April 23, 2017 John 20:19-31
I was 19 years old, that would be 45 years ago, about this time of year, and I was travelling in India.
Maybe I should go back a step or two. I was in a period of deep reflection, searching for myself, trying to make sense of life, trying to make sense of my own life. By the age of 17, you see, I had wandered away from the Church, like virtually every one of my generation here in Quebec. I was looking for answers. The Church seemed to say all the right things but it seemed to me to be empty. So I went looking for answers elsewhere. I had completed a year of university, then sold all my worldly possessions and took off for Europe with a one-way ticket to see what the world could teach me.
So back to my story, I was somewhere in India, I got on a train in the 3rd class section, as a hippy that is the way you travelled. It was the beginning of the line, so I easily found a seat. As the train was filling up, an old bearded man, by sign language was pointing to the luggage rack. It took me awhile to understand him and the others who were trying to make his message clear. He was insisting I move up to the luggage rack. That seemed bizarre, but since he was really insisting, I climbed up.
I soon realized why he wanted me up there. The train started to fill up. Before long, they were packed literally like sardines. You may have seen photos of trains in India with people hanging from the sides, sitting on the roof. What you don’t see, is the inside. They are packed.
So here I was perched above the mass of people. I will never forget the young mother holding her baby by the arm above the crowd so the infant would not be crushed. And there I was, above it all, not able to do a thing.
I remember that as an epiphany moment of sorts, where I realized, there was no god.
My reasoning was that if I, a mere 19-year-old guy, was overwhelmed by the suffering below me and would want to do something, and would if I could, then if God existed, God would not let all the suffering that exists in the world, go on. God would act. Since God didn’t, God did not exist. I know now that there are other ways to interpret suffering in the World, but that was where I was at.
It was a sad moment in my life, a Thomas moment, I had come to doubt the very existence of God.
Let’s look at today’s gospel, and I will get back to my own story later, because I would not be here, if my spiritual journey ended there on that luggage rack.
On that Easter evening, the disciples are hiding behind locked doors. Even though, Mary had told them that Jesus had been raised from the dead, even though, Peter and John saw that the empty tomb, the disciples were still scared stiff. The text says they were afraid of the Jews, given that they were all Jews, it would be more precise to say that they were afraid of the religious leaders. I read a commentary this week that said maybe they were also afraid of Jesus. All but a few women and John had stayed by Jesus, the rest had turned their backs on him, and run. They may well have been afraid of what Jesus might say.
So what happens then? Jesus first comes to those scared disciples. He tells them not to fear. They need the reassurance of his peace. Jesus is not angry. They are safe. Jesus breathes on them then the Holy Spirit. They will need his Spirit to continue his mission of freeing people from whatever binds them.
Now let’s jump ahead, Thomas was not with them when Jesus appeared, and when the rest of the group told him that Jesus has been raised to life and that they had seen him, Thomas, like any thinking person makes his famous statement that has had him branded as Doubting Thomas ever since. “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.”
I suspect most of us would probably also doubt news that seemed too farfetched. When you think of it, Thomas and the disciples were only human, and had pretty much the same reaction. Both had heard the news of the resurrection and neither believed it. It did not make a difference in their lives. The disciples were still scared and had locked themselves away, and Thomas, was not going to believe everything that was told to him.
A week later, Jesus comes to Thomas, who is now with the rest of the group behind closed doors, but not locked this time.
Jesus greets them all with Peace and then turns to Thomas and offers him the opportunity to touch him.
Let’s stop here for a moment. What can we learn from this story?
First, it all begins with the risen Jesus, going out to meet people where they are at, Mary in her grief and distress in the garden by the empty tomb, then later the other disciples, hiding behind locked doors, scared, finally to Thomas, who was not going to believe some half-cocked story.
Now that is good news for us, because the same is true today. We don’t have to be perfect. Jesus has never worked with perfect people. He comes to us in our grief, our fears, our questioning, wherever we are on our journey. Jesus is willing to walk through whatever barriers are there to reach us and help us deal with our lives.
And how does the Risen Christ come to us?
He comes to us in many ways, depending on our need and our personalities. You may meet him in as we share the Eucharist. You may meet Christ in your personal prayer time. You may meet the Risen Lord as you hear sacred music or sing a hymn. You may meet Jesus as you work at building the Kingdom of God through acts of compassion or justice. The Risen Jesus comes to us each where we are.
Secondly, the story does not end there. Jesus wants to bring us peace but he also wants to give us direction, a mission, a purpose. We are called to go out and free others as well. It is as simple as that. Mary went to the disciples and told them that Jesus had risen, death did not have the last word. The disciples having heard Mary’s news, experienced for themselves that Jesus had risen and were able to tell Thomas, and the story continues on, and on. As we share with others that the Light was not vanquished, there is hope. Christ is risen.
Now if I go back to my story as the 19 year old perched on the luggage rack having come to the sad awareness that God did not exist, my quest for meaning and understanding continued.
Two years later with always a deep longing that had not been quenched, a distant relative, around my age, came to Montreal and I was asked to show him around.
He was a Christian, involved in a Christian commune in the States, part of the Mennonite Church, something like Hutterites where they shared all in common and made decisions together. He also left me a book called Living together in a world falling apart.
I read it and felt that if God existed, then God was giving me another chance. I left my job that I had just started, and moved down to the US and lived there for 7 months. During that period, I came to believe that if these people could commit their lives to God and could welcome and love me, a stranger, God existed. Like Mary and the first disciples, they were sharing by their commitment, their love, that they had met the Risen Christ.
As the years moved on, that rekindled faith has led me to a deeper faith that is no longer just based on the witness of others. My faith is now based as well with my own encounters with the Risen Jesus. And that is how I find myself here before you.
So, my sisters and brothers, on this second Sunday of Easter, the Gospel story reminds us that the Risen Jesus comes to us where ever we are, doubting, grieving, lost, or even locked away to offer us Peace.
Finally, the story of Mary, Thomas and the other disciples tells us that Christ will give us what we need so we can share the story, in word and actions, to prepare people so they too can meet the Risen Lord.
May each one of us continue to experience the Risen Lord, whether in our personal prayer life, in our sharing of the Eucharist or in our actions for God’s kingdom, so others too will hear and experience the good news that Christ has risen!
CHRIST HAS RISEN!
And the People of the Resurrection responded with
HE HAS RISEN INDEED, Alleluia