Second Sunday of Easter, April 27, 2014, Year A
Acts 2.14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1.3-9; John 20.19-31
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In February I read the book: Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. It had been recommended to me by a friend and I was curious so I read it. I read it with caution and a little bit of skepticism, but at the same time an openness, being as I do believe in life after death.
The book was written by a man named Eben Alexander. Eben was a Harvard trained neurosurgeon who never believed in his patients’ stories of encountering God or an afterlife of any kind. He went to worship primarily on Christmas and Easter, but for the most part he was a skeptic and an agnostic with not much faith in a present and loving God. He did not feel this way just because he was a scientist, but more so because as an infant he was given up for adoption. His adoptive family was wonderful and he loved them very much, but he felt abandoned, not wanted, and unloved by his birth parents.
One day he woke up with excruciating pain in his head and back. He started to have seizures and his wife called an ambulance. When he arrived at the hospital he convulsed and yelled out three words, “God, help me!” He immediately entered into a week long comma. Never once did his family leave his side. His church and others in his life held prayer vigils for him even though no one had ever come back and recovered from his stage of bacterial meningitis-encephalitis.
The doctors caring for Eben told his family that even if he were to ever wake up that he would more than likely be brain dead. They kept praying. To everyone’s shock, particularly the medical workers’ caring for him, Eben did wake up and he was far from brain dead.
After he made a full recovery, perhaps the only medically recorded full recovery from this particular severe spinal infection, he began to share what he believes to be an experience of heaven and of God while he was in his comma and not registering any brain activity.
In the book, Eben tries to find language for what he experienced, but what he makes clear is the message: “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever (p. 41).” He describes this unconditional love he felt and was told, “You have nothing to fear.” Regardless of what Eben really experienced, one thing is certain, he has been changed and his book is now a bestseller.
My purpose in sharing about Eben’s story and his book is not so that you read it or even to convince you of heaven’s existence, but rather to help us think more deeply about our Gospel reading. The title of Eben’s book is: Proof of Heaven. Somehow his experience convinced him that heaven was real, an afterlife he didn’t really believe in, and that heaven was for him and from the prospective of the book, all people.
Thomas too needed something to convince himself that what his friends were telling him was true: That Jesus, who was crucified and buried, was now very much alive. Thomas usually receives a bad rap for doubting the unbelievable news, but Mary Magdalene was the first to see the risen Christ and she did not believe he was living even when he was standing right in front of her. Until Jesus spoke her name out loud, “Mary…” she did not believe. Mary then ran to tell the disciples that Jesus was raised from the dead.
Peter and the beloved disciple then run to the tomb to see it empty and the grave clothes lying there as Mary had said. The beloved disciple only needed to see the empty tomb and he believed, but Peter did not. Our Gospel reading tells us that all the disciples were locked in a room in fear even after 2 of their very own saw the risen Christ.
No one believed Mary at her word, they needed something more. All of the sudden, right in the midst of their fear and doubt, Christ appears among them and says, “Peace be with you.” He breathes the Holy Spirit into their anxious and doubting hearts and empowers them to carry out the work he began, the healing work of the forgiveness of sins in his name.
The disciples now believe that Jesus lives, but there is one who was not present: Thomas. They tell Thomas with conviction, “We have seen the Lord.” But Thomas basically says to them, “I need proof…“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.”
It is so hard to believe sometimes that death is conquered, isn’t it? That God is real and present in this world; that God is with you and with those who suffer? It can be hard to truly believe that you are forgiven, that you need not do anything to receive the love of God, that you already have it; that it’s yours. It can be hard to believe that in the end everything will be all right because God has a plan for the fullness of time to redeem all of creation.
We are invited by the crucified and risen Christ to believe in Him and his love, not only when are lives are fine and good, but even more so when we are afraid like the disciples were afraid, when we are grieving when someone we loved has died, when we are feeling hopeless, or angry, or abandoned. We are invited by the crucified and risen Christ to believe in Him and his love even when we doubt and wonder whether or not the whole story is bogus.
When Jesus appears to Thomas with the rest of the disciples gathered round, he shows him that it is really him, scars laid bare for all to see. Jesus first offers Thomas peace. He does not scold him for not believing. He offers up his crucified and raised body to unbelieving Thomas so that he may believe.
Jesus says to him, “Do not doubt but believe.” A better translation is: “Do not be in unbelief, but belief.” Given what he needed to have faith, Thomas utters the most profound confession in all of Scripture: “My Lord and my God.”
This story in the Gospel of John is so important that we read it every single year the week after Easter Sunday. Why might this be? Perhaps because we all struggle with doubt or unbelief at times.
What amazes me about the Gospel reading is that the disciples were together for at least three years. They were very close friends and they would not even believe one other when those who had seen Jesus said, “We have seen the Lord.”
Maybe there are some days you need a little bit more to believe. Maybe you lie awake at night wondering whether or not God is real or if there is a place in eternal life for you. Maybe you are angry with God and struggling in your faith. Maybe you try and read the Bible but you have no idea what it is saying.
Faith and belief are tough because they require of us that we believe and confess things like: “We believe in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come,” even though it might be contradictory to science or what we’ve known or experienced.
We are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe and Jesus blesses this. We have only heard the witness of those who encountered the crucified and risen Lord and by hearing the Holy Spirit that has been poured out among and in us helps you and I to have faith…even faith in the midst of doubt, and questions, and uncertainties.
Clayton Schmit has said: “Faith is a mystery of the heart that the mind wants to solve. To admit that we take certain things on faith is to say that we are willing, in limited circumstances, for things not to make perfect sense (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, p. 395).”
There are all kinds of people who question whether or not Eben’s experience of what he calls heaven is true, but there are also a lot of people who believe him and it gives them hope. Eben’s experience is not Scripture, but like the resurrection of Jesus it cannot be proven.
Believing in the resurrection takes faith and faith has the power to help you and I live as if the resurrection really happened. As people of faith we don’t simply believe the resurrection happened and will happen for each of us, but we practice and live it out.
Instead of living for ourselves we live for the sake of service to others. Instead of worrying about tomorrow, we give thanks for today, knowing that Christ holds us always in his care. Instead of being fearful we take risks to bring new life into people’s lives who are hurting. Instead of holding tight to money for security, we give more generously, knowing that God has already given us everything we have. Instead of worrying whether we’re headed for heaven or hell after we die, we trust in the love and mercy of God. This is what it means to practice and live out resurrection life.
The purpose of the Word of God that we hear each Sunday, the day we come together to celebrate Christ’s triumph over death, is exactly what we read at the end of the Gospel of John: “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 no greater point to Scripture than to create and sustain faith in you so that you may live out the healing work of God in the world and believe that you and those around you are beloved children of God. It is as simple and as hard as that.