Sunday, April 23, 2017 – Second Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
1 Peter 1:3-9
Those Who Have Not Seen
We begin where we left off, it’s evening on the same day actually, but it feels like we’ve missed something, given all that we experienced here last Sunday. The impossible has happened, Jesus is risen, God has overcome death itself; Mary has spoken with the Risen Jesus directly. And he has told her among other things that those who hear the Gospel are now children of God, we are going to be included in the family.
Re-entering the text as this point, we expect a scene filled with commotion – as these disciples have gotten this most incredible news. A scene filled with rejoicing, or relieved weeping, or elated surprise, and lots of activity as they prepare to go out and proclaim it to the world.
But that’s not what’s happening at all. Instead we hit this dead stop, these locked doors. The disciples in the locked room, still hiding and afraid. Probably for lots of reasons: guilt, cowardice, disbelief, lack of imagination perhaps, but definitely stuck. Not responding to Mary’s testimony, “I have seen the Lord!” Not responding to her proclamation of the risen Jesus, of abundant life, of a world changed forever, of all that is now possible through God’s love. Because… well, they are very busy hiding.
So Jesus goes to them and meets them there, in their fear, in their imposed isolation, and offers them peace instead of dread. He proves to them that it is actually him, showing them his hands and side, the wounds of his body. And again he gives them his peace. (They needed it badly.) And then, as he sent Mary Magdalene earlier, he sends them forth. Though first, he empowers them for their ministry. He breathes on them with the Holy Pneuma, or Holy Breath/Spirit.
And reminds them that with this great power comes great responsibility (the power to forgive the sins of others, or to retain them.) They are not being sent out as holy megaphones, or holy billboards, or Facebook posts but living breathing ministers of God’s grace, in relationship with those beloved of God. Being one sent forth on behalf of God is about walking in the ways of Jesus… going out into a broken world with discernment and care. Just as Jesus sought them out to bring them peace, rather than ask them why they were hiding, or point out their failings… the betrayal of Judas, who is here with them, and the denial of Peter, who is there as well.
John’s Gospel is the only one in which Judas is still part of the 12 after the crucifixion, not that the text makes a big deal about it. But somehow, these group of frightened friends have figured out how to forgive Judas, how to love one another as Jesus loved them, even in the painful time following the crucifixion. Thomas is “one of the 12,” and is not with them. There are still 12 because Judas is still among them.
Because Thomas is missing in action when Jesus comes to them, Thomas doesn’t buy it, and insists upon seeing it for himself. Demanding, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and shove my finger into the mark of the nails, and shove my hand into his side, I absolutely will not believe.” Thomas has lot of conditions, which is something we can understand. He puts conditions on his faith; he wants some hard evidence, preferably unquestionable eyewitness fact that Jesus is risen. 1
And 8 days later, he goes from being Demanding Thomas to Believing Thomas, when he gets exactly what he wished for. Jesus appears in that same room, and speaks directly to Thomas, who sees the Risen Jesus, is invited to touch his wounds, and who responds to the presence of the living Christ with the words, “My Lord and my God.”
Just as the other disciples need to have their own experience of the living Jesus, so does Thomas, but once he does, he comes to believe. To which Jesus replies: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Which is a good thing to hear – that we are blessed, for we have not seen, but it makes it all sound so easy, and it’s still a HUGE jump to make for those of us in this category.
For it’s true, we know about the resurrection, we have heard this incredible news, and we know we have been sent forth with Mary and Thomas to proclaim it to the world. One would think that we’d be very busy with this good news. And … we are sometimes. But in all fairness, consider our context, Jesus. We are Episcopalians and New Englanders, double whammy there; we are not so big on proclamation.
Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
What if we heard these words in the context of the story? Said by Jesus who has sought them out, and come to these disciples and already forgiven them their failures and falling short, their fears and insecurities. And stood in their midst and given them his peace, first and foremost, then his power, and then again peace. Maybe then we could consider being honest in our response.
Admitting that like Thomas we have those moments of conditional belief, even though we desperately need to believe we belong here, we have these doubts which leave us wondering what we’re doing here in the first place – because it’s all a bit incredible really. We don’t get the same kind of hard evidence as Thomas and the other disciples, we have to rely on a different kind of evidence, that of the witness of those who came before us, and a faithful community.
For many of us, the most difficult part to believe isn’t the Gospel story, it’s the idea that we are God’s beloved. To think that God loves us enough to redeem us. We talk a good game in church, but we struggle to actually believe it, if God KNEW me, well, God would think again.
Friends, how’s that locked room working out? It may not be visible but it’s just as solid and confining as the one that was entombing our disciples. Where Jesus sought them out, and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Receive his peace, and give yourself permission to rejoice.
Can you hear this when I say it? Peace be with you. Your sins are forgiven; I choose to forgive them.
However imperfect we are, however human and imperfect our belief; blessed are we who have not seen and yet have come to believe, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing may we have life in his name.
My friends, Peace be with you. As the Father sent Jesus, and Jesus sent those before us, on behalf of the Spirit, so I send you. Go forth to share Christ’s peace and mercy with our broken but beloved world. Peace be with you.
1 Jaime Clark-Soles, Commentary on John 20:19-3, Working Preacher, This essay is an adaptation of chapter 15 of Jaime Clark-Soles’ new book Reading John for Dear Life: A Spiritual Walk with the Fourth Gospel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.