Compassionate Presence
Text: John 19:24-31

Several years ago I started to recognize a common liturgical action that has not been adopted by the Church through the ages, though it has it has a prominent biblical precedent, and is certainly very popular in our community generally.
It is somewhat similar to the well-known and well-established liturgical greeting in which the worship leader says, “Christ is risen!” with joy and authority and confidence, and the congregation replies in similar voice, “He is risen indeed!”
But in this unauthorized action, when I say, “Christ is risen!” the respondent replies by
            a) folding the arms;
            b) taking a step backwards with one foot;
            c) turning the head slightly to the side with a sneer;
            d) and snorting the words, “Yeah…right….”
“Christ is risen!”  “Yeah, right….”
A bit like Thomas.
You have to love Thomas.  If you don’t love him for his honesty then love him because he honestly needs your love.
It is the easiest thing in the world—(thanks be to God!)—to stand together as brothers and sisters who, by the blessing of the Spirit, can confess with absolute confidence that Christ is risen.  It is one of the easiest things in the world for me to stand here gowned and in the pulpit and proclaim it.
But spare a thought for those whose doubts and disappointments prevent them from making that confession, from joining that celebration and proclamation.
If Easter Sunday is the high festival of the Church year and the day for confident profession of the faith; then perhaps it is good that the following Sunday reminds us of the need for a compassionate confession.
Jesus does not come and berate Thomas.  His first words to Thomas, as to all those gathered in the room, were “Peace be with you!”  He shows Thomas that he is there.  He shows Thomas his presence.  He does not argue the resurrection with him.  In fact, the previous week, after saying, “Peace be with you!” he had done the same thing for all the other disciples gathered there, and had immediately showed them his hands and his side.  He breathed the Holy Spirit on them.  He gave them every comfort and every assurance of his living presence with them and for them.
As he does for Thomas. 

As he does for the two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus; you’ll remember how he speaks the Word, the promises, the promises fulfilled(!) and, finally, breaks bread with them, and then they suddenly realize it is him!  And it’s not all that dissimilar to his gentle calling of Mary by name, as she weeps at his tomb.  Nor all that different to his gentle, persistent, and insistent re-commissioning of Peter with his three-fold “feed my sheep”.  The post-Easter stories are filled with Jesus dealing, gently, with credibility issues!  And, to be quite honest, it would be totally inconsistent with everything else about his ministry if Jesus were to do anything other than present his Spirit, his presence, his reassurance, his promise, his compassion and comfort to those for whom he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  Jesus seems to have a tremendous capacity for patient and persistent “Peace be with you!” proclamations.
The resurrection is scary.  Every account of the resurrection and the post resurrection appearances, describe a mixture of joy and fear—because the implications challenge all the principles with which we work in everyday life.  The resurrection is a miracle—it is beyond us, beyond our comprehension and beyond our control.  And…our belief about the resurrection shapes everything.  The message of the resurrection confronts us—if we stop and listen we are confronted with the reality of death and “?”.  Where does life lead?  What is the sum total?  What is the bottom line?  Is death final?  Is death ultimate?  Is death ‘the end’?  Or does my living, my life, come to something more than that?  The message of the resurrection raises a thousand questions and each of those questions has implications for how I live, and what I feel, now.
Just like back then…for those gathered…in a locked room…out of fear.
And then Jesus, the Christ, was present.  The miracle of the resurrection becomes more than a conceptual struggle with the possibility of it all—it is the presence of Jesus, the real presence of Jesus.
A favourite movie of mine thirty years ago, a movie called “Ordinary People”, followed the lives of an ‘ordinary’ family after the death of one of the teenage sons.  The younger brother, Conrad, the key character in the movie, had not been able to cope with the depression that followed, and had attempted suicide.  After a period of hospitalization he returns home, and takes up further treatment with a doctor.  He still wrestles with guilt and fear and the story reaches a climax when a friend he had made while in hospital makes a second attempt to take her own life, and succeeds.  Conrad rings his doctor in the middle of the night and rushes to the doctor’s office…
            “I’m scared.”
            “Feelings are scary. Painful.  And if you’re not going to feel pain you’re not going
to feel anything else.  You know what I’m saying.  You’re here and you’re alive
and don’t tell me you don’t feel that.”
            “It doesn’t feel good.”
            “It is good.  Believe me.”
            “How do you know?”
“Because I’m your friend.”
            “I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t been here.  You’re really my
friend?”
            “I am.  Count on it.”

“It is good.  Because I’m your friend.  I am.  Count on it.” 
Compassionate presence.  When Jesus appears to his disciples and says, “Peace be with you!” and shows them his hands and his feet—the real marks of the real him!—when he speaks Mary’s name—when he breaks bread in Emmaus—when he reinstates Peter—in every situation it is his presence, the presence of the great “I am” that makes the miracle.
It is our calling, as Christians, to do more at Easter than shout, “Christ is risen!”.  It is our calling, as those who (miraculously!) know the (miraculously!) real presence of our living Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, to proclaim and present his compassionate presence for the world, for the life of Thomas, and for all who are his spiritual ‘twins’ in doubt.  Theological abstractions, clever arguments, winsome words, exciting services, great coffee & fellowship, good plans and programs—all of these have their place in our ministry.  But for the one shivering in fear and doubt it is, ultimately, your capacity to be present with another—to be present with God’s love, with God’s compassion (which means the capacity to ‘suffer with’), with God’s faithfulness, with God’s peace—“I’m your friend; I am; count on it”—“I am with you always, to the end of the age”—it is that capacity which most effectively proclaims the presence of the living God, and the loving God.
And it is the presence of Jesus—by his Spirit, through the Word, in bread and wine, in you and me whom he calls his ‘body’—it is his presence alone that gives (remember, it’s a gift!)—that gives faith, trust, and the capacity to recognize and hold on to “my Lord and my God”—to live(!) Easter.
It is that Spirit-led, Spirit-enabled, Spirit-created presence that can embrace one shivering and suffering—beyond the rational, the reasonable, and the responsible ‘realities’ which so often chain us to doubt and despair, and create the confidence of one like poor old Job, in the Old Testament, who (miraculously!) was able to know and believe and trust beyond his everyday view of his very real world falling apart:
“Oh, that my words were recorded, that they were written on a scroll, that they were
inscribed with an iron tool on lead, or engraved in rock forever!  I know that my
Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.  And after my skin
has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own
eyes—I, and not another.”
Make your Easter proclamation, and your Easter greeting, a living of the compassionate presence of Jesus.
Amen.