This sermon was preached online to the virtually gathered congregation of Paris Presbyterian Church on April 19th, 2020 – the Second Sunday of Easter and Sixth Week of “Coronatide.”
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Now Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”John 20:19–29 (NIV)
Today is the Second Sunday of the Easter season, according to the church calendar. In the Anglican Communion they call this day “Low Sunday,” the meaning of which would be apparent to us in a normal year. When our calendar runs as usual, the Sunday after Easter is a time of moderate disappointment as the excitement of the Resurrection wears off. The pews, after the crowds witnessing to the Resurrection, seem emptier than usual.
This year, we are operating according to a different calendar. Today doesn’t really feel like the Sunday after Easter—it feels like another Sunday in a never-ending Lent. According to our 2020 church calendar of necessity, today is the Sixth Sunday of Corona-tide. It is the sixth week that we have been unable to worship within the usual four walls and have instead, largely, been confined to the four walls of our residence.
We are a displaced and scattered people. And it may feel as if everything is against us. Nothing is going according to plan. The calendars are cleared with no idea of when it will be safe to try and fill them again. We long for something to do and some place to go. Who would have thought, just a few months ago, that the closest thing to an adventure we would have in these weeks is a trip to the grocery store.
Let’s admit it—we are grieving.
When we first heard about the threat posed by Coronavirus to public health, and our regular patterns of life, most of us were in denial. Sure, there were some who confronted reality much earlier. My brother, for one, seemed to know early on how bad this threat was. But the rest of us shrugged things off as a problem in China that wouldn’t have much effect on us. We thought, perhaps, the situation was an overblown response to something no more harmful than the seasonal flu.
All that has changed. Coworkers, friends, and family members have been tested for the virus. We have wondered what it might mean if the test came back positive, especially if there are other risk factors present. We wonder if we might have the virus too, lying dormant for now. Is our cough just a cough?
Even if we haven’t yet been confronted with the health threat posed by COVID-19, by the grace of God, we are all aware how the necessity for social distancing has brought our economy screeching to a halt. There may be a silver lining for some of us—I, for one, have found my expenses greatly reduced by having nowhere to go and nothing to do. But for others, including members of our congregation, this economy of the bare necessities has plunged them into the unemployment system. Where will the money come from for rent, food, and other basic needs?
Even if we haven’t lost our jobs, we have lost some of our hopes and dreams—or at least seen them delayed. High School and College students now grieve the loss of many of the activities and experiences that made the schoolwork bearable. Many have lost their senior year.
Not being able to deny the challenging reality posed by Coronavirus any longer, we feel a tinge of anger arising out of our grief. We may direct our anger in political directions: at the President or “Republicans” or “Democrats.” Our anger may show itself, in moments of weakness, in an outburst against a friend or family member. We may even take our anger out on God, as Job once did in the Old Testament or even as Jesus, quoting Psalm 22, cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Many of us, as we approached Easter, held out hope that we might still be able to worship together! We bargained with God, with our civil leaders, with the virus itself: perhaps, if we do what we are told, the threat will leave us. Maybe, if we have faith, we will be able to celebrate Easter together with churches packed to the brim in a way they have never been before.
Now on the Sixth Sunday of Corona Time, having tried to muster up the spirit of Easter Resurrection in our hearts with varying degrees of success, it is normal, perhaps even healthy to fall into the fourth stage of grief: depression.
The adrenaline of problem solving has worn off and now we’re overwhelmed by the prospect of continuing on the present course. Our online meetings and schooling and even ways of doing church are challenging us and stripping us of joy.
Maybe through this path of grief and our current loss of joy we will come to a new, stable and safe place—a “new normal” of acceptance. Most of us, myself included, are still just looking for a way out of our pandemic struggle into “business as usual.” We’re buying our time by watching TV and movies and falling into the endless scroll of Facebook.
As we participate in this online service of worship, longing and hoping for God to show up and speak some word of grace into Corona Time, we return to a, likely familiar, story from John’s Gospel. It’s a story that I think we can understand this year in a way we never have before.
After Jesus’s crucifixion, the disciples returned to the only safe place they had left—the Upper Room, where Jesus had gathered with them around the table for the Passover. Like the Hebrew slaves preparing to leave their captivity in Egypt on the first Passover, the disciples were locked in that room, knowing that certain death lay outside that place of safety.
On that first Passover, the blood of the slaughtered Passover lamb on the doorpost protected those hidden inside from the plague of death that was about to spread through Egypt. For these disciples, the Upper Room protected them from those who had put Jesus to death and were looking to kill any who were associated with him.
The disciples were once full of hope and expectation. Jesus had transformed their lives. He had given them a purpose.
Jesus had called the twelve out of their “normal” lives as fishermen, merchants, and tax collectors—they left willingly, anticipating that the world was about to change for the better, and they could get in on the ground floor.
They dreamed that they could be somebody.
This Jesus fellow called himself the Son of God, and such a one could take them places. Jesus wouldn’t just make their ordinary vocation more profitable, as he had done by miraculously improving Peter’s fishing skills. Jesus talked about a new Kingdom where he would be King over all. With that new Kingdom would come all sorts of opportunities.
But with Jesus, it doesn’t work out the way the disciples had hoped. Not only do the disciples have to grapple with the defeat of their movement, but their leader is dead.
Like us, they went through the stages of grief. At first, when Jesus started to speak of his impending death, the disciples were in denial. Peter had spoken up and utterly rejected the idea that Jesus would die.
As the disciples began to realize that Jesus was not planning to overtake the Kingdom of Rome, that he had no plans to establish a new earthly government with key roles for his disciples, they got angry. The anger that arose from Judas’ grief led him to betray Jesus to the authorities. Peter’s anger led him to cut off the ear of Malchus, a servant of the High Priest. In that Upper Room after the crucifixion, I’m sure there was plenty of anger to go around: anger at Judas for betraying them, anger at Jesus for letting them down, anger at each other and even themselves for the ways they had failed.
The disciples were likely bargaining in their grief, “if only I had not failed him. If only we had responded differently. If only this whole crucifixion business could be undone.”
The women who had gone to the tomb, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, were accused by the men of living in denial. They had reported to them that the tomb was empty, but the men knew that was more likely bad news than it was a sign that Jesus had defeated death. Someone probably just stole his body to cause more trouble. Luke’s Gospel tells us the men did not believe the women’s report, “because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”
As night fell on that first day of the week, I imagine the disciples, like many of us, were falling into a situational depression. Darkness covered them. The doors were locked in fear. There was nothing they could do, nothing to distract them from the sinking feeling of despair.
All they have is their grief of their lost hope that “Jesus was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).
This was the condition of the disciples on that first Easter, not all that different from where we find ourselves today in the shadow of the Coronavirus.
It is amidst these grief-stricken men, hiding in fear, that good news comes again. In the locked room, protected from the death that threatened them on the other side of the door, Jesus appeared among the disciples and said, “Peace be with you.”
Grace—unmerited love and comfort—fills that Upper Room. The promise of the Spirit’s coming among the disciples is fulfilled (John 14:15).
Jesus had told them the truth about what was going to happen the whole time. But Jesus does not shame them or stir up feelings of guilt. He knew that the disciples had hoped for the wrong things the whole time, fame and power.
But through the grief—not in spite of it—the disciples are forced to empty themselves of all their expectations and rely on the promises of their savior.
Through the grief, the disciples were given “peace.”
We sometimes imagine that after Jesus appears to the disciples in his resurrected glory, everything was resolved. That everything went back to normal. But that’s not the case at all. There was no normal left to which they could go.
Fast forward a week after the first Resurrection appearance and things are roughly the same as they were on the first day. The doors are still shut. The disciples are still in that Upper Room, sheltered in place. The only difference is that Thomas is with them.
Why wasn’t Thomas there the first time? I think Thomas had decided not to shelter in place with the rest of the disciples because he was fearless. He, after all, was the one who in John 11:16 said confidently to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go with Jesus, that we might die with him.” Thomas was prepared to die, to be a martyr, if that’s what the situation required. You would think that his fearlessness would be rewarded.
But it turns out that Thomas missed out. Thomas, in denying his grief, in having gone out while the rest of his brothers where hiding out in the upper room, in trying to do something, had missed a sighting of Jesus.
Thomas, like us, was restless. He wanted to leave the confines of the Upper Room, so he did. And so, he initially missed the grace of Jesus’ presence. It was while sheltered in place that all eleven of those who remained saw the glory of the resurrection and received the peace of Christ.
Sitting at home is hard. We are an active church. We long to do something. And in many ways, we continue to do good in the ways available to us.
But what if, like Thomas, our desire to go and do can actually distract us from the place where Jesus Christ is coming to meet us? What if Jesus means to appear to us in powerful ways inside of the four walls of our upper room?
In the history of the church, even and especially during times of the church’s strength and success, God has called men and women to take time apart in the quiet stillness to seek his grace.
In the third and fourth centuries after Jesus, there was a significant movement out to the desert of Egypt to seek God, just as Christianity was being legalized. They sought to escape the temptations of worldly success and hold onto the spiritual strength that comes through simplicity and solitude. In a world that told them they could be someone special, that the marketplace could define them, they decided to renounce the world to find God in solitude.
These monks, known as the Desert Fathers, recorded many sayings as they provided spiritual wisdom to their younger members and those who came to them seeking insight. These sayings might help us to experience the grace and work of God in our sheltered times.
We might feel right now as if we are a fish out of water, away from the things that give us life, but Antony, known as the Father of All Monks said, “Fish die if they stay on dry land, likewise the monk cannot survive outside his cell.”
Similarly, Abba Moses was known to tell other monks, “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
What does this “cell,” this confinement, have to teach us if we resist the urge to flee it or be distracted from it? What if this time staying at home is really a means of God’s rescue, giving us new life when we’ve been floundering on the shore unknowingly for years?
In this solitude, like those monks, we are liable to confront our own faults, our deepest temptations. We’re likely to realize just how tempting it is to eat an entire sleeve of cookies in one sitting and open up the fridge to look for a snack four times an hour.
But we also might find unexpected joy: the joy of realizing we really don’t need as much stuff as we thought we did, the joy rediscovering family game night, the joy of contentment, the joy of peace.
Those moments may be few and far between. It’s okay for us to feel unsettled, to feel the grief, even most of the time. But there are moments when we hear and feel the words “Peace be with you.” And maybe it’ll come in the diligent work of cooking a simple meal or of taking a walk around the block.
Acts 1:4 tells us that while Jesus was staying with the disciples in Jerusalem, he “ordered them not to leave, but to wait there for the promise of the Father.”
That is our challenge now—to shelter in place for this designated time, to remain faithful, and to wait here for the promise of the Father.
With the disciples, with all who have sought God in quiet places, we wait in our grief and our longing. And until the day of deliverance comes, until that new day on the other side of this time of death and resurrection, we trust in the words of our comforter, “Peace be with you. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”