God Does Not Leave Us Alone
April 23, 2017
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
Around this time last year my dad was diagnosed with myeloma, a smoldering but incurable blood cancer. The same disease took his father thirty years ago. When he found out, Grandpa Funk had already begun to experience pain from the cancer, and he lived just a year and a half after the diagnosis. By contrast, when Dad got the news he felt no symptoms. As shocking as last year’s determination was for our family, we’re grateful to know that the diagnosis came early and that current treatments may allow the cancer to be more or less managed, potentially for years, with targeted radiation and chemotherapy. Last month, though, Dad felt his first symptom: back pain. So he went in for radiation and is scheduled to begin chemo this summer.
I have listened to Easter sermons all my life. Growing up in evangelical churches, I heard preaching aimed to persuade me that the stories of the empty tomb are eyewitness accounts and that the details of the resurrection stories happened exactly, factually, as our gospels tell them. Yet as I’ve moved into midlife and away from self-identifying as evangelical, I’ve also heard Easter preaching downplay the uniqueness of the resurrection and link it more or less with the cycles of death and rebirth that happen as seasons change.
Last week Helen and I visited family in New York City and worshiped at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church (St. Bart’s for short). A brass ensemble, an organist, two separate adult choirs, a children’s choir, and the congregation offered joyful music in the grand and cheery space. After listening to the Scripture lessons, I settled in for another Easter sermon. We heard a good message, no doubt helpful to many, and I later came to realize that I didn’t hear the Easter news I needed that morning. And because the news I heard wasn’t the news I needed, during the sermon I felt alone in the festive community.
The preacher began by acknowledging how impossible it is for many of us to believe the Easter Day stories as history. His overarching message was an assurance that despite grim political, economic, and environmental realities today, there is a hope. Along the way he suggested that the good news of Easter is not about overcoming death but about overcoming fear, and that resurrection may not be so strange after all—because life teaches us that in time bad things can often lead to good things.
Right after the service I began to reflect on my time at St. Bart’s. I was not at all surprised that I loved singing Easter hymns in a space like a cathedral, or that I relished listening to brass and choral music there. I was surprised though at my negative reaction to the proclamation I heard, and in these past days I’ve tried to tease out the reasons for that reaction.
Of course proclaiming the Easter gospel is not easy. What specifically makes the Easter news good? Is Easter news good mostly because Jesus’s bodily resurrection was a historical event that foreshadows our own future bodily resurrections? Or is Easter news good mostly because we know from Easter that the God of hope is active in the world here and now? Is the good news of Easter about overcoming death or overcoming fear? Maybe the best news of all is that Easter news is good for so many reasons.
At St. Bart’s last week I didn’t need to hear about only a vague, nameless hope during hopeless times. I needed a reminder that the source of hope is God, who raised Jesus from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit, a Spirit living among us. I didn’t need to hear that Easter news is not about overcoming death. I needed a reminder that even in death, God does not leave us alone: God has given us Jesus. In Jesus, God has given us a human being like ourselves, who has died and risen, and who lives today as one with God. By raising him to life, God has made Jesus Lord over death, and our Lord Jesus will accompany us whenever we must cross the valley of death’s shadow, and whenever a loved one must make that journey and leave us behind. God never leaves us alone. That’s the Easter news I needed last week. It’s the Easter news I need today.
I don’t know about your experience, but mine has taught me that life often feels worse late at night. Anxiety is a bird that tries to nest in my brain right around bedtime. First it flits from branch to branch, chirping gloom about my health or about the state of my loved ones or about the state the world. Once I pause to recognize it’s there, the little bird finally begins to fly away.
According to today’s gospel, Jesus’s friends aren’t much different. Of course they’re processing awful events: Jesus’s death and the demise of his movement. And night brings real fear that Jesus’s enemies will come after them. So the doors are locked. But our Easter news today is that God does not leave us alone, and suddenly here is Jesus, newly alive, and forgiving old friends who had abandoned him hours before his death. Here is Jesus, breathing new life into their weary bodies and dead-tired selves. Here is Jesus, granting peace, peace, peace.
We learn from our gospel reading today that Thomas is missing when the risen Jesus meets his friends Easter evening. We don’t know why Thomas is absent this night, but we do know that from the start Thomas had thrown in his lot with Jesus. The first time John’s gospel gives him words to speak, Thomas knows that Jesus almost got killed in Judea when last there. Still Thomas follows his teacher back to the region so that Jesus can be with Mary and Martha while they mourn the death of their brother Lazarus. When the decision to return to Judea had been made, John’s gospel says, “Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’” If that’s not throwing in your lot, I don’t know what is.
When Thomas talks next in John’s gospel, it’s to interrupt Jesus’s last major block of teaching before he is taken away to die. Jesus is explaining to his friends his connection to God the Father and his imminent glorification and union with God through crucifixion and resurrection. Says Jesus, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas says, no we don’t: “‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’”
So if one thing is certain, it’s that Thomas is an all-or-nothing kind of guy, someone who calls things as he sees them, who takes the good with the bad, who seldom grins but always bears it. Maybe he plays hooky on Easter because to his mind the most clear-eyed way to handle these difficult days is to let go his hopes and desires about Jesus and the movement.
God never leaves us alone; this is our Easter news. But sometimes God meets us even—maybe especially—when we feel alone within our community. Alone in a festive community is how I felt listening to a sermon in New York City last week. And alone in his community is probably how Thomas felt during the week after Easter. For days he hears from his friends that they have seen the Lord as if with new eyes, heard him as if with new ears, and felt his energizing Spirit surge within them.
One commentator on the Gospel of John has said that in this gospel the state of belief or believing signals that a disciple is in relationship with Jesus. A believing disciple is a follower who is abiding with Jesus. After he hears what he missed Easter night, Thomas does not want to be left out. He wants only what his friends have experienced—an encounter with the risen Christ, a new start for a changed but still-significant relationship: “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.”
And Jesus does not leave Thomas alone. In vivid language Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds: “Put your finger here and see my hands,” he says. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Says Jesus, don’t stand outside the circle of relationship anymore. Enter again, stay in relationship with me.
Thomas’s response is to offer a full-throated confession of faith: “My Lord and my God!” Thomas realizes that in the risen Jesus, the human and the divine have been forever knit together. Never, whether in life or in death, does God leave us alone. God has given us Jesus, a human being who lives one with God, scars and all.
My father is living with cancer, and I live with physical disability. So I am heartened by the physicality of Jesus’s invitation to Thomas and to us. Wherever he meets us—in community, alone, or alone in community—Jesus comes to us as the Lord who knows human embodiment. We are not told whether Thomas does in fact reach out and touch his Lord’s hands and side. But we trust that Christ’s Spirit enlivens our bodies. So each week when we gather here, I have an opportunity—you have the opportunity—by the power of the Holy Spirit to receive hugs and handshakes of peace from the body of Christ, just as his first disciples did that Easter evening.
At the high point of our service, the Eucharist, we give thanks for the physicality of Jesus’s invitation to us as we share his body and blood. The bread and wine make concrete the truth that in Jesus God has not left us alone. Those around us may feel strangers to us. No one here may understand the gloom or the joy we have recently been through. Yet we take this meal together in the confidence that we are not alone. God in Christ is here, and in the power of Christ’s Spirit, we join together in God’s love, a love stronger than death. Amen.