Harrowing Of Hell
April 27, 2014

“Do Not Doubt, But Believe”

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

Acts 2:14a, 22-32, John 20:19-31

In the name of God; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Let us for a moment; try to imagine what it might have been like to be gathered in that room that night.  Your teacher, your mentor, your friend has just died, executed in a most brutal fashion at the hands of the despised authorities.  His body was lovingly and extravagantly anointed in one hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes, wrapped in linen cloths, and finally laid to rest in the tomb.

The healing could begin, some closure after those turbulent and violent final days, but then Mary Magdalene discovered the missing body and the empty tomb.  And that was it, the grand finale, the punch line, the ridiculously simple explanation for why we are here today, this second Sunday of Easter, a missing body and a resurrection; the resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God that gave us eternal life.  But the story doesn’t end there, it actually begins again…

The disciples are emotionally exhausted.  The resurrection must have been terrifying.  It sent them right over the edge; so here they are, cowering behind locked doors waiting to see what surprise will happen next.  And Jesus certainly doesn’t disappoint.  But it’s interesting:  they are hiding behind closed doors and the Greek word for closed is kleisto.  Kleisto is directly related to the Greek word ekklesia, which means church.  Broken down further, ekklesia means “to call out” or a people “called out from the world and to God.”  So, in those terrifying moments between the dark, emptiness of the tomb and the startling resurrection, the disciples move from being closed up to being called out.

On Good Friday, I preached about divine darkness and the ways in which we encounter God inside the deep gloom, the heavy cloud.  God doesn’t just exist in the shiny light of Easter, but also in the depths of our uncertainty and fear.  God lives in the shadows.  Behind locked doors, far away from the light of day, God is there.  And sometimes God comes to us in the darkness and calls us out just as God did with the disciples and their friends.  God called out Lazarus, going so far as to bring him back from death.  Jesus yelled at his friend, “Lazarus, Come out!  Come out of that cave!”  Then, God calls Jesus out of the tomb:  “Jesus, Come out!  Come out of that cave!”  “Come out of that cave!”  God calls us as well.  When we are closed up, God calls us out.  And in this particular story, the risen Jesus calls the disciples out of their cave, a locked room.

The community was gathered in a locked room, for fear of persecution because they were followers of Jesus. They were panic stricken, scared, unsure of what to do next and then suddenly, Jesus appears in their midst. He appeared in their midst and showed them what he had shown Mary Magdalene just that morning in the garden, that he was no longer dead, but resurrected! The transformed body of Jesus appears, announcing his resurrected presence by showing them the marks on his hands and his side and when they rejoice, he sends them forth into the world.  Jesus commissions his followers with a gift of breath and the Holy Spirit.  Breath from the risen Jesus empowers the community to continue his work drawing on the strength of the Holy Spirit.

Now, if you remember, way back in the beginning of John’s gospel, Jesus promised this to his disciples and his followers. He promised them the gift of the Holy Spirit, but said it wouldn’t happen until he had been glorified. At the time, they had no idea what he was talking about.  When he had been glorified?  What is that supposed to mean?  But now, now that he has been resurrected from the dead, they are beginning to understand.  All of the things he taught them, the things he preached, the stories he told, and his sometimes unexplainable actions are starting to make sense in an entirely new way.

Last Sunday, on Easter Sunday, Doyt preached about doubt.  He poached my gospel reading on doubting Thomas.  Sounds like an odd topic for the Day of the Resurrection, but it wasn’t.  It was the perfect topic for a congregation of occasional church goers and their families.  It was a perfect topic even for those who think they are certain.  In case you weren’t here last Sunday, there are a couple of things that might be worth repeating.  Doubt is not a betrayal of God or Jesus or Christianity.  Certainty may be, but not doubt; that is the lesson we learn from Thomas.  Here is one more lesson/insight about doubt.  In moments of greatest doubt, when we doubt the decisions we have made; when we doubt our own goodness, or competence, or motives; even when we doubt God and the meaning of life, the antidote to doubt is not certainty, but community.  The antidote to doubt is not certainty, but community.  That struck a chord.  In the beginning of today’s piece of the story, Thomas isn’t there and we don’t know where he has gone.  But the other disciples are together trying to sort through what has transpired.

This is the second creation story.  This breathing of the Holy Spirit onto a group of frightened disciples, cowering in a locked room is the new creation.  But this time, maybe things will be different. This time, the Holy Spirit is the breath and that breath will sustain this new life, this new creation. But when Thomas appears a week later, having missed the appearance of Jesus, his doubt is embraced by community.  His friends invite him in and Jesus embraces him, encouraging him to feel and touch the wounds in his hands and in his side.  Thomas is not excluded because of his doubt; nor is he slandered or argued with. He is invited in. The other disciples have no idea that Jesus is going to show up a week later.  They didn’t invite Thomas to make a point, or convert him to something.  They invite Thomas because he is part of the gang and they love him. They invite Thomas because they know that in the Kingdom of God everyone is included whether they believe in God or not.  God is bigger than our belief.  God is certainly bigger than our certainty.

Jesus says to Thomas, “Do not doubt but believe.”  Doubt to belief is a journey, one that takes years, decades even for many of us.  Doubt is an invitation.  It is an invitation to a conversation within a community that cares more about the essence of your being than the content of your belief.  At Epiphany your doubt is a blessing and it is welcome.  When we are closed up and spinning in doubt, God calls us out of our caves.  God reaches into the darkness where we all occasionally find ourselves and calls us out into the world, into the light, and breathes upon us the Holy Spirit.