The first Easter brought out the very best and the very worst in the first disciples of Jesus.
The night that Jesus was arrested, they shared a meal together . . . Now remember, the disciples are stoked because they’re pretty sure that Jesus has come into Jerusalem as the Messiah, God’s king to over throw the Roman government and to restore his Kingdom. So in their minds, this is like the last meal before the battle, before it all goes down . . . which in a sense, they were absolutely correct.
And around that table that night was . . .
Peter—the disciple whom Jesus renamed “the rock” because he was supposed to be the one in which the church would be built upon but he denied Jesus over and over again just one day after that dinner.
There sat James and John, those two brothers who were undoubtedly very special to Jesus, who argued over about “which one was going to be the greatest in the kingdom?” but couldn’t even, stay awake for a few hours to comfort Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
And there was Judas, who managed all the finances of the disciples so well for so long, but who betrayed Jesus with a kiss—turned him in because he could see the political tide turning and he didn’t want to be on the side of the losing team.
And there were all of the rest of the disciples, every single one of them, who had given up everything to follow Jesus but abandoned him in his deepest hour of need.
They couldn’t summon the courage to face what Jesus was facing, preferred instead to keep their eyes down and their mouths shut and to hope that they eventually got out of this mess alive.
All of them in one way or another let their friend Jesus down.
It’s easy to sit here 2000 years later wondering why . . . After spending years with Jesus, listening to his sermons, witnessing all his miracles, making the blind to see, the lame to walk, the deaf to hear, after all those cool snappy answers he gave to the religious leaders that were challenging his every word . . . why would they all bail on him during his most desperate hour.
But if we’re honest, it seems like we’d all be there somewhere, because as they began their quest to follow Jesus in the wake of the resurrection, here we are right behind them . . . struggling to keep up.
Today, we celebrate Easter, the highest and most holy day of the church year. But in the light of everything that happened after that dinner they shared, what does that make the week that follows?
“Low Sunday”—because this is the week when we start all over again, when we struggle and strain and hope with every ounce of intention and faith, that we might be able to embrace the living Christ in such a way that our lives would begin to be transformed . . . that we could finally, hopefully, and against all odds . . . become followers of Jesus.
So it seems fitting that today we join the first disciples in what must have been a dread-filled, depressing gathering.
It’s been a week since the women had run, breathless, into the room where the disciples were hiding and blurted out the news that the tomb was empty, and that they had actually run into Jesus. They saw him in person, and he was alive, just as he had promised them!
It had been a whole week, but as each day progressed and they heard more and more news about the upheaval in Jerusalem, the fears and guilt and doubt of the disciples began to take on lives of their own.
The women said they’d seen Jesus, but who could believe a woman? In Jewish law, a woman could not even testify in court…her testimony was irrelevant just because she was a woman.
So instead of hope and possibility, joy and relief . . . that room was filled with sadness and doubt, pain, regret, fear and shame.
And there’s no question that the in-fighting had begun:
• some wanted to believe the women; some didn’t.
• Some were criticizing Peter for losing his temper and attacking a soldier when Jesus was arrested; Peter was tossing back accusations about lack of courage.
• James and John were trying to assert the leadership roles they’d held before; no one would listen to them once they heard about how they’d fallen asleep in Gethsemane.
• Arguments surely flew around the room as people speculated on the whereabouts of their missing members . . . where was Judas (that traitor!)?
• Where was Thomas—had he gone to rat them out, too?
• How were their families?
• How much longer could they stay in hiding?
• What was going to happen to them now?
In this room, we find those first disciples confronting the lowest, most painful realities of our human inability to be faithful to God and to each other.
But then, Jesus miraculously appeared in the middle of the chaos and spoke a word. It was a word they heard him speak before when they were confronted with the chaos of the seas and the winds were blowing and the waves were crashing over the side of their boat and they were fear for their lives.
Then Jesus stood and he spoke . . . “peace be still” . . . and the wind and the waves, they obeyed. And in that moment, they knew he was the Son of God.
Jesus said to the disciples that night . . . “peace”
We don’t really know what they did, how much time he was there, what happened when he left, but we do know that everybody there got their questions answered: they finally believed the women’s crazy story of the week before, and though they still didn’t know what the future would hold for them, at least they’d seen Jesus . . . alive.
About a week later in walks Thomas. Who knows where he’d been—maybe he’d snuck out to take care of his family, to scout the political situation in Jerusalem, or to get supplies.
Whatever the reason, Thomas hadn’t been there when Jesus appeared the last time. So, he was still in the mindset they’d been in before Jesus appeared—wondering if the women had lost their minds and trying his very best to work through his feelings of terror and confusion.
And when he heard the report of the disciples—that Jesus had walked through a locked door and visited with them, that he was alive, Thomas starts thinking that perhaps the crazy women have somehow brainwashed the other disciples, that they had been locked away too long, that someone had opened the bar a little too early, or maybe that their desperation had gotten the best of them.
Let’s remember, though, that Thomas is only reacting to the latest news the same way all of the disciples reacted to the original reports of the women.
I think his reaction is simply a healthy and normal degree of skepticism.
But then the whole experience of the other disciples is replicated, just for Thomas.
Jesus seems to understand Thomas’ need to see and touch, to really experience for himself the reality of the resurrection, so Jesus lets him touch his wounds and holds a conversation just like all the other conversations he and Thomas surely had in the years before.
Thomas had gotten just what he needed—and he utters a beautiful and powerful affirmation of faith: “My Lord and my God!”
Thomas was on board again. The pain and fear and doubt of the past weeks had now grown into conviction . . . a conviction that would lead Thomas and all of them to become the disciples Jesus asked them to be.
And that’s the story.
It’s really a redemptive story, because the truth of the matter is that faith is often born out a willingness to ask the tough questions and the patience to wait on the answers.
But what has happened since that encounter with the risen Christ is that Thomas has gotten a bad reputation. He’s known as . . . doubting Thomas.
But he didn’t do anything the other disciples didn’t do. He didn’t do anything WE wouldn’t do. He didn’t do anything unexpected at all!
What he did was ask the questions that were nagging at his head and his heart. Yes, he doubted but he found the reassurance of God’s presence and power that he needed to move forward with his faith.
Thomas became a successful church planter. And according to church tradition, he wrote his memoirs, called The Gospel According to Thomas and a few others. And Thomas died a martyr’s death, loyal until the very end.
All of that, from the most famous doubter of all time!
Thomas was singled out for asking the questions any one of us would ask and he got a bad rap for it.
But Thomas’ doubting gives us the freedom to voice our own questions and doubts.
And we have to doubt and question, because there’s nothing logical or socially acceptable about following Jesus.
• There wasn’t for the first disciples, who were eventually going to give up their lives because they followed Jesus.
• And there isn’t for us, who are asked to love our enemies, care for the poor, construct our lives to reflect values of peace and justice and mercy and kindness.
It doesn’t make sense, and if we don’t have doubts and questions about following in the way of Jesus, then perhaps we are following someone else.
In other words, you’d better be asking the questions. I had better be asking the questions. If we don’t ask the questions, how will we ever become followers of Jesus who would dare to even consider giving up everything to follow?
The answer to that question is . . . we won’t.
As you know, the event we like to call the Last Supper has gotten a lot of attention from artists.
Leonardo Da Vinci is the most famous, of course, but countless artists have chosen to paint what they imagined as The Last Supper. It is, after all, the most famous dinner party ever.
Among those who chose this as their focus, the tradition became popular . . . to add as a last touch, the face of the artist himself on the body of the disciple Thomas.
Why? You ask.
Because believing is as much about doubting, about asking the questions, as it is about anything else.
We may not want to be like Thomas, but we all, indisputably, are.
So, where would you be, around that table? Would you even be there at all? Would you even consider taking on the challenge of becoming a follower of Jesus?
If you would, start here: ask the questions. Air your doubts. Shout your queries to the sky. And then be patient because God will give you just what you need to become faithful followers of Jesus.
The first Easter brought out the very best and the very worst in the first disciples of Jesus.