John 20:19-31 “Tethered”
Did you know that you can watch a live stream of a spacewalk, broadcast from the International Space Station and NASA mission control? I found myself watching one last year during an afternoon of procrastination. I didn’t watch the whole thing, in fact most spacewalks go on for about 8 hours. But, for about an afternoon I watched a livestream of two astronauts changing batteries on a piece of equipment on the outside of that old space station. The video quality was not great – it reminded me of family movies shot in the 90’s. Low quality, bad angles, poor sound. The video feed would go between a camera mounted on the helmet of an astronaut to a camera mounted on the outside of the station. Mostly, all I could see was indecipherable equipment, or maybe a hand of an astronaut moving slowly in space. Once, I caught a glimpse of blue behind them – the blue marble I could only assume was Earth.
As a bit of a space geek, and a fan of science fiction, I have become accustomed to fictional drama of spacewalks interrupted by meteor showers or alien attackers. So, as I watched this routine mission happening 260 miles over my head, I couldn’t help but be…bored. It was so mundane. Someone back on Earth would give the astronauts clear instructions, one step at a time. There was no chatter. No exclamations of awe at the idea of floating in space. No alien attacks. Nothing – just mundane work happening in orbit.
The only exciting thing that happened was when the astronauts were on their way back to the airlock of the space station. One astronaut reported to another that his tether was caught on something and it had to be freed before they could move on. While their professionalism was perfectly maintained, I could hear an almost imperceptible note of worry in the voice of the astronaut. His tether, the rope made up of thin steel cords that attached him to the station, was quite literally his lifeline. It was what attached him to a place of safety. It kept him from floating off. For a lack of a better metaphor – it was what grounded him, even up there in orbit.
Now, unsnagging his tether took all of maybe two minutes. But I am sure I heard a sigh of relief when it was free. This tether, I thought to myself, is something that cannot to left behind. His life depended on that tether and, in the end, it did not fail him. It had to be readjusted, but it kept him attached to something. It kept him connected.
I have been thinking a lot about tethers recently. Those things that keep us attached and connected. Those things that draw us to what we know. What we understand. What we can count on. More than once, in this last month of adjusting to a new normal, I have found myself feeling untethered, or at the very least realizing that an adjustment was needed. I wonder if you have too.
Those things, those people, those routines, jobs, daily tasks – all those things that help us to feel connected and grounded – they have needed to be adjusted. And it could be that some have disappeared altogether. For astronauts, a tether is not only a safety device, it is also a guide. For you and me, a tether can be the same thing. Something that guides us and helps to lead us to what we know. Maybe even something to help us understand what is real and truly matters.
I have been thinking about what it means to be tethered not just because of the time we are living through, but because I think that was what Thomas was trying to do in today’s Gospel lesson. Thomas always seems to get a bad rap. He is, unfortunately, often referred to as Doubting Thomas. And that label, like most labels we put on people, comes with a negative connotation. When we call people a Doubting Thomas today, it is almost an insult. That person doesn’t have enough faith. That person questions too much. That person doesn’t trust in God. To call someone a Doubting Thomas is, far too often, meant to shame someone.
But, here is what I think: Thomas wasn’t doubting. Thomas was simply trying to exist in a reality that he was not remotely prepared for. The world he understood and the future he imagined for himself was gone. Jesus had been killed. As the story is told in the Gospel of John, Jesus had appeared to Mary Magdalene, and she told the disciples that she had seen Jesus. But, that was…not possible, right? Nowhere does it say the disciples heard this and instantly believed. They were locked away in the house, afraid and alone. They didn’t know what was going to happen. They were wracked with grief because everything that gave them grounding and purpose was gone. It wasn’t until they saw the risen Christ, not until he was in the room with them, did they understand. It wasn’t until they had something to hold onto, a tether, if you will, that they could feel safe again.
But, poor Thomas wasn’t there. He was the only one brave enough to be outside. He missed that extraordinary moment, so of course he didn’t believe. His companions had something to hold on to, an encounter to ground them, but he did not. But when Jesus appeared again a week later, and gave Thomas permission to reach out and touch his wounds, then Thomas was able to understand and believe. It wasn’t, in my opinion, that he doubted so much as he was floating and couldn’t find anything to hold onto. That encounter became his tether, his connection to God, to his future, to his understanding of self and purpose.
But, it was different now, wasn’t it? Jesus wasn’t going to be bodily with any of the disciples much longer. Even though throughout the Gospel we hear Jesus telling his disciples over and over again that he would be leaving them, it is pretty clear they never really understood. So, even though they had this extraordinary encounter, how they found connection to Christ and to God was going to change. In a way, their tether had to be readjusted. And, they succeeded. Our very worship this morning, different as it might be, is proof of that. The Gospel, the Good News continues today. What those first disciples had thought their futures would look like changed, but they were able to hold onto something that grounded them nonetheless. Their connection to God, to one another, to community, to the Kingdom of God stayed strong – it just felt different.
What has connected you? What grounds you? What tethers you? And how has it changed? Routines, plans, family gatherings, worship, hobbies, jobs – they have all been adjusted. And some have disappeared. And, I suspect many of you are feeling like you are floating, not connected to anything. But, here is what I know to be true: nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing can disconnect us to the love of God. The Kingdom of God is more than our routines and comfortable places. The Kingdom of God, the Good News of God’s grace, defies our human limitations. So, while it may feel for some like we are floating with nothing to hold onto, it could just be our tether needs to be adjusted. We cannot gather in our sanctuary, but we can still worship God. We cannot sit around large family tables, but we can still tell those we love just how much we love them. We cannot move through routines that at one time felt like they gave us purpose, but we can remind ourselves again of what actually matters. What tethers us to God and to one another can never be broken, but it needs to be adjusted a bit. We may never experience what the disciples did, we will likely never be able to reach out and touch the wounds of Christ – but we know they are there. As Easter people, we know that this world can never destroy the peace and love of God.
What are your tethers and how do you need to adjust them? Because they are not gone, not the ones that really matter. They are there, I promise. Our very act of worshipping in this new way is proof of that. The Community of God can never be disconnected to that which holds us – the Gospel, the Good News, the love of God. God will never let us go.
Let us pray:
Strong and enduring God – we learned through the message of the Risen Christ that we can never be separated from you. That there is nothing in this world that can remove you from our midst. Help us to see that – give us the proof we need. Allow us to be like Thomas, and show us what we need to see and speak to us what we need to hear with your still-speaking voice. We know that your love of us is unique to each of us, so our prayers will be answered in many different ways, but we trust that you always answer.
God, on this day, we pray in particular for those amongst us who are feeling untethered. We pray for those who feel like they are floating with nothing to hold on to. Help them, us, to see you are there, no matter what. That all we need to do is reach out and you will hold us close. And when we cannot find the strength to reach out, then draw us to you – and hold us in your strong but ever-so gentle arms.
God – you know the prayers of our hearts. Now, in this collective but scattered silence, we open our hearts and souls to you…
Good and Great God, you are that which we can always hold on to. For this, we are grateful. And it is because of the life, ministry, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we can begin to understand your purpose for our lives. Now, we pray together as he taught us by saying…Our Father…