John 20:19-31 and Acts 2:43-47 and 4:32-35
April 12, 2015
One of my favorite preachers is Ralph Milton, a retired pastor from the United Church of Canada whose theological commitments are what could be called undecided. I think he would say he has been around too long to imagine aligning himself with just one theological camp. The thing is that I have never actually heard him preach. But he does this wonderful web site called Rumors which he bills as “sermon helps for preachers with a sense of humor.”
He is willing to poke more than a bit of fun at our ecclesiastical pretentions, and in the process gets to some important and serious stuff. Here is what he says about the story from John’s gospel we read this morning. “The Gospel reading shows us that the disciples were not all cut from the same cloth. Like the folks in our churches, they come in all stripes and flavors, and they come to their faith in different ways. Some see the thing whole in one glorious revelation, like Mary of Magdala, and some say, ‘Show me the evidence,’ like Thomas. Others grow into it slowly, bit by bit, over a lifetime. Others (like me),” he writes, “are never really sure what they believe.”
We don’t learn why Thomas wasn’t in the hideout with the others on that Easter night, when Jesus showed up in that room, nor why he was there the next Sunday when Jesus showed up again. That’s the kind of thing I would love to speculate about, but not today. But if you’ve got some ideas feel free to share them with me sometime.
Thomas, though, was finally there and got to see the evidence he needed. I think I used to think that it must have been a humbling thing for Thomas to see the Risen Jesus that next week. But maybe not. I don’t think Thomas was making any apologies about needing evidence, and I don’t think Jesus was expecting any.
And Thomas shouldn’t surprise or trouble us. We often hear that folk in Jesus’ day were living in a pre-scientific age, so that’s why they were able to believe in something like the resurrection of Jesus. But, it wasn’t just Thomas who had a hard time buying this whole thing. None of the folk who came to that room were expecting Jesus to be raised from the dead. The first reports of his resurrection were greeted as nonsense. This is what it says is Luke’s gospel. “Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.” The people who were in that room on that Easter night were not expecting to see Jesus again any more than Thomas was. Even though it was what we call the pre-scientific age, they weren’t about to believe such a thing could happen without evidence. They just got to see the evidence that Thomas saw a week later.
That second Sunday evening, Jesus appeared saying the same words he did the week before. “Peace be with you.” Those are not the words that we might have expected Jesus to start with. Here is an alternative scenario from Paul Nuechterlein. “His disciples who had abandoned him and denied him are sitting in a locked room, grief-stricken, afraid, and feeling ‘guilty as sin,’ and the Risen Jesus pops in to visit them. You and I would have, at the very least, sacked the whole lot of them. We would have fired them — ‘You good-for-nothing, fair-weather friends, you failed me! I never want to see you again! Now that I’m risen I’m going to get myself some new disciples, some real disciples, someone who will follow me through thick and thin.’ That’s what you and I would have said, right? But not Jesus! No, it’s incredible! Not only does he not sack the sorry lot of them; not only does he not return for vengeance; not only does he come instead with peace; but he hires them to go out into the world extending the word of forgiveness to others!! “ (http://girardianlectionary.net/year_b/easter2b.htm)
Those four little words, “peace be with you.” Jesus was Jesus to the very end and beyond. It was always about peace for Jesus, no matter if it was religious and political authorities trying to do him in or his most trusted friends abandoning him.
Jesus also said to Thomas and actually all the rest, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And it turned out that it wouldn’t be very long until people got the chance to believe without seeing, which leads us to the other story we read this morning from the Book of Acts.
That’s because the disciples did leave that room. In the power of the Spirit they left their fear behind and went out into the streets. Suddenly they weren’t just a group of several dozen, but a few thousand. And those new converts became believers by seeing, not the wounds of the Risen Jesus, like Thomas and the others had, but the power of the resurrection. They saw Jesus in that little community of Jesus followers or Followers of the Way as they were called long before the derisive term Christian was hurled at them. That community of The Way was the proof. They took care of each other. They shared their possessions and lives with each other. They built an alternative community right there in Jerusalem, where people felt the resurrection before they believed it.
It also says in Acts 4 that they were “all of one heart and one mind.” But we know that being of one heart and one mind does not mean that everyone was all alike. That community of The Way was made up of people who had to learn how to be of one heart and one mind even though they maintained their differences. That was the power of the resurrection, the proof of the living Jesus. They were trying to build something new in this world and it wasn’t easy.
One of my many favorite stories from the Book of Acts is in the seventh chapter where the Greek speaking widows complain that they were not being treated fairly and that the Hebrew speaking widows were getting preferential treatment. That thing about how they sold all they had and distributed the proceeds to all that were in need wasn’t quite accurate. Community, even the Community of The Way doesn’t always live up to its aspirations. Unfortunately, Christian communities back in that day and even now aren’t perfect. But they dealt with the conflict in a way that doesn’t often happen in communities, churches, or anywhere else. When the Greek speaking widows bought their complaint, the Apostles appointed seven of the Greek speakers in that early first of all churches to resolve the problem. There was not a Hebrew speaker among them. They let the victims come up with the solution. That is, indeed, a different kind of community. If they had appointed some Greek speaking women in that group, it would have even been better. But we all are learning
It’s not easy being a church or a bunch of followers of The Way who have somehow found themselves together to show folk the living Jesus. We are meant to be the proof that the Thomas’s of this world, and most others, including ourselves, are looking for. There are lots of things that need to happen, thankfully they don’t have to be done perfectly, to be a community of followers of The Way. One of them is forgiveness, which takes us back to John.
Jesus says this intriguing thing that first Sunday night with the huddled and scared disciples. “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.”
I used to put a bit too much on this verse. It can sound like that Jesus is giving the community, folk like us, the power to make cosmic decisions like who gets forgiven and who doesn’t. But what if he meant something different, something like this. Jesus put so much stock in forgiveness. Maybe he was saying something like, “You know, people can do things sometimes that are intentionally or unintentionally hurtful. They can do things that offend God and the people around them. One of the ways to healing and new possibilities for them is forgiveness. Your word of forgiveness can help bring release and relief. But if that forgiveness doesn’t come, they just have to keep on carrying, or retaining that sin or brokenness, or fear, or whatever you want to call it. Forgiveness can help them and help you let go.”
Those words may well have come in handy as they all had to deal with the aftermath of Holy Week. Peter, after all, had denied Jesus. And most of the others ran away. Many of the men, if not all of them, had underperformed. And now Thomas was about to proclaim his doubt. If they were going to make a difference in this world after they finally left that room, forgiveness would need to be offered and received. And that probably wasn’t the last time they were going to have to decide whether they were going to forgive each other so there wasn’t a bunch of stuff people were holding on to. And Jesus led the way be offering words of peace, so they could all move ahead in the power of forgiveness.
In that early church, as we learn from the dispute between the Greek speakers and Hebrew speakers, plenty of opportunities would present themselves for forgiveness to come into play. And I guess the opportunity to forgive and be forgiven really does offer the church a way that bears witness to resurrection, to the possibility of being a living presence of the living Jesus. The communities of The Way we build are the only proof out there that Jesus is alive, even though we also come with our own wounds and scars.
When we can live with each other in ways where we assume, that no matter what people end up doing, that their motives and intentions were good, or at least, not bad then the possibilities for forgiveness grow rather dramatically. And when we regard each other in light of the best we bring rather than the worst, then we are on to something that is life giving.
That little room full of frightened people who never expected Jesus to show up in their midst was made up of all kinds of people. It had become their tomb. But something pretty special happened to them. They didn’t end up all being alike, they didn’t all follow Jesus in the same way, but they found their way out of that tomb and they showed this world Jesus. I’ve been thinking about tombs this week and how we find our way out of them. I guess the best we can do is keep walking toward the light. It’s in the power of that same Spirit they felt in that room with Jesus that we get to offer our frightened little selves to each other and this world and move together into the streets as nothing less than a bunch of resurrectionists. And if that sounds like insurrectionist, it’s supposed to. Jesus expected that we would stir up some trouble when we walk out of our tombs.