Sometimes there are things that we do or say, or that just plain happen to us, that dog us for the rest of our lives. Others never let us forget them. Sometimes these are stories that are told about us. For example, we never let my grandfather forget the time that he wanted to coil the garden hose perfectly; he wrapped it carefully around a tree trunk, only to realize that this wasn’t going to help him much at all since he wanted to store it next to the house. Sometimes what follows us are nicknames. For example, think of the disciple Thomas. One innocent assertion that he would not believe that Jesus had been resurrected unless he saw the nail holes for himself, and he is known for the next two thousand years as “Doubting Thomas.” Imagine that nickname following you when you are trying to get a job in the church!
Yet, Thomas is a disciple who is to be highly admired; he is a good example, and indeed a very good example for anyone who values truth above all things. He actually always seems to say the right thing. For example, if, in the famous story from which he gained his nickname, he claimed he would not believe until he had evidence of the resurrection, he asked for no more than any of the other disciples had already gotten. But what is even more important is that he asked for the right evidence. Seeing in general wasn’t what he demanded – seeing the marks of the nails and the spear alone would convince him. He wanted to make sure that the one standing in front of him was also the one who had been crucified. Only in the resurrection of the one who has been crucified are we to put our trust. So, in asking for this evidence, he was asking for the right thing, for the only evidence that we ever have that Jesus is present is the evidence of his wounds and brokenness.
Thomas also says the right thing in this morning’s lesson. When Jesus chose to return from the trans-Jordan to Bethany, he and everybody else knew the danger. Only days before Jesus had had a serious run-in with the authorities there. Boldly, he had claimed in front of them that he and the Father are one and that the Father is in him and he is in the Father. They wanted to arrest him for blasphemy, the penalty for which is death, and he had barely escaped arrest, leaving to go to the other side of the Jordan River. Yet, now that Lazarus has died, he goes straight back to the place of danger. At first, it hardly seems to be with reason, for there is nothing left to be done for Lazarus since he is dead; a two-day delay in setting out has pretty much guaranteed that. It is in this situation that Thomas boldly says to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
I suspect that we overlook these words when reading the story of Lazarus, just as we overlook the fact that the way to Easter necessarily goes through the Crucifixion. In the story of the raising of Lazarus we see, rightly, a prefiguration of the resurrection of Jesus. John meant it that way in telling this story. We even see that, because of the two-day delay, Jesus meant it that way, too. The delay guaranteed that Lazarus would be dead when Jesus got there so that the miracle could be performed and the teaching about the Resurrection proclaimed. Performing a miracle like this is, of course, a terrific setting for Jesus to teach them that he is the Resurrection and the Life. But what we often pass over is that, in returning to Bethany--the scene of his previous near arrest--and by performing this miracle, he pretty much guaranteed his death. Moreover, since after this miracle the authorities planned to kill Lazarus as well, Jesus’ march to teach about the resurrection threatens the lives of others as well. So, what we pass over in this prefiguration of the resurrection is that it actually was instrumental in bringing about Jesus’ own death, and that it threatened death to all those who followed him. In this situation, Thomas is no doubter at all, but a very clear-sighted fellow and much quicker than most. He knows what going back means. He knows the threat and the danger. Yet, knowing what it will bring in the short-term, and as yet unaware of what the long term would bring, or even if there were going to be a long term, he boldly says, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.”
This is faithfulness, a faithfulness to follow the Way, the Truth and the Life at any cost and wherever it might lead. It is a profound faithfulness, since at the time that Thomas says it he has no idea that this is the road to the Resurrection. The only things that he knows is that going this way is going to be troublesome, and that he will follow his Teacher wherever he might choose to lead him. For Thomas and for the rest of the disciples, that path did lead to the Cross, and for Thomas, if the stories are right, after the Resurrection it led all the way to India, and to the establishment of what is now called the Mar-Thoma church.
What Thomas says and does is profoundly important for all disciples to take to heart about Jesus’ teachings about the Resurrection and about the nature of the Resurrection. It is important simply because the way to the Resurrection only leads through the Cross. This is true, of course, in that it is the dead who are resurrected. But it is also true in that, in order to see the kingdom of peace and justice, one must want peace, justice and truth above all things. That means being willing to die to all other things. That is why Lent precedes Easter. That is why John Calvin said that to come to holiness we have to die more and more unto self and to live more and more into Christ.
That is a tall order. In fact, I am pretty sure that it is so tall that nobody can actually will at the outset to do all that it entails. I am pretty sure, too, that, if at the point of Jesus’ calling them the disciples had known how hazardous it was going to be, none of them would have signed up for such hazardous duty. But, I also know that what we can do is what Thomas and all the disciples did. We can listen to the call, we can follow and we can pay attention to his teachings simply because they are beautiful and good. We can do what the disciples did. At a time when everybody else was deserting their Lord, he asked them if they, too, wanted to leave. They replied: “Where else can we go Lord? You alone have the words of eternal life.” We can simply follow wherever that Word leads, even if it is as dangerous as Thomas came to realize that it is. And he is right. This way will lead through death, and it is important that we know that. But it will also lead to the Resurrection, and because we live in the light of Christ’s death and resurrection, that is why we can follow.
That is the witness of numerous disciples and saints. But, let me put it closer to home so that we may understand exactly who those saints are. They aren’t all distant and long ago.
Some time ago, a former student of mine, who had since married and become the mother of three young children, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was in her early thirties. At the time of diagnosis, she began writing a blog that she e-mailed to friends and family. Since she had been a basketball player, she wrote it as if what she were going through were a basketball season. She often referred to herself by her old number, to the doctors as coaches and to the family as the team. Since her cancer was of the sort that has a high correlation with genetic structure, this was no simple process. It involved, in the end, not only treating the cancer where it was found locally but also included some very extensive treatment to insure that it would not recur, as was otherwise likely. As daunting as the process was going to be, she was willing to go through it since she had three children she wanted to help grow up. Thus, over the course of a year she underwent a radical double mastectomy and a hysterectomy along with reconstructive surgery and lengthy chemotherapy sessions. After a year she was declared to be cancer free.
On the first anniversary of her first surgery when she learned what the diagnosis was she made another post. What she wrote about was simply her reflections on that year. She noted that when she had mentioned to a friend the anniversary, the friend observed, as I suspect we all would, that she was probably very glad that the year was over and that she would not ever want to have another year like that one. But that was not Kelly’s reaction to the anniversary at all. Rather, she went on to explain that it had been the most important year of her life, simply because of all that she had found in life. In particular, she noted how absolutely overwhelmed she had been; not simply by the outpouring of sympathy and support from those around her, but more so by the knowledge that people were praying for her. The most important tears of that whole year were the ones that flowed when an unknown woman in the check-out line in the grocery store realized who she was and told her that the woman’s whole church was praying for Kelly. No, Kelly said, it had not been what most people would call a good year. But, at the end, what she felt because of that year was a profound sense of gratitude and a new sense of life that was more important than anything else she had ever known. She would not ever give that year up.
That, friends, is pretty much how we should understand the Resurrection. The Resurrection is something that we can be told about. We may believe that it guarantees ongoing life and that it takes the bumps out of the road when we have to face the fact that mortals die. But what it really means is something different. Its meaning comes to those who are willing to follow the Way, the Truth and the Life, even though it leads through the Cross. It comes to those who, like Thomas are willing to say, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” It comes because our Lord’s life and death are meant to give life to those who are willing to give up their lives.
Simone Weil once noted: “They alone will see God who prefer to recognize the truth and die, instead of living a long and happy existence in a state of illusion. One must want to go towards reality; then, when one thinks one has found a corpse, one meets an angel who says: ‘He is risen.”
Often, we overlook the death part of Holy Week. If we talk about it, we tend to talk about it in terms of the tragedy of the Cross. That is to say we talk about it in much the same way we talk about accidents, that, as things that shouldn’t have happened and that are “too bad.” Yet, whatever else it might be, the cross was no tragedy, no accident, no mistake either on God’s part or on the part of those who put Jesus to death. Both sides equally meant it, although only one side actually knew what was meant by it. The only way for us to know what was really meant by it is to accept it, as Thomas did, even though it is fraught with danger and is even the way of death. But, for those who are willing to follow the path of the Cross, never forsaking truth and never forsaking the gift of life we can give others, they will find eternal life.
Many people lose faith because what they expect from faith is nothing but joy, and when they encounter their daily crosses, big or little, they can’t help but feel something has gone drastically wrong, that this surely isn’t the way or the truth. They feel it is a tragedy. But it is the way, it is the Way the Truth takes us, and until we, like Thomas, are willing to go that Way because it is good and right, because following the Truth matters above all, we will not come to understand the joy that God truly means for us. Let us then go that way in these last days of Lent as we walk with him to Good Friday. Let us here say with Thomas, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” If we do, we will find that he is indeed the Resurrection.