Preacher: The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia
Good morning Christians, seekers and friends:
On Easter morning as I was preparing to walk out the door, I was greeted by an unwelcome and uninvited guest. A most unwelcome and uninvited guest. Hanging from the railing of the staircase was a very large and unattractive spider. I was not happy to see her. Which is sad because growing up, my parents worked very hard to teach us the importance of diversity. My mother cooked foods from all over the world. We listened to stories and music from across the globe. We welcomed two exchange students into our home and both my sister and myself spent our senior years of high school abroad as exchange students. But as committed to diversity as my parents were, my mom could never bring herself to love spiders – that part of bio-diversity was something she could not embrace.
And so, while I was growing up, while other kids might have been reading comic books featuring Spiderman, I listened to urban legends involving spiders. And while my mother would not let us watch horror movies, she proffered up horrific stories about the dreaded black widow and brown recluse spiders. One exceptionally frightening one involved a black widow who laid its eggs in a woman’s beehive hairdo and when the eggs hatched, the woman was killed. I was raised to hate spiders. And armed with shoes and cans of hairspray, I joined with my mother is her never-ending quest to keep our house spider-free. But mostly, also like Mom, I just started screaming and waited for my dad to come and kill them. In that year I spent as an exchange student, for example, I became a version of the little boy who cried wolf and came to be seen as less than credible when I screamed in horror at an “enormous spider.”
So perhaps you understand a little better why I was not happy to see my spider visitor on Easter morning. I was raised to hate spiders. But, I am trying to change. Just the night before at the Easter Vigil, we had listened to the story of God’s covenant with all the living creatures of the earth… and as much as we might like to think about the cute elephants or monkeys or zebras on the ark, that promise was made to the spiders, and the snakes and all the creepy crawlies who were aboard as well.
So, Easter morning I took a large envelope, gathered the spider on it and after a few failed attempts — like dropping the envelope a couple times as the spider ran toward me – was able to get it outside and on its way. And I like to think that there was a lot of joy on the part of the heavenly host. The celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ should not begin with the death of one of God’s own that early in the morning. And I genuinely wishes blessings for that spider outside of my house.
In today’s gospel we meet the resurrected Jesus who comes to the upper room to meet with his disciples. They are afraid and sad and trying to come to terms with all that has happened. Their friend Mary has seen the risen Lord and has told the disciples. They know that Jesus’ body is not in the tomb—but they are not sure what has happened to their Lord and they cannot now, in this difficult time, make sense of the things that Jesus had told them on their last night together. Jesus had tried to prepare them but how do you really prepare someone for what occurred? And so, they are locked inside the room, afraid and lost, until Jesus came into the room and greets them, “Peace be with you.” And after he said this, he shows them his hands and his side. And we are told: “Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And they received the power of the Holy Spirit.
But we hear that Thomas was not with the others when Jesus comes and so when his friends tell him that Jesus has returned, he is skeptical. And he says, “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.” And so was born the figure of the “Doubting Thomas” that many of us have grown up hearing about. A rather unfair title for the disciple who is the first to be willing to return to Judea, even though they know that there are many there who are seeking to put Jesus to death. It is Thomas who says to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him (John 11:16).” Doubting Thomas is an unfair title for a disciple who curiously and actively engaged in Jesus’ teachings. When Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them and that he will come again, it is Thomas who seeks clarification. Thomas says to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” To which Jesus responds, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me… (John 14:5 ff).”
So, references to Doubting Thomas unfairly portray and reduce Thomas to this one moment of doubt without regard to the many other roles that Thomas played throughout his years with Jesus and his ministry as an apostle. And our references to Doubting Thomas mete out a judgement that is not of Christ and not only denigrates the roles that Thomas played but also affects our understanding of the life of faith. Namely, it might suggest to some that it is our doubts or our mistakes –our sins– that define us rather than the Good News—the forgiveness of sins that Jesus promises. While it is true that Jesus says to Thomas “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Jesus is not chastising him. Mary already has seen the risen Lord and yet Jesus told her that he would come to his disciples as well. They still feared. Jesus comes to them, and he shows them his hands and his side so that they can know it is him. Jesus comes back to Thomas, too, and we are clearly told: “….Jesus [also] did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
What this story is telling us is that Jesus willingly comes to each of us so that through our own experience of faith we might come to understand what it means to be a people of the resurrection. And that is important because it is only through the experience of faith that Jesus’ resurrection and the promise of eternal life can change us. Jesus wants to come to each of us, without judgement, to meet us where we need him. In today’s story, as disciples of Christ, we are also given that role. For those of us who have had an experience of God, we are also being sent out to meet people where they are at and, with the gift of the Holy Spirit, help them believe in the Good News. Jesus tells his disciples, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (20:23). But as Elizabeth Johnson notes…“sin” in John’s Gospel [does not refer to]… a moral category; rather, it [refers to]…unbelief, the refusal to receive the revelation of God in the person of Jesus. [So]Jesus is not giving his disciples some special power to decide whose sins will be forgiven and whose will not. Rather, Jesus is telling us what it means to be sent, to make known the love of God that Jesus himself has made known. “As people come to know and abide in Jesus, they will be “released” from their sins. If, however, those sent by Jesus fail to bear witness, people will remain stuck in their unbelief; their sins will be “retained” or “held onto.” Our mission is to come to people, meet them where they are and witness to Jesus’ resurrection and living presence in our lives. And assure them that we are loved by God and we are not defined by our mistakes or sins of the past but are given a new life and future through the love of God.
For me, in terms of my unmitigated fear and hatred of spiders and bugs, Jesus changed me while I was living in New York City. He came to me in a package of organic celery hearts from Trader Joe’s. As I took off a few stalks of celery, I discovered a bug nestled right there within the celery hearts. It was so incredibly yucky and I was all freaked out and ready to throw it away when it moved — It moved! The tiny creature moved after being in my refrigerator for several days, after going through the powerful machines that wash produce at commercial farms, after the process of the celery being cut, after being placed in plastic, and after being transported over thousands of miles from California. I could not possibly take the life of this little creature who had survived such a perilous journey and who revived right in front of my eyes. He was alive! He was not dead!
So, Jeremy and I made a tiny habitat for our new friend. We took a container, made air holes, placed little stalks of celery within it so that it could get both exercise and nutrients and added a tiny dropper of water —we tried to make a home for what was at that point an unknown bug. This bug, whom we named Modigliani because his back featured what looked like a tiny portrait by Modigliani, lived with us for two months before leaving this mortal realm. And while he was later identified as an invasive species, a very destructive pest – a brown marmorated stink bug whose kind destroy crops and invade folks’ homes, to us, he was a messenger from another world who was not defined by the bad press given his species. That he lived was Good News! Modigliani reminded me of the importance of all God’s creatures on the earth. Modigliani reminded me that God loves all that God has made and that it is out of God’s gracious love that our beliefs can be transformed, and our hearts changed. Modigliani’s kind are pests, they are most unwelcome in both farming communities and in homes, but we loved him and he changed my heart. It was Modigliani that made me begin in earnest to try, as possible, to save the life of all the creepy crawlies like Ms. Spider who visited me on Easter morning. Because God comes to us in many guises. Easter morning, God in that big, scary looking spider seemed to be saying that thing that you have feared has been transformed…. if you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth in the tomb – he is not there…he has been resurrected. Do not doubt, only believe. And, this resurrected Lord, breathing the spirit into us, is sending us forth with the message of Good News for all the world.