April 19, 2020


1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

“Left Out, Longing Thomas”

This is the Second Sunday of the Season of Easter. If you feel like you didn’t have a chance to fully celebrate Easter last weekend, given that we are in a pandemic lockdown, and gatherings for worship and extended-family meals are not allowed, don’t worry.

Easter is not a single day or a weekend, but it is a whole season! There are seven weeks of Eastertide. Poetically, that’s one more week than the six weeks of Lent. So life, and joy, and celebration win!

And even if we’re still living with staying home and physically distancing through this whole season, we will still have plenty of time to celebrate the resurrection creatively and fully during Eastertide as we watch new life bursting forth in this season of Spring.

I love the way that the author of 1st Peter encourages the churches to whom he is writing to celebrate the grace and goodness of God, even in the midst of their struggles. He invites them to rejoice because God has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

God has not swept away all our troubles, making our lives perfect and easy, but God has given us hope so that we can endure. 1st Peter says that “Even if now for a little while [we] have had to suffer various trials…” our faith, that is being tested, will result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.

I hesitate to express that idea that I see promoted by pop-theology on TV and many circles of conversation – the idea that God intentionally causes terrible, awful things to happen in order to test our faith so that it will grow stronger. I don’t believe that God knocks people down in order to see if we’ll trust him to help us back up, or to check on our ability to keep on believing when the evidence of evil in the world seems to outweigh the good for a little while.

But I do believe that when bad things happen, there is an opportunity to choose: either to give up on God as if a divine being must not exist, or to cling to God more strongly, trusting God to help and protect us.

Today we are invited to enter into the experience of Jesus’ first disciples when they were confronted with that choice – to believe or not to believe; to give up because Jesus was dead or to trust that somehow he was risen and would equip them to accomplish his mission yet.

The Gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Easter seems very fitting for our situation in 2020. It’s about a very unsettling time in the lives and faith of Jesus’ first disciples. They’re locked in a room too, just like most of us are locked down in our homes until this pandemic subsides.

And they’re afraid. If we’re honest, we may admit that we’re a bit scared too – whether about our own health and well-being, about the capacity of our health care system, about all the vulnerable people who will be hurt by this economic disaster, or about the future of our churches.

Jesus’ message to them is simple: “Peace be with you.” And then he breathes on them and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit.

We’ve got that Spirit too, you know. Take a breath now, and remember that you’re not alone. Even if we’re not in our church building together, even if the future is uncertain, even if we don’t know when things will get back to normal or even some kind of new normal.

But if there’s one character that stands out in today’s Gospel text, it’s Thomas. We sometimes call him “doubting Thomas” because he refused to believe that Jesus had been raised until he had seen and touched the Lord himself.

Today, though, I want to call him “left out Thomas” or maybe “longing Thomas,” because poor Thomas felt like he had missed the big day, and he was grumpy and stubborn about it.

Jesus showed up among the disciples, and the rest of them got to see him, and be with him, and receive his assurance and his Spirit of peace. Thomas missed it, and he must have been so very, very disappointed.

I got a bit of that feeling when I was watching Holy Week services on my TV last weekend. Sure, I got to be the one preaching and leading online worship for First Church’s Easter services, so I was right in the middle of the action for that.

But then we “attended” Nick’s church too, by watching the services on the live stream. We did laundry while we were watching the Easter Vigil, and I rode on my stationary bike through most of the Scripture readings and psalms. So, we were there, I guess. But it didn’t really feel like we were there. It felt like we missed something, and I’m realizing now that it made me feel kind of grumpy and stubborn too.

Like Thomas, many of us are feeling left out, kind of like we missed Easter, and we’re longing for the chance to be together with our Christian communities to sing, and celebrate, and see Jesus among us.

The Good News is that a week later, Jesus comes back for Thomas. He stands among them again and offers the gift of peace once again, and he fills Thomas’ longing with the invitation to reach out and touch him in the flesh.

Can we trust that Jesus will come to us again too? Yes, we will gather again, and we’ll pass the peace to each other with hugs and handshakes, and Christ will make his presence known in our worship and prayer, in our fellowship and care, in our mission and service, and in our choosing again and again to believe and to follow him.

But we don’t have to wait until that day, feeling left out and longing for his appearing. Because blessed are we who believe and who discern his presence with us even now – in our homes, in our families, in our different ways of gathering, worshipping, serving, and reaching out.

As the 1st letter of Peter suggests to first century Christians who had not met Jesus in the flesh either: “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

It seems to me that it takes extra effort and intentionality to look for Jesus and discern his presence in the midst of difficult times. It’s much easier to see the presence of evil – bringing illness, death, hunger, loneliness, and fear.

But I wonder if we can keep in mind how Jesus came into the locked room of the disciples’ anxiety and fear, stood beside them, and breathed life, love, hope, and courage into their hearts?

Indeed, in these days of physical distancing, when we don’t get to stand beside our friends, or neighbours, or fellow church members, Jesus is the one who gets to stand right beside us. We need to look for him, and notice his presence, encouragement, and help in our daily lives.

As I was writing this sermon, a song kept playing in my mind: “Here I Am” by Tom Booth. And I kind of feel like if I sing it for you enough, I’ll get it stuck in your head too, like an earworm. I don’t want to do that in order to bug you, but to give you the gift of a prompt to look for and discern Jesus’ presence with you in the midst of your daily life, and the things you see on the news, and what your friends and family members are going through, and whatever situations you encounter in the coming weeks.

Here I am, standing right beside you. Here I am; do not be afraid.
Here I am, waiting like a lover. I am here; here I am.

I want to invite you to look for Jesus in your homes – when you are fighting off boredom, or trying to motivate your kids. When you’re lonely and looking for connection with others, or when you’re trying not to worry too much about the world outside.

How is Christ present standing right beside you there… in a family member who shows kindness to you, in an unexpected phone call from a friend, in the gift of time to read, or pray, or do something important that you’ve been putting off, in the experience of life and breath and health to carry on.

Here I am, standing right beside you. Here I am; do not be afraid.
Here I am, waiting like a lover. I am here; here I am.

I want to invite you to look for Jesus in your work – whether you are figuring out working from home, carrying on your work in health care or another essential service, or finding new ways to work without pay as a good neighbour, friend, and support for others.

Know that Jesus is standing beside you, cheering you on. And know that the Spirit of God is within you too giving you all the energy, creativity, compassion, and determination you need to be a force for good in the world.

Do not fear when the tempter calls you. Do not fear even though you fall.
Do not fear, I have conquered evil. Do not fear, never be afraid.

I want to invite you to look for Jesus especially if you are struggling. If you are sick, if you are grieving, if you are deeply missing the embrace of your loved ones, if you are lonely right now.

Jesus is with you too, when you wrap that prayer shawl from the church around your shoulders, when you express your frustration and lament the difficult situation that you’re in, and even now… as your church lifts you up in prayer.

I am here in the midst of ev’ry trial. I am here in the face of despair.
I am here when pardoning your brother. Here I am, I am here.

I want to invite you to look for Jesus in our worship and fellowship as a congregation. I know that it’s not the same. There is something special about being together in community, and we are all missing that gathering where we sing and pray and praise together.

But Jesus is with us in this way too – whether we’re engaging in this worship at the same time because you’re watching it live, or whether you’re picking this up a little later in the recorded version, or reading this sermon on paper. Try to engage with it a little more than I did with the worship services I watched last weekend. Open your heart to think, and pray, and discern the Spirit at work within you as you do the work of worship. That’s when you’ll notice that Jesus is standing right beside you, and you won’t be left out.

I am here in the face of ev’ry child. I am here in ev’ry warm embrace.
I am here with tenderness and mercy. Here I am, I am here.

Here I am, standing right beside you. Here I am; do not be afraid.
Here I am, waiting like a lover. I am here; here I am.

People of First Presbyterian Church, and all those sharing in worship with us today: May the peace of Christ be with you now and always.