Thursday, March 31, 2016

The bookends of suffering

Easter 2c, April 3, 2016
The Incredulity of St. Thomas by Caravaggio
John 20:19-31 19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Judeans, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

There is something about getting a week of spring that brings hope. Having the doors and windows open to let in the sunshine and the breeze, smelling fresh flowers that are just opening helps me to trust that winter will not last forever and grey days will come to an end. I think I had almost forgotten what it was like to see blue skies every day.
Life can be like that- where we forget that things will get better. Of course, we have phrases to tell ourselves, things like, “this too shall pass,” or “everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” Those phrases can be great, but there are times when the situation is so difficult or complex that the encouragement is impossible to believe.

In the bible, those truly difficult times are called “thlipsis”, which is defined as “pressure, a narrow place that hems one in, tribulation, especially the internal pressure of tribulation, feeling confined or without options or no way of escape. I think of it as being between a rock and a hard place. If you’re truly between a rock and a hard place, it’s hard to believe that “this too shall pass.” It’s hard to have hope.

Although it’s not quite in the scripture we heard this morning, the word “thlipsis” comes up in the very next verse in the text from Revelation. It was because the people were suffering that they needed this word of grace and peace. This kind of tribulation wasn’t just happening to the original recipients of the book of Revelation. It was happening already to the early Christian church, as we heard described in Acts, and the disciples in the upper room lived it, too. That’s why they needed those greetings of assurance from Jesus, in which he says to them twice in our gospel reading from John, “Peace be with you.” Fear, doubt, suffering- these were all familiar feelings for early Christians, even for those who had heard the good news of the resurrection, even for those who had seen the resurrected Christ.

Yet somehow, there were some in every age who held out hope, who continued to cling to the promise that God would be with them in every circumstance and would bring them to a new day. In the acts passage, it is Peter and the apostles who put their trust in God’s authority even when it puts them at odds with human authority. In Revelation, it is John who assures the people that their present suffering will end, because the Lord is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. In the gospel story, it is Thomas who insists that he would know his Lord by the marks of his suffering.  These folks are the heroes of faith, or as we call them in the church, saints.

Yet as we see in the scripture, these folks were not perfect all the time- Thomas is not known as Thomas the faithful, but Doubting Thomas. Peter may have stood up to authorities in this story, but he wasn’t so steadfast when Jesus was arrested. And the folks living in the time of Revelation wavered so much that some of them wanted to be rebaptized after the whole thing was over. But that’s a story for another day.

The way the church came through that time and the way we humans get through these terrible times is by trusting in a God who brings a new day, even when it seems impossible. And when we cannot believe it on our own, we hold that trust for each other, greeting one another with Christ’s peace. For we know that just as winter does not last forever and new life returns, so too does new life spring from death, resurrection joy comes after Good Friday sorrow, and suffering will not last forever. Christ is our alpha and our omega, our beginning and our end, and we trust that he is with us always, no matter what.

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