Second Sunday of Easter, Year A
Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ's Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I suspect that we are all well acquainted with the upper room. It’s the place where we hang out when we’re afraid, when we’re overwhelmed. The doors and windows are shut tight, barricaded against anything we feel might threaten us. There’s no streaming sunlight to inspire us, just the dim gloom of a weak lamp. There’s no breeze to enliven us, just the staleness of our own hot air. Nothing new ever enters that room. It’s safe from danger and cut off from hope. Doubt bounces wildly from one stone wall to the other like a racquetball, sometimes hitting us upside the head and making it hard to focus. Often we lock ourselves up in this room with other people. But they’re always people who think just like we do, who look just like we do. They are “safe people,” people who can share in our feast of fear. Other times, we wander the world, but keep the four walls of the upper room around us like blinders. Even when we’re out and about, going through the motions of a journey, our hearts, souls, and minds are still closed up tight in that little room.
There are people who would like to keep us behind the walls of the upper room. They’d like to keep us uncertain and afraid. For political advantage, or for personal gain, they expertly lob balls of doubt into the room. In the first century, I can imagine those in power launching all kinds of distressing ideas about Jesus.
“He was crazy, you know,” they whispered. “Thought he was the Son of God and the King of Israel!” Whack, goes the ball.
“I heard that some women claim that his tomb is empty. Well, my cousin’s neighbor’s friend saw some women sneaking out of the burial garden last night with a body. You can’t trust what women say, you know. They’re too emotional. They make stuff up all the time.” Whack goes another one.
“Can you believe that his disciples left their jobs and families to follow this loser? What a shame. Mark my words, they’ll all end up on crosses, too.” Double whack.
How those threatening balls of doubt must have echoed around that upper room in the days following Jesus’ death. They would have caused such pain and paralysis to his stunned disciples. I’m not at all surprised that Thomas had trouble believing that Jesus had been there while he was out. In the upper room, you can’t even trust your friends anymore.
These days, we might wonder about the implausibility of resurrection. We might fret over why God lets bad things happen to good people. I’m not sure, though, that these are the questions that drive us into locked rooms. These aren’t the questions that throw our very existence into an uproar. I think that we progressive Christians have done a pretty good job of learning to embrace our religious doubt as a part of our faith journey. We encourage healthy questioning and rational thought. We welcome science. We are proud of our slogan that there’s no need to check your brains at the door in the Episcopal Church!
If only that meant that we no longer deal with the fear and paralysis of the upper room. These days, it seems as if the sowers of doubt are attacking not just Christians, but also our fellow truth-seekers, the scientists. The recent book and documentary, The Merchants of Doubt, describes how paid pseudo-scientists kept us in doubt for years about the dangers of things like cigarette smoking, sugar consumption, and the chemical DDT. While we huddled in doubt and indecision, companies made millions of dollars. As the protesters in the world’s streets this weekend know all too well, these days, the balls of doubt that are being flung deal with climate change, with environmental protections, with what news is real and what news is fake, even with the truth itself.
“There’s no consensus,” the doubt-merchants proclaim. Whack goes that hard rubber ball.
“There’s considerable uncertainty about the data,” they whisper. Whack.
“How sure can we be?” they coax. Another whack.
“You’re not an expert—how do you know who is telling the truth?” Double whack.
Like Jesus’ disciples, we don’t know. We’re not experts. We don’t want to hang our lives on a lie. We don’t want to look foolish. We don’t want to upend our world for no good reason. We don’t want to risk the consequences of change. So we huddle inside the gray, airless upper room, afraid to take any action greater than clicking around aimlessly on the Internet, wondering who and what to believe.
It’s in the room, however, that Jesus appears to his fearful, doubting disciples—not just once, but as many times as it takes to reach out to us all. Our walls can’t keep him out. Neither can our despair or our uncertainty discourage him from coming to us. Jesus himself is truth. To know truth is to be in relationship with Jesus. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he promises us. Knowing Jesus isn’t having the right answers. It is opening ourselves to his presence with us.
In Jesus’ presence, we feel frenzy give way to peace. “Peace be with you,” Jesus says first to the disciples. “Peace be with you,” he says to Thomas. For Jesus, this is more than a greeting, more than a formality. Remember Jesus’ words at the Last Supper: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Peace, shalom, is wholeness. It is completeness and well-being. It is reconciliation. It is oneness with God and neighbor and world. The peace that the resurrected Jesus brings with him into the upper room is reflected in those glorious words from the book of Revelation: “Look and see, the dwelling place of God is with human beings … God will wipe away every tear from their eyes … Look and see, I make all things new.” The peace of the resurrected Jesus is the peace of creation the way that God means for it to be. A creation made new. A creation ripped from the grasping hands of the merchants of doubt.
In Jesus’ presence, we also feel despair give way to inspiration. Bishop Jake Owensby points out that the root of the verb “to inspire” means “to fill with breath.” When Jesus breathes on the disciples, he’s not just doing some strange ancient magical act. He’s filling them with new life, with new energy, with God’s energy. He’s blowing the dust from their minds so that they can think in a new way. He’s blowing open their hearts so that they can love in a new way. He’s fortifying them against the merchants of doubt. He’s giving them the strength to go back out into a hostile, self-seeking world and to live lives of reconciliation and healing.
The merchants of doubt want to paralyze and divide. They seek to profit from inaction and confusion and obfuscation of truth. Their effectiveness depends on their remaining hidden and unknown. Their effectiveness depends on us remaining asleep in the upper room. They are no match for the risen Christ. In the words of poet Christian Wiman, the risen Christ comes “letting grace wake love from our intense, self-enclosed sleep.” He reveals himself in a human gesture, in the bread and wine, in scripture, in music, in nature, in community, always bearing his wounds and helping us to recognize our own. To believe, after all, comes from the Old English root “to love.” In these difficult days, when you don’t know where to turn, or who to believe, when the merchants of doubt have you in confusion, remember the peace of Christ, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Breathe and reach out your hand in love. Bear your wounds. Revel in relationship. Jesus promises us that through believing, through living in his love, we will indeed “have life in his name.”