Sermon Text: John 20: 19-31
Where was Thomas that Easter evening? The disciples are hiding behind locked doors, afraid that they might meet the same sticky ending that Jesus endured. Where is Thomas? Was he off touring the sites of Jerusalem? Buy souvenirs? Getting groceries?
It’s been three days since the death of Jesus, and even though Mary Magdalene had seen a resurrected Jesus in the garden and had shared her story, the rest of the disciples were living in a weird concoction of fear, disbelief, hop, and grief. Part of me also wonders that, in their fear and isolation, if the disciples are lonely. Are they missing their friend, their teacher, their former way of life, and the roles they played? All of a sudden, they’re not interacting with other followers. They are not going about their routines. They are without their leader. Even though there’s still ten of them together, they must have been lonely. Perhaps Thomas, off on his own, is the loneliest in his grief.
This is all conjecture, of course. John’s telling of the story doesn’t say, “And the disciples felt alone.” I’m just trying to imagine how I might have felt if I was in their position. This emotion must have been at play—or at least that’s a lens I’m willing to view this story through, especially after what we’ve just lived through. To some extent we were all lonely, and that hurt.
Here’s a quote from a recent New York Times article:
“The human brain, having evolved to seek safety in numbers, registers loneliness as a threat. The centers that monitor for danger, including the amygdala, go into overdrive, triggering a release of ‘fight or flight’ stress hormones. Your heart rate rises, your blood pressure and blood sugar level increase to provide energy in case you need it. Your body produces extra inflammatory cells to repair tissue damage and prevent infection, and fewer antibodies to fight viruses. Subconsciously, you start to view other people more as potential threats—sources of rejections or apathy—and less as friends, remedies for your loneliness.”
I wonder if the resurrection, the epic story between life and death, sin and liberation, is also a story about loneliness and connectivity?
That Easter evening ten of the disciples see Jesus. They receive the Holy Spirit in his breath. They receive his peace in his greeting. They receive comfort and comradery in his presence. But upon arrival, after Jesus left, Thomas rejects this unlikely story and sinks even further in his loneliness. He is the only one in this group that did not have this experience. Thomas is all alone with his doubts for the next seven days.
From the same New York Times article:
“Loneliness, as defined by mental health professionals, is a gap between the level of connectedness that you want and what you have. Loneliness is a subjective feeling. People can have a lot of contact and still be lonely, or be perfectly content by themselves.
“In small doses, loneliness is like hunger or thirst, a healthy signal that you are missing something and to seek out what you need. But prolonged over time, loneliness can be damaging not just to mental health, but also to physical health.
“Even before the pandemic, the United States surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, said the country was experiencing an ‘epidemic of loneliness,’ driven by the accelerated pace of life and the spread of technology into all of our social interactions. With this acceleration, he said, efficiency and convenience have ‘edged out’ the time-consuming messiness of real relationships.”
I cannot speak much about folks’ loneliness before the pandemic, but I can certainly verify what I read in this article. I cannot tell you the number of people who have confided in me about their ongoing struggle with being lonely, especially after all of our contemporary social disappointments and setbacks. People are lonely, and even thought things have been returning to normal, people continue to feel alone, because the pandemic only magnified the problems that already existed. We’re not connecting well with each other.
We are made for community and Christ makes sure to enliven his group of disciples after he is risen from the dead. Yes, they certainly need him, they certainly need to know the good news of his resurrection, and they also need each other as church.
Not only that, but Christ gives the disciples the best antidote for loneliness.
Conventional wisdom suggests that support is the best tool to fight off loneliness. Show up and be present. Practicing gratitude can also go a long way at preventing the condition. However, it turns out that the best thing you can do for someone who is lonely is not to simply give help and be present, but to ask them for help. Ask for assistance. And when you do that, you give a sense of worth and the opportunity to act for other people’s wellbeing. It’s the antidote for loneliness.
Isn’t that what Jesus does for his followers? Yes, he shows up. Yes, he announces the good news of the resurrection to those hiding behind locked doors. But beyond all of that, Jesus gives his followers a job. He asks for their help. He asks for their ministry. They are to be witnesses. The job is to share the message of new life that God gives on Easter through our words and actions.
Therefore, in the spirit of what Jesus asked of his followers, in the spirit of meeting those who are lonely and afraid behind locked doors, in the spirit of caring for those grieving and living on their own, I need your help. The church needs your help. God needs your help.
You see, like Christ in that room with the disciples, we are seeking to bring connection to people. We seek to share the same message, that Christ is alive and death is defeated. This is the crux of who we are. And while we bear witness to that message we also engage in building community. We build relationships. We are in a life and death fight with this epidemic of loneliness. So let us do what Christ did with everyone he met. Let us build connection, relationships, bonds, community. Let us make sure that loneliness is driven to the brink of extinction.
Check in on your loved ones. Check in on your friends. Check in on the stranger. Seek out the lonely and ask for their help. Give you support. Help each other to live in gratitude. For if we do nothing, if we do not change out culture of convenience and out crash test dummy ways of operating, if we continue to replace authentic connection with only technology, if we fail to exist as the body of Christ together, then the conditions of loneliness will continue, and we will live behind locked doors. Clearly, Christ wants us to have more and be more than that. AMEN