This morning’s scripture lesson includes a phrase that has been the source of Christian antisemitism in many places throughout history, and deserves comment when it is read:  The story says that on Easter night, the disciples have locked the doors “for fear of the Jews.”  One of the things we always must be careful about in reading the Bible is when its authors paint whole groups of people with a broad brush, and this verse is one of the most important examples.  There certainly may have been a select group of religious authorities feared by the disciples; but Jews were not responsible as a whole people for the death of Jesus; specific Romans authorities sentenced him and he was put to death according to a Roman punishment.  And far beyond those two groups, just about everyone who claimed to love Jesus during his ministry abandoned him in his time of need, and that should be a warning to all of us.  But no single group of people are responsible for Jesus death.  John, the author of the story of Thomas, tends to paint with a broad brush about the Jews (or at a minimum, takes it for granted that you know the context of his remarks), and throughout the last 2000 years, verses like this one have been used by countless Christians in support of antisemitism.  Current events remind us of how important it is to be careful with our language.  There are few things I feel qualified to state with authority about the tragic war unfolding in the Holy Land in these days, but something I hear increasingly these days is blanket rhetoric directed at Jews or Palestinians; of course, you and I hear the same directed at Russians, immigrants, opposing political parties here at home…you get the point:  these sweeping generalizations are inaccurate and dangerous.  As of this week the war in Gaza has gone on for 6 months; I pray for an end to the violence, and I know many of us struggle to know what to do, and I commend each of you who care so deeply.  Often one thing we can do is to take responsibility for our own biases and for the uses—and misuses—of our own sacred texts.  End of first sermon.

Let us pray:  Gracious God, may we take seriously the need to read and interpret your scriptures with humility.  And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, for you, O Lord, are our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

I love this morning’s story about Thomas.  It appears in our lectionary, the cycle of readings most years after Easter, but I’ve not spoken about it in a number of years.  The story always takes me immediately back to the painting of it by the Baroque master Caravaggio, who painted so many of the physical and visceral scenes in the Bible, from the sacrifice of Isaac to the head of John the Baptist.  In this one, Caravaggio chooses to say something the story itself does not—that when the Risen Christ invites Thomas to put his hands in the wound in his side, that Thomas then in fact does it; and we see Thomas’ moment of astonishment…the raised eyebrows and wide eyes and the caring hand and gaze of Christ…as Thomas changes his mind…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

          Today is the Second Sunday of Easter.  According to our tradition, Easter is not just a day but a season, and the stories we read in church for the next several weeks are meant to draw us into the story of the Resurrection, and how people responded to it.  Let’s get right to the heart of the matter:  when we talk about Resurrection in the church, some folks are always wondering, “What do I have to believe about Resurrection?”  “What if I’m not sure?”  There are always a range of opinions, with some folks in the room quite comfortable with a literal, human, bodily Jesus who gets up and walks out of the tomb.  And there are others who are quite relieved to read theologians like John Dominic Crossan and hear that some Christians have settled on no bodily resurrection at all—and that Jesus’ body might have been stolen by bandits or devoured by dogs.  I am not going to prescribe for you today who is right and who is wrong, but I will address the question, and I want to do it through the lens of this story about Thomas. 

I’ll say one other thing before we look at the story itself:  this story is known by tradition as the story of “Doubting Thomas” which is usually stated pejoratively as if Thomas was the one who did not believe and that was bad.  If you were here last Sunday, you might guess that my perspective on that is different.  I think most people, including all the disciples of Jesus and the women who went to the tomb—most people have trouble deciding what to believe about the Resurrection.  And I think that is okay—my feeling is that doubt, taken seriously, is very much a part of this thing we call faith.

          On to the story:  I’m going to teach my way through it a bit at a time leading toward this question of Resurrection at the end. 

As I said in my introduction, the disciples are locked in a room, and because we know that, we are supposed to be caught off guard when Jesus is suddenly there with them.  He greets them, saying, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  He then breathes the gift of the Holy Spirit upon them and invites them if they feel so led, to go forgive others.  Jesus’ words are worth talking about.  Jesus might have said, “Why are you all locked up here?” or “Thanks for deserting me in my hour of greatest need,” or “I’ve just woken up from the dead, perhaps you would like for me to explain how.”  But he does none of those things.  In spite of all the suffering that has passed, Jesus shares a word of peace with them; he forgives them, and tells them they are still worthy to share the peace of God with others, and he encourages them in forgiving others.  And the first thing all of that makes me want to say to you about Resurrection is that the point of the story seems not to be the “how” but rather the “why.”  Regardless of how the Resurrection took place, the point seems to be that Jesus’ mission must continue.  In spite of the fact that he was put to death, in spite of the hatred that continues in the world, followers of Jesus must continue to share his grace and love—even on the other side of his death, this is our calling.

          Then comes Thomas.  He’s not in the room, and when the other disciples see him later and tell him about it, he can’t believe that Jesus was there.  “Unless I see the mark of the nails…and put my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  Seems reasonable enough.  And as the story goes, Thomas gets his opportunity.  A week later, the disciples are again in the same house, this time Thomas is with them, Jesus shows up once again, and Thomas believes, he looks at the Christ before him and makes what is clearly a confessional statement, he calls him “My Lord and my God.”

          At this point I want to loop back to what I said at the start about the Caravaggio painting:  Caravaggio assumes that Thomas actually leans in and touches Jesus, but the story as it is written does not get into that level of detail.  Again, as is so often the case with these mysterious stories in scripture, we are supposed to get the point, the “why” of the story—that Thomas chooses to believe—but we are left not knowing exactly how, and the person writing the story seems okay with that; Caravaggio was more curious, and that’s fine too.  Either way, it is a story of navigating through a situation of doubt on the way to belief, and it seems like a given that everyone will do this a bit differently—and that is fine.

          This brings me to what I wish to say to you about believing in Resurrection, and there are two things:  First, about how much you need to believe about it.  On this often asked theological question, I usually follow the direction of my own mentor and greatest teacher, the late Bill Placher.  Some argue convincingly for the risen Jesus as one who could have been photographed; others argue resurrection is but a metaphor for the ways Jesus’ legacy is lived by his disciples; Bill fell somewhere in the middle, but with a couple of qualifiers.  One, that all of the biblical accounts agree that the “how” of resurrection is a mystery, and that’s okay—I’ve been arguing that all along.  Bill’s second point, which I also recommend, is just to be cautious about dismissing the whole thing.  If we completely abandon any idea of Resurrection—if we decide to just skip that part of the story—we lose much of the core of Christian faith.  (for more on this point, see Placher, Jesus the Savior, 166-170).  Jesus, in his whole life, taught us to believe that hope can win in the face of hopelessness and that life is possible even in the face of death.  Jesus’ Resurrection is far from the only example of this; Jesus’ whole ministry was meant to help us work for a world where things can be better and different than what we are used to.  Followers of Jesus are supposed to live for something more—and that often means being open to things that other people may find unreasonable.

          Put another way, I think when it comes to Resurrection, it’s important for all of us to simply be willing to have our minds changed.  Some of you may object to the kind of certainty that says you have to believe in a literal, bodily resurrection in order to be a Christian.  I understand.  But refusing to believe that any kind of resurrection is possible; well, that may also be certainty, just dressed in different clothing.  I don’t know what it was that caused Thomas to believe or even what he decided he believed in, but there’s something about the fact that he was willing to have his mind changed that seems important as a way of life.

          I’ll close with a simple example that might take these theological speculations and bring them down to earth a bit.  I’m in the middle of jury duty right now; I had it last week and will next week again.  I’m not allowed, of course, to talk specifics, but I will tell you something about the experience.  Most folks don’t look forward to jury duty.  Because of the inconvenience it causes, “jury duty” has an automatically negative connotation for most people that is right up there with “root canal.”  I will admit that I went in with some of that negativity, wanting to do my civic duty but not really having the time.  I am in the process of changing my mind.  I will admit to having some skepticisms about the justice system in general and this responsibility in particular that I suspect are widely shared.  But with regard to my colleagues on the jury:  at the end of a week I think we are all in agreement that we’re happy to be there.  It is a group of people who are diverse in our opinions, backgrounds, and experiences; we’ve been selected at random to spend two weeks together for long stretches of time, and we have talked openly about how refreshing that is.  In this little group, we have found that we speak to one another with frankness, respect, and kindness, and that we value one another as human beings.  And in a world where all of us spend most of our time in contexts where we carefully choose our friends and where we imagine that many others must be our enemies, this experience calls all of that into question.  It is causing me to question once again many of my own assumptions about people who are different from me.  If for no other reason, I think that makes it important for everyone to have to do jury duty.

          Be willing to have your mind changed—that is my good word for today.  Christ is Risen, the tomb is empty, death does not have the last word.  These are the things we say to one another on Easter.  What do they mean for you?  And are you willing to have you mind changed?  Amen.