The Second Sunday in the Easter Season is traditionally the day when the church picks on Thomas. Sometimes, for a change of pace the sermon might be about how Thomas gets a bum rap with the whole “Doubting T” thing.
The appeal of this approach to today’s gospel is that you don’t have to deal with the difficulties of the first part of the lesson.
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." 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
John 20: 19-23
It was the end of the first day of the week – the first Easter day. There had been no chocolate bunnies, no hard-boiled eggs, and definitely no baked ham. There was plenty of fear, though. They had seen their rabbi arrested in the middle of the night, tortured, and executed. They had seen the public sentiment toward him turn on a dime as easily as a contemporary TV audience picks a new favorite reality show. Their bellies were full of the bitterness of their own betrayals. Their friend Judas was dead – Judas, whose sin each of them had mirrored in silence or denial. The long Sabbath had been spent in terrified anticipation. They were known throughout the city. Jesus’ persecutors certainly knew who they were. It was just a matter of time before each of them would be roused from sleep, and led one by one off to prison or worse.
On the morning after the Sabbath the knock came but it was not a Roman patrol. It was the women returning from the tomb with a crazy story. A few of the men ran to confirm what the women had said. They confirmed the worst. Jesus’ body was not there. The stories of angels and mysterious strangers in the garden were apparently not told or else not believed because they all returned to the locked upper room and spent the day in fear. Word on the street was that some lunatic had stolen Jesus’ body. The disciples had no doubts about who the authorities would blame for the crime. They were dead men locked in the upper room, just as surely as Jesus had been when they sealed him in his grave.
John’s gospel reports the next events with a strangely cool, clinical eye. He merely reports facts with none of the commentary we might expect from Matthew and none of the dramatic flare that characterizes Luke. There is no wind, no flash of light, no walking through walls. Jesus simply “…came and stood among them and said. “Peace be with you.” He showed them his hands and feet and the mortal wound in his side. John tells us that only then did their fear subside and they rejoiced. (So you see Thomas wasn’t the only one who needed proof before he could believe.)
The next thing that happened was truly extraordinary and very difficult to preach about indeed. Everyone knows Luke’s cinematic story of Pentecost – the upper room, the wind, tongues of flame, preaching in strange languages, 3000 converts. John’s story of Pentecost is very different. It does not begin with special effects, but with the joyful disciples and the risen Christ repeating his blessing on them – “Peace be with you.” He then pronounces the ten words that created the religion we know as Christianity. “As the father has sent me, so I send you.” With than brief pronouncement the disciples were transformed from followers into leaders. Once Jesus had traveled to their boats and work places and their homes and said “Come.” Now he said “Go.” They were no longer Disciples of Jesus – they were Apostles of Christ.
Jesus then breathed on them, just as God had breathed life into the mud and given life to Adam. Jesus breathed his Holy Spirit into them and gave them the wonderful, dreadful responsibility for carrying on his ministry, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”Jesus had proclaimed forgiveness during his earthly life by the power of the Holy Spirit. Now he had given that responsibility to the Apostles.
The responsibility is wonderful because it allows the church to offer the peace of forgiveness to the repentant. It is dreadful because it commands the church to hold the unrepentant accountable for their actions. We do not have the authority to forgive – that belongs only to God. The authority we have is to bear witness to God’s forgiveness through the suffering and resurrection of Jesus. What we may not do is bear false witness to the unrepentant by proclaiming a forgiveness God does not grant. The sinner who will not release sins chains can never be set free by the pronouncement of the church. If a man or woman desires to remain a slave to their own sin, God will not force them to repent, and the church may not deceive them by claiming that God has done so.
In spite of all our most fervent prayers and best hopes, Jesus warns that in our ministry we will encounter some folks whose conversion we must simply leave to God. No heart can receive the peace of Christ until it has been softened or even broken by sin’s burden and God’s grace.
In John’s simple rendering of the day of Pentecost, Jesus reminds us that we are to walk humbly, just as he did. We are to tell the Good News to all who will hear it not only with our words, but also with our lives. We can offer the blessing of Christ’s peace as we rejoice with other sinners who have chosen to lay their sins on the altar of God’s love.
We can do all these things, but we cannot change people’s hearts.
My wife once worked for a veterinarian. One of the painful realities of animal medicine is euthanasia. Sometimes an animal is beyond the help of the doctor’s art. The only options are to let them suffer or to put them down. For the compassionate people who do this kind of work every day, that choice takes a toll on the heart. Mrs. P had worked and grieved for many years before coming to this epiphany – you can’t save them all, but you can love them all. When one of our fellow creatures is sick with disease, we may not be able to deliver them from their illness, but we can still offer them compassion and loving-kindness until their suffering is over. That is a gift we can always give.
Likewise, when one of our fellow creatures is sick with sin, we cannot deliver them with all our art and science. But thanks to the spirit of Christ in us, we can offer them compassion and mercy until God relieves them of their burden. This is the authority given to the Apostles. This is the ministry of the church. If we are to take up Christ’s mission, we are free to rejoice with the redeemed and grieve for the lost, but in imitation of our Savior we must love them all – even the Doubting Thomases.
But his story is another subject for another day. Maybe next year.
Illustrations in this post are the work of the Swiss artist Corrine Vonaesch.