Easter 2c, April 7, 2013

April 11, 2013

He Has Returned!
John 20:19-31

19 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.

I’ve chosen to combine the children’s sermon and the adult sermon this morning because I’ve got a story to tell. I’m thinking the children probably quit listening (and possibly adults as well) when I stand behind the pulpit, so I’m going to speak from the floor this morning. My mind has holes in it, and I don’t want to leave any essential details out of the story, so I’m bringing my notes, but the truth is that I know the details of this story pretty well.

I’ve got a friend named Bill who I met when we worked together at Camp Aldersgate. One of the things that was interesting about Bill was that he had a pet tortoise named Tom that he had found when he was about 6 years old. Now I don’t like to call undue attention to people’s ages, so to maintain a little mystery about my friend’s age let’s just say that Tom became Bill’s pet in the early 60’s. I was working with Bill in the late 90’s, and it was amazing to me that he had had the same pet for nearly 30 years. He was always quick to point out that it was one of the longest relationships he had in his life.

So about a year ago I ran in to Bill at an event and in the course of our conversation and our catching up I asked him how his turtle was doing. Bill always had to correct me that Tom was a tortoise and not a turtle, and only now have I come to understand the difference between tortoises and turtles and the difference is that tortoises don’t swim. Turtles swim – tortoises drown if you put them in water. I think I finally have that straight, and that’s your biology lesson as well this morning.

But I digress – Bill told me this terribly sad story about how Tom had disappeared in the early fall of 2011. Bill lives on a corner lot in Sherwood and Tom lived in his back yard that was very well secured with a fence, but a car had run through his fence one day, and in the course of repairing the fence they didn’t secure one spot very well and Tom had gotten out.

Bill posted signs in the neighborhood and called veterinary clinics and animal shelters and every other animal control agency he could think of but there was no sign of Tom. As I say, this was in the fall, and Tom the California Desert Tortoise had been hibernating every winter in a box in the garage for the past few decades, so Bill was terribly distraught about where Tom could be. Tom had been missing about 6 months when Bill was telling me the story and he was still very sad about it. Bill could imagine many things that could have happened to Tom and none of them were good.

I’m reminded of how the disciples were feeling in the immediate aftermath following Jesus’ death. They had gathered in a locked room because they knew what had happened to Jesus, and they could only imagine what might happen to them. They hadn’t been perfect followers of Jesus, but they were closely associated with him, and they knew that the same people who put Jesus to death might want to do the same to them. So they were hiding – and I think it’s safe to say they were hopeless.

Hopelessness filled this locked room until Jesus suddenly appeared and filled the room with his breath – his spirit filled breath that changed everything. They were touched in a miraculous way that enabled them to understand that the crucifixion was not the end of the story of Jesus of Nazareth. They experienced Jesus Christ in a new way and they were not only redeemed by the experience – they were empowered to pass on this redeeming story.

But the disciple named Thomas didn’t want to hear it. Thomas was out of the room on that first day of the week when Jesus first appeared. Thomas had firm convictions about things and he simply wasn’t going to accept their account of what had happened.

I think this speaks to the fact that we can never talk someone in to believing something they aren’t willing to accept. Jesus empowered his disciples with his breath, but I think we all know that it often takes more than words to convey the truth of the living Christ. The news of Christ’s resurrection often sound hollow without some kind of experience, and I think that’s why it’s important to back up our words with actions that reflect our effort to actually follow Jesus.

Thomas knew what it felt like to be in the room with Jesus – he had spent many days and nights with Jesus, and he wanted more than the testimony of his friends. They had felt his breath – he wanted to feel his wounds. God knew what Thomas needed and God provided.

I think John included this story to remind us that we aren’t all alike. We don’t all see things the same way, we don’t keep the same schedules, and we aren’t touched by the same information. Thomas is called the Twin, but because we aren’t told anything about his twin John may have inserted this detail in order for us to think of him as our own twin. There are few of us who don’t see a bit of ourselves in Thomas. It’s not easy for us to accept this story without some evidence. Thomas was just being honest about who he was and what he needed – which is not bad information any of us should have about ourselves. God knows what we need – we should try to know ourselves as well.

Fortunately God does understand the various ways we are put together and what it is that we each find to be compelling evidence of God’s resurrecting power. And this may not mean anything to you, but when I was visiting with Bill last fall when we were planning our QQUMC birthday picnic out at Camp Aldersgate I asked him if Tom was still missing and he said no – Tom is back!

Tom had been gone almost a year when Bill got a call from someone in the Sherwood Animal Control office who asked if he was missing a California Desert Tortoise.

And here’s what happened. A woman living in the Park Hill area of North Little Rock was putting her small children in the car one morning and noticed a large creature under her car. She was afraid of what it might be, so she called her vet, and he contacted a wildlife rescue person in Cabot and they came and got Tom. This person put Tom with an animal rescue foster family, and this was not an animal they were used to caring for, so they were calling around trying to learn what they were dealing with.

In the course of trying to figure out what to do the foster person called the Sherwood Animal control office to see if they knew anything about a missing tortoise. Bill’s neighbor happened to overhear one end of that conversation and said he knew exactly where that tortoise came from.

Bill actually had to get a recent photograph from a friend to prove his connection with Tom, but they verified that it was the same animal, and that brought about the reunion of Bill and Tom, and what I’m really happy to say is that we actually have both of them with us this morning.

Bill if you will come up and retrieve Tom from his hiding place I’d like for everyone to get a glimpse of this remarkable animal. I’ll actually invite the children to come up and get a close look at Tom if you would like. I’m sure Bill and Tom will stick around for a few minutes after the service for you adults who would like to get a better look at our special guest this morning.

I’ve honestly been sitting on this story since I learned of Tom’s return because it struck me as such a good Easter illustration. I don’t think we should trust that we will always be able to become reunited in this lifetime with the people and other animals that we lose through death or other unfortunate circumstances, but a remarkable story like this puts me in touch with the joy of reunion, and I think that is a least a foretaste of what God’s design truly is.

I think we can trust that God recognizes the way in which we become attached to one another and I can only believe that ultimately God provides in some way for our need to be reunited with those that we love. I think the resurrection of Jesus is a story of God providing for us in an ultimate way, and that we should live our lives without fear of being separated from those that we love. We can trust God, and if we will trust God I think we will be a lot more likely to treat other people as well as our whole planet with more kindness and compassion than with contempt and inconsideration.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ was a dramatic event, but it wasn’t just a show of power. It is a truth that we are invited to trust and to live as if we believe that the power of love will always overcome the forces of death. Love can tie us together in a way that will never be severed. Painful separation can occur, but reunion will happen. Trust and live with courage. This was Jesus’ message to the disciples, to Thomas and to us.

Thanks be to God. Amen


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