When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
At least for the moment it looks like we avoided a new shooting war in Asia. North Korea’s rocket blew itself apart, so Japan didn’t have to do it for
them. It didn’t fly over South Korea, so they didn’t have to take action either. At least one of my current fears has been eliminated. But there are many others.
I worry about what Israel might to about Iran and how that might involve us.
I worry about the conflict in Syria which has the power to ignite a Sunni vs. Shiite civil war across the Middle east.
I worry about Afghanistan and its future and our people there.
I worry about our economy and I worry about my sons’ futures.
I worry about what we are doing to our planet.
I worry about the future of the institutional church.
I worry about personal things too – health, the future, all kinds of things. I know I’m not alone in any of these fears. Sometimes hiding in a locked room seems like a decent plan. I do not feel superior at all to those disciples in that locked room. Fear has reasons.
The Roomful of Fear and Doubt
This text begins with fear and doubt. There are two scenes: the first without, and the second one with Thomas.
This is the text that gave him the famous name “Doubting Thomas.” It’s so unfair, because all of them doubted – the room was locked “for fear” after all. In fact they even doubted Mary’s eyewitness testimony.
Thomas famously says:
“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.”
I don’t feel superior to Doubting Thomas. I have had plenty of times of doubt. I have not seen the risen Jesus with my own eyes.
The most odd thing about this story is that it does a great job of showing the problem of fear and doubt, but the solution to it seems completely unavailable to us today. Thomas and all the others had their doubt-and-fear problems solved because they got to see Jesus. We don’t. How can this story help us today?
I believe it can help us, so we will look at it together.
How does it start?
“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week,”
It’s still the day of Easter, Sunday, the first day of the week. The disciples are gathered in one room. Why? Are they having church? Well yes and no.
Many times John tells the story in such a way as to demand that we read it on two levels – the realistic and the symbolic. Like when Jesus turned water into wine, using the water from the jars set aside for Jewish purification ceremonies.
So here too, the symbolic significance abounds. It’s Sunday, and it is also Sunday the next time Jesus appears, when Thomas is back together with them, one week later. I think John wants us to read this with eyes open to the symbolic level – he is telling us something about us as a church.
Jesus is Present (then and now)
What happens on this Easter Sunday evening?
“Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”
When we gather for worship as the church, with all of our human doubt and fear, we too become aware of Jesus’ presence among us. How? As we look at the cross and remember what happened there – to Jesus’ hands and feet and side – we become aware of his presence among us.
When we think back on the Passion story, how, when the spear went into Jesus’ side and the blood and water flowed out, we consider that the blood of Christ is signified for us in the Eucharistic.
When we hear of water pouring from Jesus, we recall that we are named as a part of his family in the waters of baptism. In fact we recognize how these sacraments, as Calvin said, seal the word in our hearts; they make it more real to us. (Yes, this is another one of those places where John wants us to read both levels, the surface and the symbolic).
And it is true; when we gather in worship of the crucified and risen Christ, we sense in a new way his “peace,” his “shalom” his healing wholeness. It is with reason that in this story Jesus says “peace to you” three times.
Fear and doubt can be replaced by his peace when we see him sacramentally present in worship. (This is one of the reasons Calvin had for wanting his church in Geneva to celebrate the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. It was his sorrow that his elders rejected that plan).
It does help us, the ones who have never seen Jesus face-to-face, to read such a realistic story of how difficult belief in resurrection is. They all needed convincing. It helps us to hear Jesus pronounce a blessing on us, as he said to Thomas:
“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
I don’t know what fears and doubts you brought with you here today. Look at the baptismal font and remember you were baptized in his name. Look at the communion table where we break bread and drink the cup. Let the empty cross on the table remind you that he is risen.
But Jesus is physically absent from us now. There is more to this story that we need to hear. John tells us
“he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
I have said that John needs to be read on two levels. This is another case in point. We all know from the book of Acts that the Holy Spirit came on the disciples 50 days after Easter (which is the time of Passover), on the day of Pentecost.
We also know that Jesus had promised his disciples, while they were in the upper room, before his arrest, that he would send the Spirit, the Comforter, the Advocate, so that they would not be left as orphans without him.
Well John did not have it in mind to write a volume two like Luke did, who wrote Acts did, so he had to somehow show that Jesus’ promise of the Spirit came true. In this text Jesus symbolically breathes his Spirit into the disciples.
John tells us this in language that echoes the way God breathed life into Adam in the Creation story. Are we to understand this as a new creation moment? Yes. As Paul says,
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17)
This is the second way in which we can overcome our doubts and fears: the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ has been given to us, his disciples. The Spirit is with us, always.
The Spirit is here, now, in our worship, and the Spirit is with us as we leave, at lunch, at home, everywhere. The Spirit is active within us, helping to calm our fears and relieving our doubts.
Sometimes we are keenly aware of the presence of the Spirit. For me, in my early morning prayer time, when the house is quiet and it’s still dark outside, I am often aware of the presence of the Spirit.
But when things are busy, noisy, when the news is on or when I’m in traffic, often I am not aware of the Spirit’s presence. But either way, conscious of it or not, the truth is that God is still present, everywhere and always, by his Spirit.
The Sending “As…So”
On this Easter Sunday evening in that locked room where there was fear and doubt, one more event happened which is of utmost importance to us.
After announcing “Peace be with you.” Jesus said these remarkable words:
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
This is utterly unexpected. They were cowering behind a locked door out of fear. They had misunderstood him when he predicted his death and resurrection. They had abandoned him when he was arrested. How could Jesus ever have imagined that they could go out and do anything useful?
It was amazing enough that he came saying “peace be with you” instead of saying something like, “You bunch of wimpy knuckleheads! Shame on you!” But not only did he not condemn them for their past failure, he commissioned them with job to do.
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Notice Jesus did not ask for volunteers. Jesus did not make it optional. There is no back door here.
When we have nominations for session we always have to make sure that the person is willing to serve, if elected. Jesus did not play by Roberts Rules. He had died for these people, he had been vindicated by resurrection, and now he assumes he has the authority to send people; even people like us.
When we say that we have a mission here to “love God, grow in faith, and share Christ’s love” we are not kidding. Just as Jesus was sent by God the father so we have been sent.
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
His Mission is Our Mission
This means that Jesus’ mission is now our mission. He has sent us to be his hands, his feet, his voice and his eyes of compassion.
In a moment we will affirm our faith using the words that come from “A Brief Statement of Faith” that describe the ministry of the Holy Spirit. In it we will affirm that,
“the Spirit calls women and men to all ministries of the Church.”
Then it goes on to list some of the ministries we are all called to.
“In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced and to work with others for justice freedom and peace.”
All of us have been called. None of us is too old to pray for people in need, to call, to write cards, and to show Christ’s compassion.
Most of us are in a position to use our resources to help alleviate hunger, poverty, and injustice.
Many of us are able to use our voices to be advocates for the needs of the homeless, the people discriminated against, the people who are despised and neglected among us.
Some of us are healthy enough to serve at the Christian Service Center, to play bingo with shut-ins, to visit prisoners and to help build and repair homes, to tutor children. There are an infinite variety of options for us, but all of us has been called into mission by the risen Lord.
This is the powerful truth of Easter: fear and doubt are forgotten by people who know of themselves as baptized believers, strengthened by worship and sacraments, infused with God’s Spirit, and who are actively engaged in Jesus’ mission. There just isn’t any time for fear and doubt for these people, and by God’s grace, that is who we are!