Bill Murray: You Didn't Have to Be There

You should have been there. Oh, it was incredible. You missed out. It was the best ever. The greatest moment in history. Oh, you should have been there!

I don’t have to continue because I am sure we have all heard one variation on this or another. For me, the most memorable moment was when I was 16 years old and a group of my friends, boys and girls, were going to Natchez, Mississippi, for a weekend trip. No parents and, most importantly, no chaperons. Just time together and away from the whole wide world as teenagers. My parents would not allow it. So, most of my friends went together and spent three days in Natchez, and when they got back, I probably heard the stories a million times in two days with one variation or another. But the refrain was the same, spoken or unspoken: “You should have been there! It was the best. We had so much fun. You should have been there!”

We have all experienced the same thing at one point in our lives. We miss an event, don’t go to a luncheon, or don’t even get invited, but people we love and respect turn around and have to tell us all the great things that we missed. We know what it is to be left out, to be on the outside, to not be part of the in-crowd, even among our own friends. And while the words may not be said, the implication is always the same: “You should have been there!”

The gospel opens on Easter night. Mary Magdalene has shared the good news with an incredulous group of disciples. We rest assured that they don’t believe because they are still locked in a room and hiding, worried that they will be next on a cross. Jesus appears in that locked room, shows them his hands and his side, and he breathes on them, gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit. And then, he leaves as abruptly as he arrives. After all this, we learn one little fact. We learn that good ol’ Thomas, the Twin, was not present. Thomas wasn’t there for one of the most important events in history. Thomas literally misses Easter! How do his friends respond? You guessed it, “You should have been there!”

Now, in the Greek language used to write the New Testament they have two types of past tense. One is for something that happens in the past and stays in the past. Technically that’s called the past punctiliar. The other type of past tense is used for something that happened in the past but keeps on happening for a while or even into the present. This second version is called the past continuous. Don’t worry if those terms don’t mean anything by themselves. But we know what they mean in our hearts because we have all been in Thomas’ shoes. The line is translated, “The other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’” But the word used is in that past continuous. So, we should translate it, and know that it’s true regardless of the grammar, “The other disciples kept telling him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’” They wore poor Thomas out. “Thomas, it was Jesus. He was alive. Peter got to hug him! He showed us his hands. He gave us the spirit. Thomas, it was amazing. I can’t believe you missed it. I can’t believe you missed Easter! You should have been there! It was amazing. You should have been there, Thomas! You should have been there!”

Thomas - oh, he is my favorite, he is my friend, my brother, probably my favorite disciple - deserved better. He shows up three times in the Gospel of John. Each time he proves to be an exceptional soul. The first is in John 11:16. Jesus decides to go to Judea, where his life has been threatened. He goes to help his friend Lazarus. And the disciples try to convince him not to go, but Thomas speaks up once Jesus has made up his mind and says emphatically, “Let us go, that we might die with him” (John 11:16). He wants to be with Jesus, regardless of the cost.

He shows up a second time in John 14:5. Jesus is talking about a house with many rooms and preparing a place for the disciples and all who follow. He is speaking cryptically to those present and clearly to those of us who arrive after Easter in the same moment. Jesus talks about leaving, and Thomas speaks up to say, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?” Jesus, of course, responds with the famous words, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” But again, Thomas is the one who wants to be with Jesus regardless of where Jesus goes.

And now Jesus has returned, and Thomas alone was not afraid. He wasn’t hiding in the room. But his friends wear him out as they keep telling him, “We have seen the Lord!” You should have been there! It was amazing. You missed it. Thomas, you should have been there!

Thomas responds like most of us by saying, in effect, “Stop talking about it!” The words are forceful, the verbs staccato and sharp, the meaning is clear. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and thrust my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Listen closely to those words. They are words of deep sadness, of utter regret of missing Jesus, of anger at being left out. He asks for the exact thing that all of his friends had received without asking. He just wants to see Jesus and touch him and be with him. In this third story of Thomas, he wants to be with Jesus and will do most anything for that to happen.

A week passes and there is more than a little tension in the room. Thomas is hurting and angry and left out. The other disciples, after Thomas’ blow-up, likely decide that they should stop telling him that they have seen the Lord. So, Jesus appears again in a locked room. He addresses Thomas directly and uses those same sharp verbs and hurting phrases, “Thrust your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and thrust it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” There is no record of Thomas touching Jesus. Maybe he did examine and explore Jesus’ wounds as Caravaggio painted all those years ago. Maybe he stood back in awe. Maybe he just wept as he saw his friend and teacher alive and bringing him back into the community.

Thomas then says the most important line in the entire Gospel of John. We miss it when we read the lectionary or when we mix and match Easter stories. You see, the Gospel of John starts out by declaring the Word was with God and the Word was God. But no one in the totality of John’s gospel can figure out who this Jesus is. They get close with one title or another but no one ever gets much past a broad idea of a messiah, or a prophet, maybe a Christ. No. Thomas, the one who has been branded “doubter,” the one who was left out of Easter, the disciple who was unsure and hurting - that Thomas is the first one to make the seminal declaration of faith: “My Lord and my God!” His story is the radical conclusion of the Gospel of John. He is the one who finally reveals the mystery to us of who stands before him. Thomas is the man. Thomas, the Twin. Thomas, the doubter. Thomas, the one left out. It is Thomas, Thomas, Thomas.

And the story doesn’t end there. Jesus continues the story to show that Easter is more than we think. He says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

That is what is revolutionary here. Jesus on one basic level undoes the chaos and frustrations among the disciples. It is not “Thomas, you should have been there.” In fact, it is the opposite. “You didn’t have to be there.” Blessed are you who weren’t there. The outsider and insider lines are blurred completely and finally. That’s one level of Jesus’ response. You didn’t have to be there on that first Easter to be part of the faithful, to be part of the community, to be part of the church.

But let’s go a step deeper. The whole exchange reveals something profound about Jesus and Easter. All of these things - the birth, the betrayal, the crucifixion, the resurrection, all of them - happened long ago. And yet, Jesus is unambiguous: “You didn’t have to be there” to be part of my work.

Instead of those stories being locked forever in time and only available to the 12 disciples who happened to be there, they are ongoing. Instead of those moments being past punctiliar, they are past continuous. Easter is not a once-upon-a-time-this-crazy-thing-happened moment. Easter is an ongoing action of Jesus in the world to make all things new. Easter and resurrection and new life are continuing actions of God in the world. You didn’t have to be there to be a part of this story. Jesus, through the actions of the Spirit in the world, continues to come to us and use our staccato, crazy verbs to give us the hope we need in a broken world.

Easter is not a moment etched in time that ended. The work of God continues. “You didn’t have to be there” to understand what is going on. And the very good news, the very best news for all of us who come along 2,000 years later, is simple and profound. “You didn’t have to be there” to have faith. You didn’t have to be there to continue to experience Easter. You didn’t have to be there to believe.