When 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." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
But Thomas (who was called the Twin ), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So 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."
A 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." Then 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." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.--John 20:19-31
This Sunday, I was scheduled to preach at my contextual ministry site in DC.
Instead, I will be tuning into online services from the comfort of my home in Florida. Such is the demise of the spring semester of my Middler year.
It's just as well. What I would have probably said about the reading from the Gospel of John pre-COVID-19 would be so meaningless in this time of pandemic. I do see something for us in this story that is relevant for our present time, and so let's see how I might shuffle the pieces of this passage and lay down some appropriate preaching cards.
I think we all know what it means to be locked away right now. We are in fear of a virus that could be riding on the air droplets from anyone. The people may not appear to be sick but who knows who they've been around?
Where have they been?
How completely has this person washed their hands?
The federal government has done little to alleviate our paranoia. We simply don't know how many people are sick or potential carriers because we have not been aggressively testing. The states have been left to their own devices to find ways to meet the demands made on hospitals. For many of us, the order to stay at home seems the best way to avoid getting deathly ill.
But we are also, admittedly, going a little stir crazy. One wonders if all those in First Century Palestine who locked themselves away were ready to climb the walls, too?
Suddenly, without the door ever opening, Jesus appears to them. Well, most of them. Thomas wasn't there for the initial visit. And Jesus says, "Peace be with you."
Peace. What a concept! Trapped inside a locked house in fear of what is on the outside, Jesus defies the barrier to bring greetings of peace. And unlike the accounts from our synoptic gospels, there's no mistaking who this is standing in the middle of the room because he still bears the scars of his brutal execution. His marks of suffering are visible to the eye, but he is not in pain or showing any signs of worry. Instead, he arrives in the midst of fear and anxiety in his marred body to say, "Peace be with you."
I've been telling people this week that this time of unknowns and great fear has highlighted for me that my faith in God is even more real, more present, and more important than when things were "normal." I don't have a Eucharist to re-member me into the Body of Christ every week. I don't have the physical community surrounding me and praying and singing with me as we put aside any differences we may have to unite in "one hope, one faith, one baptism." Being stripped away of the "things" of my faith leaves me with the one thing that is important: my trust and belief in God who has an intimate understanding of what it means to feel lost and alone because he has "been there, done that, got the wounds to prove it." I'm experiencing the God who abides with us, in us, and around us as we stay physically distant from one another.
And so what about Thomas, one of my personal favorites of the Bible? We can, and I have heard many a sermon where the preacher has scoffed at Thomas for having "doubts" about the veracity of the story from the other disciples that Jesus showed up in their midst. I don't blame Thomas. I relate to Thomas. I think the initial loss of Jesus was traumatic enough that he was highly skeptical of what his clearly delusional friends were telling him.
And I think if we were honest, we are just as skeptical today. We doubt God is present with us as we thrash about trying to figure out how to get churches open or businesses going rather than honoring the advice of our scientists that we have to wait. We fail to believe in God when we can't see how wearing a mask in public right now is the most Christian way we can express love for our essential worker neighbors. We doubt God when we protest stay-at-home orders and insist on congregating in large groups. Basically, the more we try to impose our will on the circumstances of this pandemic, the more we are tapping into our doubt that we can make it through this rather than trusting in our faith that our medical researchers are using their God-given skills to help us.
Jesus said "Peace be with you." He says it three times in this passage. This is the message he delivered to the believers and the doubters locked in the house. That is still the message being delivered as we are encouraged to stay at home during this pandemic. Peace is with you...peace has been with you...peace will be with you. Trust and believe.