Last Sunday, the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, we proclaimed with joy and wonder: “He is risen!”
That was the theme for the day, that was the truth renewed and declared. The stone is rolled away! The Lord is alive!
And what we have is an empty tomb.
The women came to the tomb with the spices they had prepared for the body. Seeing heavenly messengers, they believed and ran to tell the men.
But when the women told their news to the disciples – what they had seen and learned at the tomb, that empty tomb – the men didn’t believe them! “These words seemed to them an idle tale,” says one gospel.
And so when we read the story of what happened next, when Jesus came into the house and stood among his disciples, we have to wonder what was going through their minds. After all, these were the same disciples who had refused to believe the women until they could see with their own eyes. And even running to the tomb to see what he could find, Peter did not go in: He stayed outside, seeing only the emptiness.
And then, as we read in the Gospel of John today:
“When 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 Jews, Jesus came and stood among them. … Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”
They got it! They finally believed!
But not all. No, just as there were disbelievers at the tomb, there is a disbeliever in their midst in today’s story: Thomas. No sooner does one believe than another does not, and these back-and-forth tales persist throughout the Christian story.
“But Thomas … one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So 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.’”
Thomas was the holdout. There is no record of the other disciples’ response to this, but they could hardly claim the moral high ground. Looking back in John’s story only a few sentences, we read that Jesus showed them his hands and his side. It was only then that the disciples “rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”
What is it about proof? Why do these disciples – the ones who were closest to Jesus, who walked with him, ate at table with him, listened to the wisdom of his preaching – require something more in order to believe? And how much is enough to tip the scale?
“Tip the scale”: That’s the image to hold in mind as we think about this.
Have you ever watched one of the many dog shows on television, a dog show that has tricks and trials? Sometimes dogs will have to run an obstacle course, and one of the obstacles will be a teeter totter sort of thing, where the dog will run up one side, and carefully balancing, carefully stepping past the middle point, will tip the board down on the other side. At this point, the dogs often seem not to walk, not even to run off the board, but to jump off, in their excitement.
Faith is much like that teeter totter. It’s a balancing act of running up one side of consideration to the tipping point, and having reached that dangerous ground, that area where you can stay safely balanced on your comfortable side, or you can even stand in the middle if you’re very, very careful – and then jumping, with all you’ve got, to the other side, where you might find the downside of the plank, or you might find only thin air.
This is a useful application of the expression “leap of faith,” because that’s exactly what it is. Most often, what we find when we get to that fulcrum, that tipping point, of faith, is only spiritual “thin air” on the other side. It’s much safer, we think, to stay on the uphill side where we have solid wood under our feet. It’s more uncertain, scarier even, to have to scramble to keep our footing and balance just like those dogs on the obstacle course, before deciding to jump!
The threshold of the empty tomb of Easter morning is a fulcrum, a tipping point, a place of decision. Imagine two people on a teeter totter, facing each other. What is in between them, in the middle, is the threshold of that tomb. The door. The entry or exit. What does each one see? A way in? A way out?
In his collection of essays “A Grief Observed,” C.S. Lewis wrote:
“You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose that you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?”
Such is faith.
What is necessary for us to believe? We can all practice religion: That’s what we’re doing now, in acting out worship and remembering Christ in the Eucharist. That is the stuff of identifying ourselves as Episcopalian or Methodist or Baptist or any of a myriad of Christian labels and distinctions.
All of us who call ourselves Christian are not necessarily converted to faith. Tongue in cheek, we might claim that there is complete agreement in this church and every other church about whether to have wine or grape juice for communion, whether to have candles on the altar, or whether to have an altar at all. But those are the things of religion. And yet, so often those are the things that divide us, that get in the way of Christian believing and Christian community. But Jesus was not concerned so much with matters of religion as he was with matters of faith.
Think back on the stories of Jesus, his ministry, his interactions with people. Do you remember the stories of the Pharisees criticizing Jesus for eating food that was unwashed, for healing on the Sabbath, for sharing a meal and associating with those who were considered the less desirable people of society? And what was his response in every single case? Those are trappings, those are not the things that are important. Those are not the things of the Kingdom of God.
In the season of Easter, we tell stories not of religion, but of faith and believing. Of standing at the entrance to the tomb, and deciding whether to go in. Of being closed in the house with the disciples and greeting our Lord. Of the women, the only ones who believed without question or denial. Of Peter and the other disciples. Of Thomas, called “Doubting Thomas,” because he demanded to see and touch. Of Paul and Annanias.
May each of us this Easter season come to know the Risen Christ in a new way. May the event of Easter be a unifying experience, to bring together the Body of Christ, instead of breaking it again on the cross. May we celebrate our differences that will be honored in the gathering of Pentecost and the sanctification of the Holy Spirit at the end of this season. May we remember that it is Jesus Christ who unites us as Lord and Savior, so that we cling to our faith more firmly than we do to our religion.
And may we think about something in this Easter season: How will we put ourselves into the story?
What does it take for you to believe?
You stand at the entrance to the tomb. You have heard the testimony of the women. You know what the disciples know.
What is your story of faith? What is your response to the Easter news?