2nd Sunday of Easter Sermon

April 7, 2024
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

Poor Thomas. We all know “Doubting Thomas,” even if we don’t know where the phrase comes from. But, of course, it comes from here – this story we just heard – the evening of that first Easter Sunday, when Jesus appeared to the disciples. Thomas wasn’t there, though, so he missed the whole thing. And when he returned, and everyone was all excited about what they’d just seen, he couldn’t believe. “Not unless I see it and touch it for myself,” he says.

Fair enough. We can all relate to that. The tale of someone else’s experience is rarely enough for us. We need our own experience, something we can hold onto. “Because of this, what I’ve experienced for myself, I can now believe.”

Years ago, Cynthia and I were poor. I mean, we were just barely squeaking by. The kids were toddlers at the time. And, if you’ve ever been there, you know how financial stress feels. It can saturate everything. And I remember walking out to the mailbox one afternoon and praying – quite sincerely – “God, let there be a check in the mail.” Mind you, I wasn’t talking about the tax refund or some other check I had a legitimate reason to expect. This was a “check out nowhere” I was praying for. And I opened the mailbox, and there was a check, an out of nowhere check… for six dollars.

And I remember just standing there by the mailbox, stupefied and bemused. It felt more like mockery than an actual answer to pray.

But the longer I stood there, check in hand, sifting through my emotions, I realized how much it was the answer to my prayer. Not the prayer I thought I was praying: Give me money, and plenty of it. No, it was an answer to the deeper prayer: “God, do you see me? Do you care? Do you know how hard this is for me?”

And from those six dollars came the voice of God, “Yes, Eric, I do see you. I do care. I do know how hard this is for you. And this is the life I need you to be living now.” My real need wasn’t the money itself or the relief from stress. It was – from within the stress, from within this season of a burgeoning adulthood and all it required of me – to know and believe: “Yes, Eric, I do see you. And I am with you in everything.”

Of course, we want to be comfortable. That’s normal. But we need so much more than that. We crave the assurance, in comfort or discomfort, in joy or sorrow, that God is with us. That’s what Thomas wanted. It’s what I wanted. It’s what we all want – the assurance that God is real, that God is with us, that God is loving us within the very depths of our lives and all that we’re going through. Because if that is so, and we know it to be true, then all will be well. That is a truth that can carry us every step of the way, through this life, and to the end.

And it is this “God with us, God in us” reality that lies at the heart of Jesus’ interaction with his disciples there in the upper room. “He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”

Just like the story of God at the dawn of creation, molding a man out of the mud, then breathing the breath of life into him, our lives are animated and defined by God’s presence in us and our divine mandate to live as God in this world.

“Peace be with you,” he said. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

What a marvelous dignity Christ gives us. For the same Spirit that filled the disciples’ lungs continues to breathe in and out of us, Christ’s body, the church. We continue in this same ministry of peace.

In this world, filled as it is with conflict and division and bitterness, we get to be part of its healing. We get to be the ones offering peace, because we are discovering ourselves to be of God. This is the breath we breath.

And this is no hardship at all. More and more, I find the secret to living simply to be opening our eyes to see God already present everywhere, already loving everyone. All we need do is to enter in and participate in what God is always doing.

I felt this so keenly not long ago. It was my day off and I was at my favorite bakery down in Olympia. And, with a frangipane tart in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other and the morning sun shining in on me, and Lent was over, I was primed to believe in the goodness of this world. I went to order a second cup of coffee when this homeless guy came into the bakery. I watched him park his walker at a table. I saw the two cashiers give each other the eye – clearly, they recognized this customer and knew his ability to pay was somewhat irregular. But when the man ordered his coffee, it pleased me so much to see how courteously the clerk asked him, “Are you able to pay today?” When the guy rushed back to his walker I whispered to the clerk, “I can cover it if necessary.” But he came back, with a crisp, new $5 bill.

And let me tell you, the whole thing just made me so happy: Happy at the courtesy of the clerk; happy at how brightly the $5 bill showed up against the man’s grey sweatpants; happy for that man – that today he did have the $5; happy for whoever or whatever the source of that money was; happy to have been willing to pay for his coffee; happy that I was participant in this moment, simply because I had the eyes to see it.

From there I walked down to the farmers’ market. I was happy for the tulip man who, with his wife, grows fields of tulips and makes them available for us. And on and on went my day.

And I share all this with you because of how ordinary it was. The only thing that changed was I was in a frame of mind to see within it the extraordinary peace of God alive in this world. And seeing God’s peace, made me want to participate in that peace. I wanted to take my money and let it become the warm cup of coffee for that man to enjoy. I wanted to take my money and let it become the livelihood of the tulip man and his wife. I wanted to thank them for what they give to this world and – because I could – to join them in their ministry (you might say) by buying the tulips to give to a friend who had no reason to expect them at all.

The peace of God is everywhere. Our job is to breathe it in, to let it become the breath of God that makes us truly alive; and then to breathe it out, that others might also live with peace.

And, as much as we may desire such peace-filled graciousness to be who we are in our essence, there’s also a deliberateness to it – a kind of mindful intentionality – especially as we anticipate contexts and scenarios that might be difficult, or where conflict and irritation are likely to arise.

You’ve heard us sharing about the Trial Liturgy we’re starting next week – this evening Eucharist that starts with a meal downstairs, then moves up into the nave where we can worship with candlelight and peaceful music. Well, part of the complexity of pulling this off, is that one of our AA groups will be right on our heels downstairs, setting up their hotdog dinner, followed by their weekly meeting, all while we’re trying to be peaceful and quiet upstairs.

So we had a meeting last week with representatives from all the moving parts to make sure we had a plan to make it work. And to kick off the meeting, I told the AA guys, “This is just a trial; there are bound to be hiccups along the way. But be assured: St. John’s is not going to kick you out. What you do every week – gathering in community and carrying one another along to health and sobriety – is absolutely a part of St. John’s mission. In fact, from the outset of this new service, we will make it abundantly clear, that if we’re ever sitting and praying in silence, and all of sudden we hear a roar of laughter from downstairs, our response will simply be to smile, reminded in gratitude, that while we’re gathering in prayer, our sisters and brothers are gathering in sobriety, and it’s all the Kingdom of God happening together.”

“Thank you,” they said. “That’s great. We feel so supported here. And all the other AA groups agree. And we’ve been talking about this and have a plan. Normally we clap whenever someone finishes sharing their story. But we’re gonna change that. From now on, we’ll do something silent with our hands so we don’t disturb you.”

And, I cannot tell you how good that felt. Not because they were going to be quiet. But because we want to bless them, and they want to bless us; that St. John’s would be a place where healing is happening, where worship is happening, and where we are grateful for each other and seeking each other’s good.

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

And along the way we’ll screw up, we’ll hurt each other – through cruelty or stupidity or simply accidently. But built into God’s kingdom is also the cure: forgiveness.

“Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.”

And forgivingness does not need to be difficult, because forgiveness is not actually the goal. It’s just the step towards the goal, which is peace; which is love, which is all we really want in the end. And if forgiveness will bring me to unity with you, by God, I’m on board. ‘Cause that’s what I want. I don’t want enmity. I don’t want my life given over to  complaining and feeling hard done by, obsessing over my grievances with the world.

“I forgive you! God, yes, I forgive you. Now would you like some coffee? Cream or sugar?”

We can let go. And we can walk in, to where God is. We can walk in, as Christ walked into that upper room.

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Amen. Alleluia.