Learning to believe
For many of us, there is a huge gap between the Easter proclamation of joy and the felt reality of guilt, chaos and hopelessness. But practicing the forgiveness of sins is practicing resurrection; that is how we may come to believe that in the crucified and risen Lord, everything has changed, says Ellen F. Davis.
Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon was preached April 11, 2010, at Duke University Chapel. To hear a recording or watch a video of this sermon, go to the Chapel website.
It’s “Low Sunday,” the Sunday after Easter. “Low Sunday” -- the term supposedly refers to church attendance: presumably, everyone who is not here today exhausted their religious energy last week. But there’s got to be more to it than that. If people stay away from church in record numbers after Easter Sunday, then you have to wonder if it has something to do with the fact that for many, even some of us here today, Easter season is a disappointment.
A week ago we proclaimed that Christ is risen, triumphant over sin and death. Yet today the graves of those we love so dearly are not empty, nor does the news of the past week indicate that sin has been eradicated from our world. But we don’t need the mass media to tell us that; our own hearts and homes and workplaces offer abundant evidence that sin has not loosened its grip since last Sunday. Some years, for any one of us, there is a huge gap between the Easter proclamation of joy and the felt reality of grief, guilt, chaos, hopelessness -- a gap that threatens to swallow us and our fragile faith.
That is why it is good to have the Gospel of John in the Bible, because John takes on directly the disappointment of Easter, the real difficulty of believing two things: first, that Jesus has risen from the dead, and second, that anything has really changed as a result. John writes, he tells us, so that we may learn to believe these things that are hard to believe, and our lives be changed as a result. “I write these things,” John says, “so that, believing, you may have life in [Jesus’] name” (20:31).
In John’s Gospel, Thomas is the one who flagrantly calls attention to the gap between the Easter proclamation and our present experience. Thomas is stuck in that gap. He wasn’t there when the risen Jesus appeared to the other disciples, but he has heard that Jesus is alive, and he’s not buying it. Disappointed, heartbroken by the death of his Lord, Thomas now just wants to get on with his life; he was off somewhere else, on his own, when Jesus showed up in that locked room. “Doubting Thomas,” we call him, but John calls Thomas “the Twin,” and that nickname may tell us something important. If Thomas has a sibling, we never hear anything about it, so why does John make a point of naming him (three times) as the Twin?
I need to tell you something about John’s mind: he thinks like a poet -- suggestively, always choosing words that point to meanings he does not directly name. So maybe John is dropping a hint here, and his point is that Thomas is our twin brother, embedded within the story of Jesus’ resurrection. He is our identical sibling, articulating our disappointment and doubt that anything has changed, absolutely and forever, with Jesus’ death on the cross.
How Thomas finally comes to believe is one of the most familiar scenes in the gospel; countless artists and musicians have taken it as their theme. “Come on, thrust your hand into my side,” Jesus says. The instant Thomas touches the raw wound, he blurts out, “My Lord and my God.”
We all remember that single moment, but we forget what Jesus says next, though certainly the Evangelist John means us to ponder these words: “Because you have seen me you believe? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (20:29). I hear some impatience in our Lord’s voice, as though Jesus were saying to Thomas and all subsequent doubters, ourselves included: “Look, I will not continue to do this. There is a better way to learn to believe than sticking your hand in my side. There’s a better way to feel the truth of the resurrection.”
Jesus has already shown his other disciples that better way, when he breathed into them the Holy Spirit. Jesus breathed the Spirit into them -- think about that, recalling John’s habit of suggesting meanings he does not spell out. John is telling a second creation story. Just as God once breathed life into Adam’s nostrils, so now Jesus breathes new life into his disciples, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whenever you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” (20:22-23 ).
Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus is granting humans a power that previously belonged to God alone: the power to unlock the death grip that our sins have on our souls, to erase them from the cosmos. The power to forgive sins is the mark of a new creation, of a profoundly changed life not just for this small group of disciples, but potentially for humankind altogether.
Now how does that work? Think for a moment about the old creation story, in Genesis. Already in Eden, human lives came to be governed by shame and blame, anger and fear; the man turned against the woman, the woman turned against the snake, and all of them turned away from God.