Forgive me if I’m repeating myself, but some of you may have heard me say, I grew up in a Presbyterian Church that didn’t go to hell. That is, we didn’t go to hell in the Apostles’ Creed. Every week we affirmed our faith with the words of the Apostles’ Creed. We said:
He was crucified, dead and buried.
The third day he rose again from the dead,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
So it was a great shock when I first attended a church that used the word hell. Now this was New York City. I was 21 years old. And
I thought, OK, they can do this in New York City. “If you can say it here, you can say it anywhere. It’s up to you NY, NY.” During the Apostles’ Creed we proclaimed:
He was crucified, dead and buried.
He descended into hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead and
sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
To this day I still trip over it. “He descended into hell.” I trip over it every time. I hit a bump in the road of faith. What do you mean Jesus descended into hell? Where did that come from?
At Eastertide, it takes on new meaning when we truly consider Jesus’ resurrection was from the Land of the Dead.
- Before the stone is rolled away there is no resting or respite or sleeping.
- Before he is raised, there is no edgy slumber or catatonic dream state.
- He is not reawakened or revived, not revitalized or rejuvenated.
- Jesus is not magically preserved or cryogenically maintained.
- He is dead. Dead in the Land of the Dead. Dead in hell.
As we meet Jesus, he comes to stand among his friends on Easter night. He comes through bolted doors to stand among the ones who feel dead themselves; entombed in their own grief; buried in their own hell; interred with their lifeless dreams.
Jesus arrives. A tomb can’t keep him in. A bolted door can’t keep him out. He undresses. He reveals his damaged body: his injuries, his lacerations, where he was impaled, torn hands, shredded feet.
“Receive the Holy Spirit,” he says. My shroud is gone, now take off yours. Come out of your cave. No more hiding, no more being locked in, no more burial, no more tomb, no more shame, no more guilt, no more regrets.
He waits for the truth to sink in. And it does. And the disciples fall on him weeping, shouting, fainting, roaring, rejoicing, then taking in the breath of life, they receive the Holy Spirit.
And Thomas misses the whole darn thing.
“We have seen the Lord,” they bellow. But Thomas is not persuaded. Thomas is not convinced. “Unless.” “Unless, I see the mark of the nails in his hands and his side, I won’t believe, cannot believe, refuse to believe. Unless I see. Unless I witness. Unless.”
And of course that one statement has landed him the perpetual title of Doubting Thomas,
Mr. Nonbelief, Mr. Cynic,
Prince of Doubt,
Sir Thomas the Skeptic.
But that’s a misnomer. He gets a bad rap, our Thomas. We all need time to recognize the Lord. The disciples themselves didn’t recognize him until he showed hands and side.
One preacher puts it like this: Thomas is first and foremost a pragmatist. We forget that when Jesus says, “I go to prepare a place for you and you know the way to the place where I am going,” it is Thomas the pragmatist, who replies truthfully, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going; how can we know then the way?”
We forget, when Jesus speaks of going back to Jerusalem, it is Thomas who knows Jesus’ is going to his death. Thomas is no fool. He counts the cost before opening his mouth. He counts the cost before deciding. He boldly urges the others to follow Jesus: “Let us also,” he says, “go that we may die with him.”
Does that sound like a doubter?
He’s been toughened by experience. He is, above all else, a realist. And for Thomas reality has never come as close as it has at the cross.[ii] He is above all else a good steward of his discipleship.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in his hands and side, I will not believe.” That’s not doubt: that’s anguish, that’s torment, that’s pain.
Frederick Buechner tells the story of being on retreat with a group of church members in Texas and during his time with them, they asked him to share something of his childhood, something that shaped his Buechner, a Presbyterian minister has spent his vocation writing about faith and life, so he told them about his childhood during the Depression. He says this:
I remember in the Depression there wasn’t much money and there was an awful lot of drinking going on in my family. It was an unsettled and unsettling time for a child of ten, which I was.
There was a time when my father had come back from somewhere. He had obviously had too much to drink. He was drunk and my mother didn’t want him to go out again and take the car.
So she sneaked the car keys and gave them to me and said, “Don’t let you father have these.” “Don’t you dare let your father have these.” I had already gone to bed, he says, so I took the car keys in my fist under the pillow.
My father stumbled into my room and somehow knew I had the keys and he bellowed and slurred, “Give me the keys. Give them to me. I’ve got to have them. I’ve got to go some place.”
I didn’t know what to say, what to be, or how to react, says Buechner. I was panicky, sad, and all the rest of it. I lay there and listened to him, pleading, begging really, “Give me the keys.” I pulled the covers over my head to escape the situation and then finally, went to sleep with his voice in my ears.
When he finished sharing his story with the group, a man came up and said to Buechner, “You’ve had a fair amount of pain in your life, like everybody else. But you’ve been a good steward of it. You’ve been a good steward of your pain.”
That phrase caught Buechner off guard – to be a “Steward of Your Pain.” And he thought a lot about what it could mean. When it comes to human pain, many of us hide it, cover it, diminish it, edit it because it’s just too agonizing to deal with. We eat, drink, lash out over it. Anything not to feel it.
But Buechner has come to believe, before anything else, to be a good steward of our pain is to be in touch with it, to be in touch with the sorrowing times, the regrettable times, the grief-stricken times, because that’s when we can be most aware of God’s Resurrection Power to pull us through it, to be in it with us.
It’s the cross of Christ that speaks the same word: that out of that greatest pain, endured in love, comes the greatest beauty, and our greatest hope.[iii]
Thomas knows this.
He is a great steward of his pain.
His “Unless I see,” becomes his testimony. Out of the depths of his anguish comes the purest confession of faith ever proclaimed: My Lord and my God.
At the center of the Easter Gospel,
At the core of this New Season,
is the proclamation that Jesus Christ comes looking for us.
- And when we allow ourselves to be found;
- When we take off our shrouds and come out of our graves;
- When we let go of the shame, the guilt, the regret;
- When there’s no more hiding, no more resistance,
- No more being locked in;
- Then the walls come crumbling down;
- And the One who bears our every weakness is there with compassion,
- The Good Shepherd comes to his friends, his sheep, his flock:
“Receive the Holy Spirit.”
“You are forgiven.”
“You are free.”
Thanks be to God.
[i] John 20:19-31, NRSV: 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 and said, “Peace be with you.” After Jesus said this, he showed them his hands and his side. 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.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas who was called the Twin, 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.” A 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.” Then Jesus 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.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus 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.
[ii] David Lose. “Realities Old and New: John 20:24-31.” Day1: A Division of the Alliance for Christian Media, Atlanta, GA, day1.org, March 30, 2008.
[iii] Frederick Buechner. Sermon, “The Stewardship of Pain.” 30 Good Minutes: The Chicago Sunday Evening Club, Program 3416. January 27, 1990.