“Jesus Meets Us Where We’re At, inviting us to believe and respond”- a sermon for Easter 2A (April 16, 2023)

Outside Spirit of Grace early on a beautiful sunny, Sunday morning.

I had the privilege of being with the good people of Spirit of Grace Lutheran Church in Holdrege, Nebraska on Sunday April 16, 2023. What follows is the majority of the manuscript I preached from, based on John 20:19-31. Thank you for the invitation and warm welcome Spirit of Grace, and thank you for the great conversations, hospitality, and great lunch conversation too. (I offered additional words of gratitude and greetings during a Temple Talk time as well, which is not in the text below.)

Grace and peace from our Resurrected Lord Jesus Christ who is with you, for you, and who loves you. Amen.

Setting the Scene
Our gospel story today picks up just hours following the story we heard last week. It begins in the evening of the first day. It’s the first night since the Resurrection. It’s Easter night. And the disciples are still trying to come to terms with what has happened. Even only hours after Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty, word is starting to spread. On this side of the Resurrection, the story of what God in Christ has done is spreading. But not even all of Jesus’ own disciples know what to make of it. Nor do they even all believe it to be true and real.

This week we hear the story we do each year on the second Sunday of Easter. A story about Jesus appearing to the disciples behind closed and locked doors, twice, and about Thomas too. In this story the Apostle Thomas famously says, “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.”[1] Even in his defiance to believe in the resurrection unless his stipulations are met, Jesus shows up and meets him where he is at. We’ll get to that though in a moment. Because the story has a lot packed into it today as it covers the events of two of Jesus’ appearances, a week a part.

A little before worship, some of the gathered congregation preparing for worship.

Questions, Emotions, and Trying to Make Sense
The story begins with the setting. It’s evening. The night of the day of the resurrection. The doors were locked. The fear was real. Though we don’t hear these questions directly in the story, we can imagine questions that might have been racing through the disciples’ minds. Questions like, “What’s next?” “What does this mean?” “Can it be true what Mary Magdalene has seen and heard?” Could she really have “seen the Lord?”[2] The wonder. The agony. The fear. The concern. The grief. All of these emotions and more are real in this story. All of these questions are good, fair, and right to be wondering too. And yet, it’s so like Jesus to come into the scene without fanfare or doors dramatically opening. He’s just present. And what does he do first? He says four simple but powerful words. “Peace be with you.”[3] “Peace be with you.”

Knowing the rawness of the experience. Knowing that the disciples, much like anyone who might have been a witness to these things was trying to just wrap their heads around what they have experienced and make sense of it all, Jesus meets them where they are at. He makes his presence tangible. He shows them his hands and side. And the disciples know then, finally, that Mary was telling the truth. They too have seen the Lord. And what do they do next in knowing and believing? They rejoice and give thanks and praise. The right response of disciples and stewards always for all that God has done, will do, and has promises to do.

This peace and presence of Jesus is an act of seeing and being seen. I’m a dad of two kids. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t feel a deep love for them. But there also isn’t a day that goes by that I feel completely inadequate at times. And it’s in those moments, of trying to figure out what the issue is, dealing with the latest emotional crisis, temper tantrum, or existential questions like “Why daddy?” or “What is the future like?” Another question that was asked this past week. Questions and acts, where I sometimes feel like all I can do is pray. It’s uncanny really. But taking that moment to pause, more times than not brings peace. Whether it’s through the kids just changing their minds or shifting their attention, or through a family member or church family member seeing us and knowing just what to say to change the mood and bring us back to laughter, hope, and peace at that moment its most needed.

These are acts and signs of God’s love and presence here and now. We see God in and through our neighbors. And we experience God moments in the unexpected as well as the ordinary moments of daily life, even as ordinary as showing up during the sometimes whining of a toddler, or deep questions of a child. Perhaps you can relate? Perhaps you have had moments of Christ’s deep peace just coming over you, right when you needed it, like the disciples in today’s story?  

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Video of the worship service from Spirit of Grace. You can watch or listen to the worship service and sermon here.

Jesus Meets the Disciples Where They Are At
Jesus doesn’t quite leave the disciples there though during that first evening appearance. He breathes on them. This is John’s version of the coming of the Holy Spirit. It’s a different Pentecost experience than what Acts tells of, but it’s powerful none the less because Jesus is present in it and is going about the work of making real God in Christ’s promise that God will be present and in relationship with God’s beloved. Always. And with the help and presence of the Holy Spirit, Jesus commands them and guides them into the work of forgiveness and reconciliation.[4]

Jesus meets the disciples where they are at, just as Spirit of Grace works to meet people where they are at. Especially those in needing of comfort, and those going through cancer treatments.

It’s not clear how long Jesus stays after he breathes on them, but the story implies he departs them not too long after this, and we hear that not all the disciples were present that evening. Thomas was not there, and when he heard the same message that Mary Magdalene had told the disciples before they saw Jesus, Thomas reacts with defiance. And does not believe it. He makes an ultimatum for Jesus saying, “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.”[5]

We know this story. Thomas often gets a bad rap for it, too. And he really shouldn’t. Yes, Jesus has been telling the disciples throughout their journey together up to the cross about all that would come. But clearly none of the other disciples really believed it either until they fully witnessed Jesus for themselves. Why should Thomas be held to a different standard? And Jesus has understanding and empathy for him too. Which I think is partly why, at least, he returns according to John a week later and meets Thomas where he is at. He accompanies him on his journey in life and faith and helps him to truly see and believe too.

It’s no accident, that the second appearance of Jesus a week later starts much like the previous one. The doors were shut. Yet Jesus shows up. And what does he do first? He says again those same four words, “Peace be with you.”[6] Something tells me that’s an important message for Jesus. But he also recognizes again the emotions and feelings and concerns present in his beloved friends. So, he does what he does, to meet them where they are at, and to give peace and assurance that his presence and promises are true. That God in Christ is indeed with God’s own, for God’s own, and loves God’s own, just as God in Christ is with you, for you, and loves you. Always, too.

Then Jesus does what he does. He says exactly what Thomas demanded and invites Thomas to put his fingers and hands into his side. He invites him to move from doubt to belief. And Thomas does, exclaiming, “My Lord and my God!”[7] Yes, it took Thomas seeing Jesus to believe, and Jesus hopes that this witness will help others come to believe even without seeing. But he recognized in this moment, not a sense of disappointment in Thomas, but a deep desire in him to believe. I suspect Thomas wanted to believe with his whole heart and being. But for whatever reason, his grief and pain kept him from believing without seeing his Lord and Savior.

What’s Next in the Story?
This story ends chapter 20 in John, leaving just one chapter left of John’s gospel. But the Gospel writer concludes this story putting it in the context of Jesus’ work and signs in the presence of the disciples. He basically comes out and says why he has written what he has written. He writes, “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.”[8]

Looking towards the beautiful and simple front of the worship space. Pictured here are some of the faithful of Spirit of Grace, including a couple celebrating their 65th anniversary this week. Happy Anniversary to them!

We fixate on Thomas in this story but this isn’t a story all just about Thomas. It’s a story about discipleship. It’s a story even more so about Jesus’ love, which invites us to respond through our belief and acts as stewards and disciples of God’s love. In this story we see the work of the resurrection from a week ago continue. We hear that God’s promises are true, as Thomas himself will come to see and believe. We hear again that Jesus meets God’s beloved where they are at, just as he meets you and me and all of God’s beloved where they are. No matter how little or how much one might believe. No matter what ups and downs of life one might be facing. Jesus knows each of God’s beloved and comes alongside each and everyone.

As he said multiple times in this story and throughout the gospels, Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” He comes bearing peace to comfort, welcome, challenge, uplift, sustain, and to gather and send God’s people and all disciples just as we have gathered in worship today and will be sent in a few moments back out into our daily lives and unique vocations. Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” knowing that there is work to be done. The work of the stone being rolled away has finished. But the work of Easter is just beginning. The work of discipleship here shifts from God’s work through the cross and resurrection to our response and lives as disciples. To the work of telling the story. Of proclaiming and sharing all that God has done and will do. And the work of responding as signs of God’s love through the belief in God’s promises and deep abundant, and abiding love.

What’s Next for Us?
It’s fair to wonder in this story, about what’s next? What’s next, for us? What’s next for you, in light of this Easter story, Spirit of Grace? Just as Jesus does for the disciples, Jesus comes and meets us each where we are at. Whether we are in a locked room for fear and uncertainty. Whether we are filled with doubts and fears like Thomas. Whether we’re gathered with other believers through the breaking of bread and the drinking of wine, or the sharing of the Word. Whether we are alone or gathered together. Or even whether we are out along the road walking quietly filled with questions on the way to Emmaus like we’ll hear about next week, or out looking for water at the height of the noon day at a well like a certain Samaritan woman we heard about again during Lent last month. Jesus comes alongside God’s beloved and meets us where we are at, no matter what situation we might find ourselves in.

In this story today, Jesus doesn’t say “Don’t ever doubt. Don’t ever question. But have faith.” He says, “Peace be with you.” And after meeting Thomas where he’s at, he calls him to believe. He does this because he knows that the work of discipleship starts with relationship, and through meeting one another where they are at- in whatever state of mind, emotion, or stress or joy life might bring. It’s in this spirit too, that I am with you my friends and siblings in Christ.

A visible sign of what might be next for Spirit of Grace, is the visual guide through the call process. I am grateful for the invested leadership of so many, present and behind-the-scenes of this congregation. God is most definitely up to something here, and it’s a joy to be a part of it and witness to it. Might you be being called to be a part of this faith community?

Spirit of Grace, you are not alone. You are loved, seen, prayed for, and held deeply by your siblings in Christ across the whole synod. It’s not lost on me all of the work involved in a congregation, especially one during the transition time between pastoral leaders and the call process. You all have stepped up and continue to step up. To gather for worship. To do the work that God invites and calls you to be a part of. To see and be in relationship with your neighbors, accompanying them as Jesus gives us all the example for and calls us to do so. And to be the church together here in Holdrege. I give thanks for all of you, for all of your leaders known and unknown, up front leading worship and music and behind the scenes making sure people are cared for and the work of the church here continues. It fills my heart with joy and deep gratitude to see you and be with you today.

Thank you for being the disciples you are here in Holdrege. Thank you for being part of the Body of Christ together, through the Nebraska Synod and the ELCA. And thank you, for following as Jesus calls and invites. To grow and serve as disciples, and to respond and share with your neighbors near and far through a deep resurrection joy as stewards of God’s love.

Summing Up
On this side of the Resurrection, early on in this Easter season, we join the disciples in making sense of what God has done and what God might be inviting next. And we do so by responding in joy, gratitude, and hope through the gift of faith and belief that are the work of the Holy Spirit active and moving among us now and always. For its through the Spirit’s movement as Christ breathed on the disciples, that we come to terms with what God in Christ has done, will do, and promises to do for each one of us.

Jesus has come near and meets us where we are at. Yes. God is with you, knows you, is for you, and loves you. Always. May we all believe and come to believe as those first disciples, and witness with hope, joy, and wonder what God is up to and inviting next. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Citations and References:

[1] John 20:25, NRSV.
[2] John 20:18, NRSV.
[3] John 20:19, NRSV.
[4] John 20:23, NRSV.
[5] John 20:25, NRSV.
[6] John 20:26, NRSV.
[7] John 20:28, NRSV.
[8] John 20:31, NRSV.

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