Easter 2A; John 20:19-31; St. Paul’s, Smithfield, NC 4/232017
Jim Melnyk: “Invited, Not Accused”
The cartoon shows the disciple Thomas standing before two of his colleagues. His arms are raised in dismay and a look of consternation is on his face. “All I’m saying,” Thomas is exclaiming, “All I’m saying is we don’t call Peter ‘Denying Peter’ or Mark ‘Ran Away Naked Mark.’ Why should I be saddled with this title?” One of his colleagues replies in perfect church-speak, “I see your point, Thomas, but really, it’s time to move on.”
The cartoon Thomas may have a point. We still tell the story of Peter’s betrayal because face it, if we can point to Peter’s betrayal, our betrayals – both great and small – won’t seem quite as big. But we don’t refer to him as, “Denying Peter.” Not as many of us know about the tradition that it was the author of Mark who was seen fleeing the Garden – actually running out of his robes – on the night Jesus was betrayed. But if you think about it, the story has survived to this day because if we can point to Mark fleeing Jesus on that terrible night, then the times we flee from our faith won’t feel quite so terrible. But we don’t refer to the author of the oldest Gospel as, “Ran Away Naked Mark.” Perhaps Peter and Mark get a break because we still have Judas to blame for the big betrayals – and somehow that keeps us from shedding too much of an inward light on our own souls and our own betrayals – both great and small.
But we hold tight to Thomas’ struggle, hearing about it every single Second Sunday of Easter, mostly because at least on some level we struggle with the resurrection – we too want to touch the nail prints in Jesus’ hands, and see where the spear was thrust into his side. I am convinced we hold these images of Thomas, who actually was one of the more faithful of disciples, because we need someone out there to give voice to our own doubts.
If someone who walked the dusty roads of Galilee and Judea with Jesus can doubt, then certainly our doubts are understandable. But we shouldn’t sell Thomas short – the risen Christ is as welcoming to Thomas as he is toward the others – twice proclaiming “peace” to them, and eventually even to Thomas, who is, according to Walter Brueggemann, “the voice of our own doubt” (Walter Brueggemann, Sojourners Online, Preaching the Word, 4/16/2017). And so perhaps we do find some kind of comfort in one of the twelve giving voice to our own struggles – and he seemingly will bear the nickname for as long as we tell his story.
But jumping from last week’s resurrection story in Matthew to this week’s story from John highlights an interesting disconnect between the two Gospels. On Easter Day, according to Matthew, the women who experience the resurrection are told to direct the disciples to Galilee – it is there, where it all began, that they will be reunited with Jesus. Today, according to John, it’s as if the disciples never got the message – or if they did, refused to accept the word of the women – “Really, Mary, we doubt it!” Jesus meets them in the upper room where they are hiding in fear. What’s more, if we pay attention to the setting of our reading from Acts, we realize we are hearing part of Peter’s sermon given seven weeks later on the day of Pentecost – and they’re still all in Jerusalem – whatever happened to Galilee? And why the differing accounts – all of which can cause us to have doubts?
Brueggemann suggests that the resurrection “shatters all of our [descriptive] categories and leaves us in awe. It is for this reason that the earliest church had to tell the story in many [differing ways], because none of the stories seemed fully adequate” (ibid). Matthew highlights Jesus’ ministry in Galilee – the place where it all began for them, while John seems to be addressing a community far enough removed from the actual resurrection that they’ve begun to wrestle with doubts, and John wants to find a way to put his listeners’ minds at ease.
What we do know is that the resurrection was so out of the box for those who followed Jesus that most of the feelings expressed range from confusion, to doubt, and to fear, as much as they – and perhaps before they ever – lead to amazement and joy. And I imagine that range of emotions shown by the disciples is familiar to us. That may well be one of the reasons why it’s such a challenge to live Easter 24/365 – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – that may be why it’s such a challenge to live every day in the power of the resurrection, as resurrection people,and the reasoning behind our Collect for the Day, praying that we “may show forth in our lives what we profess through our faith.” .
Perhaps that’s why we are called to pay more attention to ways in which Jesus reveals himself to his friends rather than their many differing reactions. Author Laurel Dykstra writes about the hope Jesus offers to a rag-tag group of confused and fearful followers: “When Jesus [appears] to his disciples [in John’s gospel], they [are] hiding upstairs in a locked room—the friends who knew him best, who had betrayed him, who had pretended they didn’t know him, who had run away when he was dying, who hid when he was arrested, who were frightened and ashamed. [Jesus appears] among them and [greets] them. He [doesn’t ask], ‘What happened?’ ‘Where were you?’ [He doesn’t say,] ‘You [messed] up.’ He [greets] them saying, ‘Peace’” (Laurel A. Dykstra, Sojourners Online, Preaching the Word, 4/16/2017). Likewise, in Matthew’s first account of the resurrection, Jesus’ first words to the women outside the tomb are not challenges or recriminations, but rather he says to them, “Greetings! Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:9-10).
“No matter who you are,” writes Dykstra, “no matter what [we’ve] done or think [we’ve] done, whoever [we] have betrayed or let down, no matter how far [we] have gone from God, from Jesus, Jesus doesn’t [ask us], ‘Where were you?’ [or say to us,] You [messed] up.’ Jesus greets [us] saying, ‘Peace.’ You are not accused, you are invited” (Dykstra). “Do not be afraid!”
That language of invitation and peace was driven home for me on Friday. I came across several yard signs during my sabbath walk through my neighborhood. The signs, one of which now resides in our yard at home, welcomes people to Raleigh in sixteen different languages. The campaign behind the signs, which is now in Durham as well, is designed to create the important conversations we all need to have about immigration, deportation, refugees, and sanctuary in our communities, bringing to mind the commands in Leviticus to love our neighbor, and to love the alien who resides in our land, as we love ourselves. As Easter people we are challenged to ask, “Who is my neighbor, and how welcoming am I toward them?” “How do we live as people who are not accused, but invited by God into new life?” and finally, “How willingly do we choose to live as Easter people in the midst of the hard questions of our faith and our day-to-day lives in this world?”