurts out, “my Lord and my God.” Strange, isn’t it, that this first claim of divinity should be from the mouth of a doubter. Strange, too, that Thomas should recognise God by God’s own wounds? …
None of us can sidestep Thomas’s experience. None of us become real believers, real disciples, without seeing Jesus, without touching him. Our faith can’t be second-hand. We don’t find our deepest faith through other people. We start there. But at some time in our lives that just isn’t enough and then only meeting Jesus himself will do.
In a moment we will baptize ____________ and welcome her into this community of disciples and friends of Jesus. She’s too young to believe for herself right now. That’s why we call on her parents and godparents, and upon this whole community, to carry her in faith until she can. Right now she trusts in Jesus because we do. One day she’ll have to meet Jesus himself and be able to say with Thomas, “my Lord and my God!”
April 6th, 1997