It was Saturday night at the Vigil of Easter. The lights had finally come up, and Louise Williams was preaching, and it came to me: Easter happened again. In the midst of all the work, all the ritual, all the celebrating, Easter happened again. It wasn’t like, “it happened and I was so busy I missed it,” or, “I was beginning to think it wouldn’t happen!” It was just, “It’s Easter; it happened.” I didn’t make it happen. Holy Week was a lot of hard work. Worship leaders, coordinators, choir, other musicians, decorators, altar guild, we all worked very hard to celebrate. We celebrated something that would have happened whether we paid attention or not. If we hadn’t worked for it, we would not have noticed it. Easter still happens if you don’t notice it. My freshman year of college, I had a particularly rigorous night of drinking, fell asleep in my friend’s dorm room, and was walking back to my dorm the next morning when I realized, “Oh, right, it’s Easter.” Didn’t care. Working at it is, among other things, a way to notice it and care about it.
This is perhaps a way to understand Thomas in the Gospel of John this morning. Jesus tells him, “Do not doubt but believe.” Or, better, “Do not be faithless but faithful.” Because ultimately it is not about “Is this really Jesus?”; it is about “Does Thomas have faith? Does he entrust his life to Jesus?” There is a difference between believing and faith, that we’ve largely lost, and it’s unfortunate. Prior to the scientific revolution and the advent of contemporary earth science and historical methods, people in Christendom largely accepted the Bible as historically accurate. This had nothing to do with whether they had faith in God. Even the belief that God existed had little to do with faith. The Letter of James scoffs, “Oh, you believe that there is a God? So what!? Even the demons know that!” It was one thing to say, “There is a God.” It was quite another to say, “I trust that God with my life, and I am accountable to that God.” Just like it is one thing to say while hungover midmorning, “Oh, it’s Easter,” and quite another to be at the Vigil of Easter with a hundred brothers and sisters in Christ and say, “Easter happened again.”
Jesus challenges Thomas about faith. New Testament scholar Raymond Brown notes that where Jesus could reprimand Thomas for not listening to the report of the others, he only ribs him over wanting a hands-on demonstration. It seems Thomas is obsessed with the mechanics of the resurrection, which, while fascinating, are not the foundation of faith. Faith is the trust that God incarnate—God in Jesus or in my neighbor—is real for me, that my life truly is in the hands of others and ultimately in The Other who breathes life into us all. Thomas comes to faith: he confesses, “My Lord and my God!” Doesn’t get better than that.
That faith is not about the miracle; it is about the encounter with the risen Jesus in the community. My little God moment at the Vigil— “Easter happened”—rests on zero interaction with Jesus of Nazareth. I’ve never met the guy. I cannot speak for all of us—maybe someone here has met him in a dream or is secretly 2,000 years old…and I mean that; life is weird—but I am guessing most of us here share with me an utter lack of interaction with the historical person of Jesus. We belong to the group described as, “those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” As such, we fit with most of the New Testament audience and authors. It’s difficult to pin down when John was written, but it is at least fifty years after the scene in today’s reading, and may be more like eighty years after it. Not many eyewitnesses are still alive the first time the story is read. It is possibly first read at about the time of day it describes, a Sunday evening, after a hard day of work, when the faithful gather. And in their meeting, these non-eyewitnesses experience the presence of the risen Christ. That experience, that encounter, is Peace.
Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” twice, so it might be important. “Peace be with you” can just be a greeting. Just so, Jesus initially greets the disciples, “Peace be with you,” shows them the nail and spear marks, and they rejoice to see their friend. Then Jesus says again, “Peace be with you,” and the disciples remember back to the previous Thursday, when Jesus promised them that even though he was leaving them he was giving them peace: peace not as the world considers it—lack of open conflict, ready of business—but peace, wholeness, fulness, community, trust that God was in charge. Now, Easter evening, he tells them, this is what he was talking about. Wholeness, fulness, in community.
That Peace comes to the community of the faithful. I don’t find it anywhere else. The world tells me I can have it all on my own, if I just work hard enough, get in the right groups, wear the right suits, drive the right car, take the right vacation. The world will even tell me about “God” if I ask. The world will tell me that I just need to believe the correct things and pray hard enough and have the right enemies. And, of course, it doesn’t work. The world does not deliver. So the world tells you, you must be doing it wrong. “You can have whatever you want, so if you don’t have it, that must be your fault.” That’s what the world tells you. The world tells you everything except, “Put your love and trust in God and your neighbor.” That’s the only thing that works.
It’s like when you’re a kid, and you really want to tie your shoes because the cool kid in your class can, and you’re determined you can do it, so your mom shows you how, but you’re gonna do it yourself, and then she waits patiently while you screw it up repeatedly, and then she waits calmly while you loudly lament “woe is me who cannot tie his shoes!”, and finally she is still there when you say, “Mom, can you help me tie my shoes?” That dynamic of trust, of neighbor loving and trusting neighbor, remains God’s way. It doesn’t end with childhood. We trust our neighbors can help. We trust that God will provide. We trust Jesus when he tells us these two are essentially the same. We love God. We love our neighbor and help them. We love Jesus who shows us that these are essentially the same. There is Peace in that.
There is peace. Radical peace comes from entrusting our lives to each other and to the Holy Divine Other embodied in them. It’s not giving up on life; it is living live. If it is giving up anything it is giving up on the world’s phony steps to success, and giving up believing the world when the world blames you for its inability to keep its empty promises. Radical peace makes you realize that in the final reckoning there is very little the world can do to you. I think that is what 1 Peter is talking about when it says that we rejoice in the living hope we receive through the resurrection, “even if now for a little while [we] have had to suffer various trials.” The world doesn’t stop lying to us. Heck, it gets angry at us for not believing it. We keep ignoring it, trusting God and each other instead.
The community of trust shakes the world with its good news. At our center is a story of trust: Easter. It is no accident that I had my “Easter happened” moment while Louise Williams was preaching at Easter Vigil on our shared stories. Our story of trust is the story of a God who so loved the world that God had made that God sent God’s Word to be a creature, a man, to save the world. In this sending, the one we call God the Father entrusted all that God means to this creature, Jesus of Nazareth. And Jesus, being God, could do neat stuff—walk on water, make instant high quality booze, raise the dead—but it was always done to glorify his Father who trusted him. His final act was to “be lifted up” on a cross, not because a cross would be sufficiently gory to save everyone, but because such a death was an ultimate act of trust. Jesus had to trust that his Father would raise him from the dead. The Easter story is the story of God the Father lovingly keeping God’s Word, and raising God the Son.
That is the story Peter and the “other disciple” tell. It’s the story Mary Magdalene tells. It’s the story the disciples tell to Thomas. It’s the story Jesus challenges Thomas to trust. It’s the story the Risen Jesus challenges us to trust. Believe and live like this is the way God functions. And that shared story, passed down through the generations, is what enables me to believe though I have not seen. The radical peace in that story enables me, despite zero encounters with the historical Jesus, to say every year, every Sunday, “Easter happened.”