Easter 2B

April 9, 2018

Infected With Life

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.


There are some things in life I just don’t understand, and one unanswered question for me is why this morning’s gospel lesson is the prescribed reading every year on this Sunday. Generally speaking, the suggested scripture lessons go in a three year cycle. As many of you have come to understand, I like to preach from the Lectionary, and I usually preach from the recommended Gospel lesson. I expect the same readings to come up every three years, but on the first Sunday after Easter Sunday each year the Lectionary calls for this same passage from John to be read, and I don’t understand why. It’s a good passage of scripture, but I think there are other good ones as well.


The only thing I can figure is that this is traditionally the most poorly attended Sunday of the year. Maybe that mysterious body of people who created the Lectionary cycle decided that most church-going people will only attend services on this Sunday every third year anyway, so why not just use the same scripture every year. With that logic I could use the same sermon every year. Of course I probably preach the same sermon every week to some extent – at least the essence of the message is very similar, but I do try to package it a little differently.


But you didn’t heroically show up this morning to hear me ponder the mysteries of the Lectionary Cycle. Clearly I could deviate from my pattern and find another worthy passage of scripture to address, but this is an interesting passage to look at, and it’s probably worthy of annual attention.


I think we all probably connect with this character we’ve come to know as Doubting Thomas on some level. And it’s interesting to think about Jesus getting so literally in the face of his disciples. Jesus wasn’t in their face in a bad way, but this is a story of Jesus getting up close and personal. We’re told that he breathed on them, and in so doing he shared with them the Holy Spirit.


We just aren’t used to getting breathed on. It’s not a casual thing. Most of us have really short lists of people to whom we are willing to be close enough to feel their breath. There are those occasions when someone enters our space with their breath, and that generally feels like a violation of our space. I don’t know if the ancient Palestinians were as particular as we are about getting breathed upon, but I’m guessing it was not a casual thing – even for them, to feel the breath of another person.


But this wasn’t a normal situation. The disciples had assembled in close proximity to one another because they were afraid. It’s probably similar to the way people gather in closets or bathrooms when deranged shooters are on the premises. Unfortunately it isn’t hard for us to imagine what those disciples might have been feeling because we’ve seen video of how people are when they feel that their lives are being threatened. Fortunately this isn’t a situation that many of us have actually experienced.


I’m guessing there are a few people here who have lived through a situation that seemed imminently life threatening, but we all know the feeling of fear. We may not have found ourselves cowered down in fear of arrest and torturous death, but there are some fearful intruders we all hope to avoid. There’s a knock on the door we don’t want to hear, a doctor’s report we don’t want to read, or a call we don’t want to get.


There are many life-stealing situations that we all face, and there’s a lot of unmet yearning for life-giving opportunities. The disciples faced a very specific life-threatening situation, but it’s not unusual to find ourselves cowered down in unsettling situations, and I love this image of the risen Christ being able to penetrate the barriers we erect in hope of staying safe. Barriers provide some cover, but life doesn’t happen behind barriers – life happens when we come out from behind the barriers. Barriers can be useful, but they don’t give us what we really need.


The disciples were as good as dead as they gathered together behind that locked door. They were still breathing, but they weren’t really alive – not until Jesus came in and infected them with the Holy Spirit. It was then that they truly came to life and at that point they were empowered to deal with whatever the world would fling toward them. They became infected by the life-giving spirit of Jesus Christ and that changed everything for them.


Most of the germs that infect us aren’t so generous, and there are some that are incredibly disabling. I heard this amazing story on NPR one day about a man named Martin Pistorious, a resident of South Africa, who was stricken with a disease called cryptococcal meningitis when he was about 12 years old, and it caused him to lose his entire ability to function. It was sort of a gradual loss, but over the course of a few months he went from being totally functional to being totally dysfunctional. He couldn’t do anything, and the doctors told his parents to take him home and keep him comfortable until he died.


Well he didn’t die, but he remained in that state of total unresponsiveness for more than 12 years. He was totally unconscious for the first few years, but his mind slowly began to wake up and he became totally aware of what was going on about 4 years in to the situation. He was totally awake, but he was completely unable to communicate his situation to anyone.


And that went on for years. He was in that state for about 8 years before his family began to recognize some intentional movements on his part, but even then the doctors told them that he probably had the mind of an infant. With encouragement from a kind-hearted nurse they got a second opinion on the state of his mind, and that is when he began to reconnect with the world. He still can’t talk, but he communicates with a voice activated computer, and he is totally reconnected with life.


The really interesting thing is to hear him describe what went on in his mind during those years of disconnection. He said there was a period of time when he totally disassociated himself from his thoughts, and he did that because he had terrible thoughts. He was tormented by his thoughts. He would think about how alone and worthless he was, and in order to deal with that he said he became detached from his thoughts. You might say he embraced his own death. It was a barrier he erected to protect himself, but at some point, his desire to live penetrated that barrier, and he began to reengage with the world in his mind.


He lived in an adult day-care center for several years where they thought he had the mind of an infant, so they put him in a room where they played perpetual Barney reruns. He developed a deep dislike of Barney, but he learned to tell time by watching the movement of the shadows across the room, and he learned to predict when his father would come get him away from Barney.


He went from seeing his mind as his tormentor to seeing it as his only functional tool, and he used his mind all day to resist the bad things that were happening to him, to enjoy the small blessings of the day, to imagine, and to analyze what was going on. He came back to life in his mind, and over time he amazingly reconnected with his family and friends. Eventually he became a website designer, and at age 33 he got married. He has written a book about his life that’s called, Ghost Boy.


It’s truly a story of a person who went from death to life, and while there is no mention of his faith journey in this story, what I heard him talk about is how much he ached to be reconnected to life, and in a miraculous manner he did.


Jesus didn’t step in the room, turn off the Barney reruns, and restore him to life in an instant, but I believe Jesus comes to us all in different ways. Thomas certainly had a unique encounter with the living Christ, and while there are a number of ways to interpret what this story of Thomas is all about, what stands out to me is not how much doubt Thomas had, but how much desire he had for the resurrection to be real.


It’s a good thing to be filled with desire for life to be meaningful. We shouldn’t be content to have adequate barriers erected to keep us relatively secure. God created us to be people who have an appetite for life and not to settle for mere comfort.


The story of this man who lived in such a diminished state of life for such a long time is painful to think about, but it’s amazing the way that people’s souls often become so activated when their lives become so threatened. I don’t think you can separate the motivation of the disciples to get out and tell of their experience with the living Christ apart from the devastation they were feeling immediately after Jesus’ crucifixion. They were as good as dead, but they became infected by the spirit of Christ, and at that point they were going to share what they had experienced even if it cost them their lives.


Its amazing the way that Christ penetrates the barriers we try to create to keep ourselves safe and secure. God doesn’t just want us to remain alive. God wants us to be infected with life, and that’s what Jesus brought into the world – the spirit of true life. There were people who didn’t want that spirit to be set loose in the world, but it was a condition that couldn’t be contained.


I take great comfort in this story of Jesus breaking through the locked doors of the room where his disciples had gathered. I love to believe that Jesus is trying to break in to all of our lives and to infect us with true life. It’s not just a miracle the way this sometimes happens – I believe it’s a miracle whenever this happens!


And thanks be to God this is the miracle God seeks to work in all of our lives!



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