“Seeing, Believing, and Signs” Colchester Federated Church, April 11, 2021, Second Sunday of Easter (John 20:19-31)
Easter is not just a single day in the liturgical calendar of the Christian Church. Easter Sunday ushers in a season of the Church year called Eastertide. It’s not a mistake that the worship email sent out to our congregation this morning stated that this is the Second Sunday of Easter. Eastertide lasts for 50 days and ends on Pentecost (that’s May 23rd this year). So, on this Second Sunday of Easter, we can still gather virtually and contemplate the mystery of resurrection. We can still give thanks for new life and that God keeps God’s promises. We can celebrate that death didn’t get the last word in Christ’s story or in our stories. We can still engage with these stories of our Christian faith that require us to use both our heads and our hearts to fully understand their meaning for each of us.
Because our Easter story continues. That’s some good news right there. We move from Mary Magdalene and the other Mary at the tomb encountering the angel, the earthquake, and the stunned soldiers from Matthew’s Gospel to the disciples terrified and locked away behind closed doors in John’s Gospel. John tells us that on Easter Sunday evening Jesus comes and stands among the frightened disciples behind those closed doors, saying, “Peace be with you.” He shows them his hands and side and breathes on them, commanding them to receive the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells the disciples that he is sending them out. That if they forgive anyone’s sins, they are truly forgiven. And if they don’t, their sins won’t be forgiven. To summarize that encounter with the Risen Christ—Jesus proclaims peace, desires to send his followers out from hiding, breathes on them to receive the Holy Spirit, and encourages them to forgive peoples’ sins. There’s some amazing moments that evening, and the only remaining disciple who isn’t present is Thomas.
When the disciples tell Thomas what happened, Thomas says that he won’t believe a word unless he sees for himself. Though Thomas goes even further, saying that he needs to put his fingers in the wounds left by the nails in Jesus’ hands and his hand in Jesus’ side that had been pierced by a spear. Until and unless that happens, Thomas will not believe. Or perhaps a better way to say this is that until and unless that happens, Thomas cannot believe. Maybe he wanted to believe deep down, but he simply can’t go there yet.
Eight days later, Thomas gets his chance to experience the mystery of resurrection and new life. Jesus shows up among the disciples once again saying, “peace be with you.” Jesus invites Thomas to do exactly what he asked for, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”
Now there are all sorts of ways to interpret this story from the Gospel according to John. Having preached on Thomas at least eleven times by now—there’s many ways that I have personally thought about this story over the years and explained in sermons to congregations. Since we remain in the midst of a global pandemic, this story made me think about Thomas and his grief while engaging with the text this time around. This is one of the beautiful aspects of the Bible in general, stories will inevitably strike you differently depending on what’s happening in your own life and what’s happening in the community or even in the world!
While on retreat some months ago, I read David Kessler’s book Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. Perhaps you have heard of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and her works On Death and Dying and On Grief and Grieving. Kubler-Ross and David Kessler wrote On Grief and Grieving together. Their work remains essential anytime we experience loss. A small disclaimer before we go further—the five stages of grief were never meant to be about placing our emotions in neat little boxes. The five stages of grief were meant to describe the general process people go through as they experience loss. They aren’t linear in that we neatly move from one stage to another. Nevertheless, the grieving process (while unique to every single person), does have some patterns that are common. With all of that hopefully clarified, the five stages of grief are:
Denial: shock and disbelief that the loss has occurred
Anger: that someone we love is no longer here
Bargaining: all the what-ifs and regrets
Depression: sadness from the loss
Acceptance: acknowledging the reality of the loss
David Kessler proposes a sixth stage of grief in his book Finding Meaning. He relates that we can acknowledge that for most of us grief will lessen in intensity over time. And at the same time, grief will never really end. Though if we are able to move through the stage of meaning, grief can be transformed into something else. Grief can be transformed into something that ends up being rich and fulfilling. It’s worth noting that David Kessler’s work was influenced by him witnessing a mass shooting as a child and wrestling with the sudden death of his twenty-one-year-old son. He is no stranger to loss on a personal level, let alone having professional expertise in this field. Kessler explains what he means by finding meaning as the sixth stage of grief, relating, “When a loved one dies, or when we experience any kind of serious loss—the end of a marriage, the closing of the company where we work, the destruction of our home in a natural disaster—we want more than the hard fact of that loss. We want to find meaning. Loss can wound and paralyze. It can hang over us for years. But finding meaning in loss empowers us to find a path forward.”
What if we read the story of Doubting Thomas using the lens of grief to understand how Thomas behaves and what Thomas needs in order to find meaning?
What if we had compassion for Thomas not just because he had doubts (and doubts can lead to profound faith anyway), but also because Thomas is going through stages of grief due to the violent and sudden death of his teacher and friend Jesus?
This Gospel story can show how Thomas struggled with denial, anger, and depression. Read it again sometime with the stages of grief on your hearts. This story can show how Thomas was struggling to accept the loss that just occurred and then how he attempted to find meaning when it was clear that Jesus died and rose from death itself. It also became clear that Jesus was not going to stay on earth in bodily form with the disciples forever. So the end of the resurrection appearances by the conclusion of John’s Gospel represents another loss that the disciples would have contended with! This is a story full of loss and grief. It’s a story where we can see the stages of grief play out if we have the eyes to see what’s right in front of us.
In the end, Thomas can serve as a wonderful example of someone who needed to face his doubts in order to come to deep and abiding faith. And Thomas can serve as a wonderful example of someone taking the time and doing the work of grief. In so doing, Thomas finds meaning in his loss and finding meaning empowered him for the journey ahead. Not too bad for a disciple some have been fond of calling “Doubting Thomas” and just leaving his story at that. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Photo by Joe Dudeck on Unsplash.