John 20.19-31, Revelation 1.4-8
April 18 2004
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 had 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 ho have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.
So it is to be. Amen.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
All week long I’ve had people tell me not to preach on this text. “Preach on Thomas,” they say. “Revelation is just a weird book,” “There’s nothing in there to grab on to,” and “you must be crazy” have been common comments. Some people choose to gloss over the entire book, pretending it isn’t in the Bible. Some consider it more like entertainment—a good novel, a Kevin Smith movie. Some say “it’s only a subversive political text, not a religious one.” And occasionally I would just say “I’m preaching on the Alpha and Omega passage” and people would say, “oh, won’t that be nice.”
Well, it’s not been easy. In fact, I really have no idea what to say. Here we have the gospel in a nutshell: Jesus died for our sins and will come again. God is all encompassing. What more do we need? I almost feel like I should just read the text again, then sit down because there’s not a lot I can add to the Word of God this week. Unfortunately, preachers aren’t often allowed to do that. So instead I’ve avoided the task, I’ve done everything else, until there’s nothing left to do. My room is clean, my cat is fed, I’ve even taken a nap. I have exhausted every avoidance tactic I can dream up.
And so we face Revelation together…and do what with it exactly? Sure, it’s a subversive political book. Sure, it’s weird. Sure, it often reads like a Steven King novel or a script from a sci-fi TV show. But it’s also the Word of the Lord and it’s here for a reason. The lectionary allows us to skip a lot of unpleasantness in the Bible, including the vast majority of the Book of Revelation. So really, I should be grateful that I’ve got the Alpha and Omega rather than a vision of scrolls and bowls and horses and trumpets and fire and plagues. At least we didn’t just read chapter 12 about the woman giving birth to a male child as a dragon waits to eat the child immediately.
This is small consolation when everyone around me is telling me this is impossible. Thankfully, nothing is impossible for God.
Last week we celebrated an impossibility—the resurrection—with singing, bells, flowers, and joy. This week, though it may not seem like it from this text, we are still celebrating the resurrection. Easter is a season, not a day—a 50 day season, to be exact. We will celebrate the resurrection until Pentecost, and hopefully we’ll continue to remember that God raised this Jesus from the dead even after Pentecost. As John tells us here, in Jesus God freed us from our sins and made us to be a kingdom. This is what a friend of mine referred to as the “whole gospel, everything you need to know about Jesus.” While I don’t think that’s quite true, because Jesus’ life was pretty important, I do think this tells us a lot in a short space. But it tells us about ourselves as the church, not about Jesus. Here we are told that we have been freed from our sins. We, the church—which John calls the kingdom on earth, the priestly community serving God at all times—have been freed from sin. We are not expected to be innocent, for none can be innocent of sin. Instead we are expected to remember that we have been forgiven. We are not the innocent community but the forgiven one. We still make mistakes, we still wonder what it’s all about, we still fail…but we also confess, and we accept forgiveness. And so, with John, we frame our lives in the doxology: to God be the glory forever and ever! John has begun his letter to the seven churches in Asia with worship, not with analytical concepts, not with a set of doctrines, not with something we are required to believe, but with a statement that all the glory belongs to God.
It’s easy to ascribe all the glory to God on Easter Sunday. The church is full, the bells are tolling, the Halelujah chorus rings in our ears. Christ is Alive! But the Sunday after Easter…the low Sunday…it’s a little harder now. We’re still singing joyful easter hymns, still proclaiming “Christ is Risen!”, still looking at lilies…but we’ve moved on. We may have, in fact, moved right back to being in charge of our own lives. A good grade on an exam, praise received at work, compliments from a stranger on the street, and we generally ascribe the glory to ourselves. I do it all the time—I admit that when I got my theology midterm back this week, it made my day and I congratulated myself and boasted for hours before remembering how hard I’d prayed that I could remember all the things I needed to remember, before I thought to stop and be thankful that God had helped me be alert while I studied and while I wrote answers to case study questions. Glory to God forever…except when I want to feel that I did all the work myself. Glory to God forever and ever…as long as it means that I can boast about how great I am forever and ever too.
Sadly, that’s not what it says. What it does say is “to the one who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” That “amen” is supposed to be our assent, our “may it be so” to the preceding statement: to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.
It sounds almost as if John is showing us the appropriate response to God’s presence with us. Remember in Isaiah that when Isaiah encounters God, he falls on his face and says “woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips and I serve a people of unclean lips, yet I have seen the Lord.” That kind of response is part of this one John describes. Remember when Mary saw the risen Lord early in the morning and she was weeping and scared? That is part of the response too. Remember when the disciples were locked in their room, and Jesus appeared to them, and Thomas said “My Lord and my God!”…that too is part of this response. John here is calling us to a response of awe—of acknowledgment of mystery, of dominion, of glory, of power and might and all-encompassing-ness.
We can’t understand how it is that Jesus was raised from the dead…Easter is a mystery for us, one we approach with fear and trembling, with faith and hope, with a complete lack of clarity. How did Jesus appear inside locked doors? Why didn’t people always recognize Jesus right away? How does Jesus’ blood pay for our sins? How are we a holy priesthood, a royal nation, when we are so clearly still sinners? How do we live as a forgiven community? All this unclarity is something we run from—we want explanations, we want black and white, we want answers. But Easter isn’t going to give them to us. All we are going to get from Easter is a command to be in awe, to acknowledge mystery, to give glory to God.
God says “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” In the English alphabet that’s God saying “I am A and Z”—God is the beginning and the end, and thereby encompasses all that is in between. God is and God was and God is to come—God is all the tenses. If you look at the front of your bulletin you’ll see the Greek letters Alpha and Omega. The New Testament is written primarily in lower case letters, like those you see on the bottom right of the cover. You notice that Alpha and Omega look rather like an A and a W? Next time you see and A or a W, remember that they make up the word “AWE” and think of your response to the God who is and was and is to come. Think of the mystery of a God that surrounds all things before and after us. Think of the one who made us a forgiven community. Think of the one to whom all glory and dominion are to be given. And allow space for the mystery, for awe, for a little gray area…and remember always that even when we doubt, God comes among us to help us believe and offers us peace. And so, with John, we look—we look at the glory of the Lord and we stand in awe. We can only have one response: to shout out “My Lord and my God!” Amen.