Signs of the Resurrection

I've never appreciated preachers who put Thomas down for his doubts, because I've always identified with his struggles to believe. I agree with Tennyson who claimed: "There is more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds" and with Frederick Buechner, who famously said: "Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving." Thomas' nickname was "Didymus," "the Twin," and I feel like he is my twin, my representative in the Easter story. I want there to be room for Thomas in the church because that means there will be room for people like me.

I don't think that the preachers who chastise Thomas are being fair to him; he didn't ask for any more evidence of resurrection than the other friends of Jesus had already been given. John's Gospel tells us that Thomas "was not with them" on that Easter Sunday when Jesus appeared to them. We don't know why he wasn't there; we just know that Easter did not happen to him when it happened to the others. They saw and heard Jesus before Thomas did; and try as they might to convince him that Jesus had been raised from the dead, Thomas wasn't buying it. He wanted to see, hear and touch Jesus for himself: "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." He wasn't asking for anything the others hadn't already experienced, but that simple request has caused many preachers to scold him as "Doubting Thomas."

Of course, a week later, Thomas got what he asked for. Jesus came to his disciples again, and this time Thomas was present. Jesus said to him: "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." In response, Thomas made the most astounding confession of faith found in any of the gospels: "My Lord and my God."

Then Jesus said something to Thomas that he meant for the rest of us-for those of us who stand where Thomas stood before Jesus appeared to him: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." Jesus is not going to do for us what he did for Thomas seven days after the first Easter; he's not going to appear among us bodily and tangibly. If you and I are going to believe, we will have to do so without "seeing."

My question-maybe it's yours, too, is "How?" If we are not going to see Jesus with our own eyes and hear Jesus with our own ears, is there any evidence at all on which we can base our faith? What are the signs of the resurrection?

Perhaps it will surprise you, but my reading of the New Testament tells me that, to a great extent, the answer is "the church." The life of the church is to be a witness to the resurrection-evidence to the world that Jesus Christ is alive in the here and now. The church is God's sign to the world that Jesus has been raised from the dead. The early church leapt into existence when those first disciples realized they had an unbroken and unbreakable connection to Jesus Christ. Enlivened and emboldened by the connection, they lived in their world with such passion and compassion, such love and grace, such generosity and power, that the only plausible explanation for their life together was the presence and the power of the risen Christ.

Early in the book of Acts, we find these remarkable descriptions of their life together:

They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread, and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (2:34-47).

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need (4:32-35). 

Such joy, celebration, and exuberance-such compassion, generosity and love-had only one plausible explanation: Jesus was with them. Because Jesus was with them, they gave themselves on behalf of the broken, bruised, and battered; they shared their lives with the least and the last. They had deep love for one another, tender compassion for their neighbors, and passionate devotion to God. That brilliant skeptic Frederick Nietzsche said to Christians, "I might believe in your redeemer if you looked more redeemed." He would not have said such words to the Jerusalem church living in the power of Easter and Pentecost. Everywhere you looked, there were signs of the resurrection. The early church was a vivid demonstration of the living Christ.

But even though it was brilliantly aglow with the presence of Jesus, it wasn't a perfect church. It was no less human and flawed than are our churches. It numbered among its leaders a denying Peter, a competitive John, an ambitious James, and, yes, a doubting Thomas. The same book of Acts that describes this church as a bold and shining witness to the resurrection is also honest to tell us that it was often embroiled in conflict and embittered by controversy. In that fellowship you could hear the noise of discord almost as often as the notes of doxology. If that oh-so-human and imperfect bunch could rise with Jesus above its own pettiness to be an Easter church, then maybe we, too, sometimes in spite of ourselves, can manage to be transparent to the presence of the living Christ. It is true that as we gather together, break the bread, tell our stories, sing our songs, pray our prayers, bear witness to the good news, care for those in need, work for peace, and struggle for justice, we discover anew that Jesus is alive among us and that "great grace is upon us all."

When, like Thomas, I am tempted to doubt the Easter message, I call to mind the faces and the faithfulness of the people in the church I serve. When musicians rehearse long hours to lead and lift us to the praise of God, it is a sign of the resurrection. When the flowers that grace our sanctuary on Sunday are divided into little bundles and taken to the sick and shut-in friends, it is a sign of the resurrection. When the homeless and members of our church sit down together for a simple lunch in our gym, when a quiet word of witness is spoken to a seeker, and when followers of Jesus pray and press for peace, I see signs of the resurrection.

When a man or woman, tired from the week's labors, stays up late on Saturday night to prepare a Sunday school lesson and comes early on Sunday to welcome those who will hear it taught, when children hear words of blessing and affirmation spoken to them by adults who did not have to care but chose to do so, when sponsors take vacation time to join young people on a summer mission trip, and when notes are written to the lonely and the fearful promising prayers and support, I see evidence that Easter has happened.

When people laugh and cry together over the joys and disappointments of their lives, when death is faced honestly and hopefully, when grace and mercy, not condemnation and harshness, govern our relationships, and when the church opens its heart and its doors to whoever comes yearning for the love of God, excluding no one, I am convinced that Jesus is alive.

I see it happen, and the wonder of it takes my breath away: Jesus embraces the world with the arms of his followers-our arms. He speaks words of grace with our voices. He demands justice and offers peace through our deeds of witness and compassion. Over and over again, by God's great grace, the simple and ordinary practices of the church are the means by which Jesus becomes real to us and to the world. They are the sights and sounds of Christ, present to us in his body, the church; they are evidence for the truth of Easter, signs of the resurrection, and ways to touch and trust Jesus.

O God, open our eyes to the presence of the Risen Christ among us and allow our vision of him to transform our doubts into faith, our fear into love, and our despair into hope. We pray in his name. Amen.