Agape

Acts 2:14a,22-32, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31

by Genevieve Zetlan, Licensed Lay Preacher

So, here we are. Easter. Christ has risen, we sang our Alleluias, we celebrated the empty tomb and then we all went home. This is typically what we call a “low” Sunday—even fewer people attend church than normal, because although the Church wants us to celebrate Easter for another 6 weeks, we’ve kind of already moved on.

Contrast that with the disciples, one week after the first Easter, still locked in a room in fear—despite Mary Magdalene’s message, they haven’t moved on at all. Because while our Easters are bright and beautiful, filled with colored eggs and spiffy clothes—that first Easter was messy. It wasn’t something you moved on from all that easily.

So it’s one week later, and Jesus appears to the disciples, and he shows them all the very real, very messy holes in his hands and his side. All of them but Thomas.

Remember Thomas? He’s the disciple who, a few weeks ago, when Jesus said “Let’s all go to Galilee to wake up my dead friend Lazarus” and all the disciples said “Uh, Jesus, the Galileans just tried to stone you two days ago. If Lazarus is dead anyway maybe we’d better not go back just yet”. Thomas is the one who says with some degree of sarcastic resignation, “Fine –We might as well all go and die too”.

This is a man who is a realist if there ever was one. He has a particular kind of faith – the kind that is willing to do whatever is necessary, even though he’s pretty sure it’s not going to be in the least bit useful or successful. He has his doubts that any of this is really going to matter at all. But he’s willing to go wherever Jesus goes anyway.

And so it is that same Thomas, the resigned realist, who is out of the room when Jesus shows up. And he’s missing because he is the only disciple who is not afraid. For two millennia now his skepticism has earned him a bad rap and the nickname “Doubting Thomas”, but doubt isn’t a bad thing – Philip Yancey once said the opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear. And the disciples are surely huddled in fear in that upper room, whereas Thomas – well, maybe he went to fetch some food, or get news of what was going on in the city – but he certainly wasn’t cowering in fear.

And you can, if you squint across the millennia and remember that this was a close-knit group of men who had traveled together for more than a year—and human beings haven’t really changed that much—you can just imagine this group of grown men deciding to play a little joke on Thomas the realist. “Let’s tell him we saw Jesus!” And Thomas, well he isn’t going to be played.

Which is why we need him. The truth is, we are all really Thomas— a little skeptical of being played. A little skeptical of what that homeless person will do with our dollar thrown in the cup. A little skeptical sometimes that anything we do is going to make any difference at all.

Why? Because we want to matter. We want to make a difference. It’s a noble impulse at first glance. We live in a culture that is defined by accomplishment, so that we want even our charity to accomplish something, to be successful, to do good (however we define “good”). We are goal oriented, even in our agape – our love offerings.

But love has no goals. Love is simply at-one-ment.

At-one-ment. Atonement. It is the meaning of Easter.

I’ll be honest, it’s a miracle they let me stand up here because I’ve always had a problem with Easter. The idea that God demanded a blood sacrifice as proper atonement for the sins of humanity, and that only his son could be perfect enough to supply the necessary blood, doesn’t seem like the kind of God I can fall into the arms of. But there is an alternative view of Easter offered by the Franciscans – you might remember St. Francis as a lover of all of God’s creation.

According to the Franciscans, Jesus is not some “Plan B” God had to come up with because of the whole Garden of Eden thing. Jesus was God’s first thought and first Word. He is not an afterthought—He is the whole point. He is the embodiment of the divine and the human, inseparable – the at-one-ment of God and created matter.

Every single moment of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, from healing the blind to washing the disciples’ feet to cooking a fish dinner on the beach, shows us how to be “at-one” with God and with the world God created.

And though we often think of the word “sacrifice” as meaning “punishment”, the meaning of the word is simply this: a freely given offering to God. Jesus offered his entire life to “God’s dream of union with all things and all people in every moment of his life, no matter how great the cost to him.”[1] He freely gave over the living of his entire life as the ultimate example of the at-one-ness of divinity and creation.

His entire life, every moment of it, not just the cross, is agape — a love offering.

And agape, Love, is extravagant. It doesn’t care about being taken advantage of and it doesn’t care about the end result. Love leaves us open and vulnerable, and it’s what we are asked to do—because to be hard of heart is to wall ourselves off from the messy creation that so desperately needs at-one-ment with God. We need it, too.

It’s all too easy to keep our distance, to become hard hearted. When we hear the news that we have bombed someone and our first thought “Good! They deserved it!” When we hear of another incident of violence and our first impulse is to take sides and decide who was “right”. When we use argument and indignation and self-justification to wall off our hearts from the hurt around us and inside us because it’s just too messy, too painful, and too difficult to love this world, and each other—that is when we need Thomas.

Thomas gets to put his hands into the wounds in Jesus’s side, his hands, and his feet. Because keeping a “safe” distance from the messy, painful stuff is not what Jesus’ disciples are charged to do.

And if we are to get close enough, like Thomas, to be at-one with God’s creation and with our Creator, as we are meant to be – at some point we will hurt. And at some point we will doubt it is all worthwhile or that there’s any point.

I struggle, having been part of our Haiti Mission for 6 years now, with how overwhelming it is to accomplish anything that feels substantial, even in a single village. I struggle with the fact that year after year we barely keep the school open, keep our children and the other 250 students there outfitted, with access to teachers and books. I struggle with the fact that it’s been 3 years of effort for us to just be able to say we have finally started a building project to bring basic sanitation to the school. It’s hard to feel, sometimes, like we’re getting anywhere at all. There are times in November before each trip that I, like Thomas, want to throw up my hands and say “Fine—for all the good it will do we may as well go there and die with them!”

But. Love has no goals. Love is simply at-one-ment.

People here who will never get to visit Haiti will never touch the hands of the children we support, will never see their feet kicking the soccer balls we bring, will never return their smiles in person. People here believe without seeing that our small act of witness in this world, our agape in the face of this world’s terror and brutality and corruption, matters. That somehow in all the waiting and uncertainty, Jesus will walk in out of seemingly nowhere and show us in every breath, a love-offering—a life at-one with creation.

Love has no agenda, no list of accomplishments, no purpose that can be quantified and demonstrated. Love just walks in, and breathes peace where there was fear.

And although our Gospel writer turns Thomas into a morality story about how we should all believe without seeing, it’s important to notice that Jesus does give Thomas exactly what he needs. He meets Thomas where he is, in his skepticism, his realism, his doubt that this is all going to be worthwhile. And He comes very, very close to him. He touches him in the messiest possible way.

And then love sends us out to do the work He has given us to do – we are sent to be God’s own messy hands and feet in the world, to live at-one-ment with God’s creation as best we can. We could do a lot worse than to be like Thomas, to have the faith to do what is necessary even we when doubt that any of this is going to matter at all.

Because we don’t know which of the children being educated today in Chapoteau is the next Wisnel, the next who will work selflessly, tirelessly for a people in desperate need of some Good News. Who will bring them close to at-one-ment with their and your and my Creator.

Thomas is the disciple who shows us that what it means to be faithful is to keep on following Jesus, even when all indications are that it’s pointless to do so. To keep on opening ourselves to the messiness of at-one-ment with creation. Thomas is an example of the faith of love that needs no purpose, other than closeness with the creator and the world God created.

Love that has no goals. Agape.

Amen.

[1] Jakeowensby.com