There is No Going Back to Normal after PanDemic or After Easter

** This sermon is a collaboration with The Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker, though we each took the second half in a different direction. Her sermon is also posted on this blog**

GOSPEL: John 20:19-31
…24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So 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.”… Read the whole passage

Today, we are 7 days on from the morning of the Empty Tomb. Yet, Easter has only just begun. Easter is not just a day, but 50 days. Not just a day, but an entire season of the church year. 50 days to celebrate the joy of the resurrection of Christ. And each year, on the second Sunday of the season, we hear the same story. The story of the disciples hiding out in a locked room and Jesus appearing to them. The story of Thomas missing the whole thing, refusing to believe it and Jesus returning a second time, a week later to appear to Thomas. 

This morning we momentarily return to the day of the empty tomb. For us the women ran back to tell their story a week ago but for the disciples we encounter in hiding, they have just heard the report of the women, only minutes or hours ago. Yet, even with this news, they are still hiding. Hiding because of grief. Their teacher and friend has died, and like so many of us when on of our loved ones dies, they likely found it hard to summon the courage to go out into the world. 

But also hiding because of legitimate fear. Jesus has been arrested, tried and put to death by the religious authorities and the empire. The disciples don’t know if they are next, if the soldiers are out looking for them too. Jesus wasn’t the first Messianic revolutionary figure to be executed by the Romans, and they wouldn’t be the first group of followers hunted down by the authorities either. 

And so they are hiding, with good reason to do so. 

Maybe until now we didn’t fully understand or appreciate the disciples’ response to their situation. Maybe we couldn’t understand what legitimate reasons to be locked down might look like before this moment. 

But we have a better understanding now. Now that we are also locked behind our doors. Now that we fear for our health and safety, and we are following the orders of health and government bodies to stay home in order to stay healthy.

And so there in the midst of lockdown, as the disciples hide from the world in fear, Jesus appears. Jesus appears bringing peace and breathing on them the spirit. 

Then Jesus moves on. 

The disciples are left with a split experience. A new reality has been revealed to them, but still one that exists parallel to their current one. On the one side is the grief, danger, suffering and death. On the other surprising new life, a teacher and friend returned to them. 

And Thomas misses the whole thing. Unlike the others, Thomas isn’t hiding away on the day of the empty tomb. Perhaps he was dealing with the experience of crucifixion differently than the others, maybe he had accepted this new reality more quickly than the others. 

So when he returns to the group, and they share with him the news that the women had brought them, and then that they had experienced themselves first hand, Thomas is not on board. Thomas refuses to be pinball back and forth, to accept these two competing realities. 

It must have sounded like the most absurd thing Thomas had heard. This alternate reality that doesn’t line up with what he knows to be true: Jesus is dead. That’s the world he is living in. It doesn’t make sense that Jesus would be alive. The disciples, his friends, are living in an alternate universe where Jesus is living, while he, Thomas is living in the world where that is simply not the case.

And we get it. For many of us, this world that we are living in seems unbelievable. It is not normal. 

As most of us are glued to the news on a daily basis, we can feel split between realities. As news producers try to soften the blow of the heavy stuff, we can be ping ponged between tragedy and light hearted stories revealing the human spirit. Case counts and death tolls, documentaries showing terrified hospital staff preparing for protected code blues, example of care homes abandoned by sick, terrified, under supported staff balanced off by stories of pots banging at shift change, rainbows and words of encouragement being pasted to windows, good samaritans braving grocery stores day after day to shop for quarantined seniors.

Split realities that hardly seem possible at the same time. 

It feels like we pulled back and forth between good news and bad news. Where each story we hear seems disconnected from the last. Where what was normal may never be again. We are trying, sometimes desperately so, to keep doing the things we’re used to doing in these new or adapted ways, while at the same time knowing that the world we are living in is not the same. Cannot be the same. 

It is almost as if we be believe that this pandemic moment is like a dream, an exception to reality. That life will soon go back to normal and we will all forget this awful time of forced physical isolation, this time of pandemic. 

Maybe rather than doubting that Jesus was alive, Thomas knew something that we haven’t quite figured out yet. 

There is no going back, there is no back to normal waiting for us on the other side. 

So after the empty tomb, after appearing behind locked doors, Thomas refuses to believe…

And then 7 days later, Jesus shows up again. Jesus shows up and brings again resurrection reality into existence, but this time in front of Thomas. 

Yet, Jesus doesn’t leave the two realities to exist side by side, at opposite ends of the room. Jesus slows down, and stands before Thomas and begins taking both worlds, both stories, both realities into himself. 

“See Thomas, here are my living hands AND the nail marks that they bear. Here is my breathing side AND the hole left by the spear.”

With arms wide and resurrected body on display, Jesus begins the work of tying the two stories together. 

“The suffering, betrayal, and grief that you are experiencing now, the crucifixion that you witnessed on Friday… My body still bears those marks” Jesus says. 

“And yet here I am.” Jesus says to Thomas and the others. “Here I am, in flesh, alive.”

Jesus ties together these experiences that seemed to be so far from each other. The story of crucifixion and death, of hiding behind locked doors in a dangerous world is now the same story as story of resurrection and new life, of empty tombs and impossibly to believe appearances. 

As Jesus stand before Thomas and the others, his resurrected body, scars and all, declares that their story suffering, sin and death is now the same story God’s story of resurrection and new life. 

It is the same way that Jesus stands before us, in the midst of pandemic. When the competing realities ping pong us between grief and hope, despair and release… Jesus reminds us again, that both stories belong to God.

Jesus reminds us that even in pandemic, that death tolls and rainbow window messages, that desperate conditions in care homes and pots banging at shift change, that frightened hospital staff and good samaritan shoppers, that all the good and bad, that all the tragic and hopeful, they all belong to God. 

That when the power of our own spirit is not enough to conquer the darkness, Jesus reminds us that he has gone first through to the other side. That Christ has conquered death, and will bring us through to New Life as well.

God is writing our story anew, and even though we feel like we are bouncing between realities, God is gathering our stories and us into the one story of New Life. The story that began in a manger, seemingly ended on a cross, yet continued on with an empty tomb, and with peace breathed behind locked doors and scars that show us the way to the other side. 

As Jesus stands before us with the scars and wounds of our life on his body, Jesus tells Thomas and us again that our hope lies in the one who makes room for all of creation, our hope lies in the one who brings all of our stories into God, and who brings us to New Life. 

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