Sermon for Easter +2, April 27, 2014 on John 20:19–31
John 20:19–31 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.
I watched a film called “The Untouchables,” long ago, in which Robert De Niro played Al Capone, a mafia boss that ruled with an iron hand. In one scene the mafia inner-circle was all seated at a round table for a dinner meeting. Capone, was talking about how important loyalty was to the organization. They all agreed.
Then he got up and as he spoke he walked around the table. When he got behind one man that apparently he suspected of disloyalty, he did something to him, him in front of everyone else, (which I won’t go into, in a family-friendly setting) that made certain he would never have the opportunity to be disloyal again.
God: the moral police?
We can expect that kind of behavior from an a-moral, violent, even sadistic organized crime boss. But the sad truth is that there are people who think of God in not too dissimilar ways. They picture God as one who has the power to punish whenever God wants to, and the intention to go around like the moral police, even the thought police, finding reasons to smite people.
And, since we all know that we fall short of perfection, we are aware that we have given God plenty of reasons to smite us; if not now, then perhaps in future, even in the after-life.
People get sick and wonder if they are being punished by God. In fact any problem or difficulty is an opportunity to wonder for which of our most recent indiscretions we are receiving pay-back from the almighty Al Capone God.
As I drive, I have been listening to a voice recording of Homer’s Iliad. It is all about the Trojan war. The gods are involved frequently, from Zeus to Neptune on one side or the other. They are like Capone – easily offended, capable of being brutal and vengeful; is that what we believe God is like?
If so, then God we may love God for being powerful, but we must also live in fear. Most of us here are not young. We gather for funerals much more frequently than for weddings or baptisms. We think about our futures, about death, and about what we should expect. Should we fear God in that way?
For people like us, this story we just read from John’s gospel is important. I thought of the Untouchables film, and the loyalty scene specifically, because of how parallel it is to this story of disloyalty and confrontation. Jesus was deserted and abandoned, even betrayed by his disciples. They were utterly disloyal. Suddenly they were facing each other in the same room. I am sure they were all feeling sheepish at best, if not completely self-loathing for what they did.
So here is Jesus’ opportunity to give them the loyalty speech; to rub their noses in their weakness and failures. If the God that Jesus shows us is like Al Capone, this is his moment.
Peace, not Capone
He does the opposite. The exact opposite. Jesus comes to them saying,
“Peace be with you.”
If there is one thing that all Christians affirm, one concept that is at the foundation of our faith, it is that we know God through Jesus. Jesus is the lens through which we see God. We do not start with philosophical categories or abstract conundrums, we start with Jesus. John’s gospel begins with the startling announcement that the divine Word has become flesh and has dwelt among us.
What could this possibly mean to us? Precisely that God is for us, not against us. That God embraced our very weak, frail, prone—to—failure humanity as a total package, down to the very flesh and bones we walk around in.
This is why John tells us that immediately after saying “Peace be with you” Jesus “showed them his hands and his side.” He showed them his wounds. Not to shame them for what they had let happen to him, but to show them that his embrace of their humanity was total. He was pierced and scarred as all of us can be. He embraced humanity all the way to the point of suffering, even to the point of death.
And so he comes, not to judge, but to be with those fearful disciples in that locked room bringing them “peace.” Fear always produces locks. William Sloan Coffin said,
“As I see it, the primary religious task these days is to try to think straight…You can’t think straight with a heart full of fear, for fear seeks safety, not truth…A heart full of love, on the other hand, has a limbering effect on the mind” (“A Passion for the Possible: A Message to the U.S. Churches”
The Thomas scene
The Thomas scene is helpful. Did you notice what Thomas needed? He needed what we need. Not a ghost, and not a Greek—statue type of perfect—body Jesus. Thomas needed wounds and scars. Only a wounded Jesus helps. Only a Jesus whose body has suffered matters. Only a Jesus with scars can demonstrate that all of these pains and sufferings of life mean something.
Suffering is real. Pain is real. Everybody knows that. The question is: where is God in it? Where is God when the doctor says “cancer”? Where is God when loved ones die? Where is God when we have reasons to fear and need the doors locked?
The answer is that God is right there with us in the pain. God is there as one who has embraced all that it means to be human, even our suffering. Jesus is there, with his scars, demonstrating to us that God is there, announcing, not judgment, but “peace.”
Somehow, Christian theology, in some circles, has turned this whole scene upside down and gotten it backwards. There are people who believe that God was indeed like Al Capone who wanted to pay back his disloyal disciples by violent judgement, and so found a victim, a scapegoat, who took it all for them, namely Jesus.
If that were the case, this resurrection scene would have gone very differently. At the least there would have been some finger—waging.
But instead, Jesus comes among his fearful disciples as one who suffers with them, and after granting them peace, he breathes God’s Spirit on them.
This is beautiful. God, who is present always, by means of God’s Spirit, is, just like our own breath is, inside of us and all around us, always. The Spirit cannot be seen, so Jesus says, blessed are the ones who can trust that God is present, by God’s Spirit, that the risen Christ is present, by the Spirit, in every moment, even unseen. In fact in only one moment — now — because this one moment is the only one we will ever have.
A Comfort and a Call
I hope this is a comfort — to know that the risen Christ is present to us by the Spirit, to walk with us even, in our fear and suffering. But the story does not stop there, simply as a word of comfort. This scene ends in a strong call. We must hear both the comfort and the call. John says,
We who know the comfort of God’s presence and who have experienced his peace have a calling to a mission. We are sent. This too is how Jesus shows us God. Just as Jesus was God-sent into the world, with all its sharp, flesh-wounding edges, so we have been sent on God’s behalf.
Now it is our calling to bring God’s peace into places of fear and suffering. It is our mission to by-pass the locks that are in the way, and bring God’s love in ways that address the fear and the physical wounds.
Called beyond Fear
We have to be willing to move beyond our own fears on this mission, just as Jesus did. We are called and sent, in spite of how we might be misunderstood along the way. I think of Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara who said,
“When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor were hungry, they called me a communist.”
We do not fear what they call us. We are not communists because we want the poor to have food, nor socialists because we want them to have doctors and medicine, nor are we disloyal to our tradition because we do not want any form of discrimination for any reason whatsoever.
But even if we get called by these names, we simply do not desist from our mission. We have been called; we have been sent. We have taken comfort in God’s loving presence, and we are now on a mission to take that same comfort to people in need.
Jesus is not finished. One more issue needs to be dealt with. We do not go out on our mission with any sense of superiority; we are fully human. We have our own scars, our own pasts that we carry with us. We know God, not as the Al Capone god of vengeance, but as the Jesus—like “peace” giving God — even after our disloyalty. We are sinful people, but we know what forgiveness means, and so we go out as forgiven—forgivers; wounded healers. We go out as people who are experts in offering forgiveness to others. This too, is at the core of our Christian DNA.
I love how Eugene Petersen translates that last bit of instruction that Jesus gives to his disciples:
“If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?” (The Message).
We do with them what God does with ours: forgive them. So that the wounds and the scars can heal. So that the locks can come off the doors. So that “you may have life in his name.”
That is the point: life in his name. Resurrections happen. New life can come from dead zones. There is hope, even in a world that inflicts its share of suffering; even in a world of fear. The risen Christ is present in this moment, bringing peace, and saying: Go, in my name. And so we shall.
Now listen to Sanctus by Renee Swick