Closer to Fine

By The Rev. Lindsey Altvater Clifton

This may strike you as an odd comparison, but this text is a bit like the movie Groundhog Day; it keeps happening over and over and over again. Every Second Sunday of Easter. Every year of the three-year Revised Common Lectionary cycle we hear this story.

I suspect this is the case because we need the resurrected Christ to keep showing up in our midst over and over again until we finally figure it out.  Bless our hearts.  We are an awful like the disciples and like “Doubting Thomas,” as he has become known.  But I think he gets a bad rap for that, really.

According to John, Jesus first appears to the disciples the evening of his resurrection. Just that morning Jesus’ tomb was found empty and Mary Magdalene – a woman; a marginalized, scapegoated woman with a questionable reputation – became the first Easter preacher called, commissioned, and sent by Jesus himself.  So she goes to the disciples as instructed and offers what may be the shortest recorded sermon ever: “I have seen the Lord.”

And how to the disciples respond?  Did they immediately believe and celebrate?  Did they shout “Hallelujah!” or dance with Easter joy and run to share the good news with others?

Nope.  Apparently, they did nothing.  Or at least nothing that John’s gospel writer found noteworthy.  (Not that that’s the first or last time a women’s prophetic word has fallen on unhearing ears…)

Because today’s reading picks up right after Mary’s sermon ends.  It’s the evening of Christ’s resurrection and first appearance, and the disciples (except for Thomas, apparently), are holed up trying to wrap their brains around all that has unfolded over the last few days: the traumatic, state-sponsored lynching of their beloved teacher and friend, and now, seemingly, the disappearance of his body.

As one scholar notes, they are “huddled somewhere with the doors locked for fear that they too would be thrown out of the synagogue – their families, their community” (Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis, Working Preacher).  Death.  Grief.  Fear.  Lockdown.  These are circumstances with which we are all too familiar these days.  And yet… in the midst of all that… Jesus shows up.  Behind the closed doors and fearful, aching hearts, Jesus appears.

Only once he is standing in their midst, saying “Peace be with you,” and showing them his hands and side do they believe and rejoice.  For them, seeing is believing.

Sometime later, the story doesn’t tell us when, Thomas has returned from the grocery store, is back from getting some fresh air, or has finally come out of the restroom… wherever he was… and the disciples straight-up steal Mary’s sermon, saying to Thomas: “We have seen the Lord.”

Y’all… I’m not sure we should be surprised that Thomas doesn’t jump on the bandwagon right away.  (This isn’t the first time one or more disciples are slow on the uptake…)  And I’m not sure we should be judge-y about it either.  I mean, I don’t think even a really good sermon… much less a one-liner that’s been plagiarized… would make me believe such an incredible, ridiculous, unbelievable story like just-dead-and-buried Jesus showing up again.  I have (and likely always will) more questions than answers about this story that we keep telling and insisting is capital T, True.

I will fully embrace being a Doubting Thomas.  Because honestly, as I imagine myself in Thomas’ sandals, I’m on the same page he is; I’d have totally responded to my friends by saying, “I don’t think so y’all.  I’m not buying it… not until Jesus shows up in my life, like he did yours.” And if we’re honest, I think almost all of us are Doubting Thomases.

I’m pretty sure none of us keeps coming here Sunday after Sunday because of glitzy theology or sexy polity or dazzling doctrine.  Instead, along with Thomas, we insist on and hold out for an experience; a connection; a face-to-face, heart-to-heart encounter with the Holy One before our belief and faith really take hold.

And apparently this isn’t unreasonable to Jesus either.  Because he shows up.  Again.  In a shuttered-up, locked-down place of death, disbelief, and anxiety.  “My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaims when the risen Christ appears among them.  Not “Good Lord!  Good God!”  Not “Oh Lord!  Oh God!”  Not even “The Lord! The God!”  It’s personal.  Deeply and intimately so.  “MY Lord and MY God!”

And yeah, Jesus seems maybe a little crabby about the fact that it took so long for the whole crew to put the pieces together (he has been telling them this would happen all along, after all) when he says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  But he must not be too peeved because Jesus keeps showing up.  Seriously.  He shows up yet again… this time for a beachside brunch… in the next chapter.

Plus, the next thing we’re told is that “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe.”

So if these appearances and signs needed to be captured for us to come to believe, maybe, just maybe, it’s okay that we’re all a bunch of Doubting Thomases and Doubting Lindseys who need Jesus to keep showing up.  As long as we trust that he’ll pop in just when and where we least expect him.

Maybe that’s exactly what we’re called to do during Eastertide, this ongoing season of Easter that takes us all the way to Pentecost near the end of May.  Perhaps in these weeks, we’re to be on the lookout for how Jesus lives and shows up in unexpected places, among people who are either locked in or locked out.

Perhaps we are being called to let go of our death-grip on the capital T, Truth, in favor of swapping stories about all the many signs and myriad of ways in which Jesus is still present in our midst.  Because friends, you are resurrection people and this… the story of this community of faith… it is a resurrection story.

The storms came, the bottom fell out.  It felt like death because it was; many of you have endured unimaginable loss and grief as so, so many beloved church friends (and even pastors) chose a different path and called everything about yours into question.

But here you are!  And here Jesus is, too!  My lord and my God, we proclaim together!  You were faithful and God is faithful.  Still and ever more.  So no matter how scary things gets, no matter how much we might want to hide behind locked doors for fear of what is next or how hard it might be…  By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus will show up with us if we are committed to following his way of love and reconciliation, justice and compassion in the world.  Remember how resilient you are, disciples.

Best-selling author and nonprofit leader Glennon Doyle summarizes the tumultuous Easter story and so many of our life stories this way:  “First the pain.  Then the waiting.  Then the rising.  [Good] Friday, [Holy] Saturday, [Easter] Sunday.  It’s not personal, it’s just the Way of Things.”  “We can do hard things,” she continues, “Next right thing, one thing at a time.”

Even in our Doubting Thomas moments, the next right thing to do to find some relief from the anxiety and fear is letting go of those feelings and trusting that God unfolds the path before us; so we listen, pray, discern and follow Jesus.  “Way opens,” as the Quakers say.  And we can do hard things.

One anthem that has long helped champion me on the journey toward faithful acceptance and trust in wobbly-kneed moments is a song called Closer to Fine by the Indigo Girls.  I meet God each time I join a crowd full of concert-goers belting out the chorus to this tune, and this morning, I hope you might get a glimpse of her, too. Or that in it, you might hear Jesus say, “Peace be with you.”  [SONG]

First the pain. I wrapped my fear around me like a blanket; I sailed my ship of safety ‘til I sank it.  Now I’m crawling on your shores.  (Then the waiting. Cue Jesus; this is where he shows up unexpectedly.)  There’s more than one answer to these questions pointing us in a crooked line.  And the less we seek our Source for some definitive, the closer we are to fine.  That’s the rising.

Friends, my hope, my invitation for us over these six more weeks of Easter, is that we might embrace our inner Doubter and be on the lookout for Jesus, trusting that he will surprise us, that he will appear exactly when and where we think he shouldn’t be, that he will take our fear and uncertainty and turn it into joyful belief, if only we’ll let go of our need for answers, embracing instead all of our questions with curiosity and tenderness.

We can do hard things.  For there is one thing that we can count on as capital T, True: Jesus will keep showing up among us and in all the wrong places, especially among the wanderers and skeptics. For the Bible tells me so and the closer I am to fine.  Thanks be to God.  Now and forever.  Amen.

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