There's this store in my old neighborhood called Stan's Kitchen. It's really just the kitchen section of the Ace Hardware next door. I love everything about it. I love all the stuff in it. I go in there a lot and find many things I must have. I would like to try not buy them because I really don't know my way around a kitchen very well. All those shiny appliances are so cool, but I don't know how to use them. I'm positive that if I just had a soda stream at home, I'd stop drinking diet coke. All those cute little thingies, are so great, but I don't know what to do with them.
A related story is that my mom and I love thrift stores. We used to go every Saturday as part of a routine that included the food bank where I worked. Each time we go, we see all the things others have given away and it reminds us that we both really should go through our respective places and get rid of some stuff.
The reason these stories are related is that if I do buy those cute thingies from Stan's Kitchen, they often end up at the thrift store. So here's what mom and I do now. We go the thrift store, wander around, find some bargains, and then show it to the other person and say “Isn't this great?! Isn't this cool?! Oh, perfect!” And here's the key to our new behavior: then we set it back down.
We found that oddly satisfying. It turns out that really we just wanted the other person to have the same experience that we had. We didn't need to have the thing at home to have the experience. The experience of just showing it and sharing the admiration or silly joy was the same as purchasing it, showing it and sharing the admiration or silly joy; without spending money or taking it to goodwill again a year later. I can report success with our new pattern by sharing with you that the last time I went to Stan's Kitchen I didn't buy the spoon rest for your stove top, that says “This stove is for display purposes only.” But I told mom about it and we laughed together. I want her to have what I have. Not the spoon rest – what I wanted her to have was the same feeling it gave me – a silly moment to laugh about. It represents a relationship between her and me.
When I post the 20th picture of my cat doing the same cute thing over and over again on facebook, what I want to share is the smile on my face because of the cat. I want you to have what I have. Not the cat – I want my friends to have what the picture gave to me – a chance to smile. It represents a relationship between my cat and me.
In the gospel of John, which is continually pointing to relationships, this story about Jesus appearing to disciples is no exception. This story takes place in the evening of the same day when Mary discovered the risen Jesus and ran back to tell the disciples. Because the Jewish authorities were looking for anyone connected with Jesus, disciples were waiting in an upstairs room with the door locked. Earlier in John's gospel when Jesus is presenting what scholars call his Farewell Discourse, Jesus explains all of the things that must happen and will happen soon. When Jesus appeared there in the room even though the door was locked, and said Peace be with you, he said this to fulfill what he had said earlier. He even repeats “Peace be with you” and adds “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” as a direct quote from the earlier farewell discourse. This fulfillment was so that the disciples gathered there would recognize him. They saw his hands and his side and the rejoiced and knew that this was their Lord.
As the story goes, Thomas was not in the room for any of this. When he did arrive, the disciples of course told them of their excitement and amazement, and of their rejoicing! Thomas gets a lot of grief about not believing the disciples, but we have to remember, the disciples didn't believe Mary either. When Jesus appeared to the disciples, he gave them what they needed in order to bring their hearts to believe. He said the familiar words “Peace be with you.” And they saw his hands and his side. But Thomas made it clear that he would not believe unless he sees the mark of the nails in his hands and Thomas's hand in Jesus' side. He was only asking for what the disciples had already received. He wanted what they had.
As slow as the first day of the week has gone in this scripture, suddenly we jump to one week later. Jesus appears again in the room, and this time Thomas is there. Jesus again said “Peace be with you.” And before Thomas could say anything, Jesus invites Thomas to do exactly what Thomas said that he needed to do, to touch him, see his hands, put your hand in my side. It's important to note that the word “doubt” is not present in this scripture. The word is better translated “unbelieving.” Jesus invites Thomas to come and present himself just as he is with his needs, and Jesus offers himself to Thomas. Where the disciples rejoiced, Thomas had faith! My Lord, and My God!”
Those words right there, my Lord and my God. That is the shortest most accurate statement of faith I have ever read. Thomas not only believes that Jesus is his Lord, he also understands that Jesus is also God. He understands that a relationship with Jesus is only part of the story. A relationship with Jesus points us to the reality of God.
Early on in lent we read the story of Nicodemus. And then about the woman at the well. And then about a blind man. Then Lazarus being raised from the dead. Even when Mary went to the tomb, Jesus appeared to her and met her too, in a place where she could recognize him – he called her by name. In all these stories, Jesus met each person differently, but exactly where and how they needed. Here, Jesus knows what Thomas needs in order to believe and offers himself literally to Thomas, and invites Thomas to enter his own belief on his own terms. That kind of faith, is a faith from the heart. Faith from feeling. Faith from a relationship. Transforming faith.
All of these stories are signs that point to what a relationship with Jesus can do. There isn't a hierarchy here, where you have to have a relationship with Jesus before you can have a relationship with God. Jesus isn't a gatekeeper, and he certainly wasn't trying to keep us on the outside of anything. But if we understand our relationship to God, through the lens and earthly reality of Jesus and all of the ways he has always met us where we are when we needed him, then our relationship to God is so much more astounding. No longer is God far away, clueless about what actually goes on inside us and for us in our lives, no longer judging us and punishing us. Jesus points us to God who cares enough to explore the faith of a man from the temple, cares enough to go through Samaria despite the danger, and meet the woman at the well right where she needed to be met, cares enough to return sight to a blind man, and cares enough to unwrap the linen cloths from a dead man no longer dead.
And most of all, God who cares enough to enter Jerusalem even knowing the danger and humiliation and injustice ahead. God cares enough to weep with us.
This gospel of John was written to those followers of Jesus, about one generation removed from the original events. When Jesus says, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” he is not disparaging the earlier disciples whose belief was rooted in sight. He is referring to future generations, including us, who do not see, but have the faith of Thomas. Faith from the heart. Faith because of our relationship with Christ.
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet “continue to believe,” or “have come to believe,” are the two translations often offered. This is literally a matter of one ancient greek letter in the original. Those of us who do not yet have a faith in God through Jesus can read this and come to believe. Those of us who have a faith in God through Jesus can read this and continue to believe. This gospel writer is the only one who leaves us in the hands of Jesus who yearns for all of us read these stories and know the signs.
I think it's Barbara Brown Taylor who talks about the detective work that it takes to find God's presence. Not because God's presence is so rare, but because God's presence is so often where we least expect it. Taylor says a good place to go looking for clues is in suffering.
If we haven't already, soon we will begin to have stories of friends or family who are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether they are affected medically or economically, just looking at the math shows us that pretty much no one will be untouched. And remember, this pandemic is for some just on top of their current worries. That is a lot of suffering. We can be sure God is right here. God is with us in our anxiety, and in the disarray of our usual routines of life, and God is there with those who are sick. When Jesus says “Peace be with you.” He is talking to us.
John 14:27 reads, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” It is these words that Jesus is fulfilling when he enters the room with the disciples and offers peace. It's the kind of peace that can only be given in the presence of Jesus.
That kind of peace is what people in ICU who cannot see their families need. Those in nursing homes; the un-housed. It's the kind of peace that people have when they discover that testing positive for COVID-19 is not a death sentence. It's the kind of peace we need to recognize when we find the hope and encouragement that grows at difficult times.
While this time we are going through is not like any we have lived through before, the love and presence of God in Jesus is the same. As new and unknown as all of this is for each of us, we can rely on the unwavering and ever present God of the resurrection to hold us, weep with us, care for us and celebrate with us.
And we will celebrate. Because God always shows up, even if the doors are locked.
Reverend Debra McGuire
April 19, 2020