I preached this sermon on Sunday, April 16, 2023 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary text cited is John 20:19-31, when the risen Jesus appears to the disciples, including Thomas.
Many of you know that I was born in Northern California, and for the most part we lived just north of San Francisco. Now, a curious quirk in that part of the world: when you grow up in any proximity to the Bay Area, you don’t refer to San Francisco by name, you just call it the city, and everyone else knows implicitly what you mean. Within a several hour radius, you can simply say “we’re going to the city,” and they will assume that you don’t mean Oakland or Berkeley, or San Jose, or Sacramento.
For northern Californians, for better or worse, there is only one city that is the city, and it’s the one you leave your heart in, as the old song goes—the one that glows like a beacon at the end of the world; the one that is draped in fog and flowers; the one that is complex, and layered, and broken, and is yet still beautiful; the one that looms large in the imagination of everyone who has been there and many who have not—it is only this one that needs no other name but is simply the city.
And if you have never been to San Francisco before, let me tell you the absolute best way to see the city for the first time. You have to come by car, from the north, down through the towns and the vertiginous hillsides of Marin County, your view obscured by the terrain: steep, cypress-clad hills and winding roads.
And as you go along, any notion of what lies ahead is completely hidden from sight, until suddenly you come upon an arched tunnel in the rock, long known as the Rainbow Tunnel. Drive through the dim passage, ever so briefly, and as you emerge on the other side, suddenly, all at once, everything is there before you: the blue of the bay; the shadowy mountains rising up from the sea, reaching toward heaven; the Golden Gate; and beyond it, the city—the luminous city, indeed glowing like a beacon at the end of the world. You’re never quite prepared for it. Every time as a kid that we drove through the tunnel, the shocking beauty of that view took my breath away.
Now there are all sorts of unexpected views revealed to us as we journey through the world—both the literal ones waiting just over the next hillside, and the more figurative ones, too—those new insights and understandings that come upon us at certain points in our life and change us in profound ways.
Sometimes we can go looking for such revelations, but just as often they come to us when we do not expect them, when we are deep in a tunnel of one sort or another, rushing ahead, our vision narrowed, and then suddenly, the world opens up and the the landscape is entirely new to us. It can be wonderful, and it can be terrifying; sometimes it can be both.
The season of Easter is just such a moment, when a new and astounding vision unfolds before us. Easter is when everything that seemed impossible, everything that seemed dead and gone, sealed away behind our certainties and our sorrow, is suddenly standing before us, more vivid and alive than we ever imagined, inviting us to reconsider how the world actually works.
Easter is when our tunnel vision falls away and suddenly we see things previously undreamt of: that death is not definitive, that love is more enduring than we ever dared to hope, and that God’s purpose is not simply to make our burdens bearable but to bear our burdens himself; not simply to preserve our lives but to give us his own life. It’s enough to take your breath away.
And it is understandable that, emerging from the long tunnel of our painful histories, we might not know what to do with such a vision. It is only natural that we would feel unprepared for its implications, its possibilities, its endless horizons. As Fr. T.J. said in last week’s homily, resurrection is messy, because we are messy, and resurrection has come to find us here and now, just as we are: fearful, unsure, full of questions.
But don’t worry, we’re in good company, because you know who else was fearful and unsure, and full of questions? All of the first disciples! All of them—not just Thomas—needed some help in processing what it meant to see the risen Jesus standing in their midst. All of them had their breath taken away by the shock of it.
And it was only in Jesus ministering to them—giving them his own Spirit-infused breath, showing them his wounds, offering them peace and blessing, commissioning them to go forth in his name—that they were able to begin to comprehend the landscape that awaited them on the other side of the dark, narrow tunnel of grief and fear in which they had found themselves.
And Thomas, our dear friend Thomas, should actually be called “Believing Thomas,” not “Doubting Thomas,” for it is he who truly emerges first onto the other side of understanding; it is he who comprehends the fullness of the vision before him; it is he who realizes the significance of the risen body of Jesus that, though wounded, persists in life and love; it is Thomas who names what he sees, and who thereby gives voice to the Church’s dawning understanding of what the Resurrection is meant to show all of us: My Lord and my God!
My Lord and my God, it is you! It is you, wounded like me! Wounded for me! It is you, complex, and layered and broken and yet still beautiful, and loving me, loving all of us, loving this whole earth for being the same! It is you, glowing like a beacon at the end of the world! It was always you. It will always be you, forgiving, peace-bearing, redeeming, blessing, waiting to reveal yourself, through the dark tunnel, just around the bend, a vision to take my breath away. Now I see.
And it is this movement from not seeing to seeing that is, in truth, the heart of the message of this Gospel passage, rather than any dichotomy of doubt versus belief. Because the good news of the Resurrection is not about whether we can conquer doubt through the power of our faith; it is about the God who conquers death through the power of his love. It is about the God who comes to show us what that love looks like in this world and in the world to come. It is about the gift, the incomprehensible gift, of seeing something beautiful, hopeful, and true, even when we least expected it. Especially when we least expected it.
You might wonder, though, with all this talk of seeing, what to make of Jesus’ final statement here:
Blessed are the ones who have not seen and yet have come to believe,
It is tempting to read this as a sort of challenge, either to Thomas or to ourselves—as if we might be deemed more faithful, more favored, somehow, by God if we believe in the Resurrection without hard evidence. But I think this misses the point.
Because this statement, like those in the Sermon on the Mount, is structured as a beatitude (blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, and so on…) And beatitudes are not challenges, but are God’s promises of comfort and sustenance to those who are struggling in the world as it is. The ones who have forgotten to hope for any glorious new visions.
Thus, blessed are the ones who have not seen is not a gold star for the especially committed believers, the ones who are blithely certain of their faith…
No, it is a word of comfort for the rest of us. It is a word of blessing to those who have not yet seen the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom and yet long for it. It is a word of promise to those who look at the world around them and see only death and injustice and callousness but refuse to give up on the practice of love and the search for truth. It is a word of encouragement to those who are deep in the tunnel, who are deep in the tomb, who are in the dark, but are searching for the light, who are persisting on the path, who are pursuing the vision, who are trusting that somewhere, someday, the City, the heavenly City, the City of God, the City of a Redeemed and Resurrection Creation, the City long promised and long sought, will be just around the bend, glowing like a beacon at the end of the world, and all of us, complex and layered and broken and beautiful will get there, and the gates will be open and the risen, wounded Christ will greet us and say Peace be with you and we will cry out in one voice:
My Lord and My God!
…and it’ll be enough to take your breath away.