Easter 2A Sermon (2002)

2nd Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 20:19-31;
Acts 2:22-32; 1 Pet. 1:3-9


Would it shock you to know that I went through a time of doubt in my life? The story of Thomas’ doubt in this morning’s gospel has given permission to many throughout the ages to talk about the doubts and fears they have experienced along their journey of faith. I was considering doing so myself this morning.

But something else happened. I can hardly believe it myself. These kinds of things don’t ordinarily happen to me, and so I’m tempted to doubt it. But I had a dream last night — a nightmare, as it turned out — which I can only believe was of God. Through this dream, this nightmare, it became clear to me the depth of Thomas’ kind of doubt and disbelief in this Gospel story, a depth of doubt that the feeble middle class doubts in my life can’t begin to touch. And so I find myself telling you a very different kind of story this morning, the story of last night’s nightmare, with the hope that it can begin to help you more adequately begin to share the depth of Thomas’ doubt — and then his belief, too.

When I awoke with my heart pounding in the middle of the night, I began the process of trying to piece together the glimpses of the nightmare that had just awakened me. As is the case with most dreams, it was easiest to remember the most recent details that had caused me to awake with such a start. As to what had preceded it, those details are much more hazy. But I do have the distinct impression that it was quite a long dream, much of it seeming rather normal, even though, from the perspective of being awake, it wasn’t normal at all. For the main theme of this dream was that I was somehow the chaplain for four prisoners who were to be executed together on the same day. And one of the bizarre aspects of this dream was that these prisoners were being held in my basement. There weren’t any guards watching them. They were simply confined in my basement somehow, with all the other normal kind of basement junk laying around. Again, while this is really strange in remembering it awake, I remember it as seeming quite normal in my dream. Our family was simply going on with life as usual, with my occasionally going to the basement to talk to these prisoners as a chaplain would do, trying to help them put their lives in order before being executed. It was as though this kind of looming violence regularly lives in the basements of our lives amidst all our junk without our hardly noticing. . . .and, I guess it does.

But it was the execution day that I remember most vividly. Again, the setting and circumstances seem quite bizarre now that I’m awake, but they seemed normal in the dream: I accompanied the prisoners to another modern day home, where the instrument of their execution, a guillotine, was set-up in the living room. I can’t remember much about my role with these prisoners, probably because I didn’t end up having much role. All I can remember is having to excuse myself, not being able to watch. Absolutely shuddering with revulsion from what was about to happen, I went out into the hallway by the stairs to mark the events. I paced back and forth, back and forth, beside myself with — well, the word that kept coming to me was, revulsion. I was horror-struck at what was happening. It was after marking the third execution, overheard in the nearby room, that I awoke with a start, my heart pounding, and still trembling with the revulsion I felt.

Now, what does this nightmare have to do with this morning’s Gospel Lesson? As I lay there, it was almost immediate that my dream came together with this story from John. For to completely understand the fear and the doubt that must have rocked the disciples in that closed room on Easter night, I think we have to begin with the fact that they were barely forty-eight hours from having gone through a hideous, revulsive execution. With all the other baggage that was no doubt haunting them — the running away and abandoning him, the denying him, the unthinkable, crushing disappointment of having their hoped-for Messiah shamefully put to death — with all that terrible burden, they were probably still shuddering, too, just from the horror of the execution itself — the abject shame and mockery and powerlessness, the repulsiveness of that manner of death.

Then, all of a sudden, this executed one is standing in their midst! Is it a dream? Is it a nightmare? What is he doing there? Coming back to haunt them? Coming back to get revenge on some poor, lowly, good-for-nothing disciples who failed him in his hour of direst need? . . . What was that he said? There, he said it again, “Peace be with you!” How many times did he really have to say, “Peace be with you!” until they began to calm down and begin to feel something else, joy? John records two times for us, but I bet it was more. I know that I had to imagine Jesus saying “Peace be with you!” quite a number of times last night, before I was ever going to feel calm enough to fall back asleep.

The added depth to my experience of the disciples’ doubt, then, has very much to do with the repulsiveness of the cross as an execution. I started out by saying that I considered talking about some of the times of doubt in my own life. Those had pretty much to do with being interested in science as a student and having the scientific perspective cast a shadow over things such as the miracles and the resurrection. Could someone really be raised from the dead? And then we often project our manner of doubting into Thomas and the disciples. Thomas couldn’t believe that Jesus was really raised from the dead, we say.

But there’s a big problem with this. In John’s gospel, what was the very last thing that happens before the Passion week events? Jesus himself raising his friend Lazarus from the dead! So could Thomas, who had witnessed such a raising himself only a few days earlier, really be struggling with the idea of God’s ability to raise Jesus from the dead? I don’t think so! Jesus could raise Lazarus. God could certainly raise Jesus.

No, Thomas was struggling with the idea that God would choose to raise someone who was executed in shame. Thomas doesn’t just demand to see Jesus in order to believe. He demands to see the marks of his execution! He wants to see the nail prints in his hands and the place where the sword pierced his side. He was still shuddering at the horror of the one whom they thought to be the Messiah having been executed. Jesus was supposed to save his people from centuries of being oppressed. Jesus was supposed to help them turn around the oppressive violence of the Romans. How could one who seemed so powerless against that violence actually be the one who is saving us from it? Impossible! God raise him in power as the Messiah? He’ll believe that when he sees the nail prints and puts his hand in Jesus’ side.

If we’re honest with ourselves, isn’t this also the tougher thing for us to believe, too? A friend of mine (1) who is a member of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, was demonstrating against an execution in Alabama in recent years. He was holding a sign that said, ‘Jesus was executed.’ But a church-goer who was demonstrating in favor of the execution took issue with him, saying that, ‘Jesus’ death wasn’t really an execution because it was the will of God fore-ordained from before creation for our salvation, etc.’ Isn’t this the doubt of Thomas when he demanded to see the marks of execution? Thomas had his own theology of Messiahship that prevented him from believing that the Messiah could be executed. We still obviously have ours, too.

Why? Why do we still cling to theologies that prevent us from fully and truly shuddering at the thought of the Messiah as the executed one? Because it would mean that we’d have to face precisely that which I think the cross means to confront us with — namely, the full reality of our sacred, sanctioned violence. This is our own violence which we say is O.K., the violence we continue to cling to as that which saves us from the violence against us that we fear. Think of that church-goer’s response. He still needs to believe in execution as our way of stopping bad people from harming us, so he refuses to believe that Jesus was executed as anything but a charade in a cosmic plan of God’s to achieve a different kind of salvation. Jesus died on the cross to save believers from hell, according to this theology.

But I ask you: is even hell anything more than our version of the kind of punishment we need to believe in, in order for us to continue believing ourselves as ‘in’ and others as ‘out’? What does it mean to confess, as we will do in a few moments, that Jesus descended into hell? I think that it means this: Jesus descended into our world of playing such games — he let himself be banished into the hell of our own making. That’s why it is so difficult for Thomas to believe in an executed Messiah. He would have to give up his notion of a Messiah who turns the tables of violence on someone else instead of him. That’s why it is still so hard for us to believe in an executed Messiah. We would have to give up notions like hell as a place where God punishes the bad people forever, while rewarding us, the good people, with heaven. No, we would have to see hell as a place of our own making, a place, in fact, where Jesus truly went when we sentenced him to death.

The basement as a place to hold criminals was a very telling image in my dream. It’s hell. It’s the normal part of our human scheme of things, where our various versions of sacred violence banish our scapegoats for the sake of us being able to go about our usual business with a sense of righteous order. These places of sacred violence help to keep the unwanted violence at bay. In a sense, Jesus doesn’t just descend into hell; he raises it up on the cross and throws it in our faces so that we can begin to see it. Do we shudder at the horror of the one we thought to be the Messiah as one who deserves to reside in our hell? Can we believe it?

The cross as a repulsive execution brings us face to face with the heart of the matter: that our cure for violence is sacred violence, a violence we say is O.K. for the sake of keeping order, and that God’s cure for violence is completely different than ours. God submits to our sacred violence in the cross and reveals it as meaningless and powerless compared to God’s power of life. The resurrection of the one whom we executed puts us face to face with absolutely the most difficult thing for us to believe — namely, that the only way to ultimately cure violence is to completely refrain from doing it, even if it means submitting to it, revealing its meaninglessness compared to the Creator’s power of life. We need to keep believing in the violence we use to try to stop others from using violence on us. We refuse to believe that there could be a way of stopping violence that doesn’t involve violence — or “force,” since we generally want to call what we do something else other than “violence.” Thomas wants to know, we want to know, how someone who seemed so powerless against the violence could actually be the one saving us from it. If we want to truly be challenged by something impossible for us to believe, try believing that there is ultimately a nonviolent way to stop violence. Believing that God could raise someone from the dead is nothing compared to that.

Consider, once again, our response to terrorism after September 11. Can we believe in any other way to stop such terrorism other than with our military might? The president’s approval ratings are sky high. I would venture that the fact that one of the most contested president’s ever elected has become one of the most believed-in presidents in such a short time says more about our need to believe in our sacred violence than it does about Mr. Bush’s actual competence. In fact, this president’s professed belief in good-old-time religion (i.e., sacred violence?), which previously made large segments of the population uncomfortable, perhaps now feels like his greatest qualifying mark, as it is combined with large doses of patriotism. We need to believe in such “might-makes-right” answers to the horrifying violence of September 11. It is near impossible for us to believe that the Risen Christ is inviting us into another way when he proclaims to his disciples, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so am I sending you into the world to spread a new way of peace based on forgiveness, not vengeance.’ Thomas refused to believe, and so do we . . . .

But wait a minute! Thomas’ doubt isn’t the end of the story. When he saw those marks of execution, when the hell of his belief in sacred violence came up from the basement for him to see in the resurrected executed one, then he did believe! Thomas could believe! And so can we! We are forgiven for believing otherwise and released to believe in something totally new. In fact, we come to see that the chief of sins is our believing otherwise. Sin is our belief in those basement places of sacred violence that allow us to continue on with lives ordered on the basis of those who must live in our hells (people of color in white racist societies, for example). We can be forgiven, released from believing in such places and gods of sacred violence. But we can also be retained in such sin by clinging to those beliefs. Ultimately, if we would never let go of beliefs in such gods, then we might end up living in the hells of our own making.

Let me turn practical for just a few moments before we close. Actually, these are practical musings of the most impractical-seeming kind. For if we truly begin to believe in a realm and a God of total grace and forgiveness and life, then we will be seen to believe in the most impractical-seeming things to do. Things like believing in another way to respond to terrorism. We will be challenged, perhaps, to take a real hard look at disciples like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and see if we can’t find some ways to stand against the continuing violence in this world nonviolently. Can it be done? All our justifications for why such answers are impractical roll so easily off our tongues. Much tougher is to believe in this other way of the resurrected executed one and find ways of acting on it.

For myself, I have a real specific challenge that comes to mind. On my calendar for this Saturday morning, at one of our neighbor churches, Mt. Zion Lutheran here in Wauwatosa, is a seminar on the criminal justice system. I believe they are going to even talk about the Restorative Justice movement, an alternative for dealing with those we deem criminals that is based on forgiveness and the possibilities of new life, rather than simply locking so many among us into the basements of our lives and throwing away the key. I wasn’t planning on going, but this morning I’m challenged to reconsider. I’m challenged to go beyond belief and do something.

And the thing that always causes me the most pain — but usually with a feeling of helplessness to do anything about it, so I shuffle it off to the basement of my life, too — is the hell of poverty that two-thirds of this world lives in. Gandhi said with incredible insight that poverty is the worst form of violence. Again, can we let ourselves see this violence as part of our sacred violence? Can we recognize that such poverty is part of our sin of needing to believe in gods and places of expendable people? The justifications come so glibly off of our tongues: ‘There will always be poor, so there’s nothing to do but put band-aids on it. I give my three percent to church and the United Way.’ Can we dare to see that that means we believe in a god who created a world with scarce resources? Can we see how Jesus believed in an entirely different God when he took two fish and five loaves and blessed them for a multitude of five thousand? Dare we look at the scandalous difference between our incredible wealth and the people we ordinarily confine to the basements, to the ‘Third Worlds,’ of our otherwise ordered lives? Dare we really believe that tithing and beyond could actually begin to bridge the difference?

Jesus comes into our ordered, locked-down-tight worlds and says, “Peace be with you!” So forgiven we can look upon such scandalous things as his marks of execution and not be scandalized. We can even put our hands in the marks of the nails and his side. Or we can simply proclaim with Thomas, “My Lord and my God,” and begin to act as disciples of this executed one who is raised. We can begin to truly believe in a God of life and to be God’s children. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, April 7, 2002 (2)


1. Actually, it was a friend of Pastor Britt Johnston, who emailed this story and these questions to me in response to my reflections on this Gospel in 1998.

2. This isn’t quite the sermon actually delivered that day. Waking up in the middle of the night and basing the sermon on a dream doesn’t leave much time for writing out a whole sermon. I wrote out the first half and extemporized the second half. I expanded the second half in writing this version.

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