Jesus Lives

Mary had been a widow for six months. She and her pastor hadn’t had a chance to touch base in an unhurried way, only brief conversations at the door after worship.

“How are you doing, Mary?”

“Oh, I’m OK. I miss him terribly, you know, but I’m OK. Thank you for asking.”

Then one Sunday, during Coffee Hour, Pastor Susan saw Mary standing at the table with the cookies and the banana bread and went over to ask if she wanted to sit for a moment. As soon as she approached, Mary’s eyes welled up with tears. But after a few moments, she looked around to see if anyone was nearby and then she began to whisper.

I had a terrifying experience last week. You’ll probably think I’m nuts, Susan, but I have to tell someone. You know, the nights are the worst. I hear noises in the house, and I just can’t get used to sleeping in bed alone. It must have been three in the morning and I was staring at the ceiling… you know, those endless moments when thoughts run through your mind like wild things… and all of a sudden it happened. Martin came back. Martin came back and he crawled into bed with me. He was there. He didn’t say a word. He just appeared—and then faded away. I felt such peace, and now I don’t feel so alone anymore. You don’t think I’m crazy, do you?[1]

What would you tell her? Mary wasn’t crazy, far from it. She had been given a wondrous gift. When Martin died, all her love turned into pain and loneliness, and suddenly joy returned and stayed. Wild things in her head had kept her awake at night, and then peace found a way to surround her. Let others call her crazy; we laugh with her and let our hearts sing along with the psalmist,

You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.[2]

The disciples were far from singing that night. John tells us that the doors were locked. The room where they had gathered was dark with only just enough light for each to see the fear and confusion in the faces of the others. They still didn’t know what to make of the strange news Mary Magdalene had brought with her when she returned from the tomb, earlier that day. “I have seen the Lord,” she said, “and he spoke to me. He told me to tell you this: ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

It was dead quiet in the room. It’s a strange reversal, when you think about it. Jesus out of the tomb, risen from the dead; and the disciples, hiding behind locked doors, prisoners of fear. William James said, “Faith is the force of life, and when it is absent, life collapses.” What we see in that dark, locked room is collapsed life. Their faith had vanished. Mary had told them that she had seen the Lord, but her testimony, for whatever reason, hadn’t made the slightest difference. We don’t know if they thought she was crazy or if they couldn’t imagine just what her words might mean. I wonder if one day a gospel manuscript will be found with a couple of extra verses telling us about Mary pulling her hair in frustration. I wouldn’t be surprised: all she had were words, and her words were not enough to break the other disciples’ paralysis of fear and guilt, not enough to let them hear what she had heard and see what she had seen. It takes more than the words of witnesses to restore collapsed life.

John tells us that Jesus came and said, “Peace be with you.” The first word of the Risen One to the disciples was peace. The last time they had been together, that night when he washed their feet, he had told them, “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.”[3] And now he stood among them, after they had betrayed, denied, and abandoned him – Jesus stood among them and spoke peace into their troubled, fearful hearts. “Peace be with you,” he said, not, “Shame on you, you sorry bunch” or “OK, friends, let’s talk about this,” but, “Peace be with you.” They saw it was the Lord, and his presence transformed their prison of fear and guilt into house of laughter. It was Jesus. He was alive in their midst, he was the center of their lives again—again gathering them around him and centering them in his presence.

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” he said to them. Now they were a people with a mission. He breathed into their nostrils the breath of new life, set their hearts on fire, and sent them. What had been a little band of disciples, held together only by their memories and their fear of the world outside, was now the church, commissioned and empowered by the living Christ. For almost two-thousand years, frightened disciples could be church because God keeps breaking in on us, pushing through our timidity and giving us the gifts of peace and forgiveness to share with the whole world in his name. And the world needs the witness of the church. The world needs to know that the powers of death and fear that lock people in cannot stand against the love and mercy of God.

Thomas was not with them that night when Jesus came, John tells us. Thomas missed the whole thing.

Speaking of Thomas, I was 15 when a little red pin was becoming quite popular among members of my youth group. “Jesus Lives” it said. I finally got one at a retreat, and the following week I wore it to school.

One of the girls who never even looked at guys my age, much less talked to them, saw I was wearing a curious little something on my shirt, came a little closer to read it, and said, “O really, tell me more.” And she said it not with the bored, superior tone of older girls who seem to be annoyed by anyone’s presence but their own, no, she really wanted to hear more.

It was a great moment there at the tram stop, a great moment to talk about mercy and hope and real life, about God being on our side against everything that wants to make us less than glorious human beings … It was a great moment, but I had no words then to talk about the wide open hope these two small words represent, and I had a hard time keeping my balance because, I swear, the pavement under my feet had turned into a water bed, and all I could say was, “Oh, the pin? I got that at a retreat with my youth group.”

I never wore that pin again. I wanted more than those two words. I wanted a resurrection that was more than somebody else’s words. I wanted a resurrection I could see and touch. Much like the Thomas whom the other disciples told, “We have seen the Lord.”  And he said to them, “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.”

A week later, John tells us, the disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Jesus came and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he turned to Thomas and said, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”

The Apostle Thomas is the patron saint of all who weren’t there. He was a latecomer like all of us and he takes our place in the story. He didn’t take anyone’s word for what God had done, but waited for God to act and the Risen One to make himself known to him. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” the risen Jesus said to him. God has ways to get through to us with new life, more ways than we can imagine.

Two more things; small, but important details for us to keep in mind: When Thomas stood up in the church and said, ‘Unless I see the marks of his suffering and touch them with my hand, I will not believe,’ he was not asked to leave. Nobody locked the door to keep him and his struggle outside; and we know that the church hasn’t always been faithful to that dimension of the gospel. There have been too many Christian communities where no one voices their questions or their struggles for fear of being excluded or declared spiritually challenged.

The second detail is related. When Thomas found it impossible to believe, he did not drop out. He came back a week later, and the church welcomed him. He remained faithful to the community of believers and was met by the risen Christ in the fellowship of the disciples. John reminds us that our openness to the presence of the living Christ has much to do with our openness for each other and faithfulness to each other.

Thanks be to God who makes ways to get through to us with gifts of new life, more ways than we can imagine. Thanks be to the living Christ who revives and inspires us with his peace and sends us.


[1] Susan R. Andrews, The Christian Century, March 24-31, l999

[2] Ps 30:11-12

[3] John 14:27