Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“Unless I touch the wound in his side, I will not believe.” (Jn 20)
The context in which we read scripture always uncannily affects the way we hear it. Today, for instance, when we encounter so-called “Doubting Thomas” (as we always do on the Sunday after Easter), it suddenly occurs to me that perhaps what was going on for Thomas was not a struggle with doubt, so much as coping with stress. What if we thought of a stressed-out Thomas, rather than a doubting Thomas?
We’re all under a lot of stress just now. It shows up in all sorts of ways. An unexpectedly sharp word to a spouse, or a child, or a pet. Strange, menacing dreams that we cannot begin to decipher. Low-grade feelings of depression. Tight, sore muscles. I hear it in my own voice. I feel it in my own body.
Which makes me more attuned than before, to seeing the multiple and vivid signs of stress in the stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Peter’s lapse into denying himself, by denying Jesus. The disciples’ flight, and then their hiding out of fear behind closed doors in a kind of self-quarantine. The self-preoccupation of the disciples on the road to Emmaus that blinds them to recognizing Jesus when we walks alongside them. And, of course, Thomas’ own irritable dismissal of what the others tell him: “Damn it!” you can imagine him snapping, “here we all are, afraid for our lives, and now you’re telling me you’ve seen Jesus. Give me a break!”
Stress has a funny way of bringing out the worst in us. You might think, that when things get difficult, we would resort to our best selves as a coping mechanism. But often it’s the other way around. Our thinking gets muddied, rather than clarified. Our temper grows short, rather than patient. Our imagination gets dulled, rather than inspired. Our confidence goes limp, rather than girding itself up.
And that, I think, is where Thomas was at on Easter Day. Confused, ill tempered, narrow minded, wilted. And it’s where many of us are at as well right now.
In this week’s New Yorker, David Remnick writes about the phenomenon that has taken hold in the quarantined city of New York of nightly cheering at 7 pm. In one sense, the cheering is itself a sign of stress, and of the need for some cathartic release from it.
But the cheering is also a communal experience of coming together out of self-imposed isolation, to recognize those who are helping to make this pandemic bearable, by continuing to labor (sometimes at great personal cost) for the rest of us: ER doctors and nurses, grocery clerks, deliverymen, sanitation workers and pharmacists—even artists, musicians, and actors who though unemployed, create and post their work online as encouragement.
And perhaps with the release that comes from that nightly cheering, also comes a reminder that we are not merely enduring individual loss and isolation: this is also something we are in together, and we are giving collective birth to the future that will come after this trauma is over. Our individual isolation, also becomes a new social solidarity. So even those who are most shut in at this particular moment, are in some way contributing to a great, shared delivery of a future that has not yet come, or perhaps even at yet been imagined.
I hope that is a perspective we will all take to heart: that our isolation is not pointless or merely necessary, but pregnant with possibility. Imagine the potential of an entire nation—globe, really—forced into a period of Sabbath reflection and recalibration, even while there are many others who face intense struggles of life and death every day that have a way of forcing life’s priorities to the forefront.
Perhaps this is what happened to Thomas, on the second occasion when Jesus appeared to the disciples, when he was able to hear Jesus’ greeting: “Peace be with you.” In those words, there was hope for a future that without Jesus, had seemed infinitely remote and unattainable—distressingly so. But in Jesus’ un-extinguished life, here again was hope for a future yet to be built, the New Creation of Jesus’ promise. Thomas’ stress over what had happened, turned in that moment to a hope for what might happen.
So in these stressful days—and let’s not pretend that they are not, whether we are at home alone, with our children, or on the front lines of the fight—let your thoughts turn to what lies ahead, at least from time to time. What is it that makes resisting this plague worth the effort, and what future do you imagine is being birthed by the pangs of the current day? What kind of world is it that you believe is worth fighting for, even now? Is this a great turning point in history, at which we will fail to turn? Or will it be a rekindling of our common identity as human beings, and of our sense of oneness with creation?
The words we read today from First Peter might inspire our response: “By God’s great mercy God has given to us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable … and unfading.”
We are all prophets of a future not yet our own. Amen.