So, the Second Sunday of Easter is labeled as a lot of things… the “So What” Sermon, or the “Doubting Thomas” sermon. Anyhow… I worked with both. Here is the lectionary readings for that day.
Well, here we are: the Second Sunday of Easter. Let’s all breathe a collective sigh of relief—Lent is over, Holy Week is complete. We can all collapse now into our regular seats in the church, pointing in the proper direction,(1) sing happy songs, and go back to normal.
Our lesson today makes it pretty clear that our story of resurrection only starts on Easter Sunday.
Thomas wants to go back to normal. Like us, he is exhausted by the emotional mess that was his last week:
Thomas’ world was one of monotonous powerlessness, poverty and violence, and Jesus’ message of peace and hope thoroughly changed who he was and how he lived in that world.
He walked with this man into Jerusalem as he was praised as a king, and then watched as suddenly and horrifically the tables turned on his teacher. He saw this man killed horribly by the civil and religious authorities, punished for insurrection—betrayed by the leaders in the temple, sold out by Judas and denied by Peter.
Now, defeated, Thomas has let it go.
Remember, he wasn’t locked in the house when the other disciples were. I imagine him off in a bar fight somewhere. It’s like he is just too tired, and he has left these stories and these people behind him, absorbed back into what was once normal for him, that world of powerlessness, violence and rage.
Thomas can’t believe in the resurrection because he’s gone back to normal: what’s dead is dead and hope is an idle tale, silliness at best.
Thomas is a lot like all of us. On the news we hear about killing after killing, rape after rape, the statistics in the school-to-prison pipeline, the miserable literacy rates, the bickering in politics, the obesity epidemic, the very Earth dying around us as we sit here today. We are constantly bombarded by the scenes of crucifixion and death in our society. And, this has become what is normal for us, a world that crucifies, a world in which so much is viewed as already dead.
Over the past five years or so, I have had the privilege of teaching in many different countries. And in those places, I have worked with a lot of children who are—for one reason or another—among the already dead.
One particular little boy comes to mind, a tiny bean of a five year old, with whom I worked at Wadsworth Elementary on sixty-fifth and Woodlawn. Saleh was everybody’s baby, except when he was everybody’s nightmare. He had terrible behavior problems, a sort of wild madness that would explode up out of him when he needed some attention. He was smart, too. He once got into huge amounts of trouble for unlocking the playground gate and racing headlong into the parking lot. He once got bored and ate my alphabet flash cards.
Yet, Saleh was more full of joy than any other child in his classroom. His grin could light up all the other kids. He liked to dress up as his mother during dramatic play, and he would put a one-legged baby doll on his hip and parade about the kitchen making demands into a pink plastic cell phone. He could make us all laugh uncontrollably, and he could make us so mad that we wanted to throttle him.
There were so many things that categorized Saleh as already dead. As a young Black male in Woodlawn, all kinds of statistics were staring at him, waiting for him to become one of them. I saw the way he deflated around his mother, the way that he fed his little sister. I heard the exasperation in the voices of the teachers—and my own—as we tried to prepare him for kindergarten. I heard the way the older men around him muttered about his dressing up as a woman. He was thin and infantile. He didn’t know his alphabet. I loved him dearly, but after a while I could see only the ways in which the odds were stacked against him. I remember I told a friend over the summer that I thought Saleh would die before he turned eighteen.
And this is the trap that we get into, just like Thomas in our gospel lesson today. We see the horrors of crucifixion and we see deadness all around us—and resurrection becomes impossible in our minds. So, we try and forget it, to go back to normal once we leave church on Easter Sunday.
But, Jesus won’t let Thomas go back to normal, and he won’t let us, either. This lesson is a direct answer to that inclination.
You know, even though we cycle through different gospels in our lectionary, this particular passage from John always appears on the Second Sunday after Easter. It doesn’t matter if we are in Matthew, Mark, or Luke for the rest of the year, this passage is here every single time.
On Easter we celebrate the sudden emptiness of death, an unknown, new thing happening. Like the women, confused and yet sincere, we shout: “He is risen!” On the Second Sunday of Easter, though, it is easy for us to think that this message is finished.
That is why this story appears here every single year. In this story, Jesus comes among us, greets us, gives us his breath, and shows us, physically, fully, viscerally that resurrection in our midst is real—that it is not finished. He reaches out to even the most stubborn of us in order to prove this. He barges into a locked room. He takes Thomas’ hand, puts it inside his wound and says, see, feel, it is risen.
In 2010, I visited Mumbai and worked in a school for slum children. I worked with a young woman who was joyful but sometimes thick-headed, often a difficult student to teach, but quite good with English. She lived on top of a garbage heap in a tarp shack that her whole family shared. As I was beginning my schooling here at University of Chicago, I heard via Twitter that she was in a disastrous oven explosion and was burned severely across most of her body. To almost everyone, here was a girl who was already dead, a slum girl with a critical injury, in need of skin grafts and who would, if she survived, would be hideously scarred.
Money poured in from foreign sources, past volunteers and supportive donors, and the leaders in the nonprofit were able to move her to a private hospital, capable of providing the care she needed. They spent night after night at her bedside, fought with the doctors to allow her dirty and unwashed parents to stand there with them, and stood up for her right to live. They believed in resurrection, and she recovers still today.
Another of the brightest students there, a young woman just coming into her own, became a real human being by receiving paperwork that proved her identity after a long battle with the bureaucracy.
Other young children that I know from Chicago schools are learning to control their anger, and articulate their feelings—learning to remove themselves from situations in which they may become dangerous. Some are receiving care against the abuse in their homes, and moving forward as living people, resurrected out of systems of death and crucifixion.
This lesson is here so that we become witnesses to resurrection not just in church on Easter Sunday, but everywhere always. The children that I have taught, our city’s schools, our politics, the planet, the church, our society—they are not just dead bodies, awaiting disposal, they are living, awaiting resurrection.
God has said, once and for all, that the spark of life in us, the piece of God in us, cannot be killed and will never die. Jesus appears to us, definitively, and finally, even if we are in a locked room, even if we are stubborn, he takes our hands and holds it up against his healed wounds, and he insists: what is dead can rise, and hope is the new way of the world—there is no going back to normal for us.
(1) Our church changes it’s orientation and seating arrangement during Lent. It returned to its usual, circular formation, during Holy Week. During Lent we sat in Choir seating, facing each other. In the circular set-up, the chairs face the altar in the center of the room.
[The Featured Image of this post is the processional cross from SPR. I particularly like it because it is a “crucifix” except the crucified Christ ist actually a cut out from the cross itself, showing the emptiness of death, the way in which the suffering and humiliation of that capital punishment is made completely empty and useless by the resurrection. It’s probably the only crucifix in the world that I actually like. 🙂 ]