The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

LAUGH, THOMAS, LAUGH!

Delivered 4/30/2000
Text: John 20:19-31
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

The Sunday after Easter. Holy Humor Sunday, as it is celebrated around here, in recognition of Christ's resurrection as God's wonderful "last laugh" over sin and evil and death.

Holy Hilarity. On Easter Sunday, Karl Kraft of the First United Methodist Church in Mantua, NJ walked through his congregation giving them an Easter "pep talk." He invited everyone to sing and shout out whatever would make them joyful such as "Praise the Lord!" or "Thanks be to God!" One small boy had his own prescription for joy; he yelled right out, "I want to go home."(1)

It was Saturday, the day before Easter, and Joanne Hinch of Woodland Hills, California was sitting at the kitchen table coloring eggs with her three-year-old son Dan and her two-year-old daughter Debbie. She told her kids about the meaning of Easter and taught them the traditional Easter morning greeting and response, "He is risen...He is risen indeed!" The children planned to surprise their Dad, a Presbyterian minister, with that greeting as soon as he awoke the next morning. Easter arrived, little Dan heard his father stirring about in his bedroom, so the boy got up quickly, dashed down the hall and shouted the good news: "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, God's back."(2)

A neighbor asked Joseph of Arimathea why he gave his beautiful hand-hewn tomb to someone else. Joseph replied, "Well, he only needed it for the weekend."(3)

Holy Humor. Your turn. (Here members of the congregation will be asked to share their own bits of hilarity, "prescriptions for a merry heart," they received as they came into worship.)

===========


"Holy Humor Sunday." If you are not familiar with the concept, it is only because your experience has not been in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. As we explained last year when we began this delightful observance, it is based on the understanding that the resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate joke on death, Satan, and all the forces of evil. It is a testament to the God who, as the Psalmist says, "sits in the heavens and laughs"(4) at the foolishness of humanity and any forces that might seek to thwart divine purposes. Word has it that one tradition is for priests to gather on the Monday following Easter for cigars, brandy, and jokes to celebrate the God who does this surprising, transforming thing(5) - my kind of Presbytery meeting.

Related to all that is this tradition of designating the second Sunday of Easter (which some liturgical calendars call "Low Sunday") as "Holy Humor Sunday." We bring bells and noisemakers of all sorts and use them heartily at any points in the service that reflect celebration - "alleluia" and "joy." The resurrection is comedy of the best sort, the unexpected reversal of expectations. Mary comes to the tomb on Easter morning expecting to find a dead body. Her train of thought keeps barreling along one track, and she almost literally stumbles over the risen Lord. Humor of the highest order. Resurrection reverses the expectation of gloom and doom in the face of death and instead brings celebration. Alleluia! Ring those bells!

Despite the fact that the church's lectionary of scripture readings is in a three-year cycle, the gospel lesson for the Sunday after Easter each year is the same, the story of the risen Christ's appearance to the disciples in the Upper Room on Easter evening, the note that Thomas happened to be absent that night, his abrupt response to the claim of resurrection, then the gathering one week later with Thomas now in attendance, the reappearance of the risen Christ, and the doubter's wonderful "about face" (or perhaps better, "about FAITH"). "My Lord and my God."

THOMAS...DOUBTING Thomas. I have always felt sorry for him. ONE incident, ONE remark, after a particulary traumatic experience...the MURDER of his master...has tarred him ever since. It makes no difference that the rest of his life was marked by faithful service to his Lord. Thomas became DOUBTING Thomas, and his name has been used ever since as a euphemism for the skeptic. Not very fair.

The first time we encounter Thomas is in the 11th chapter of John. Jesus had just been informed that his friend Lazarus was so sick that he was about to die. Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, were in Bethany near Jerusalem, but Jesus and the disciples were some miles away over across the Jordan. They had gone there to escape the hostility of the Temple leaders who had recently tried to have Jesus stoned. Word finally came that it was too late, Lazarus was dead. Two days went by. Suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, Jesus said, "Let's go over to Bethany to see Lazarus."

"Wait a minute," the disciples say, "It is too risky. You are liable to be killed if you go that near to Jerusalem."

But Jesus responds, "Lazarus is asleep and I must go to wake him."

Now the group is even more confused. "What do you mean, you have to go and wake him? If he is asleep, that means he is going to get better."

But then Jesus explains, "I do not mean asleep ASLEEP; I mean asleep DEAD. Let's go."

Hmm. The twelve KNOW how dangerous it is to make such a trip...especially if it is only to pay last respects. But here we meet Thomas for the first time, the same Thomas we have called the DOUBTER all these many centuries, and what do we find? No doubter now. We find a Thomas who says to the rest, "Let us also go...that we may DIE with him."(6) Thomas, a faithful friend, faithful even unto death.

The next time we find Thomas mentioned in scripture is in the 14th chapter of John. The apostles had gathered to celebrate the Passover. Their master was trying to explain to them that the task for which he had come to earth was about to be undertaken. Jesus would be leaving them - he would be returning to the bosom of the Father, but he was doing it so these twelve, as well as all the countless others who would believe throughout history, would be able to join him there. Uh huh.

It might have been very easy for them all to just let Jesus keep on talking in hopes that they would somehow BEGIN to understand. You can almost climb inside a disciple's mind as he hears about "My father's house" and "many dwelling places" and "going to prepare a place" and so on, wondering just what in the world Jesus is talking about, but being afraid to sound stupid by asking a question. Fortunately, we have Thomas. Not DOUBTING Thomas but THOUGHTFUL Thomas. If he had a question, he would ask it...even when no one else would.

Do you remember the scene? Jesus had just finished saying that he was going to prepare a place for them all in his Father's heavenly house and that, one day, they would join him there. Jesus said, "And you know the way to the place I am going."

"Wait a minute, Lord," says Thomas. "We do not know WHERE you are going...so how CAN we know the way?"

That is a good question... and it got a tremendous answer: "I am the way...the truth and the life, Thomas; no one comes to the Father but by me." Yes, Thomas was thoughtful...and that is GOOD. A faith that requires acceptance without thinking is not faith, it is gullibility.

Now we meet Thomas for the third time in the Gospel account. The other disciples tell him that Jesus is risen from the dead. But Thomas cannot believe it. It is not as if the man refuses to accept the possibility of the dead being raised; after all, he had SEEN that very thing happen with the daughter of Jairus and the son of the widow of Nain...and he had seen it with Lazarus. But this was different. Jesus had not died of natural causes...causes that could somehow miraculously be reversed by the intervention of the Son of God. This was MURDER...spears and nails and a cross. A thoughtful man would have to say that THIS kind of death is not reversible...and Thomas tells the others precisely that. "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. THINK about it, people, THIS IS JUST NOT POSSIBLE!" Thus, we get DOUBTING Thomas...not FAITHFUL FRIEND Thomas or THOUGHTFUL Thomas but DOUBTING Thomas. Not very fair.

Perhaps Thomas' real problem was that he was devastated by what had happened and would not admit it. Not to his friends, not even to himself. He was so devastated that he could not see what had to be the sheer joy on his friends' faces. After all, what they experienced in meeting the resurrected Jesus totally changed them. It was their encounter with the risen Lord that empowered them to publically and powerfully proclaim the good news, the news that, over time would turn the world upside down. But Thomas could not see that joy.

No doubt there are folks in church pews this very morning in exactly the same boat, perhaps even right here. Life has dealt some crushing blows - marriages are breaking, homes are splitting, jobs are dissolving, addictions are overpowering, diseases are devastating, grief is becoming despair. We may call ourselves Easter people but it still looks like a Good Friday world.

The message of the gospel to those who cannot see the Easter joy is OPEN YOUR EYES! See what God has done. Celebrate it. Even laugh about it. Yes! Laugh, Thomas, laugh.

That is a reminder we all need from time to time. Life can be so burdensome; we can be depressed, discouraged, despondent; we can get so far DOWN that we cannot remember UP! Then along comes a day like today. A day for laughter and light-heartedness, for comedy and craziness, a day to celebrate the victory of the resurrection over death and the grave, a day to join our voices with the God who "sits in the heavens and laughs," a day to remember the word of Jesus who said, "I am come that [you] might have life and that [you] might have it more abundantly."(7)

One more bit of Holy Humor: It was following the resurrection and disciples were still scattered about Jerusalem and the surrounding villages. John finds Peter and runs up to him. Excitedly he says, "Peter, Peter! I've got some good news and some bad news."

Peter takes hold of John and calms him down. "Take it easy, John. What is it? What's the good news?"

John says, "The good news is Christ is risen."

Peter says, "That's great! But, what's the bad news?"

John, looking around, says, "He's really steamed about last Friday."(8)

Happy Holy Humor Sunday! Be joyful. And in the words of Peter Marshall, "Let us never live another day as if [Jesus] were dead."(9) Alleluia! Ring the bells.

Amen!


1. The Joyful Noiseletter, April, 1998, p. 2

2. The Joyful Noiseletter, April, 1997, p. 2

3. The Joyful Noiseletter, April, 1999, p. 2

4. Psalm 2:4

5. Bruce Naylor, via Ecunet, "Sermonshop 1999 04 04," #41, 3/29/99

6. John 11:16

7. John 10:10 KJV

8. Paul Kabo via Ecunet, "Eculaugh," #7224, 4/21/00

9. The Joyful Noiseletter, April, 2000, p. 4

The Presbyterian Pulpit Sermon Library

Mail Boxclick and send us mail