For a long time I wondered why we call today ‘Low Sunday’. Have you done that? Some think it’s because, on the Sunday after Easter, attendance at mass is typically a fraction of what it was on Easter Day – and some preachers will say something critical of those folks who find it convenient to join us only a couple of times a year. But that’s merely a symptom and a far cry from what we should be thinking about on ‘low Sunday’. Much more important for us is that the smells and bells of Easter Day are gone – we don’t have a cross decorated with fresh flowers – this room isn’t suffused with the sweet smell of lilies – a full company of clergy, acolytes, and LEMs isn’t array-ed before you – and today is more like a regular Sunday and business as usual. It’s like some-body has let the air out of our balloons.
I think I understand that. I regret it, but I understand it. And I’m actually thinking that perhaps it’s supposed to be this way – if only because we can’t live in a perpetual state of excite-ment and euphoria. Remember that the disciples had been on an emotional rollercoaster for over a week celebrating the intoxicating joy of the journey to Jerusalem and the thrill of Palm Sunday. And then came the dark hours of Jesus’s betrayal and trial and their Lord and Savior is killed by hanging him on a tree. His friends had bounced back and forth from elation to despair – and then they woke up and smelled the coffee. That’s a paradigm we experience as well. No matter how much we love God and are filled with joy at our Lord’s Resurrection – soon or late we come back to earth with mortgage payments, and sick children, and broken promises, and shattered dreams. That’s the Good Friday world in which we live our Easter faith – and it’s a world sometimes fill-ed with more potholes than alleluias. So I also think that might be why, on the 1st Sunday after Easter, Jesus’s church always reads and listens to John’s account of ‘doubting Thomas’.
Remember that it was Sunday evening on the same day of our Lord’s Resurrection. Jesus was missing, and all day long there had been rumors concerning his whereabouts. Some said that he was alive. A couple of women claimed to have actually seen him – but the disciples thought they were delusional. And then, while 10 of his disciples were locked up in a room in Jerusalem, Jesus miraculously appeared to them. He didn’t come through a door – he didn’t come through a window – he just appeared. And when he had extended his peace to them, he gave them authority to forgive sins in his name. And then he was gone.
Of course, the disciples who were there were excited – and they rejoiced, just as we did last Sunday at the good news that, bad rumors to the contrary, Jesus isn’t dead – he’s alive – risen from his tomb. But Thomas wasn’t there – so the other disciples had to tell him: “We’ve seen the Lord, Thomas – and he’s alive!” And that’s when Thomas uttered his famous denial. “Sorry, I just don’t believe that’s true – and I won’t believe it without more proof than your say-so. ‘See-ing is believing, you know’ – and I need to see the holes in his hands and put my fingers in them.” All of the disciples had been affected by the emotional rollercoaster – and now it appears to have im-pacted Thomas in a special way. So a week later, the disciples are gathered again – and this time Thomas is with them when Jesus appears to them a second time. And he walks right up to him and says, “Tommy, I understand you have a prob-lem. Here, put your fingers here – and be-lieve.” And Thomas shouts, “My God!” – or maybe barely audible, “My God, you’re alive.”
There are several nuggets in this story that warrant our serious attention – but the most ur-gent one for us just now, in our time and place, is what Jesus then said to his friend. “So tell me, Tommy; do you believe because you’ve seen me? Some won’t get to see me and yet they will believe in me – and I will bless those who will not see and yet believe.” That’s us, you know – we are the ones who hear the Easter story and go away believing it’s true without any palpable evidence. We’re the ones who pray to a God we cannot see or name. We’re the ones who trust a Savior we cannot touch. But we believe that God is real. We believe that Jesus is alive! And we know that what Jesus said to Thomas, he says now to us – blessed are you who have not seen me and yet believe in me. Think about that! Seeing is not believing!
I think that most of us know in our heart of hearts that Thomas is not a stranger to us. He is not our odd-man-out. In fact, I meet Thomas regularly these days and find that he is very well known. If we look closely at ourselves and our intellectual inheritance, we will see that Thomas is a prototype for modern ways of deciding what is true and what is false. The humanistic renais-sance of the 14th – 17th centuries marked the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity – and since that time systematic doubt has been, and remains, the most influential element in modern theories of knowledge. Following the theories of Francis Bacon and René Descartes, we have come to believe that skepticism is the root of all credible knowledge – and a hermeneutics of sus-picion underlies both empirical scientific method and literary deconstruction. So you and I were indoctrinated early on that the preferred way to know anything is by observation and classifica-tion. Look at things – tabulate what you can see – catalogue your observations – and then general-ize to a hypothesis or a scientific law. Induction, experiment, and empirical study of data – that’s how most of us learned to ascertain truth. And although Thomas antedates by two millenia our modern ways of proving and knowing the truth, I think he’s a sympathetic character for most of us because he insisted on exactly the same kinds of data we typically require in order to believe.
Some years ago I was on a commuter flight from South Bend, Indiana, to Chicago when we encountered winds gusting up to 40 mph coming off the Great Lakes. Our small airplane was being tossed around like a paper-plane, and all of us wondered whether this little craft could stay aloft in these conditions – and whether any of us would survive. Some passengers said they wish-ed they had rented a car. As we approached O’Hare Airport, we could see larger jets aborting takeoffs and landings when our pilot informed us that we were going to land, but that owing to the velocity and direction of the winds he would have to land by ‘crabbing’- that is, by having the airplane approach the landing strip sideways – almost diagonal to the tarmac – resembling the sideways movement of crabs on the sand. I silently repeated to myself a couplet I somewhere learned: “they said it couldn’t be done; with a will he went right to it; he tried what couldn’t be done, and found out he couldn’t do it”. All of us aboard had serious doubts about the success of this maneuver and none of us believed what the pilot told us until we walked off that little plane.
Truth be told, doubt is our constant companion. We sometimes suppose that skepticism can be eliminated when we’re fully in control – but, of course, we’re never fully in control – not in empirical scientific method – not in human relationships – not in our commitments of any sort. And I think today’s gospel is appointed for Low Sunday each year as a reminder that Thomas is wrestling with what was a real problem in the post-apostolic Church. How can one believe in a risen Lord without having one’s own, personal, post-resurrection encounter with him? How can we avoid the painful conclusion that Jesus is just plain dead? Even seeing and touching were no guarantee that Thomas would believe. In fact, being able to look at Jesus and touch the sites of his wounds did not produce his faith. Faith came to Thomas only after hearing Jesus speak – on-ly, as it were, after hearing the Word. And that’s how it is with you and me – 2000 years later faith comes to us through hearing the risen One speak through apostolic messengers.
Most of us know, I think, that the Christian life is not always lived on mountaintops. It also has its share of gullies and ravines, some of them very deep and very dark. And most of us also know that it’s easy to sing alleluias when trumpets are blaring – and bells are ringing – and this room is full of happy worshiping people. What we too often forget is that it is precisely when life is hard that we can still believe – on a Low Sunday or a Low Tuesday or a Low Friday. When every proof we think we have of God’s love is absent – AWOL – gone – when we feel that God has forsaken us – and we’re utterly alone without the consolations of God’s presence. What we too often forget is that it’s precisely at times like these – when we are unable to see in the dark – that we can still believe that Jesus will bless us with his mysterious presence.
So Thomas remind us that this happens here every Sunday. Our palpable evidence of our Lord’s Resurrection is a tiny wafer of bread – a little cup of wine – and the simple words, “broken and shed for you”. At every mass we receive the gift that those disciples received from Jesus on the night before he was crucified. How great a gift that is! But tomorrow and the next day – when life becomes hard like a Low Sunday – will we remember the Resurrection promise?
I once read that Albert Einstein – you know, the brilliant physicist – was traveling on a train when the conductor came down the aisle to punch the passenger’s tickets. Einstein fumbled in his pockets but couldn’t find his ticket – not in his vest pocket, or his pants pocket, or his brief-case. It was nowhere to be found. But the conductor recognized him and said, “Not to worry, Dr. Einstein. I know who you are – we all know who you are – and I’m sure you bought a ticket.” Then looking back, the conductor saw Einstein on his hands and knees searching for his ticket under his seat – so he returned and said, “Dr. Einstein – don’t worry. I know who you are. You don’t need a ticket. I’m sure you bought one.” At which Einstein rose to his feet and said, “Young man, I too know who I am – what I don’t know is where I’m going.”
The good news of Easter is that we know both who we are and where we are going. We have been told by the Savior that his life and death promise to us is eternal life in the company of the Holy Trinity – and Low Sundays don’t change that promise. Neither do severe economic de-pressions or wars or cancers or divorces or bankruptcies or failures or bad times of whatever sort. As St. Paul says later (Rom 8:38-39) – “there is nothing in death or life, in the realm of spirits or superhuman powers – in the world as it is or the world as it shall be – in the forces of the universe – in heights or depths – there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And this truth remains for every emotion that stirs the human soul – from exquisite elation to deflating desolating. We prayed it this way in today’s Collect: “Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith”.
We know who we are – we know whose we are – and we know where we are going. This is the wonderful Good News of Easter that is not confined to one day of the year – instead, it re-minds us year-round that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. That’s a happy thought. Deo gratias. Thanks be to God. So be it.
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.