April 7, 2013

Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31

“Not the End of the Story”

Welcome to the second Sunday in the Season of Easter. I don’t know about you, but it kind of feels like a low Sunday to me. The church isn’t as full as it was last week, and the energy level and anticipation isn’t quite as high either. Someone said that there was something pretty special about the experience of coming in to church last Sunday. Everyone was so joyful and upbeat. It was definitely a day of celebration as we sang the songs of Easter and proclaimed the resurrection of Christ Jesus, our Lord.

But when the Easter weekend came to an end, many of us went back to the grind of work on Monday or Tuesday. We came face to face with exam time looming, or a house in need of a good Spring cleaning, or the challenges of health issues, or a strained relationship in need of repair, or the stress of tax time and worry about how to make the payments, or just the news from the world this week that some young Canadian men have become terrorists, that there was a shooting in a Gatineau daycare, that all is not yet right in the world.

Lauren Winner, reflecting on the day of her baptism as a young adult, remembers a typo in the Communion prayer response: It said, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ has come again.” (Instead of Christ WILL come again. It said Christ HAS come again.) As a new Christian, she wondered at first if she had missed something crucial. Had Christ indeed come again? But looking around at the world in which she lived (in which we live) it was obvious that we are still waiting for the return of Christ, for the fulfillment of God’s promises, for the Reign of God to arrive in its fullness.

Lauren reflected: “Every day brings reminders that the promises of Easter are not yet fully realized. You pick up the newspaper and read about the war your country started. You are beckoned to the funeral of a friend’s child. The fight you have been having with your sister for seventeen years keeps on going. I think about this every year at Eastertide. Looking around church, I see these faithful people of God proclaiming Alleluia! – proclaiming that Christ is risen indeed!” As they move from Good Friday to Easter Sunday… “I see them genuinely celebrating, even if their lives are falling apart.”

I have to say that I didn’t have a great week this past week. After the joy of our Easter celebration, the next few days seemed to be filled with one blow after another. By Wednesday morning, all my energy was spent, and I felt wounded and abandoned. As I looked ahead to this morning’s service, as a preacher must do, I longed for a psalm of lament instead of the psalm of praise and thanksgiving that was set for this second Sunday of Easter. I didn’t want to preach about joy today because I just wasn’t feeling it.

Christ is risen! And yet the world is full of hatred and violence and lies. Christ is risen! And yet the people of God continue to hurt one another with their prejudice, and their assumptions, and their selfishness. Christ is risen! I know it in my head. I have proclaimed it with my mouth. And yet, at times, I feel like the disciples on the road to Emmaus before they recognize Jesus. I feel defeated.

But this week, in the midst of my own particular challenges, the lectionary invited me to meet the risen Jesus as he stood among his first disciples in a locked-up house in Jerusalem. With my stomach churning from the stress, and my mind rushing with too many thoughts to organize, I heard Jesus say to me: “Peace be with you.”

And then he reached out and showed me his hands and his side. In my mind’s eye I touched the deep wounds and felt the scarred flesh that was left at the end of his ordeal. I put out my hand and found the place where the spear had pierced his side. Like Thomas, I could feel that the wounds were there and the wounds were real. But mostly I could feel that the wounds were also healed, and Jesus was standing there full of life and breath with a message of peace on his lips.

When I’ve thought about doubting Thomas in the past, I’ve often thought about the fact that he seemed to need some proof to know that Jesus was actually raised from the dead. I’ve thought about how difficult it can be for us today to believe that Jesus was raised, and the fact that the physical proof – the ability to reach out and touch Jesus’ wounds simply isn’t available to us. “Blessed are [we] who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”

But this week I became very aware that believing in Jesus’ resurrection is not the hard part, and it’s not even the most important part. What is most important is that we come to believe – in the midst of our own suffering, our own trials, our own difficulties and challenges – that healing and peace and wholeness are possible for us. Indeed, that they are guaranteed.

I have to believe that my wounds will heal. We have to believe that no matter what difficulties and sufferings we experience in this life, that the end of the story is resurrection and life and joy. We have to be able to look around at the troubles in our world and proclaim with hope that “Christ WILL come again” and the Reign of God will come.

Last weekend, between our gathering on Good Friday and our Easter Sunday celebration, I led a memorial service on Saturday for Helen Wrigley Carson who was a member of this congregation for over 50 years and served as an elder here for nearly 20 years. The service was kept small and private with just the family in attendance, but Helen’s wide circle of friends and her sisters and brothers in Christ here at St. Andrew’s are also missing her and mourning her death.

When I was reflecting on Helen’s life and witness and on the scripture readings that she selected for the service I wrote the following: “Some people are happy and joyful because their lives have been easy, and good things have come their way. But Helen’s was a deeper joy – a joy that arose from her faith and the assurance she had that she belonged to God and was in God’s hands no matter what her circumstances.

“Helen knew the challenges of working and raising a family, and she experienced the grief of losing her dear husband, Gordon, and then her son Victor much too soon. And although her second husband, Doug, died just a short time ago after Helen did, she lost him too to the terrible disease of Alzheimer’s that slowly took him from her even before he died. I know that in recent years Helen also struggled with her daughter’s health issues. She longed to do more to be helpful, felt frustrated and helpless at times, and she talked to God about it a lot.

“I know that Helen wondered about the bad things that happen to good people, and like the rest of us, she didn’t have a good answer to that terrible question of “why?” But in the midst of the questions and the struggles, Helen held fast to her faith with passages like the one from Romans 8 to give her comfort and encouragement.

“She knew “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” And instead of dwelling on the bad, or getting stuck in the challenges and disappointments, Helen just kept on responding to God’s call and God’s purpose for her life. She kept on loving. She kept on serving. She kept on offering hospitality and friendship and joy wherever she went.”

This morning I am very aware of the fact that what Helen Carson had was the gift of faith. It wasn’t a matter of working up the will to keep on believing in spite of the questions and the challenges and the suffering. It was faith that she had – a pure and wonderful gift from God. And with the gift of the Holy Spirit within her, she went out where Jesus sent her to love and serve others in his name.

Blessed was she who had not seen, who had not reached out to touch the healed wounds of Jesus, and yet had come to believe. Blessed was she who, through the gift of faith, knew deep within her that the suffering of the present moment was not the end of the story. Blessed was she who kept on loving, who kept on serving, who kept on going where Jesus sent her to go, trusting that healing and wholeness and joy would one day be hers.

Writing to the seven churches in Asia, John of Patmos wrote: “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come… and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” Those early Christian Churches, and John himself, were experiencing trials and persecutions and suffering too – probably more than most of us can imagine. And so John wrote to them with a message of encouragement and hope. As Jesus greeted his first disciples saying, “Peace be with you,” John greeted the next generation of followers with “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.”

When we proclaim the mystery of faith in our Communion prayers, we say “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” And though our Easter celebration is over, we have not yet reached the end of the story. We still endure the trials and sufferings of this life. We still await the healing and wholeness that will be ours.

With the gift of faith that comes from God alone, and the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide and strengthen us along the way, may our lives and our church live to proclaim and to enact the goodness of God in the world. And may we look with expectation for the day when Christ will come again, when every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, for so it is to be. Amen and amen.