Nothing Can Stop Jesus

Since the beginning of the Scientific Revolution our world has become more and more invested in concrete, reliable facts. “Prove it to me!” has become an unspoken mantra in the modern world. Nearly a decade ago, scientists completed the Human Genome Project and it seemed as if there was no limit to what we could know and understand. Certainly, we had come much closer to a complete understanding of ourselves – and once we’ve completely understood ourselves, how long would it be before we completely understood our planet, and, for that matter, the entire universe!  Prove it – and it’s real!
It is not a huge leap to shift from this euphoric excitement about the power of scientific knowledge to its ancillary – our reticence to accept as real those things which we cannot see or which we cannot explain. So, for many of us, belief in God has become, on the one hand, a slightly embarrassing characteristic which we try not to share too openly with colleagues or classmates for fear that might find us quaint or uninformed or, on the other hand, a painful moment of realization when we first hear ourselves say, in one form or another, “dear God, help my unbelief!”  The expression “doubting Thomas” is, ironically, not perceived in our culture as a compliment; and yet, in light of our scientific worldview most of us find ourselves thrust into that very role. Show me the evidence! Let’s see some hard facts. In the absence of tangible evidence – a pie-chart or a graph, at the very least – how can I possibly be expected to believe?
Clergy are not exempt from this anxiety.  My own bookshelf reveals my ongoing consideration of the issue:  Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason; Huston Smith’s Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief; Michael Shermer’s How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God; A. N. Wilson’s God’s Funeral; and Loyal Rue’s Religion is not about God: How Spiritual Traditions Nurture our Biological Nature and What to Expect when they Fail. For an awful lot of us religious folk – people like you and like me – the doubt of Thomas which we heard about in this morning’s gospel seems very real indeed. And yet here we are.  In God’s Funeral, Wilson writes, it is “remarkable that the intelligent human mind, knowing all it knows about the arguments against God’s existence, should continue to practice religious observances; to be led, on some instinctual level, to punctuate the day with allah akhbar, with O God make speed to save us, with Glory be to the Father.” [1] And yet, here we are.

Here we are and the gospel for today tells the story of the disciples gathering in the evening “on that day” – the very same day in which they have discovered the empty tomb and heard of Mary’s encounter with the risen Jesus – “and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” Until they have seen the physical evidence – the very same mark of the nails in his hands and the hole in his side that Thomas later demands to see and touch – until then, the disciples do not believe. They did not believe when they saw the empty tomb. They did not believe when Mary reported what the Lord said to her. And they were afraid, as afraid as they were on the day Jesus was put to death. Here it is three days since Jesus’ crucifixion and the disciples have barricaded themselves in a room – they have locked the door “for fear of the Jews”! Their fear has paralyzed them and has closed their hearts to the truth. Each of them needed proof, some tangible evidence that Jesus was, in fact, raised from the dead. They needed to see him with their own eyes. And it is into this fear and this disbelief that Jesus comes to reassure them, to restore their faith, and to remind them of the work they have yet to do. Despite the locked door, Jesus entered the room, stood with his disciples, and greeted them: “Peace be with you.” Though the disciples were afraid and wanting to protect themselves, Jesus came in, passing through the locked door, breaking down the physical boundary. No boundaries – not even our doubts - can stop Jesus from being with us. Frederick Buechner writes that the story of Easter, unlike the story of Christmas,
“is not a major production at all, and the minor attractions we have created around it – the bunnies and baskets and bonnets, the dyed eggs – have so little to do with what it’s all about that they neither add much nor subtract much. It’s not really even much of a story when you come right down to it, and that is of course the power of it. It doesn’t have the ring of great drama. It has the ring of truth. If the Gospel writers had wanted to tell it in a way to convince the world that Jesus indeed rose from the dead , they would presumably have done it with all the skill and fanfare they could muster. Here there is no skill, no fanfare. They seem to be telling it simply the way it was. The narrative is as fragmented, shadowy, incomplete as life itself. When it comes to just what happened, there can be no certainty. That something unimaginable happened, there can be no doubt.

The symbol of Easter is the empty tomb. You can’t depict or domesticate emptiness. You can’t make it into pageants and string it with lights. It doesn’t move people to give presents to each other or sing old songs. It ebbs and flows all around us, the Eastertide.”[2]

I give thanks for the lack of skill in telling the story.  I give thanks for the confusion of that first Easter morning. I give thanks that the gospel writers didn’t sit down together and work out all the details to make sure there were no conflicting accounts.  I give thanks for the earthquake that Matthew adds to his account of that day – as if he understood that the story was too ridiculous to believe in the first place.  I give thanks for Thomas who dared utter what the rest of them must have been thinking, “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.” And I give thanks that this denying, betraying, deceitful and doubting group of disciples was deemed acceptable by Christ.  I give thanks because that gives me just enough hope, just enough faith to believe that you and I might also be acceptable through him, that Jesus will break down the barriers of our doubts and will restore us for the work we have yet to do.  “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

[1] A. N. Wilson, God’s Funeral, (New York: Norton, 1999), p. 336.
[2] Frederick Buechner, “Easter,” Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary, (San Francisco: Harper, 1988), 45-6.