“For Those Who Have Not Seen” John 20:1-29, Genesis 2:1-7. First Sunday After Easter. Donald W. Dotterer, PhD, 4/28/19
This story comes out of South Africa. The Sowetan News reported that a Pastor Lukau of Alleluia International Ministries is facing lawsuits after a stunt in which he appeared to resurrect a dead man.
A video of the incident shows Pastor Lukau placing his hands on a dead man’s stomach as he was lying in a coffin. Suddenly the man, who is named Elliot, began to gasp for air and sat up.
Pastor Lukau exclaims on the video, “Can you see what happened? This man died on Friday. He was in the mortuary!”
When the driver of the hearse arrived at the church and heard noises coming from the coffin and saw the corpse moving, she ran away screaming.
When it was revealed that what happened was a hoax and a stunt, the funeral homes from which the coffin had been bought and the hearse had been hired filed a lawsuit. The matter has been reported to the police for further investigation.[i]
Well, even though we want to believe in resurrection, it’s hard to do so, isn’t it? We are naturally skeptical about such things, aren’t we? In the normal course of life, dead people don’t come back to life. If we would see such a thing, we too would probably run away screaming. But the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are the very foundations of Christian faith.
It might help us if we realize that it wasn’t easy for the disciples and other friends of Jesus to believe either. That is what our gospel lesson this morning is all about.
Let’s review again what happened that glorious day of resurrection, because the details are very important to our understanding of what it means to have faith in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Because you see this resurrection was no stunt. This was no hoax. This was nothing less than the greatest demonstration of God’s power in human history. And it changed absolutely everything.
Let’s go back to last week for a moment and the Easter .narrative. As we consider the gospel story, it’s important to remember that Jesus had been telling people all along that he would rise from the dead. And so in raising Jesus, God was only doing what Jesus said that God would do.
Mary Magdalene gets to the tomb first. When she sees that Jesus’ body is not in the tomb anymore, she runs and tells Peter and he beloved disciple, “They,” whoever “they” are, have taken him out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him.” So you see, it didn’t occur to Mary that Jesus had risen from the dead, that God had done what Jesus said God would do.
Then you have the “other disciple,” who may have been John or another follower of Jesus. The gospel says that this other disciple believed but didn’t “understand the scripture.” But .what does that mean?
Just what did this other disciple believe? That Jesus had risen? Or simply that his body wasn’t there in the tomb? There’s no way to know.
Then in Luke’s gospel we have Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of Jesus running and telling the disciples the news. But the disciples don’t believe it. They dismiss the women’s account of what happened as an “idle tale.” Resurrection, you see, is hard to believe.
I believe that is why we have the story of Thomas. He is known to the world as “Doubting Thomas.” But that’s not fair. Because as you have just heard, Mary Magdalene and the disciples didn’t believe either. They were all doubters. They were all doubters until one thing happened. They were all doubters until they had a personal encounter with the risen Lord. Resurrection, you see, is hard to believe until you’ve had that.
That’s because resurrection is personal. You don’t believe in resurrection because it can be scientifically or historically proven. You believe in resurrection because of faith in Jesus.
Let’s look at these people again. First of all, Mary Magdalene. She thought Jesus’ enemies had taken the body. When she met Jesus there by the tomb, she thought he was the cemetery gardener. She believed was Jesus called her by name.
Then there were the disciples, Andrew, James, Thaddeus, Matthew and the rest of them. As I said, they thought the witness of the women was an “idle tale.”
Eugene Peterson’s rendering of that verse is that the disciples “didn’t believe a word of it,” that they thought that the women were “making it all up.” They didn’t believe it until Jesus appeared to them as a group and he showed them his hands and his side. Only then did they believe in his resurrection.
Then we come to Thomas. He wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to the others. Where was he? We aren’t told. Maybe he’d gone out for groceries. In any event, he wasn’t there. Thomas didn’t believe what the rest of the disciples were telling him. He thought what the others had thought about the women. He thought they were making it up, and he didn’t believe a word of it.
But then Jesus appears again. Jesus allowed Thomas to put his hands in the scars, and he believed.
So what does this all mean? What is the common denominator when it comes to believing in the resurrection of Jesus? Simply this: it comes down to experiencing personally Jesus as the risen Lord. That is, to know him is to believe in him. That is where faith comes from. We need faith to believe in the resurrection. God gives us the gift of faith so that we might trust and believe.
But just how do we open ourselves to God’s gift of faith?
Well, that is why God gave the gift of the church, We come to know Jesus, we come to faith by worshipping him in church. We come to know Jesus by studying God’s Word in Bible study groups with other Christians.
We come to know Jesus by serving him, by recognizing him in the hungry, the thirsty, and those who need to be clothed. We come to know Jesus though prayer, by opening up a line of communication through which he can speak to us. We come to know Jesus, we come to faith by being his disciples.
In our lesson, before Thomas arrives in the room where the other disciples are hiding behind locked doors, Jesus comes into the room and greets the disciples. He says to them two times, “Peace be with you.” “Peace be with you.”
This by the way is where the practice of “passing the peace” in church comes from. Jesus asks that peace be with us, so we ask that peace be with others.
After giving the peace, Jesus gives the disciple something else. He breathes on the disciples and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit who will be their Counselor, their Advocate, their Comforter when he leaves them.
Now put on your Bible thinking caps for a moment. Think back to where someone in scripture was breathed on and received the Spirit. Where was it?
It was in Genesis 2, when the Lord God breathed breath into Adam and created the first human being, giving him life. We read that “God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the gift of life.” That’s where it all began with humans, the good and the bad.
And so it is that as God breathed life into a man made out of dust, so the resurrected Jesus breathed new life and new energy into his tired and discouraged followers. And they did nothing less than go out and change the world.
And so the question I think is this—what could we do if we allowed Jesus to breathe the breath of the Holy Spirit on us in our lives? Sometimes you and I feel discouraged and disheartened in our church work and in our lives, do we not?
But just think what we could do as a group of disciples, think about what we could do as a church if we opened ourselves so that Jesus could breathe on us and give us new life in the Spirit. We would have a burst of new strength and energy. The possibilities are unlimited. I believe that we need to do just that in this wonderful three congregation charge that God has placed us in.
So resurrection you see is all about new strength, new energy, new life in the Spirit. Those are the gifts that Jesus gives to us when we come to know him.
At the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, Good Friday came on a Monday when an accident triggered a fire that did major damage to that great, historic church. Although the walls were still standing, the roof and the interior were largely destroyed. It will take years to repair and restore it.
There is nothing quite like the Cathedral of Notre-Dame.
It is one of the finest works of Gothic architecture in the world and is featured in great art and literature. It was built to proclaim the glory of God.
Notre-Dame is over 850 years old. It took an army of architects and artisans almost 200 years to build. That means that the people who started work on it weren’t around to see its completion. Talk about looking out for future generations. Notre-Dame is still the point from which all distances in France are measured. So it’s an important place.The Notre-Dame cathedral fire was not only the big story in the world of religion; it was also the lead story on the world’s media outlets. It may become known as “The Great Fire of 2019.”
No doubt about it, the fire was tragic and devastating. But as is almost always the case in God’s created world, there is good that comes out of bad, new life that comes out of death. Over a billion dollars has been raised to repair and restore the Cathedral Notre-Dame. When the work is completed, it will be more glorious than ever.
I read that before the fire they didn’t have enough money to maintain the huge building and that it was in serious need of repairs. Now they can completely renovate it. It will be a resurrection. One of the things that has come out of the Great Fire of 2019 has been a renewed conversation about the idea of churches as “sacred space,” physical structures where God is worshipped and praised and people live out their faith in Jesus Christ. This hits home with us as we have had problems with the towers in two of our cathedrals, here at Riverview and down at Jefferson.
The response at both sites has been inspiring. These problems and the responses have reminded us that people need sacred space, places where God is worshipped and prayed to, places where people are baptized, married and buried.
You have heard the saying “if these walls could talk.” Well, what if church walls could talk? What stories would these walls tell? That’s true of our other two church buildings as well.
The buildings are still here, even though generations of people are gone. Think about all the prayers these walls have absorbed over the years. Think about the covenants made here.Think about the saints who have been laid to rest in these places.
Wouldn’t it be great if our church walls could tell us about those people? Indeed, if these walls could talk, what stories they would tell.
Our churches are not the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. But our churches have their history and traditions. They too are sacred space. Will they experience resurrection? I pray that they will. You, under the guidance of the Spirit, can make that happen.
May God bless our churches in their ministry now and always. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Sowetan News, 2/26/2019.