Second Sunday of Easter: Acts 5: 27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20-19-31

This Sunday is one of the Sundays where we get the same reading each year: on the second Sunday of Easter, we hear the story of Thomas: doubting Thomas, as he is often known. I suspect I am not alone in having a soft spot in my heart for Thomas, who gives all of us permission to ask questions, to talk about what we sometimes can’t believe because we can’t understand.

Every Sunday, we say the creed: we affirm belief. But I know from conversations with many people over the years that there are things that almost all of us have trouble with. The Resurrection is high on the list. What exactly do we mean by it? how do we understand it? The story of Thomas reminds us that such questions go back to the time right after it all happened. Thomas needs to see Jesus to believe the stories he has heard.

I don’t think that when the disciples talked about seeing the risen Christ, he was back like he was before the crucifixion. In today’s gospel, the first time Jesus appears to the disciples, he enters a room whose doors are locked; the next week, he enters again, “although the doors were shut”. Other Resurrection appearances are equally strange: on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) Jesus appears walking next to the two men, but as soon as they recognize him, he disappears. Jesus is embodied after the Resurrection, enough for Thomas to feel his hands and his side; but he is able to move through doors and appear and disappear in mysterious ways.

The Resurrection is something new. It’s not the world we know. We are constantly trying to learn what this mystery means. If, like Thomas, we are sometimes confused and asking questions, it’s not surprising. We are waiting, Paul tells us, for a “new heaven and a new earth” (2 Peter 3:13). There are moments when the shape of that new heaven and new earth are clear. The other moments, when the outlines are vague, are times when I am reassured by Thomas’s questions, reminded that I’m trying to understand something outside my experience.

Useful discomfort

Sunday of the Passion/ Palm Sunday: Luke 19:28-40; Isaiah 50: 4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 23:1-49

Today is the Sunday of emotional and spiritual whiplash. We begin our service waiving palms and singing Hosanna, and then the church gives us the trailer for coming attractions, so we end with Jesus dead. Jesus enters Jerusalem cheered by throngs on the roadside, and leaves it on his way to be crucified. It’s a lot. Some churches stay with the Palms and hosannas, leaving the Passion for later in the week. But I’m always glad they come together

The conjunction of palms and the Passion means we can’t be too comfortable. The readings are grounded in faith, with Isaiah’s proclamation that “It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty. The Psalmist is a little more anxious: “I have heard the whispering of the crowd . . . they plot to take my life”; but still, “But as for me, I have trusted in you, O Lord”, so “Make your face to shine upon your servant/ and in your loving-kindness save me.” Threat and faith are both there.

The Passion narrative is oten read as a play, with a narrator and speaking parts, with most of the congregation as a chorus. When I have participated in such readings, the hardest part is when all of us, as the crowd, have to call for Jesus’ death: we’re all part of the story. A few times I have served as the narrator, and the best part was that I didn’t have to join in. What we learn, again and again, is that we all fail sometimes.

In the longer version of the Passion narrative (Luke 22:14-23-56), we are reminded that even Jesus’ closest followers failed repeatedly. He chooses a few to join him in prayer at Gethsemane, and they fall asleep. Peter, on whom Jesus promises to build his church, denies his relation to Jesus. And these people were his close companions, who had been with him on a daily basis.

Jesus is joined on the cross by two thieves, one of whom taunts Jesus by asking him to save them all. The other, often seen as the good thief, acknowledges his guilt and asks Jesus to remember him. The poet and theologian John Shea reminds us: “I am both thieves/ scrounging for the kingdom/ and cursing the cross.”1 We all are.

We spend Holy Week going back and forth. We’re never allowed to settle in one place. The movement back and forth provides a reminder of our frailty; it makes me a little less sure of my virtue. If we don’t rush to Easter, we can use the time to become more honest with ourselves.

1John Shea, “Prayer to Jesus”, in The Hour of the Unexpected (1977), p. 12


Fifth Sunday of Lent: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Phillippians 3: 4b-14; John 12:1-8

When I came to live in Merced, the passages of scripture that speak of water in the desert took on new meaning. “I will make a way in the wilderness/ and rivers in the desert”, Isaiah promises us. The psalmist, in rejoicing that the Lord had restored the fortunes of Zion, adds, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord/
like the watercourses of the Negev”. All of this, Isaiah tells us, is because the Lord is “about to do a new thing”.

The Hebrew scriptures today are full of promise, of joy and celebration. It’s a bit odd to see this in the middle of Lent, but that’s what we’ve got. It is a reminder of the promise: after all, we know the end of the story. It is why Paul can celebrate “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”.

In the midst of all this, the gospel may seem a bit surprising. It is six days before the Passover, and Jesus is with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Martha is serving. And then Mary, instead of sitting and listening as at other times, herself serves. She takes a pound of expensive perfume, puts it on Jesus’ feet, and wiped his feet with her hair. This gesture is both extravagant and erotic, expressing love and intimacy.

In the exchange that follows, when Judas suggests the value of the nard might more usefully given to the poor, Jesus pushes back. The perfume had been bought for the day of his burial, and he will not always be with them. Extravagance is not unreasonable with those who face death. I’ve known people with cancer diagnoses who immediately start crossing things off their bucket lists: they visit places they have always wanted to visit, or return to favorite places; they spend time with those they love. When time was finite, they used resources to celebrate life.

The gifts I have appreciated the most are the least expected: the ones that come not at birthdays or Christmas, but on a random day. And they are not always expensive, but they represent care and affection. That is true of all gifts: what resonates is the relationship they carry. As Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with nard, she tells him what he means to her.

Sometimes this passage is read with a focus on “You always have the poor with you”, suggesting we don’t need to do anything for the poor. But that misses the point. Mary celebrates Jesus’ presence, and takes something valuable to serve him, to care for his feet. That’s not wrong, we’re told. If we are to celebrate the new thing that God is doing, how do we do it? What are our extravagances?