Sermon on John 20:19-31, for Easter 2A, April 23, 2017
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.
There is a branch of linguistics called “Speech Act Theory”. It is concerned with analyzing the kinds of things people say (or “illocutionary acts”) which actually perform something, just by being said.
For example, when judge says, “non-guilty” then a person has been found not guilty. Saying it makes it happen.
When someone at a wedding says “I do” when asked, “do you take this person to be your lawfully wedded husband/wife?” then saying “I do,” makes it happen. When we say, “I promise…” then a promise has been made.
The reason I mention this is that there are several speech-acts in this text. Jesus, in this version of the story, says several things to his disciples that become true, just by saying them. I think looking at it this way will help us have some fresh insights in to the meaning for us, so let us look at them.
Peace, not Condemnation
The first is what he says first:
“Peace be with you.”
Question: Under what conditions can a person say “Peace be with you” and make it happen? Who can dispense peace with a word? I think the answer is that a person who has the ability to cause you not to be at peace, a person whose presence you may evoke feelings of dread in you, could say “Peace be with you” and change your dread to peace.
This is the situation John pictures after Jesus’ crucifixion which none of the disciples stayed around for. Jesus appears and says, “Peace be with you.”
The disciples had abandoned Jesus, instead of staying with him. They are witnesses to each other’s betrayal. They have saved their own skins, at least so far. They fear that they will be the next ones hanging on Roman crosses if they are discovered. So they are in hiding, feeling both fear and shame.
And then, as John tells it, Jesus appears among them. Let us take a moment to notice that in John’s accounts of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, sometimes Jesus does things that no physical body can do, like suddenly appear in locked rooms and then disappear. But sometimes he does things that only physical bodies do like show his scars and eat food. We are left with a mysterious puzzle about what he wants us to think. John leaves it unclear.
But what is completely clear is that the one who was betrayed and abandoned, the one who has been wronged, the one who has something legitimate against these men releases them. Instead of saying “You all owe me an explanation; you owe me an apology” or even, “You will pay for what you have done! I have planned a response, and you will not like it.” instead says “Peace be with you.” Jesus forgave them.
What John is saying by telling the story this way is that the living Christ does not meet us with condemnation or judgment. The living Christ shows up in our lives with grace, saying “Peace be with you.” You do not have to prove yourself. You do not have to become worthy. Rather, you are unconditionally accepted as you are and forgiven. The first word the risen Christ says is “peace.” No one is out to punish you.
In this year of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, this is one thing we can celebrate with complete joy: the God we see in Jesus is a God of grace, from the first to the last.
I follow a FaceBook page where people discuss their faith journeys, and I must say I cannot believe how many people report the struggle to come out of fear-based, guilt and shame-based, judgmental versions of Christianity — still, in these days! I feel so sorry for them. It makes me so glad to be in a community that celebrates and affirms God’s grace. Peace, Jesus says to us, and saying it, makes it happen.
Being Sent Ones
The second speech-act Jesus performs is to say,
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
To hear someone say “I am sending you” is to be sent. It is accomplished. We all have a mission. We all have been sent. We are not to live our lives for ourselves. As Jesus lived his life for others, we are sent to live our lives for others. Our mission is to continue Jesus’ mission. We are now the ones to bring healing to the word.
Jewish people have a phrase they use: Tikkun Olam. It literally means repairing the world. Living in such a way that things are better because we showed up. We look for solutions. We work for the common good. We spread kindness and compassion. We work for justice. We work for full inclusion. We speak out for those whose voices are not heard. We care for the planet. We have been sent; we are literally, as the Blues Brothers said long ago, “on a mission from God.”
Yesterday was Earth Day. We celebrated it with the school kids on Friday were we had our Presbyterians for Earth Care tent set up. I just heard Alabama-native, and now world famous scientist, E.O. Wilson interviewed about how rapidly we are loosing bio-diversity and what needs to be done about it. I believe this is an important aspect of our mission. We have been sent to “tikkun olam” to repair the world that has been damaged.
Receiving the Holy Spirit
So, Jesus says “Peace be with you,” and “I am sending you”. The third speech-act is when, as John says,
“he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Saying “receive the Spirit” makes it happen. We believe that we have received the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ. God who fills the universe also dwells within each one of us. That means we are temples. We are never alone. We are never abandoned. We are never on our own. God is with us, by the Spirit within us, feeling our pain, experiencing our joy, suffering with us, and delighting with us.
Whether we feel it or not, whether we are conscious of it or not, God is with us by the Spirit. The Spirit lures us towards all that is good and beautiful and true. The Spirit is present in each moment offering possibilities for goodness, love and hope. All we need do is respond to the lure of love and we experience the Spirit’s power to make it happen.
The next speech act is given as a role we have to play. Jesus said,
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
To say “I forgive you” and mean it, is to accomplish forgiveness. It means I release you. You no longer owe me for what you did. I will not hold it over your head any more. I will not wish you ill or harm even though maybe you deserve it.
I love the way Eugene Peterson’s Message version puts it: “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 Christian community is a community of forgiveness. Forgiveness is at the heart and core of Jesus’ teaching. In the prayer he taught us we say “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” – which is a scary prayer to pray. “May I be forgiven inasmuch as I forgive”.
How can it be otherwise? As a community of people who know that we have been forgiven, a community that hears Jesus say “Peace be with you” after all of our betrayals, how can we possibly withhold forgiveness from others?
We are sent on a mission and one of our missional goals is to be people of forgiveness. I will go so far as to say a community that is okay with harboring bitterness, resentment, vengeance and all forms of un-forgiveness is not a Christian community. A community of people who have received the Spirit is a forgiving community.
Forgiveness has the power to radically transform relationships and communities. I have seen it happen. I have seen it right here. Think about a time you were forgiven by someone you wronged; it changes everything. This is what we are all about.
This story from John has so many elements in it we can only include a few here. The whole scene with Thomas and his doubts is worth a long look that we simply do not have time for today. But after the exchange between Jesus and doubting Thomas, Jesus says,
“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
To say “bless you” is to bless someone. It is also a speech-act. Jesus pronounces a blessing on all who have not seen him, but have believed.
Believed what? Not believed a list of facts or statements about Jesus, but believed in him like you believe in your partner or your children or your parents. It means that you have given your heart to him or her or them. You trust them.
This is what it means to believe. We have given our hearts to Jesus and his vision of the kingdom of God, the reign of God, or the realm of God, or God’s commonwealth, or kin-dom, or however you want to conceive it. We want desperately for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven – the way Jesus showed us by his compassionate life-for-others. And because we have done this without seeing Jesus, we are blessed.
So, in this story, the disciples started out in fear and shame and ended up having been given peace, having been sent on a mission, having received the Spirit, and having been given the power and mandate to forgive.
John told this story this way so that we would see ourselves in that room, as those disciples.
We all have a past, we have regrets. But that does not define us. We are at peace with God. It has been accomplished.
We have been sent on a mission as agents of God’s kingdom.
We have been given God’s Spirit to lure and empower us in every moment.
We have been granted the world-changing power of forgiveness.
And we have been blessed.
This is what Easter means to us. This is why we live in hope and have reason for joy. Realistically, like Thomas, we also have lots of doubts too. But nevertheless, we have been blessed for giving as much of our hearts as we are able to, that is we are blessed for having believed even without seeing Jesus. Friends, this is good news!