Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, M.O., on April 19, 2009.
John 20: 19-31.
Palm Sunday gets its name from the palm branches used to line the path Jesus took when he entered Jerusalem during Passover. But the name for Easter is not so obvious because it comes from pagan origins. Easter was originally the name of a Germanic goddess worshiped at the festival celebrating the spring equinox. Her name was drawn from a combination of Latin and Greek words – both of which meant simply “the dawn.” So what is the Sunday after Easter known as? For many the Sunday after Easter is known as “Low Sunday.” Look around … where’d they all go? Remember how full last week’s services were? What happened? For others, this Sunday is also known as “Thomas Sunday” because it’s the day we tell Thomas’ story.
Nevertheless, the Easter story begins and ends in a tomb. Jesus lay for three days in the damp darkness of the tomb until by the power of God’s victory over death itself, the stone was rolled away and he stepped out of the tomb into the first light of day.
But that’s not the only tomb opened on that first day. Besides the tomb where Jesus’ body was placed, there was also the tomb where the disciples hid themselves. The disciples locked themselves in a room because they were frightened and the resurrection power had not yet given them the courage to tell the story of the Jesus to the world. They were paralyzed by their hopelessness and fear. They shut the door and locked it so they could buy themselves time in trying to understand what had happened.
That’s where Jesus found them the evening of that first day alive from the dead. John’s gospel tells us they were gathered together (all but Thomas) behind locked doors, when inexplicably he stood among them. Imagine that, Jesus had to break out of one tomb and into another to get his message out into the world!
Instead of followers who were brave and willing to speak about the wonder of what they had seen, they were a huddled, frightened group of men who were afraid to come out of hiding. The resurrected Jesus had to go out and find them if he was to lead them to engage the world with the message of Jesus.
The way the story is told, Jesus emerged from the tomb with the gifts of God for the people of God. In this honest Scripture, Jesus gave them four gifts for the journey they were about to take after he departed.
“Peace Be With You”
When Jesus appeared in the room with them, he said as he often did, “Peace be with you.” It was a message they desperately needed to hear and Jesus offered it to them generously. “Peace,” it’s a word that most of us come here needing today. Do you have peace right now?
Maybe it’s peace of soul that you need. Most of us consider our souls to be the center of our being. It’s the seat of your personality where all the hidden forces that shape your being are held. But the soul can become confused as well. Maybe you feel empty and spent. In your soul, you just wish you could change everything.
We live as if we have no center to us and no core. Our values, which should provide a compass to guide us through difficult seas, are so uncertain that even we would have a hard time describing them if asked. Without a value system to guide us, we are adrift and powerless to chart our own course. We are bombarded by the demands of others. Our services are demanded at home and at work. Peace? For most of us, peace is something we daydream about but it is something we know precious little about.
And yet, Jesus appeared among them with the promise of peace. He repeated it and then said it a third time for emphasis. They were a group of people who were frightened and powerless and had locked themselves behind closed doors for protection. Jesus appeared and he had just the right thing to say, “Peace be with you.”
God-Breath for Power and Witness
But there is another thing that Jesus did for them when he appeared in the locked room. He breathed on them and promised they would have the power of the breath of God to empower them. Do you recall that the breath of God symbolizes the vitality of the presence of God throughout the Scriptures? Every time the breath of God is mentioned, something amazing and powerful occurs. God spoke and the world came into being.
The breath of Jesus gave them just enough energy to face the demands of the coming few days as they emerged from the tomb of their hiding place and went out among the people of Jerusalem with the powerful message of Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus made other appearances among the disciples that the 4 gospels and the Acts of the Apostles describe for us and then he left them. But upon his departure, he promised the coming of the “breath of God” to come and live among them.
Forty days later, as they prayed in the Upper Room, the breath of God blew in their midst and the coming of the Holy Spirit filled them with the vital presence of Jesus so they had the power to go out into the world and preach the risen Christ to their world. The contrast was amazing. There was an absolute reversal of energy from the scared disciples of Easter and the empowered bold preachers that emerged on Pentecost.
The Power to Forgive
Third among the gifts given to the disciples on that first day after death, was the commission to go out and offer the gift of forgiveness to the world. That’s right, Jesus gave his followers the power to forgive and offer reconciliation. Jesus wanted the church to have the gift knowing we might not always be up to the challenge of dispensing the grace of forgiveness.
That’s the way forgiveness works for us as well. Jesus told them they had the power to withhold forgiveness in the world but to be careful of the effect that it has for them in return. Using the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive theirs, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).
The Acceptance of Our Beliefs and Our Doubts
Lastly, when Jesus appeared to the disciples behind the closed doors of their tomb-like room, one of them was missing. We aren’t sure where Thomas was at the time but he was definitely not among them when Jesus appeared. And true to his honest approach to things of the heart, he refused to believe unless he could touch the wounds of Jesus. Thomas had certain irrefutable standards by which he would believe. He had what’s now known as “believer’s doubt.” It was not enough that his best friends and colleagues had seen and talked to Jesus. It was not enough that their explanation for the mysteries of the faith were sincere and heart-felt because Thomas had his own inner convictions to sustain.
Consequently, Jesus’ next appearance with the disciples a full week later included a confrontation with Thomas, the missing doubter. Jesus knew Thomas was not one to be sucked into someone else’s easy faith and that he needed to be reassured. So Jesus took the initiative and stood toe to toe with him and offered to Thomas’ reality his own resurrected body for inspection. “Do whatever you need to do to convince your heart that I am alive as they told you,” he might have whispered to Thomas as they faced one another.
“Come and see for yourself,” Jesus echoes throughout the centuries. Bring your best questions and test them to see if they have answers. Perhaps you’re like Thomas and need the assurance that your questions will have the faith to seek honesty. If so, accept the gift of a faith that can be tested.
When I was a boy during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, there was a popular TV show that took a classic fairy tale and added its own twist for the titillation of a television audience. Some might consider this the first, the forerunner, of today’s reality TV. Somewhat of an inverted Horatio Alger syndrome, the lure of Queen for a Day was woman describing a tear-jerking story of woe. The more harsh the circumstances, the likelier the studio audience was to ring the applause meter’s highest level. The winner, to the full accompaniment of “Pomp and Circumstance,” would be draped in a red velvet robe and a shimmering crown, and given a dozen long-stemmed roses plus trips, a fully-paid night on the town with her husband or escort, and other prizes. Host Jack Bailey’s trademark signoff was, “Make every woman a queen, for every single day!”
But in 1958, Lili Jacob Zelmonovic of Miami won the crowd’s approval and her dream came true – she wanted one thing, an operation to remove the tattooed number A-10862 from her left arm. Other contestants predictably whined about needing a washer or dryer or some other appliance that would lighten their workload at home. Not Lili Jacob Zelmonovic. She simply asked for $500 to have a plastic surgeon remove the tattooed number from her arm that had come from her imprisonment at Auschwitz.
Lili’s plea was for someone to remove the tattoo on her skin but what was she to do with the tattoo on her memory of all those awful images and memories of life in the concentration camp? Like Lili, we’re a scarred people filled with memories we can’t remove. We’re good at pretending, even with those we know well, that nothing’s wrong. We know the well-rehearsed lines, “Fine … everything’s fine.” But on Easter, Jesus would have it no other way and he stepped directly into the line of Thomas’ line of hard questions.
“Come and see for yourself,” Jesus told Thomas. And in doing so, he invited us all to come and check his scars. All of us who need proof and need to ask the hard questions before we’ll embrace faith. Thomas is our kin, our friend, our partner in exploring the connection between doubt and faith. It’s Thomas who helps us understand that doubt and faith are inextricably woven together as two sides of the same coin. And the Lord, the risen Jesus, understands our questions and welcomes us closer.
With gifts like these, we are to go out into the world, planting seeds of the resurrection to bring healing to the world.
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).