A sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter
April 24, 2022
The Rev. Mark Nabors, Vicar
Old doubting Thomas. We get this familiar reading from John’s Gospel every Low Sunday, the Second Sunday after Easter. Christ, resurrected and alive, shows up to the ten disciples, minus Thomas and Judas, of course. They tell Thomas Christ is alive. He doesn’t believe it. Defiant, he says, "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." We know the end of the story. Christ shows up the next week, on Low Sunday. This time, Thomas is there. And Christ invites him to see and touch the mark of the nails and the hole in his side, the wounds of the crucifixion. Thomas believes: “My Lord and my God.”
But let’s back up. Let’s take a good look at Thomas, because I don’t think this is a basic case of doubt. After all, all the other disciples, those other ten, they doubted, too. They didn’t believe Mary Magdalene or the women.
Thomas appears a few times in the gospels. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he only appears when all of Jesus’s disciples are listed. In John’s gospel, he is part of a few key stories. We heard one of them this morning. Another key moment comes from John 11, when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. You remember the story: Jesus has got word that Lazarus is sick, but he delays. Finally, Jesus says, well, gang, let’s go to Judea to see Lazarus. The disciples are not fans of that plan. They remind Jesus that the religious authorities in Judea were just trying to stone him. Why would you go back into danger? But Jesus is adamant; let’s go. He tells them Lazarus is dead, and he has to go raise him.
It is at this moment that Thomas gets one of his big lines: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Thomas is resigned. He’s saying, let’s follow Jesus, and we’re going to die, but let’s go anyway. Thomas has unwittingly discovered something here: following Jesus means we must die. Thomas would die a martyr’s death, giving his life for Christ. So would countless others, like Bonhoeffer, a German pastor killed by the Nazis. He said it this way: When Christ calls someone, he calls them to come and die. You and I may not die a martyr’s death, but we are called to follow Christ and die just the same–to die daily to sin, to die to our own will, to die to ourselves, and to put on Christ, to put on holiness, to put on newness of life in God. At this point, Thomas is sure: he will follow Jesus and die with him. That’s what any good disciple would do. Thomas thought himself a good–maybe even a perfect–disciple.
This episode shadows the one we read today. Thomas, who was once willing to follow Christ to his death, has now discovered something about himself. When Christ was arrested and taken away, tried and crucified, Thomas fled. As sure as he had been that he would follow and die with Christ, when the time came, he couldn’t do it. He ran away and hid out. And he was left with shame, with guilt, with disappointment in himself. He was faced with his true self–and it’s a far cry from that grandiose person, that perfect disciple he thought he was. He’s not willing to just accept that Christ is back from the dead. Such a sight would confront him with those memories of fleeing, the disappointment he harbored at his response, the shame and guilt he felt at what he had done.
More than doubt, I think Thomas struggled with a sort of perfectionism, a perfectionism that had been destroyed that Good Friday and replaced with internal shame and loathing. The events of Holy Week showed him he was far from the perfect disciple he thought he was; no, he had fallen, and fallen all the way to the bottom.
Have you ever been confronted with yourself like that, with your own failings that strip you of any illusion that you are perfect? If you have, perhaps you can understand Thomas’s response to his fellow disciples.
This happens to us in all sorts of ways. We start diets and exercise regimens, and we don’t live up to our expectations. New Year’s resolutions end before January is out; sometimes Lenten fasts don’t last a whole 40 days. We make plans–financial plans, careers plans, family plans–and they fall through. We break our promises: our promises to our friends, our promises to our children, our promises to our spouses, our promises to ourselves, our promises to God. Like Thomas, we are confronted with a hard truth about ourselves at each failing: We are not perfect, and we cannot live up to that perfect version of ourselves that lives in our minds, that we try to cling to. And we suffer for it. We carry around shame and guilt. Our esteem is damaged. It all weighs us down, a heavy, self-imposed yoke.
Then Christ shows up. In Christ and his perfect love, we are painfully confronted with all of those ways we don’t love, those things we have failed in, the brokenness in our lives. We are confronted with that heavy yoke of suffering, of promises broken, of pain imposed, of perfection thwarted. But what does Christ do? He invites us to come to him and lay those burdens down. Come here, Thomas, Jesus says. "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Yes, Thomas, you fled, you hid out, you did not live up to your own expectations of perfection. But come to me anyway, and lay down those heavy burdens you have heaped on yourself.
In Matthew Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” It’s Jesus’s invitation to Thomas, and us, today. Come to me, lay down your burdens of past failures, of promises broken, of disappointment at your own human imperfection. Lay all of that down and just come to Jesus. And he will give you rest. Take off that heavy yoke of perfection you have made for yourself. And put on Jesus’s yoke. For his yoke is easy and his burden is light.
The 50 days of Easter are about God’s victory over sin and death, God’s victory over everything in this world. Nothing is too big for God: No sin is too great, no fear is too insurmountable, no burden too heavy. God has conquered all through the death and resurrection of Christ. And that includes our failings, our missteps, our disappointments, our human imperfections. For in the end, Christ does not ask us to live up to that vision of perfection we carry around within us. He knows we cannot live up to that. No, he just asks us to come to him; to die to our sin, our way, our illusions of perfection; and then to live. To live by him and with him and in him, forever and ever.
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