Sunday, April 12, 2015
Text: John 20:19-31
Christians have been celebrating Easter for over 2000 years now. We know the story by heart. As I suggested last week, this story has become so much part of our lore, so familiar to us that it goes largely unquestioned. We celebrate the event annually, yes. but how often do we try to put ourselves in the place of those first disciples? How often do we try to see from their perspective, to feel what they felt, to understand what they were going through?
Jumping to John from Luke’s account, we pick up the story later on, that same day. John writes that much has happened. We know all about it — Mary and Peter and the “disciple whom Jesus loved” at the empty tomb in the early morning darkness, the dazzling figures who suddenly appear, Mary’s encounter with the risen Christ. Was it too much for them to grasp, more than they could wrap their troubled minds around? When folks have been traumatized, as those first followers surely must have been by the cruel crucifixion of their leader, it would not have been an easy or sure thing to take in the news that he has risen from the dead. Indeed, the most normal response to trauma is a kind of merciful numbness, no thoughts, no feelings, a kind of nothingness that allows time for adjustment and healing. This good news that comes so quickly may be more than they can handle.
So later on, that same day, we find them huddled together in that common room, doors locked against all that they fear. But what is it that they have to fear on that first Easter? Unfortunately, John uses the term “the Jews” and, because of that, much antisemitism has been unleashed on Jewish people over the ensuing centuries. The writer of John was probably Jewish. (Certainly he was if he was John, Jesus’ original disciple, the one “whom Jesus loved). He was writing to a Jewish community, telling them the tale of a group of people who were themselves Jews.
It would be much more accurate to say those gathered in the locked room were afraid of the religious authorities, those Jews who controlled the Temple and the practice of their ancient religion. These were the ones who, out of their own fear of Jesus’ challenge to their power and practice of the faith, had engineered his crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. Those first followers were, rightly, afraid of the powers that dominated and oppressed them, that would have it in for them because of their association with the seditionist, Jesus of Nazareth. They had no way of knowing for certain if they were being hunted down as terrorists, a threat to the religious elite of their own tradition and to the empire. Even if Jesus was alive, what was to prevent some twisted recurrence of what had taken place on Friday?
Then, as Elisabeth Johnson suggests, “They are likely afraid for their own lives, afraid of their uncertain futures.” As exciting as a living Christ might be, what did that actually mean for the living of their lives? In fact, she continues, “…just maybe, the disciples were also afraid of Jesus. After all, they had failed him miserably. Peter had denied him three times, and the rest had deserted him… Perhaps the last person the disciples wanted to meet on that evening was Jesus, risen from the dead to confront them with their failures” (Elisabeth Johnson, “Commentary on John 20:19-31,” April 27, 2014, workingpreacher.org). This seems an intriguing possibility. If we were to put ourselves in their shoes for a moment, how might we feel at the prospect of having to face this one who has loved us so thoroughly and whom we have abandoned so completely?
So later on, that same day, here they were huddled in the same room, locked away in fear and suddenly, without warning, there he was standing among them, in the middle of that crowded space. Imagine for a minute what it must have been like. Place yourself in a secure space, doors locked and bolted from the inside and suddenly someone is there who wasn’t there when you locked the locks. It reminds me of the shock old Scrooge experienced when his midnight visitors appeared in his secure chamber, uninvited.
However, Christ does nothing to frighten them further. His first words are neither challenging or chastening. “Peace be with you.” Not just “peace” but the classic “Hebrew greeting, ‘shalom,’ a blessing that,” as Elisabeth Johnson says, “connotes more than tranquility, but a deep and holistic sense of well-being — the kind of peace the world cannot give” (Johnson, op. cit.). In spite of all he has been through, Christ remains concerned for their well-being; soon they are rejoicing. Who wouldn’t, on such an occasion? Can you imagine yourselves experiencing the joy of that evening, excitedly reaching out to the one who was dead and is alive again? Sorrow, guilt, shame, the numbness of trauma are all left behind as Christ obviously is not there to hold their failures against them. All is forgiven in the warm embrace of Christ’s shalom.
Then, later on, that word again, “Peace be with you. Remember when we were talking and I told you I wouldn’t leave you comfortless, orphaned? Well here…” and “he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” In John’s story, Pentecost is as simple and powerful as a breath, the very breath of life.
People have struggled for years with his next word, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Surely he didn’t mean to give his followers, then or now, the power to forgive sin as we have come to understand it. Isn’t forgiveness of sin God’s business, one of those things far above our pay grade?
Again, Elisabeth Johnson writes, “As many interpreters have demonstrated, ‘sin’ in John’s Gospel is not primarily a moral category; rather,” she says, “it is fundamentally unbelief, the refusal to receive the revelation of God in the person of Jesus.” So then, “Jesus is not giving his disciples some special power to decide whose sins will be forgiven and whose will not. Rather, he is further specifying what it means to be sent, to make known the love of God that Jesus himself has made known. As people come to know and abide in Jesus, they will be ‘released’ (aphiemi) from their sins. If, however, those sent by Jesus fail to bear witness, people will remain stuck in their unbelief; their sins will be ‘retained’ or ‘held onto’ (kratéo). The stakes of this mission are very high indeed” (Johnson, op. cit.).
Clearly Jesus has returned to send those first followers, that fellowship of the fearful, out with renewed power to carry on the work of the Beloved Community that he had come to share with them and, indeed, with all creation. Part of Christ’s word of peace, of shalom, part of Christ’s concern for their well-being is that these are the ones he has trusted and trained to carry on his ministry. These are the ones Paul will characterize as the living “Body of Christ,” once Jesus has ascended to God. The breath of life is the power of God to motivate them to go out and transform the world in the name of the Risen One.
Still, later on, that evening, Thomas shows up. Who knows where he’s been? Maybe as a practical man he’s been out trying to find enough food to feed the assembly or maybe he’s just gone out for some fresh air, to escape the suffocating atmosphere of that locked and fear-ridden room. Anyway, he’s having none of their tale about a risen Christ. We love to say he was a “show me” kind of guy and history has unfairly painted him as a doubter. I like to think of him as a realist and a sensate type, one who perceives by putting the pieces together in practical and logical ways. “I want an experience of this risen Christ,” he insists, “for myself.”
I like Bruce Epperly’s view of Thomas. He writes that “He missed out on the spiritual revival of the upper room; and wanted proof that Jesus was alive. His quest was not just intellectual, it was experiential and spiritual. He wanted to see Jesus, feel his breath, and touch his body. He wanted the real presence of the risen Jesus not just talk about it” (Bruce Epperly, “Just Breathe,” in Living a Holy Adventure, April 22, 2014, patheos.com).
So later on, a week later, in fact, they’re all gathered in that same room. Is the door locked? The text doesn’t say, but the “doors were shut” and once more Jesus stands among them. Only this time, Thomas is there. I don’t think Thomas needs to touch Christ’s wounds. His sense of the presence of the Risen One is enough for him to cry out, “My Lord and my God!” It was the living experience of the presence of Christ that he craved and, in that moment, his craving was fulfilled.
Epperly writes, “We [all] need breathing space and it is a credit to the disciples that they gave Thomas breathing space, and allowed him to live with his questions.” As a result when, later on, “…Jesus returns to the group, [Thomas] is amazed and transformed, and he can breathe again” (Epperly, op. cit.). The community holds space for Thomas. As a result, he is able to have the same transforming experience that they had had. Isn’t that what the Beloved Community does for you and me and all the world, hold the space for us until we find for ourselves an experience of the living Christ?
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus tells them. We know that those so blessed are descendants of the fellowship of the fearful, gathered in that locked room so long ago. We are all kin to Thomas, desiring and finding our own unique experiences of the living Christ, held in faith and love, grace and compassion by a redeemed and transformed fellowship that is the Beloved Community of God.
Later on, John writes at the end of his book, “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.” Because they experienced and believed and cared and shared, we share with them the Body of Christ. We join a fellowship of those freed from fear, living in the liberation of Christ’s shalom. We also share in the global uprising that is the work of the Beloved Community Christ came to inspire, beginning with them and stretching on to eternity.
As Brian McLaren says in today’s Words of Preparation, “So fellowship is for scarred people, and for scared people, and for people who want to believe but aren’t sure what or how to believe. When we come together just as we are, we begin to rise again, to believe again, to hope again, to live again. Through fellowship, a little locked room becomes the biggest space in the world. In that space of fellowship, the Holy Spirit fills us like a deep breath of fresh air” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 175). From such humble beginnings the world is transformed in the reality of the Risen Christ.