Acts 2:14A, 22-32 John 20:19-31
May 1, 2011 Second Sunday of Easter
As I read John’s account of what is going on in the lives of the disciples and followers of Jesus, I feel their tension and fear. Nothing is safe, no one is safe. Jesus had been killed, and it would be very easy for anyone associated with him to meet the same fate. The climate in Jerusalem was not friendly toward them, so the disciples were huddled in an out-of-the-way room, behind locked doors, hoping against hope that the authorities would not find them. When we look back at their experience we may wonder why the Easter appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalen wasn’t enough to make them all believe. We may wonder why John, of whom it is said, “he saw and believed,” was still in hiding. And yet, we all know what fear can do to us, how it can keep us closed up and shut us off from everything and everyone. Fear can keep us from living our lives as we would like to live. You and I may not have experienced the life-threatening fear that the disciples were feeling, but we have all felt enough fear to know that we don’t want to live under it’s influence.. We can relate all too easily to the disciples hiding out behind closed doors, in spite of what they know about Jesus. When Jesus appears to them in this account from John, the first thing Jesus says to them is, “Peace be with you.” He knows that before anything else can happen, the disciples need to calm down and find some peace. They need to find a peace that will stick with them no matter what.
Take a deep breath, and imagine you are breathing in the peace that Jesus offered to his disciples. Breathe deeply and feel your breath calming you and centering you. Peace, this kind of calming and centering peace, is what Jesus offers to us just as he offered it to his disciples in that locked up room. The peace that Jesus offers has been described as the “peace that passes all understanding.” We can experience this peace firsthand when we see ourselves in Jesus’ presence and imagine him offering us the gift. Jesus also gives the disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit. After they have calmed enough, having felt his peace wrap around them, Jesus breathes on them, telling them to “receive the Holy Spirit.” But they were not only to receive the Spirit as a personal gift, but in order that they could then go out and forgive others.. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them;” he said, “if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” It seems to me that this is an important development. The disciples are in a position of weakness, according to the politics of the moment. Their beloved leader has been condemned and killed in a way reserved for terrible criminals. They, themselves, are afraid for their lives. But Jesus is telling them that this is not the fate he wants for them. He does not want them to sit behind closed doors waiting for the commotion to calm down. He wants them to get out there and start forgiving the people who have done him and them wrong. It seems outrageous, until you remember that Jesus, speaking from the cross said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Forgiveness is a theme in Jesus’ preaching. Many of his parables focus on the importance of forgiving one another. The prodigal son is welcomed home. The Good Shepherd searches for one missing lamb even though the 99 others are safe in the shed. Jesus himself lived out forgiveness as well, inviting a corrupt tax collector to be his disciple, and letting a woman caught in adultery go free, unharmed despite the fact that Jewish law would have had her stoned to death. Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness are woven throughout all he said and did. It is fitting, then, that he would set forgiving others as the disciples’ first task after his death and resurrection. The way Jesus gives this directive to his disciples, though, is by offering them the choice of forgiving others or of retaining their sins. The choice remains with them, to practice forgiveness or to remain angry and closed off to their own sense of compassion. When Jesus breathed peace, his peace on them, he was offering them the opportunity to operate from Jesus’ own place of compassion and concern for the other. The offering of his peace to them enabled them to draw in Jesus’ own strength and his wisdom. They could then use these gifts in the ministries they were to carry out in the future.
Forgiveness comes into play right away when Thomas shows up, carrying all of his baggage and doubts about Jesus really coming to the disciples. Jesus doesn’t chastise him, he merely offers Thomas the same peace that he had offered the others a week before. He knew also what Thomas had said to the others, expressing his disbelief in what they had told him about Jesus’ appearance to them; “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”
Maybe it is the peace that Jesus gave to Thomas, or maybe it is the fact of his presence being so strong, but Thomas doesn’t need anything else to prove that Jesus is there. He thought he would need to feel the wounds and see them for himself, and yet when confronted with the presence of Jesus, Thomas discovers that all of his questions fall fluttering to the floor. They don’t make sense any more. Jesus is so real, so obviously present, that Thomas gives the first declaration of faith, “My Lord and my God,” taking faith a step further than anyone else had yet done. I wonder what the others thought when they heard Thomas say this? Did they agree with him right away, or was this when their doubts crept into the picture? How did their faith develop from stage to stage. Since it is pretty obvious that most of them didn’t know what they were getting into when they first started following Jesus, how and when did their faith get to be strong enough to support them? I think we can ask ourselves that question as well, when did our faith become what it is today? How did we move through our doubts to a place of faith?
Each of us has a different perspective on what faith is, and what we need it to be in order to get by from day to day. But one thing I pray for all of us, is that we are still open to listening for Jesus’ voice in our lives. I pray that we still feel the peace that he offers, breathing it in and letting it calm us when we are in anxious situations. I hope that we are open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives, letting it settle in on us and guide us when the path gets confusing. I also pray that we take seriously the importance of forgiving one another. Forgiveness opens us up to faith in ways that I don’t quite understand. Learning the ways of forgiveness is an essential aspect of following Christ. It is the first step on the road toward developing compassion and of learning to be God’s own presence in the brokenness and fear of this world. Ironically, our faith is developed by being this presence, by living in and out of the name of Christ.
God of our lives, we experience your gift of forgiveness throughout our lives. Your compassion covers us and carries us when we stumble and lose our way. Help us to offer your gifts to others, and to ourselves as well. May we find our faith by living in the ways of Christ Jesus. Amen.