Second Sunday of Easter, rcl yr a, 2020
St John’s in Isolation
ACTS 2:14A, 22-32; PSALM 16, 1 PETER 1:3-9; JOHN 20:19-31
How long, O Lord?
will you forget me for ever? *
how long will you hide your face from me?
After Thomas put his hand in the side of the resurrected Jesus, and Thomas said to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Our Gospel readings over the next Sundays describe a Jesus that we don’t have much access to. They are part of that time in the life of Jesus that lies between his resurrection and his ascension. The Scriptural witness to this Jesus describes a resurrected body—this morning, for example, Jesus says to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” Which Thomas does—putting his hand upon a very real and material body, so evocatively pictured in the Caravaggio painting that shows Thomas getting his finger into Jesus’s side almost right up to the second knuckle on his forefinger.
And in a way, if Jesus were to appear as such to us, now—appearing into the midst of us, as a Jesus we could speak with face-to-face, how much easier faith in him would be. He was dead on the cross. The tomb was empty. And yet here he would be, speaking, eating, and embracing us, as he did those disciples in the upper room.
Though we are not given such a Jesus, Jesus nevertheless addresses us in the story of Thomas, addressing us blessed. Jesus addresses us, in that upper room, saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Peter, in his letter, too, speaks to a people who are on the same side of the ascension as we are, writing to a people who were not there in the upper room that day either: “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.”
I don’t know about you—how blessed are you feeling today? How joyous are you feeling today? That wouldn’t be exactly how I would describe how I’m feeling. Not at this moment. The lectionary, in this way, can feel a bit cruel. It is hardly able at all to bend to our reality, and doesn’t seem to do so today.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”? These feel like harsh words. We are in a state of even greater poverty than we were a few weeks ago. Then, sure, we knew we weren’t able to speak with Jesus, eat with Jesus, or embrace Jesus, as those disciples were able to do in that upper room.
But at least we had one another to speak with face-to-face. At least we had worship to attend and the sacrament to receive. At least we could embrace one another, and know something of the intimacy of Jesus. But we have had that taken away, too.
And as for what Peter says, well how does this sound? “[B]elieve in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy”? How exactly does this sound, to those of us who hardly feel able to rejoice at all, let alone with “an indescribable and glorious joy”? So we’ve decided to add a Psalm of Lament at the beginning of the service for the next few weeks. It gives voice to the sorts of feelings may of us have—which are not feelings of the presence of God, or even of joy. Instead, the Psalms of Lament are plaintive, giving voice to our sense of loss, of absence: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long shall I have perplexity in my mind, and grief in my heart, day after day?”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, among the most melancholic of theologians—(and theologians are already a melancholic bunch)—was a great advocate of praying the Psalms such as these. But not because they gave voice to how we are feeling in any given moment— but because they give voice to the faith of Jesus.
He says this of praying the Psalms: “it does not matter whether the Psalms express exactly what we feel in our heart at the moment we pray. Perhaps it is precisely the case that we must pray against our own heart in order to pray rightly.” What Bonhoeffer is saying here is that what’s most important is not to simply pray how we feel—but to pray in faith, to pray in the faith of the Jesus who prayed the Psalms himself while he lived, to pray in the faith of the church, the body of Christ, whose witness is to lament— but it is also to joy, a joy that is given to us even if we don’t feel all that joyful.
And so yes, to pray the faith of Jesus, with Jesus, is to lament with him: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long shall I have perplexity in my mind, and grief in my heart, day after day?”
But to pray in the faith of Jesus as its expressed in the Psalms is not to leave us where we are. We may share his lament, and the lament of his church, but as we do so, we would also find ourselves—even when we don’t really feel like it!—praying the faith of Jesus in his joy.
They are words that are given, not according to our own feelings, but according to the faith of Jesus, a faith that reaches well beyond ourselves, a faith that asks us not simply to pray how we feel, but also “to pray against our own heart.”
In this way, in praying the faith of Jesus expressed in the Psalms, it becomes possible not simply to lament with him, but also with him to say: “I put my trust in your mercy; my heart is joyful because of your saving help. I will sing to the Lord, for he has dealt with me richly; I will praise the name of the Lord Most High.”
A joyful faith is sometimes not a matter of feeling joyful. A joyful faith, as we share in the faith of a Jesus who prays the Psalms, gives voice to lament. But it also gives voice to trust and joy, a joy given even when we might not feel it. In this way we find ourselves praying and believing, even against our own hearts, because we are praying the faith of a Jesus who can pray for us, and in us, “with an indescribable and glorious joy.”
In this way may we find ourselves counted among the blessed, in the company of Jesus, and receiving the outcome of, if not our own, then the outcome of Jesus’s faith, and the gift of the “the salvation of [our] souls.”
May it be so for me; and may it be so for you.