April 23, 2017 – 2nd Sunday After Easter
John 20:19-31 – Doubting Thomas; “Heaven is Beautiful”; and 1 Peter 1:3-9
We just heard the record of two encounters between the risen Christ and his disciples, one on the first Easter evening when Thomas was not present and one, a week later, when he was. We learn in this gospel lesson, as in others, that Jesus did whatever was necessary to show his disciples that he, the Lord they followed before his death on Calvary, was alive. Death and evil did not have the last word. God’s life and love and power did. Jesus was alive and ready to give his followers the gift of the Holy Spirit.
In the second portion of our reading we find the story of “Doubting Thomas.” Thomas had not been with the other disciples on Easter evening, and when the disciples who had seen Jesus told Thomas about their experience, he was not convinced. Thomas told them that he would not believe except on one condition – that he see the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands and put his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in Jesus’ side. He wanted to see and touch the crucified Lord before he would believe.
A week passed. The disciples were gathered again in the house, and this time Thomas was with them. Jesus appeared as he had before, greeting them with the words “Peace be with you.” And the very next thing Jesus does is turn to Thomas and say, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Jesus immediately offers Thomas exactly what he needs in order to believe. Thomas responds, “My Lord and my God!” And Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
I think that today’s gospel reading provides a good context to describe a book called “Heaven is Beautiful: How Dying Taught Me That Death Is Just the Beginning” by Peter Baldwin Panagore (Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc., 2015). He says that he doesn’t believe in God. He doesn’t need to believe because, like Thomas, he has had personal experience that God is real. How? When he died at the age of 21 on an ice climbing expedition.
I quote from the back of the book: “In March of 1980, college senior Peter Panagore went ice climbing on the world-famous Lower Weeping Wall, along the Icefields Parkway in Alberta, Canada. His climbing partner was an experienced ice climber, but Panagore was a novice. On their descent, they became trapped on the side of the mountain. As the sun set, he was overcome by exhaustion and hypothermia. He died on the side of that mountain. And in those minutes on the other side, he experienced hell, forgiveness, and unconditional love. Heaven was beautiful.”
The book begins with what I might call a “chilling” account of the climbing experience of these two young men. It’s a “good read” as a story of adventure. What interested me most was Panagore’s experience of God while he was dead.
First, he knew that God knew him completely. Just as we pray in the opening Collect for Purity each Sunday: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.” In Panagore’s words (page 83): “I knew that I was known, fully, completely, and utterly known, completely naked to my Maker who could see every part of me.”
Then Panagore learned what sin is and experienced hell. Again, in his words (pages 87-88): “Sin was the hurt that I had given or caused in my lifetime. In my own hell, I suffered all the pain that I had cast on others, from the smallest pain to the largest, intentionally given or unintentional. Hell was not outside of me; it was not a place to go to – it was a place within. …. I also simultaneously witnessed and felt all of my inadequate justifications, my weak reasoning, my causations for giving each individual every pain that I had given them. I was my own judge … and I judged myself guilty.” Panagore experienced shame and pain as he faced the truth about himself. But he also experienced God’s mercy and forgiveness. He wondered if the shame and forgiveness were related. I think what scripture teaches us about the connection between repentance and forgiveness suggests they were.
His hell and pain vanished, and Panagore experienced being whole, well, and holy. He knew God as who God is: “Love-Hope-Joy-Beauty-Truth-Charity-Kindness-Compassion-Love-Patience-Beauty-Love.” He knew that he was loved by God, the Lover. And this was heaven.
Panagore also shares this experience of death (page 189): “When you die, you will carry with you – yourself – the you who is you, plus all the love you have given away or shared, and all the love you have gathered. All the bits and pieces of love you have given or collected are in your soul right now, and they are yours to keep. They are your treasure. Jesus said, ‘Store up treasure for yourself in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy and thieves do not break in and steal’ (Matthew 6:20). He was right. Every act of love accumulates in your soul. No one, and nothing, can take these from you or destroy them. Love is eternal, and love is inside you.”
Eventually, in an effort to make sense of his experience of death and God, Peter Panagore attended Yale Divinity School. He became a minister in the United Church of Christ and served in the church in Boothbay Harbor for many years. He is now the minister of the First Radio Parish Church of America. On this website you can find his Daily Devotions and a variety of interesting recordings. You may want to read his book or explore the website. Panagore is an inspiring speaker. His reflections on hell and heaven, sin and love are deeply thought provoking.
We who have not seen the risen Christ and yet believe have been given a blessing from God. This morning we heard a portion of The First Letter of Peter (1:3-9), words that might be addressed to us: “Although you have not seen Jesus Christ, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” This Easter season, may we rejoice and thank God for the blessing of our faith in Christ. And may we look forward in hope to God’s beautiful heaven. Alleluia and amen.