Encountering the Risen Christ

April 11, 2021

Series: April 2021

Category: What Are You/We Up To

Speaker: Bethany Nelson

Today's Scripture: John 20:19-29

Today's Sermon


"Encountering the Risen Christ"


John 20:19-29

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”


Have you ever had someone tell you about an amazing movie they have recently seen? More than once, I have had a friend or family member tell me in great detail about “THE BEST MOVIE EVER.”  They are filled with excitement about how impactful this movie has been in their life. 

When I hear these stories, I don’t doubt that the person has had a wonderful experience with that movie.  I believe that they do think it is the best movie ever.  That being said, if I haven’t seen the movie, I can’t necessarily agree with them that it is the best ever.  I want to see it myself in order to offer my own testimony about it.  I want to have my own experience.  I’m sure their experience has been great, but their experience is not my experience.

I think we have a little of this happening in our Gospel reading today.  Yes, I am comparing encountering the risen Christ with watching a movie, but stay with me! Let’s start with the end of the passage that we heard last week on Easter Sunday.  It is good to start there, because it immediately precedes the story we just heard today.  The risen Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and after that experience, she announces to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” Can you imagine how excited she is to share this news?

Rather than sharing in her excitement, however, this bit of news leaves the disciples even more perplexed than they already were.  Jesus has been killed, his tomb is inexplicably empty, now Mary is saying she has seen Jesus.  The disciples are already freaked out and hearing about Mary’s experience does nothing to help them.  That’s her experience, not theirs.  Mary, it’s great that you have seen the Lord, but we’ll go ahead and stay locked up in this house.

But then, Jesus appears to the disciples!  They get to have their own experience of the risen Christ.  And they go to tell Thomas what he missed because he wasn’t with them. “We have seen the Lord!” they proclaim.  Well, says Thomas, that’s great for you, but your experience is not my experience.  I need to have my own encounter with the risen Christ.

You see the pattern here, right? It is important for us to have our own experiences.

Usually, this story is called the “Doubting Thomas” story.  All the attention gets focused on Thomas and his doubts.  It is often told as a kind of cautionary tale.  I heard one pastor explain the story like this – “Thomas doubted.  Doubting is bad.  Don’t be like Thomas.” However, Thomas is not the main character of this story.  The main character is Jesus.  Rather than focusing on Thomas or his supposed doubts, let’s instead take a look at what Jesus does in this story.

First, when the disciples are so scared that they have locked themselves away in a house, Jesus appears to them.  Jesus appears to them not to scold them for not trusting Mary Magdalene’s testimony. Instead, when Jesus appears to them, knowing how frightened they are, he offers them peace.  His first words to them are, “Peace be with you.”

Then, when Thomas is confused and uncertain, Jesus appears to him.  Jesus appears to him not to scold him for not trusting his fellow disciples.  Instead, Jesus offers Thomas the encounter with the risen Christ for which he yearns, showing Thomas the wounds in his hands and his side.

Jesus meets the disciples exactly where they are, giving them exactly what they need.  This is not a story about the danger of doubt.  This is a story about Jesus knowing us and meeting us right where we are.  This is a story proclaiming that nothing keeps God from us – not fear, not doubt, not locked doors, not death, not a sealed tomb. God is with us always. Thanks be to God.

That’s great, you may say, but I need my own experience.  I can stand up here telling you about the disciples’ experiences with the risen Christ all day long, but that doesn’t make it your experience.  So let’s take a moment to think about your experiences with the risen Christ over this past year.  We all certainly know what it feels like to be stuck inside a house in fear and anxiety.  We have had a lot of that experience lately.  I invite you to consider when, in the midst of the fear and anxiety of the pandemic, you have experienced a moment of peace.  Perhaps that was an encounter with the risen Christ.

In addition to offering his peace, Jesus also offered the disciples his scars.  Notice that he still had his scars.  Resurrection did not eradicate the pain of crucifixion.  Resurrection does not deny the wounds of life. Instead, resurrection offers us hope and even a glimpse of joy in the midst of our pain.  Resurrection reminds us that we never suffer alone.  I invite you to consider when, in the midst of the pain of this past year, you have experienced a moment of hope or joy.  Perhaps that was an encounter with the risen Christ.

Many years ago, author Nora Gallagher lost her brother, Kit, to cancer.  She says that her life no longer made sense after his death, and she wrote a memoir about her attempts to reclaim her life and her own sense of the sacred in the world.  She titled that memoir, “Practicing Resurrection,” because throughout her grieving process, she realized that resurrection doesn’t just happen … she had to practice.  She had to look for signs of the risen Christ in her relationships and in the natural world. She had to notice how God kept showing up in her life.  She had to learn about the experiences of the disciples, and then have experiences of her own.  Gallagher writes in that memoir, “What if the resurrection is not about the appearances of Jesus alone but also about what those appearances pointed to, what they asked? And it is finally what we do with them that matters … using them as stepping stones to new life.  We have to practice resurrection.”[i]

The thing about practice? We get better and better at whatever it is we are practicing.  The more we practice seeing the risen Christ in our lives, the more we will experience it. The more we practice trusting that God is with us always, the more we will experience it.  The more we practice, the more we allow ourselves to believe in the hope and the promise of new life.  To believe that our sorrow will turn to joy.  To trust that the risen Christ shows up in our lives now and always.

I am reminded of a story shared by the theologian, Henri Nouwen.  Nouwen was quite taken with The Flying Rodleighs, trapeze artists who performed in Germany. Talk about something that takes a lot of practice … the flying trapeze!  Nouwen ended up becoming good friends with them and even doing some traveling with them. He shares, "One day, I was sitting with the leader of the troupe, talking about flying. He said, 'As a flyer, I must have complete trust in my catcher. The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher. He has to be there for me with split-second precision and grab me out of the air as I come to him in the long jump.' 'How does it work?' I asked. 'The secret,' he said, 'is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything. When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me.'

"'You do nothing!' I said, surprised. 'Nothing,' he repeated. 'The worst thing the flyer can do is to try to catch the catcher. I am not supposed to catch Joe. It's Joe's task to catch me. If I grabbed Joe's wrists, I might break them, or he might break mine, and that would be the end for both of us. A flyer must fly, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him.'”

Nouwen concludes his story with a reflection of his own. "Remember that you are the beloved child of God. God will be there when you make your long jump. Don't try to grab him; he will grab you. Just stretch out your arms and hands and trust, trust, trust.'”[ii]

In our Gospel story today, Jesus tells Thomas, “Do not doubt, but believe.” This is often seen as a scolding … How dare you doubt, Thomas?!? What if, instead, it is an invitation?  You don’t need to doubt, says Jesus, because I am with you always. Just stretch out your arms and hands and I will catch you.  Not so sure about that? Still needing some more experience? That’s OK.  Practice as much as you want.  I’ll be here. Amen.


[i] Practicing Resurrectionby Nora Gallagher, pg. 207.

[ii] https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/books/reviews/excerpts/view/17109