A Sermon, John 20: 24 – 29, By Rev. Jeff Grant
It was my daughter’s eighteen birthday.
Now you all know that an eighteenth birthday is a very big deal in the life of a young woman. And in the life of a family. This was a day she’d been waiting for her entire life – a big day she talked about endlessly for years, and years. She wanted a party, a big party, with all her friends and family to be there – with presents. Lots and lots of presents.
I woke up on the morning of my daughter’s eighteenth birthday and I wanted to run into her bedroom and give her a big hug and a kiss. I wanted to celebrate with her this wonderful, magical day in her life. But in our family, this was not to happen.
Instead, I woke up, walked down the hall and found that there were already five men waiting to make calls on the telephones. I was in prison – in the first month of my prison bid at the Allenwood Low Security Federal Correctional Institution in White Deer, Pennsylvania – and I would miss my daughter’s eighteenth birthday party.
As I would miss so many other family events during the time that I was incarcerated.
It took me over an hour to get a phone – I prayed as I dialed that I could get through and that she would pick up the phone. When she picked it up, I screamed into the phone “Happy Birthday Honey,” – and she said, “Thanks Dad, I love you.” I said, “I love you too….and I’m sorry I can’t be with you today.” She told me, “It’s okay Dad. It’s Okay.”
She told me that it was Okay, but we both knew that it wasn’t Okay.
I think I know a little bit about how Thomas might have felt that day when he found out that he has missed a huge event in his own family – his own community. Where was Thomas? This Gospel does not tell us – and as the story does not appear in any of the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke – we will never know where Thomas was when Christ first reappeared to the other Ten Apostles.
But I don’t think it is nearly as important to postulate where Thomas was as to consider why John wrote his Gospel this way. That is, why did John have one Apostle who was different than the rest when the risen Christ appeared from the dead? Could it have been that John wanted us to identify with this man – who was different from the others and who had missed the greatest and most anticipated event in the life of his community – and behaved in a decidedly human way. Perhaps in a jealous way, hurt way, confused way, fearful way. In a doubtful way.
So imagine the conversation – Thomas comes back from wherever he was, and the first thing that happens is that the other Ten Apostles rush over to him and tell him – “Thomas, you won’t believe what happened while you were away? Christ the Lord was here!”
Does Thomas gush over the news? Does he say, “Christ was here? That’s Fantastic!” No. Instead Thomas retreats into himself – into his own head. He can’t See or hear what the other Apostles are saying. He can’t be present for them or their Good News. Instead, he talks about his own doubts and fears – and goes back into his own place of isolation. He says, “Unless I See the mark…Unless I put my hands in his side, I will not believe.” He has been away – has been Unseen and that’s all he knows.
How many of you Dads have come home after working a long, hard day at work – sweaty from a bus ride, a train ride or a long car ride and feel bombarded at the front door by your kids who want to tell you about their day? How many of you Moms have been shuttling around your kids in the back seat of the car – and just wished and prayed that they would just stop asking question after question until it put you over the top.
Now just imagine what it is like for a man or a woman after a five or ten year separation from their family because they are in prison, or for a drug addict or alcoholic, or for people so poor that they have to come to this country illegally to send money to their kids back home. What is it like when they come home? What do they say to their kids – kids they hardly know – kids they’ve barely Seen – kids whose birthday parties they have missed?
So, who’s had it worse? The people away – the people in prison – or the families left back home? I’m not sure I know. I can tell you that in Thomas’s case he didn’t ask about his family when he got back – he only talked about his fears, his doubts. I get it, I understand. Incarcerated men and women go through huge trauma with little support and guidance. Who teaches them the life skills to be understanding, empathetic and compassionate? Even towards their own families. They have spent years – sometimes decades – being away. Being invisible. Being Unseen.
What happens to Thomas? Despite his doubt, despite his inability to See what the others have Seen – he is given a second chance. Christ appears a second time, and this time Christ offers him the opportunity to allay all of his doubts and fears. But it comes with a moral question, and a blessing to last the ages: Christ says “Have you believed because you have Seen me? Blessed are those who have not Seen me and yet have come to believe.”
In case you missed it in this Gospel story – Christ offered Thomas a second chance. Thomas, someone who had been Unseen and did not See Christ as he first rose – was offered a second chance to See. Isn’t hope and inspiration for a second chance what everybody is looking for in life? – Especially people on the margins. People who have made mistakes? Or maybe People who just come home too exhausted to pay attention to their children on any particular day?
This Gospel story tells that a second chance to See things differently is available to anybody and everybody.
Our theme of the Unseen is prevalent throughout literature. In John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, two schoolboys, John & Owen are talking in the schoolyard about the meaning of belief. As twilight falls, Owen asks John if he has any doubt that a grey granite statue of Mary Magdalene is there before his eyes. Of course John says he has no doubt. As it becomes pitch black and neither can See the statue, Owen asks John again if he has any doubt that the statue is there – of course John again has no doubt. Owen turns to John and tells him “Now you know how I feel about God – I can’t See him but I absolutely know he is there.”
In the book, “Tattoos on the Heart,” by Gregory Boyle, he writes about how the issue of being Unseen is especially true for people on the margins. He writes, “Our locating ourselves with those who have been endlessly excluded becomes an act of Visible protest…. Only when we can See a community where the outcast is valued and appreciated will we abandon the values that seek to exclude.”
The need for us to See our outcasts, and their suffering, was a point made by a friend of mine who was a Visiting Professor at Wesleyan University who also teaches inmates in Connecticut State Prisons. She commented, “It’s remarkable that only a wound proves to Thomas that Jesus is who he says he is. We tend to want only proofs of strength to erase our doubts. Jesus offers a proof of his wounds instead.”
Jesus reveals himself to be broken and vulnerable – and it is within this brokenness that Thomas can fully See, relate to Him and accept his second chance. Thomas’s acceptance of his brokenness is the key to his second chance.
As the poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen’s put it in one of his most famous song lyrics:
–There’s a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in.
There is a crack in everything. Sometimes we See the light, and sometimes we can’t yet See it and we have to rely on faith – or on others. Even Mother Theresa went for years without Seeing or experiencing the presence of God – but she still kept on praying and doing good works. Mother Theresa called it “the dark night of the soul.”
So what is our imperative – our Calling – both as Christians and as Members a Justice Impacted Community? In what ways can we help the Unseen to be Seen – and to See the presence of God and Christ in their lives more clearly? To accept other people’s brokenness as we learn in new ways to accept our own? And in so doing help others to obtain their second chance in life?
It has been fourteen years since my daughter’s eighteenth birthday – and I’m proud to say that I’ve celebrated many birthdays with her since. And many birthdays with my wife Lynn, children, grandchildren, other family members and friends We have all learned to count our blessings every day, and not our bruises. But, as we all know, bruises are a part of life – we just don’t have to suffer because of them.
We don’t have to suffer – and we don’t have to remain Unseen – as we live this blessed and wonderful life because Christ – the one who suffered most – suffered for us all.