Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter from John P. Reardon, a former Roman Catholic priest, currently in the process of recognition of priestly orders in the Episcopal Church.
We all turn to stories to find narratives to explain our lives to us, to give us some way of making sense of our what has happened to us and to our world and what we hope for the future. Stories have structures. There are tragedies and comedies. There are formulas for “buddy movies” and romances and spy thrillers. There is a Marxist narrative of class struggle. The modernist tale of inevitable progress. Then, there is the Theater of the Absurd, in which plots make no sense.
In J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy, the hobbits Sam and Frodo try to decipher the meaning of their own narrative. “I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?” Sam asks Frodo. Frodo replies, “I wonder. But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take anyone that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.”
As we turn to Scripture, which contains the story that is the guidepost for Christians, we find the disciples of Jesus at a point of confusion. All their hopes have been dashed with the execution of Jesus. They live in fear that they may be next to feel the wrath of Jesus’ enemies. Then, they begin to get intimations of a possibility beyond what they could have conceived, that the death of this Jesus they had followed was planned, and that the same Jesus who had died now lived in a new and very different way, turning the apparent meaning of his death upside down. Each of them had to decide, “Do I believe?”
We are happy to sing the songs of Easter and to speak the comforting words of everlasting life. We want to believe. But do we? This is not the story we are used to. In the story we would tell, events would unfold as they do in romantic comedies and James Bond movies—there is a development, a crisis, all is nearly loss, and then loss is averted at the last minute and all is turned into victory and a happy ending. Jesus wouldn’t be crucified. He might come close, but some last intervention would stop it from happening and the tables would be turned in favor of Jesus and his followers. Obviously, that is not what happened. The story ended badly. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus requires us to step outside the bounds of our predictable story. The narrative ends. There is sadness. The curtain goes down and the audience goes home. It is only several days later that a new narrative develops that swallows up the former one and gives it new meaning.
Dare we trust in that broader and deeper narrative put in place by the resurrection of Jesus? We all say we do. In private, I wonder how sure we are. Perhaps we all have moments when we sense, in the words of Shakespeare, that life is merely “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” I’m reminded of a cartoon I once saw in which an Anglican priest arrives in heaven. Walking across a crowd to meet Jesus, he cries out, “Well, well! Who’d have believed it?” The name “Thomas” means “twin.” Twinship implies two individuals who are alike in every way, yet are individual and different. Perhaps there is both a believer and an unbeliever inside all of us. That may be inevitable for, as Frodo observes, people don’t get to choose the kind of narrative in which they find themselves. Like the great masters of suspicion of modernity—Freud, Marx, and Feuerbach—Thomas may have hesitated to place faith in something that he so desperately wanted to be true that he could not be sure he was not creating the story he wanted instead of facing the one in which he actually found himself. He wanted to see and touch the nail marks and the hole in Jesus’ side, to know that what he was seeing was in fact the same Jesus of Nazareth he knew and who had been put to death.
But when given the opportunity, Thomas only looked. He did not touch. Instead, he leapt to faith, going beyond the realization of the resurrection’s first witnesses to proclaim the divinity of Christ, crying out, “My Lord and My God!” Jesus then proclaims that those who have not seen and yet believe are blessed indeed.
The First Letter of Peter addresses early Christians who share with us the reality of never having seen Jesus in the flesh. “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” We do not have full knowledge, only faith, a hint that the Christian story explains the data of our lives more thoroughly and convincingly than any other. We are already receiving the outcome of our faith, the salvation of our souls. We can taste the reality of that salvation when we are able to turn away from selfishness and start over, when we are able to forgive and to seek forgiveness, when we come to care more deeply about the fate of our world even when to do so costs us our sense of innocence, when we see addiction overcome and suffering endured nobly. All these instances are perhaps ways we can look at the glorified wounds of the Risen Jesus. We know the wounds. We also know that faith makes new life possible. The more we live out of the faith that the Gospel is true, the more, in fact, it comes true for us, even now, even in the darkness of our own lives and of our world. We can believe in Easter because we can, in fact, touch and feel it at work in ourselves and in others.
The first light of Easter is in our grasp. I would like to close with a prayer composed by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in his masterpiece, “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” It is a poem written in memory of five Franciscan nuns being deported from Germany who perished alongside with many of their shipmates when their vessel, the Deutschland, ran aground onto a shoal at the mouth of the Thames in December 1875. In this poem, Hopkins wrestles with the brutality of death in freezing winds and waters on a harsh winter’s night and tries to place those images in dialogue with the sovereign and gracious presence of Christ in all things. He writes of one of the sisters standing and calling out to Christ in a spirit of complete trust and acceptance that he is with her even in circumstances that would feel like abandonment. She does not expect to be rescued or to survive. But she confidently awaits her Lord’s embrace in the midst of his apparent absence. I suggest that we make our own the prayer in which Hopkins turns to this sister for intercession:
Dame, at our door
Drowned and among our shoals,
Remember us in the roads, the heaven-haven of the Reward:
Our King back, Oh, upon english souls!
Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the
dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted
More brightening her, rare-dear Britain,
as his reign rolls,
Pride, rose, prince, hero of us, high-priest,
Our heart’s charity’s hearth’s fire, our
thoughts’ chivalry’s throng’s Lord.