Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 8, 2018
[sermon begins after three Bible readings]
John 20:19-31 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But 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.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Acts 4:32-35 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
1 John 1:1-2:2 We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— 3 we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. 5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7 but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. 2:1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
I’m caught between generations who like to shop – a sandwich generation of a different sort. Both my mom and my mother-in-law as well as my daughter like to dabble in the aisles, across shelves, and around carousel racks to find the finds. Me, not so much. But their enthusiasm is contagious. So I tag along for the company and you just never know what the find will be. This is especially true when I shop with my mother-in-law, Carol. When store clerks ask her if she needs help finding something in particular, Carol replies, “No thanks, we’re just poking around.” Her non-committal answer, and the meandering that goes with it, opens up space to see what finds might be lurking on the next shelf. I have a couple favorites from the hospice consignment shop in Grand Junction that include an antique porcelain bud vase and a silver filigreed shell dish. Must-haves in any household, I’m sure. The point being that sometimes you need to poke around to find what you didn’t know you were looking for.
Which leads me to Thomas. Some scholars will tell you that he’s not the doubter he’s claimed to be by church tradition and centuries of painters. I don’t really have a problem naming him a doubter but if that title troubles you we can lean toward skeptic or find some other label that edges us toward his non-committal, wary attitude. Thomas’ friends had an experience with the resurrected Jesus and he hasn’t. He’s a bit guarded about their reports. Perhaps it’s news that’s too creepy or too weird or too good to be true. Whatever the reason, he’s not about to accept his friends’ reports about Jesus. He seems to want his own moment with Jesus. Because the friends who first see Jesus in the locked room are privy to more than a sighting. Jesus gives them something. Peace, for starters. Then he sends them on their way by breathing the Holy Spirit on them.
I don’t know about you, but the breath of a three-day-dead, freshly resurrected guy doesn’t sound that appealing. Regardless, it seems to cause something big. This rag-tag band of Jesus followers that were locked in a room become something so much more. They become the church. Except Thomas. He’s not sure about anything now that his friends had an experience that he hasn’t had. But sometimes you need to poke around to find what you didn’t know you were looking for. In Thomas’ case, it’s Jesus whose hands and side are made available.
A Bible story to poke around in is one thing but let’s think about what it looks like today to poke around to find what you didn’t know you were looking for. On March 24, a woman named Jennifer Reali died of cancer. Twenty-eight years ago she was convicted of murder in Colorado Springs. I’ll refrain from the gory details. They’re available online. Some of you may even remember the case. She is guilty of killing Diane Hood.
I first met Jen 11 years ago in a Friday evening worship service at New Beginnings Church in the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. Honest and blunt, she was clear that she cut short Diane’s life, causing pain and grief for Diane’s family and friends. She would also say that Jesus found her in prison. For the skeptics among us, her confession of faith seems convenient, easily dismissed as one manipulation among many. Regardless, her sentence was commuted in 2011 by then Governor Ritter making her eligible for parole. Jennifer was released to a halfway-house in 2014, diagnosed with cancer soon afterwards, granted parole on the fourth try, and released on December 12, 2017. One of Jennifer’s original songs has this line, “If you knew my dark side, would you sense the hands of Christ?”
The hands of Christ were on display for the disciples in the locked room as the resurrected Jesus showed them his hands and his side. “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit…If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.” While we’re poking around, we could consider that the Holy Spirit is powerful enough to forgive even Jennifer. Make no mistake, her act of evil is neither forgotten nor condoned. Diane and her family deserve more than that. Rather, we proclaim by faith that evil is NOT more powerful than the good. Or, in the words of the gospel of John, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Restoration is what the resurrection makes possible. Restoration that turns a murderer into a repentant, zealous Jesus follower. Restoration that turns a fearful, ragtag band of Jesus followers into the church. A church that went from hiding in the darkness to walking in the light, from hiding the truth of sin to confessing it. A church of fellowship who completed each other’s joy as told by the First John reading. A church of shared resources who testified to the resurrection with great grace upon them as told by the Acts reading.
For some, like Thomas and his friends, there was a quick turnaround from fear to courage. For others, it took time for the early, first century church to get its act together. Time for the way women were respected in Christianity as they weren’t in classical culture. Time for life in the way of Jesus to crack through social class and tribal lines. Time for the selflessness of caring for all the sick, not just their own, in the age of plagues.
The disciples’ and Jennifer’s stories are uncommon – drawing both attention and disbelief. Ordinary people seldom have such gripping tales to tell or even interesting sin. Although, when it comes down to it, there are common threads of grief, fear, sin, and skepticism that lead to poking around to find what we didn’t know we were looking for. A lot of people are looking for something, poking around into all kinds of things. Longing, hoping for restoration. I run into these people everywhere. They tell stories of pain. Personal pain inflicted by themselves or other people. Public pain experienced in the very churches where great grace should be upon them.
Healing from grief, fear, sin, and skepticism can take time. You may be one of these people. Perhaps you’ve had an experience of Christianity not letting go of you or you’re unable to let go of it. So I’ll tell you what I tell these people. I have amazing colleagues all over town in all kinds of parishes with all kinds of people in the congregations. Find a pew. Let the hymns and prayers wash over you. Receive communion. Heal. Talk with God, not about God. Listen for God’s voice. Don’t look for anything in particular while you’re just poking around.
Jesus’ resurrection makes restoration possible. The Holy Spirit is breathed on us by the risen Christ in ways that cannot be described, only experienced. God is not irresistible. We can and do screw things up regularly. Here’s the promise though, God’s presence and pursuit of you is relentless – through the cross, grave, and back again. God’s restoration is for you. Alleluia and amen.
 Mary Beard’s research includes the investigation into what made ancient Romans laugh – apparently bad breath is among the topics which makes me wonder how early Christian listeners in the Roman Empire heard this bit of scripture. This historical gem is in an article about Beard’s work by Rebecca Mead, “The Troll Slayer: A Roman Classicist Takes On Her Sexist Detractors.” The New Yorker, September 14, 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/09/01/troll-slayer
 George Wiegel. The Saturday Essay: The Easter Effect and How It Changed the World. The Wall Street Journal, March 31, 2018. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-easter-effect-and-how-it-changed-the-world-1522418701
 Michael Roberts. “Fatal Attraction” Killer Jennifer Reali Finally Granted Parole.” Westword: November 8, 2017. http://www.westword.com/news/fatal-attraction-killer-jennifer-reali-seeks-parole-for-fourth-time-9590521
 John 20:22-23.
 Nadia Bolz-Weber. “Forgiveness.” The Nantucket Project. Video posted on September 21, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9RTvRhXATo
 John 1:5
 1 John 1:3-4
 Acts 4:32-35
 Wiegel, ibid.