Today is April 15th. It is two weeks since Easter morning.
But next year, on this same date, Easter will still be one week away. Easter, you see, is a moveable feast. It is tied to both the solar and lunar calendars, so its celebration can fall anywhere from March 22nd to April 25th. Sometimes Easter comes early. Sometimes Easter comes late.
And so it has been, from the very beginning.
For Mary Magdalene, Easter arrived early. It arrived on the morning of the third day, when she heard Jesus call her name outside the empty tomb.
But for most of the disciples, Easter didn’t come until later that evening, when Jesus appeared to them in the locked room where they were hiding.
And then, of course, there’s Thomas.
Today’s gospel reading tells us that Thomas wasn’t in the locked room with the other disciples. He wasn’t there, when Jesus appeared to them. Perhaps he was more fearful than the others, and so was avoiding their company altogether. Or perhaps he was less fearful than the others, and was braving the public streets. Or perhaps he just wanted to be alone in his grief. We don’t know; the scripture doesn’t tell us. All we know is, Thomas wasn’t there.
And so when the other disciples tell Thomas, “We have seen the Lord,” Thomas finds it impossible to believe them. He hasn’t had the experience the others have had. “Unless I see his hands,” he says, “unless I feel his wounds, I cannot believe.” And so for seven more days, Thomas continues to mourn, even as his friends rejoice. For seven more days, Thomas is left alone in his grief.
But then, on the following Sunday, Jesus comes again. And this time, he has come for Thomas.
“Reach here,” he says to Thomas. Reach here, and see my hands. Reach here with your hand, and touch my side. And do not be unbelieving, but believing.”
And Thomas, at last, is able to rejoice. Easter has finally come, for Thomas.
* * *
Some of the spiritual early risers among us may perhaps identify with Mary Magdalene, walking alone with Jesus in the garden, confident and reassured of his love, hearing the good news that none other has ever heard. Not me. I have always identified with Thomas – the patron saint of the late bloomers and the left behind.
I know most folks refer to him as “doubting Thomas” but this has always struck me as an unfair characterization. Nothing in John’s gospel suggests that Thomas was any more skeptical than the rest of the disciples. After all, Mary Magdalene saw Jesus early Easter morning, but John tells us the other disciples “rejoiced when they saw the Lord” that evening– not when Mary told them the good news, but when they saw Jesus for themselves. Thomas was no different from the other disciples in this regard. If Thomas was slow to believe, it was for the simple reason, that he missed Jesus’ visit.
And imagine how that must have felt — to be the one left out of the miracle.
* * *
A few years ago I got a phone call from a friend whose mother had recently died of cancer. My friend had just turned thirty, and most of her peers had not yet experienced such a loss, and so she called me long distance, to talk about her grief.
I remember her saying, “I don’t even know how to think about my mother now. I can’t picture my mother because I don’t know where she is. I can’t imagine that her someplace else, like in heaven. It just feels like she’s gone.” And she went on to say, “You know, I’ve heard other people talk about how could feel their parent’s presence even after they died, or how their parent had come to them in their dreams, but that hasn’t happened to me. All I feel is her absence, and all those stories just make me feel more alone.”
Having lost my own Mom to cancer at about the same age, I understood how she felt. Soon after my Mom’s death, I remember receiving a letter from one of my Mom’s oldest and dearest friends – the kind of family friend you call “aunt” even though she’s not really your aunt. And in the letter, my Aunt Alice told me of an experience she had the night my Mom died. She said, she felt my as if my Mom’s spirit had come to her, saying a last goodbye.
I know that this experience comforted her, and I am sure she thought it would be a comfort to me as well, but all I remember thinking was, Why didn’t my Mom come to me? I’m her child, why didn’t she come to comfort me? Alice may have felt my Mom’s presence, but all I could feel was her absence. I didn’t want hear about my Mom, I wanted to hear from my Mom. I didn’t want to be told; I wanted to be shown.
I sometimes imagine that this is how Thomas felt, when the disciples joyfully told him that Jesus had appeared to them. That they had seen the Lord, and that Thomas had missed it all. Guess Jesus didn’t have time to wait for you, Thomas. Sorry you didn’t get to see him yourself, but we’ll tell you all about.
But Thomas didn’t want to be told; he wanted to be shown.
* * *
Some years ago, I met a man – let’s call him “Henry.” Henry has no job, and no address; when I met him, he had already been living on the streets for several years. And I do mean, on the streets; he refuses to stay in a shelter. Even among the city’s homeless population, he remains apart — an outsider among outsiders.
I did not learn all the details of Henry’s history, but he shared enough for me to understand some of the barriers that keep him from re-entering society; they are real, and they are formidable. Henry does not have an easy life. But one of the things that troubles him most is that he feels himself to be an outsider, even in church. He is still a regular church-goer, in spite of all the other changes in his life. And while his fellow congregants tolerate his presence in worship, they keep him at arm’s length.
I asked him once, if you could get your congregation to really listen to you, what would you want to say to them? Henry answered in six words:
“Why don’t you show me Jesus?”
* * *
Sometimes it isn’t enough to be told of Christ’s love. Sometimes, we need to be shown. The Church, after all, isn’t called to be Christ’s biographer, or press secretary, or PR firm. The church is called to be the body of Christ. To show up, and to say “Reach out, and take my hand.”
I know this is not easy to do. To open up our hands is to expose our own wounds. But this is precisely what Christ asks of us. For as our morning meditation* reminds us,
“Christ has no human body now upon the earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours… are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion has to look upon the world, and yours are the lips with which His love has to speak.”
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
Thomas is still out there—in the pews, on the street—waiting for Christ’s touch. But here is the good news: It’s not too late.
Easter, you see, is a moveable feast. It goes where it is needed.
Sermon by Rev. Liza B. Knapp, April 15, 2018, for The First Church of Deerfield, MA
*Meditation: Rev. Mark Guy Pearse (1888), adapted by Sarah Eliza Rowntree (1892); sometimes apocryphally attributed to St. Teresa.
Image: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio.