Good morning, brothers and sisters — and Happy Second Sunday of Easter. The church in fact celebrates not one, not two, but seven full Sundays of Easter. That’s 7 Sundays, plus 43 weekdays – for a total of 50 days of fully dedicated, all-out, non-stop Easter celebration.
In the church calendar, Easter is not just a single holiday, but a whole season. It marks an entire chapter in the church year. In other words, once we’ve unpacked the Easter decorations, there’s no need to pack them up again for almost a full two months. (That’s good news for us procrastinators, isn’t it?)
The importance of the holiday in the church life reflects the centrality of the resurrection in our own Christian lives. So why don’t we celebrate 50 days of Easter? Why is it so hard to keep up the Easter spirit as the season goes on? We pack up shop the week after Easter, quietly put the decorations back in the storage closet, and get back to business.
We’re not the only ones who have trouble catching and keeping the Easter spirit. As the sun rises on the first day post-Easter in the Gospel of John, chapter 20, we might expect the disciples to be partying in triumph or embracing one another with joy. But they’re not. We read that they’ve locked themselves up in a small room, because they are afraid – afraid of the Jews, afraid of everything. Jesus’s disciples are huddled together with the door closed and locked. They do not live as emboldened Easter people, but like cowards.
The disciples have gotten a bad reputation for their post-Easter behavior – especially poor Thomas, who has been somewhat unfairly dubbed “doubting Thomas” for all of Christian history. But can you blame them? At this point they have only heard once that Jesus is alive. This they’ve heard from Mary Magdalene, who has been running all over town talking about an empty tomb and a dead man walking.
Who would believe that? … Would you have believed that? Would you have believed the story of Easter, the first time around? Would you have started the party already?
This year, I celebrated my 28th Easter. I have lived and re-lived, heard and re-heard the Easter story for 28 consecutive Easters in a row, and have to confess: I still have trouble wrapping my head around this story. You have lived through a few less (or maybe a few more) Easters, and you may still find the whole idea difficult to swallow. It is a not an easy thing to believe. Who has ever seen an empty tomb? Who has ever seen a dead man walking? It’s a lot to take in – then or now.
The disciples are a lot like us: skeptical, practical, sensible – in fact they tend to be a bit thick-headed. These are mostly fishermen, after all: blue-collar, working-class, salt of the earth kinds of people. So it’s no wonder that after hearing Mary Magdalene’s witness, they don’t believe it right away. According to the Gospel of Mark, “Mary … went and told those who had been with him … who were mourning and weeping. When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it.”
They did not believe it. And that is precisely why on Easter morning, instead of celebrating, the disciples are holed up in some little room, a place I imagine being something like a bomb shelter: narrow, no windows, bad air, no light, a palpable atmosphere of panic and fear. There, the disciples are huddled together, locked into a living nightmare, making sure that everyone and everything stays away.
Except that there is One who never stays away from his disciples. Suddenly, in the midst of them, stands the risen Christ. One minute they are alone with their terrors and their doubts, and in the next minute they will never be alone again. Peace, he says. Shalom. Peace. And when Christ grants them his peace it must have come rolling over them like an ocean wave, washing away all their fears.
Maybe Jesus throws opens the door to let the daylight and fresh air flood in. Maybe he hands around a box of Kleenex so the disciples can dry their tears and blow their noses. And then he shows them his hands, and the wound in his side – and somehow, despite their shock and confusion, they manage to grasp that it’s really him. Their best friend and brother, their hope and their Messiah, their everything – he is risen. It’s him! It’s really him!
Oh, I’ll bet that morning must crown the disciples’ lives. Of all they have seen and experienced, this morning is surely beyond everything. The disciples see and touch the risen Lord. And as if that weren’t enough: even that same hour they are commissioned into the ministry and sent into the world just as the Father has sent the Son. And they are even given the gift of the Holy Spirit on that same morning, according to the Gospel of John.
What a morning that must have been! Oh, what we wouldn’t give to have been there among the disciples: to see with our own eyes; to receive Christ’s peace; to feel the power of the Holy Spirit blowing down over that place like a mighty wind. How are we even to imagine the joy they experienced? The disciples have, in the course of an hour or so, passed over from despairing to celebration, from darkness to light, from death to life, from defeat to victory.
You know, I sometimes catch myself thinking things like, “If I had been there on that morning, I would have believed”… .or….. “If I could only have a little bit of physical proof – some practical evidence to really sink my teeth into.” ….or…. “If I could see Jesus once – really, just once would do it! – then I could finally shake off these lingering doubts.
But neither the evidence nor the experience seems to have much of an effect on the disciples. When the gospel story continues, we learn that one week later, the disciples are back in that room, with the door once again shut and bolted. Instead of out on the streets sharing the good news, as Christ has told them to do, they’ve gone back in hiding. One week later, they’re crippled again by fear, the glorious Easter morning all but forgotten.
It only takes one week out there in the real world for the disciples’ fears to overshadow the joy of Easter. It only takes one week for the darkness of the world to smother the light of belief. And so by the second Sunday of Easter, the disciples are back in their bomb shelter, waiting for the sky to fall.
What is Christ’s response to all of this? Well, let’s have a look. When the disciples fail to believe Mary’s eye-witness, Christ comes to visit them right where they are, holed up and locked up. When the first visit proves unconvincing, and because Thomas still doesn’t believe, Christ, with apparently infinite patience, simply pays them a second visit.
I suppose that after all that they’ve been through together, Jesus knew very well just how human his disciples were: prone to doubt, easily troubled, a bit weak in the knees. And Christ loves his disciples anyway. He loves them right where they are, locked up in their fear. Jesus loves his disciples when they don’t even have enough courage to walk out of their front door in the morning. Jesus loves his disciples when they are paralyzed by fear and disbelief. He loves them enough to come back for doubting Thomas, to come back for the one who doesn’t believe; loves them enough to personally come and be with them in their fear — and not just once, but twice; loves them enough to absorb their doubts into his perfect peace. He loves them enough to give them chance after chance to become the people of great faith, indeed the very foundation of His church, that He has ordained them to be.
The disciples don’t deserve a second visit by Jesus, but they get one. Jesus comes, and comes again, to his trembling disciples. Week after week, he shows up in the space of fear and doubt and stretches out his wounded hands, full of mercy, to invite them to believe.
Now, this story sounds familiar to me! You and I — we have heard the Easter story more times than the disciples have, probably more times that we can count. And yet no matter how many times Easter rolls around, there is some voice of doubt that continues to say, really? Really? Risen from the dead? Really??
And week after week, Easter after Easter, the Son of God walks into our midst. He comes right through that door - without bothering to knock - and not even noticing that the door is solid wood and three inches thick. Every week the living Christ walks in here, walks right into the thick of our fear and trembling, and says, “Yes, really. I am really alive.”
Christ’s unlimited love, and Christ’s refusal to let our doubt get in the way of a relationship with Him: this is the good news for the trembling people of God on the second Sunday of Easter.
But that’s not the end of the story. The plain & terrible truth is that by this time next week, some of us will be back right where the disciples have been: hiding our faith behind closed doors, trembling in our fear, our Easter enthusiasm already fading fast. After all, we, too, are merely human, and we are slow to believe, and quick to doubt, and often more than a little weak in the knees.
But according to John’s Holy gospel, you can depend on the fact that when you begin to doubt and fear – whether this week, or next week, or a decade from now — the risen Christ will not stay away from you. You can put as many locks and dead bolts on the door as you like, but the risen Christ will come to you anyway. Your doubts will not keep him at bay.
Into our bomb shelters, into our doubts and disbelief, just when we’re sure that this time, the sky is really falling: the Risen Christ appears to us. He walks right into the midst of us: with arms outstretched, bearer of peace, vanquisher of death, the champion of heaven.
He promises to come and to come again, one more time, and another time after that, as many times as it takes. As long as you and I have need, he comes: the risen and glorious Christ, forevermore, world without end…. Alleluia and amen.
Self-giving God, risen Christ, and blowing Holy Spirit: we are like your disciples: prone to doubt, full of fears, unsure of how to live, really live, as resurrection people. Come to us, this week and every week; grant us your presence and your peace; and grant us the lasting light of real faith. Amen!
For Doubters & Skeptics: The Second Sunday of Easter (John 20:19-31)