First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
April 8, 2018 – Second Sunday After Easter
“Proceed With Caution…. But Proceed”
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
John 20:19-31 (NRSV)
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”
26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But 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.
Last week I discovered something new about Great Falls. I discovered that, if you ever want to drive the full length of 10th Avenue South and never get stopped at a light, 6 on Easter Sunday morning is your best bet. First of all, no one in their right mind but clergy are driving the full length of 10th Avenue South at 6 o’clock on Easter Sunday morning. Second, all the lights are flashing yellow. Last week, at 6 am on Easter Sunday, as I crested the first hill on 10th Avenue South, I could see that the full length of the road was marked by flashing yellow lights. And they were really bright and clear because the sun didn’t come up until 7:04 last Sunday morning so it was still dark outside. Which meant the message of the flashing yellow lights on Easter Sunday couldn’t be missed. It’s as if the Department of Transportation was giving us an Easter message: “There’ll be no stopping on the way to resurrection!” You’ve got clear sailing all the way.
But maybe not. Think about it. If the message was 100% “go,” those lights would have been green. But they weren’t, they were yellow. And they were flashing. And what do flashing yellow lights mean? “Proceed with caution.” This resurrection stuff isn’t anything to mess around with so proceed with caution because resurrection is something that has the potential to turn things upside down. It goes against the grain. It changes everything. People who die are supposed to stay dead. Death is supposed to be the big red light of the universe. So what does it mean when someone doesn’t stay dead? Does it mean the coast is all clear and you can fly through all of life’s intersections as if the lights were all green? No, you can proceed, but do so with caution.
And, Thomas got that. Because he was late to the resurrection. He was out doing whatever disciples do that would keep them from seeing the risen Jesus when the others did. History has labeled the poor guy “Doubting” Thomas. Perhaps his real claim to fame should be that he was late… he should be Tardy Thomas. If he had been there on time, he, too would have seen the risen Christ. He, too, would have heard the women’s account of what they found, or didn’t find, in the tomb… that Jesus was not there. He had been raised. And the others had seen it, too. And they were excited. They were zoning in on all the green lights that had gone on when Jesus was raised from death:
Go ahead with living in the way of Jesus.
Go ahead knowing that, Jesus, not only was but is the Messiah, God’s anointed one to save them from evil.
Go ahead in the community that was formed around his presence, his teachings, his openness to the oppressed and marginalized.
Go ahead into life because, nothing, nothing, not even a tomb can put up a stop sign to the fulfillment of the coming of the realm of God that was in their midst whenever Jesus of Nazareth was at hand. His resurrection means that that realm, that kingdom, that way of faith and life doesn’t die either and has been given a great big green light to go.
But Thomas wasn’t there to see it. He wasn’t there to hear the women’s tale. He wasn’t there to catch the first wave of resurrection astonishment. Come to think of it, he really was no different than the other disciples who, when first hearing what the women had to say when they reported of seeing the risen Christ, doubted. Remember, those other disciples wanted to brush it off. They believed the women were telling idle tales. They wanted to see as well. That’s all that Thomas wanted… to see. To know. To have reason to believe.
So Thomas was proceeding with caution to get to the place the others had been. He knew he wanted to get there and he could see the way but his heart and soul were flashing yellow lights all over the place. Because, if Jesus is alive, it changes everything. Everything. So, proceed with caution. But proceed. Because, this resurrection thing isn’t just about going down the same path with Jesus by your side as a way to get to heaven. It’s about taking a whole new path on earth, one that has never been travelled before. The thing is, Jesus is by your side. So, proceed with caution, but proceed. The way is clear, but proceed with caution.
It’s easy to get caught up in the drama and the initial excitement and adrenalin. It’s why so many people show up for worship on the high holy days of Christmas Eve and Easter. There’s drama. There’s excitement. The room is full. The musicians pull out all the stops and bring in the special instruments and everybody is amazed at it all. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s not all that Easter is about. Easter is about the church recognizing that the raising of Jesus of Nazareth is about God giving the green light to ways of love and justice, ways of peace that do not involve war, ways of compassion and generosity. Not because those ways are polite or politically correct but because they are the ways of Jesus. And there’s no more clear way to confess that Christ lives than by living lives shaped by his.
But, let’s not forget that there are indeed idle tales out there. Idle tales that claim that there is only one way of being Christian as defined by narrow doctrine and limited reading of scripture. Idle tales that scream that anyone who does not follow narrow, exclusive way is heretical at best and an agent of the devil at worst. And there are people who are hungering to see the risen Christ and are not necessarily turning toward the church to do so because they recognize the disconnect from what they know of Jesus and what many churches have become. So proceed with caution because there are many in this world who have been hurt by the church and those who follow a very limited understanding of the way of Jesus. Proceed with caution to make sure that the faith to which you adhere reflects the loving, compassionate, reaching out, grace-filled ways of the Risen One.
There are idle tales out there. Idle tales that leave out the parts about loving enemies and serving the most weak and vulnerable. Idle tales that hand out charity as a reward. Idle tales that seek death to enemies and then define enemies as someone who looks, sounds and worships differently that we do. Idle tales that paint a picture of fear of those who are “different.” So proceed with caution, but proceed because those very ones that we are being told to be afraid of and skeptical of are the very ones that Jesus called blessed.
There are idle tales out there that take ancient laws out of context to shame, exclude or force change upon people who don’t fit a limited understanding of what is normal and acceptable. Idle tales that define a relationship with God based on an old covenant designed for a time long ago, in a place on the other side of the world, facing different demands and issues. Proceed with caution but proceed for the risen one whom we sing praises to this day has set forth a new covenant, not set in stone but which emerges from the very heart of God. A new covenant of the eternal nature of God that transcends time and continents and culture and politics.
As we continue to proceed into the future of this church and the world, if we choose to follow in the way of the risen one, it will be a new path, for, just as the disciples of old, we have never been this way before. But if we look carefully and recognize Christ in our midst, we’ll see that the way is clear. So let’s proceed with caution, but let’s proceed.