A sermon preached in St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, The Second Sunday of Easter, April 19, 2009
Most of the time the Scriptures we read on Sundays vary. There are a couple of Sundays, however, when we hear the same story year after year. This is one of them. Every year on the Second Sunday of Easter we hear the story of Thomas. Except that it is not the story of Thomas, exactly. It is the story of the Risen Lord’s encounter with his community. Because Thomas figures prominently in the story precisely because he was not in it to begin with, we tend to fix our attention on Thomas.
There is a reason why we read this story every year. It is John’s account of what we call Pentecost. Luke tells a story about how the Holy Spirit came to the disciples when they gathered at the Feast of Weeks, fifty days after the Resurrection. John, however, presents the Risen Lord recreating a community on the very day of his Resurrection. This story is of such importance that we need to hear it three times more often than other stories of the resurrection. We need to hear it and remember that at the heart of Easter is the new community that Jesus creates and sends into the world just as the Father sent him.
The other stories that we hear on this Sunday, however, are not invariably the same. Today the gospel is paired with two interesting stories. One is from the Book of Acts, telling us how for a time the Church in Jerusalem practiced a form of communism, sharing all resources voluntarily. The other is from the First Letter of John, accentuating the intimate connection between the fully incarnate and risen Lord and the forgiveness of sins. When we put all three of these together a picture of apostolic ministry and teaching emerges. Before we look at that picture, just run through your mind and see what images of apostle you are carrying. Saintly male figures in robes, worthy of stained glass? Beards, sandals? What about knives (Bartholomew), an upside-down cross (Peter), an x-shaped cross (Andrew), all instruments of exotic martyrdoms? I suspect that most of us don’t feel much intimate connection with the apostles as a group.
So, the picture that emerges: let’s look at it. First, the picture of disciples on the evening of what we call Easter Day, hovering in a room behind locked doors, out of fear. Into their midst comes Jesus. He speaks a word of Peace, the first account we have of the Peace being exchanged (or at least given) in the New Testament. Then he says, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” And that is the making of an apostle. Up until now they have been disciples, followers and learners, attracted to their rabbi, Jesus, and attached to his teaching. But when Jesus sends them, they become apostles. That is what the word “apostle” means: one who is sent. “Αποστελλω,” I send, is the Greek equivalent of the Latin emitto. So an apostle is one who is sent out on a mission, and is therefore the same as an emissary, or, if you will, a missionary.
Notice, however, that the apostles don’t just jump up and run the minute that Jesus says, “I am sending you.” First, Jesus breathes on them. Just has Yahweh had breathed life into the nostrils of the proto-human, Adam, Jesus breathes on the disciples giving them the breath of New Life. He specifically gives them the authority to do what he has notoriously done: forgive sins. The point of this account is that apostles are filled with the Risen Life of Christ, which is synonymous with the Holy Spirit. They also have the power of the Risen Lord. They are connected with Jesus.
Thomas’ absence from the band when Jesus first comes is an important detail. But like all details in the Fourth Gospel, it has more to do with the message intended for the hearers (you and me) than it is about Thomas. Because we, too, are the ones who were not there when Jesus appeared, we, like Thomas, have the problem of responding to Jesus when we have no actual part in the appearance episode. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet who believe” is deliberately said for our sake. But we are not the only ones who weren’t there when Jesus appeared. I don’t have the complete list, but I am fairly certain that Paul was not there. And Paul, writing his letters in some cases decades later, begins them “Παυλος Αποστολος,” Paul, an apostle… Paul is able to call himself an apostle because he is convinced that his relationship with the Risen Lord is as real, as authentic, as valid, as palpable, as any relationship that any other apostle had. Furthermore, he considers himself “sent,” on a mission to the Gentiles. It is not certain, but fairly close to certain that there were others—Barnabas, Silas, for example—who were not privy to Jesus’ appearances but who became apostles just like the eleven.
Through our baptism, we are committed to remaining in the “apostles’ teaching and fellowship.” That means that we are apostles too. In fact, one of the reasons that our tradition lays such heavy emphasis on confirmation is that the bishop, as the successor to the apostles (and thus an apostle) lays hands on us not only confirming us but commissioning us as emissaries in the apostolic ministry. We are sent, and we go with “orders” to share our testimony, or story, of the Risen Lord and what he has done in our lives. Jesus has breathed his life into us, and we go in the strength of that breath to do what he has done. That is what it means to be an apostle.
So. You think you can do it? Do you want to? Or are you back where Thomas was on that first Easter evening? “Fine, folks, if you had the experience. But I just haven’t had it yet. Furthermore, I really don’t much believe you, and I don’t want to be made a fool of. Let me see some evidence before we get too strung out on this,” etc., etc. I want to compliment you if you are like Thomas, because whatever else Thomas is, he is real. I have a feeling (and legend tells us as much) that Thomas made a very good apostle not in spite of his hesitancy to believe but precisely because of it. He was authentic, and I imagine that his testimony was credible.
In this last week, the news has been full of a somewhat frumpy, plain, unemployed Scotswoman named Susan Boyle. Appearing on a show called “Britain᾽s Got Talent,” she shocked audience and judges when she opened her mouth and began to sing “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables. Susan Boyle said to a reporter this week that she was totally “gobsmacked” at the response from around the world to her voice. One of my friends misheard her and thought that he had said, “God-smacked.” What a lovely thought! A God-smacked woman with a song that stands the world on end. Partly it is because the world loves the sound of her voice, and finds the song she sang beautiful. But the greater part of it is that Susan Boyle is real, unmodified and unpackaged by media, just being who she is, singing her song as truly as anything. That is what apostles do. They are touched with the genius, filled with the Spirit of Jesus, simply holy spirit. And they sing for the world their song of love, testifying to its truth, delivering its message.
© Frank G. Dunn, 2009