Sermon for April 28, 2019, Easter 2C. Audio will be here for several weeks.
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.
Probably the hardest learning we ever have to do is unlearning. When we have “learned” something that later we discover is untrue, or so insufficiently accurate that we need to think differently about it, it’s hard. It’s like learning to speak a new language.
But unlearning is necessary. It is entailed in growing up, becoming adult, “putting away childish things” as Corinthians says.
We are going to be challenged to unlearn a couple of things by this text today. Or maybe I should say by these texts (plural)? There are two scenes here in which Jesus makes appearances to his gathered disciples in their locked room and their fearful condition.
Because nothing is said about Thomas being missing in the first, and because the second is all about Thomas’ reaction, some scholars conclude that these two appearance stories were originally separate and distinct.
But now they have been brought together. Why? It turns out that the author of John’s gospel has done this intentionally, to make a point — to help us unlearn things, which we will look at today.
Faith and Belief
The first thing we must unlearn is what faith or belief means. For most of us, through no fault of our own, we have understood faith as the opposite of knowledge, and belief as accepting something as true — assenting to its veracity.
This is what faith and belief came to mean, but not what they meant in the bible. Faith is the noun, believe is the verb. Originally they meant trust.
To trust in God, to have faith originally was not to have a list of statements about God or Jesus or any other line from a creed to which you assented. It became that, but that is a distortion that we need to unlearn.
What does trust mean? Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard used the metaphor of floating on the surface of deep water. As long as you relax, you are buoyant; if you start to struggle, you sink.
That’s what the gospel scene of Peter walking on the water is all about. As long as he looked at Jesus, with trust, he stayed up. When he looked away, toward the wind and the waves, he sank. To trust is to relax and to know that we are being upheld at every moment of our lives by God.
If you have ever taught a child to swim, you know that the hardest part is helping them to learn to relax and trust that the water will hold them. As long as they fight it, they keep sinking.
So what about doubt? Doubt is baked into the cake of faith. According to theologian Paul Tillich, faith is something everyone has. Not that everyone has faith in God, necessarily, but in something.
Everyone has a sense that their lives have some kind of purpose, which is significant enough that they would be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for it — they would be willing to die for it. Tillich calls this our “ultimate concern.”
For some people, their family is their ultimate concern. For others, it’s their career, or their social status or political power. For some, it is their nation.
But how do you know in advance that the thing you have identified as your ultimate concern, the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning, the thing you would make the ultimate sacrifice of your life for, is worthy of your one precious life on earth? How do you know? You cannot know for sure.
Many people die for their nation. Even for really bad nations, by our judgment today. Think of all those who lost their lives for the Third Reich in the Second World War: had they chosen correctly? We would say, no.
So, because we cannot know in advance what is worthy of our ultimate concern, what is worthy of our faith, then there always must be some measure of doubt. To have faith in anything is also to have doubt. They exist together like two sides of a coin.
So when Jesus is depicted in this very mystical and ethereal story, in which he appears through the walls of a locked room, and confronts Thomas about believing and not doubting, he is telling him to trust, and not stiffen up and resist, like the child who hasn’t learned to swim.
In other words, Jesus is not asking Thomas not to doubt the lines of a creed, like the virgin birth, for example. He is asking Thomas to trust.
But here is where the story gets profound. Think of that metaphor of trusting as floating. What would “fighting it” look like? What would cause someone to stiffen up and sink? The key is found by the way the author has joined these two originally separate stories together, so that now they become mutually interpreting.
Here is how it works. In story one, Jesus, who has just three days earlier been tortured to death in the most excruciating way appears. Why did that happen to him? Because the Romans captured him. Were there no people to defend him? No, they had abandoned him and fled.
Consider that. Jesus is appearing in front of his betrayers. He has a lot to hold against them. His hands and feet had been nailed to a cross. Someone speared him in the side. The wounds are still there, visible for all to see.
Vengeance, wrath, recrimination, accusation, condemnation, could all be expected. All would have been perfectly justified. They were guilty, and they knew it. But that is exactly what did not happen. The very first words Jesus says, in both appearance stories, are,
“Peace be with you.”
In other words, “I forgive you.”
Friends, this is one of the most radical and fundamental teachings of Jesus. God forgives us. We must forgive others. Even those who, like the disciples, have run away, and let the Romans get you. In the only prayer Jesus ever taught us to pray we say,
“forgive us our debts (Matthew) or sins (= missing the target) Luke) as we forgive…”
What are those debts — the things people owe us, or those sins — the cases in which someone has missed the target and we were the ones caught in their line of fire? They are the wounds we have received at their hands. And we all have been wounded by others.
No one gets through life without being wounded by others in a multitude of ways. And wounds leave scars, memories, sometimes even traumas. We will come back to this, but let us continue with the story.
So Jesus appears in the room where they are all locked up, fearful, and says, “Peace.”
Then, in that first scene, the author describes Jesus as saying a few phrases which seem unrelated and jarringly haphazard. He says,
“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.”
So what is going on here? Is this a commissioning scene: “I’m sending you?” Or is it a Pentecost scene: “receive the Spirit”? Or is it on some kind of conferring of cosmic authority to either forgive or retain sins, as if we were able to do God’s job?
It all makes sense if we see that it is still about what those men had done to Jesus three days earlier. It is still about those wounds, those scars Jesus wears.
The easiest way, I think, to understand this is to turn our attention to the little early Christian community, who would be hearing this text read in their house church on Sunday morning. They would hear Jesus saying to them, first, “Peace: you are forgiven. Whatever you have done, I forgive you.”
Second, he says, you should consider yourselves not only forgiven, but sent out on a mission.
How will you have the wisdom, the energy, and the strength for the mission? You have the Spirit in you — you know that. Every time you have felt that tug, that lure towards goodness, towards the next right thing, that is the Spirit in you, helping you to accomplish the mission.
What is the mission? It is huge; it is profound; it is to stop the cycle that poisons our relationships, our communities, our nations, and our world. It is the cycle of retribution. It is the cycle of violence. It is the cycle of quid pro quo.
The fact (not the magical power, but simply the fact) is, that if you forgive the sins of any, then they are forgiven; period. If you stop the cycle, the cycle stops.
If you don’t, then it turns around again, claiming new victims with each rotation. Forgiveness stops the cycle. The mission we are on is the mission of stopping the cycle. How? By forgiveness.
It starts on the personal level in which we forgive the very people who have wounded us, the people who have put the scars we wear on our skin, our hearts, our psyches, and our memories.
So what is forgiveness? It is not saying “It’s OK that you did that to me.” Not at all! Forgiveness does not trivialize evil. Forgiveness does not pretend evil is not evil, nor deny, or minimize the damage done. Look at Jesus — he was tortured and killed, and still had the scars to prove it. There is nothing trivial about it.
Rather, forgiveness means I will not seek retribution. I will say “Peace to you.” I will not make you suffer because you made me suffer. I will not even wish for, or fantasize your suffering. I will wish instead, for your redemption, for your restoration, for your healing.
This does not mean that justice does not have to be done, when, for example, crimes have been committed. But it means that my motivation is not revenge, but restorative justice, meaning that the world should be one in which actions do have consequences, and the guilty do not walk away to freely continue to victimize people at will. But there is no pleasure in punishment for me. You have been forgiven. The cycle can stop here and now.
Thomas and Us
So now, back to Thomas. The question to Thomas is: Can you trust that the world can be one in which you can be a cycle-stopper? Or does that feel too risky?
Those are questions to us as well. In other words, can we trust God enough, as Jesus did, to support us in our forgiveness mission? Or are we going to stiffen up and demand proof in advance? Will we float, or sink? Thomas has to decide.
So Jesus says, in effect: Look at the wounds and scars, Thomas; your cowardice on the night of my arrest helped put them there. But here I am saying “Peace” instead of “punishment.” Can you trust my way?
That is the question this text leaves with us. Can we deny the demands of our egos for self-justification, for getting even, for vindication, and for vengeance? Can we be cycle-stoppers? Can we forgive?
Because the amazing truth here, is that if you forgive the sins of any, then they are forgiven; period. If you do not, then they are not, and the cycle turns again.
But you have been forgiven. You have heard the words, “Peace to you.” You have been given the Spirit. You have been sent. This is our mission!
We have been speaking so far about the personal level. Does this work on a larger scale? Well, it has worked.
There has been healing and reconciliation in Rwanda, even after genocide. There has been political calm instead of a blood bath in South Africa, even after all the suffering of apartheid.
The Jesus way of forgiveness is not a fantasy. If there is enough of a consensus that retribution only spins the cycle around again, that the odds against getting even are the longest odds ever, that the cycle can be stopped; peace is possible.
That is our mission; we have been sent. We have been given the Spirit. Let us not doubt, but trust, not struggle, but float on grace and mercy, and so experience peace.