Sunday, April 3, 2005

Second Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

Many other signs therefore did Jesus in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye may have life in his name.

It is the second Sunday of Easter and we once again hear the story of Thomas, one of the few stories we hear every year. The reason for this is that the story happens one week after the first witnesses see Jesus after His resurrection, and thus it falls on a Sunday. One would think that after so many experiences with Thomas, the disciples and the other scriptures for this day that it would be easy to write and preach. After all, we have heard it and studied it yearly for so many years; we must know what it says.

Yet, how do you keep a story that is so deeply embedded in our hearts and minds new and relevant to our lives? How do we make it meaningful again? It seems as though many people decide to miss church on the Sunday after Easter; there could be several reasons for this phenomenon. Since many churches hold extra services through Lent and Holy Week, some folk decide that the second Sunday of Easter is the perfect time to take a break. Yet, I wonder how many people simply figure they are just going to hear the same old thing again, so why bother?

However, the story of Thomas is quite relevant for us today and there is something new to be found in this story every year. Perhaps we should not focus so heavily on Thomas, but remember in our study that there were other characters in the room that day.

Our story for today begins the evening of the day Mary saw Jesus at the tomb. After her experience with Him in the garden, Mary did what Jesus told her to do. She went to tell the disciples the good news. They did not hear or believe her words because they were still afraid and were hiding behind locked doors. Jesus suddenly appeared before them and said, “Peace be with you.” In Luke’s account of this meeting, the disciples thought Jesus was a ghost. Even with Jesus standing before them, they still did not believe that He had risen.

Mary’s testimony was not the first time that the disciples heard the good news of the risen Christ. As a matter of fact, Jesus told them He would die and be raised. The Old Testament scriptures prophesied that Jesus would suffer and be raised. This was God’s plan and He was not silent about what would happen.

In today’s Psalm David sings about Jesus. “For thou wilt not leave my soul to Sheol; neither wilt thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption.” Peter quoted this verse in his proclamation of God’s good news to the Israelites, for it was Jesus who did not stay in hell or decay. Peter says, “Brethren, I may say unto you freely of the patriarch David, that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us unto this day.” David died and was buried, but Jesus was raised from the dead.

Yet, even now with Jesus standing in their presence they still did not believe everything they had heard. Jesus showed them His hands and feet. It was only when they could see that it truly was Jesus that they rejoiced. They did not believe the word of truth, they had to see it for themselves. Later, the disciples shared the good news with Thomas and he too says that he can’t believe until he sees. We focus on this aspect of this story, forgetting that Thomas is no different than the other disciples. They were no different; they did not believe the word of truth when they heard it either.

Once again Jesus appears amongst them and shows Thomas His hands and side. Though Thomas said he could not believe without touching the wounds of Jesus, Thomas immediately proclaims “My Lord and my God.” He witnessed the living Christ and believed. Jesus then said, “Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” With these words, Jesus was speaking to us, those of us who live many generations since that day so long ago when He appeared before His disciples to send them to minister in the world.

We aren’t much different than the disciples – tactile beings with a need to have some sort of proof for the things we hear so that we might believe. We don’t believe the words; we want to see for ourselves. Yet, when it comes to the story of Jesus, when it comes to His mercy and grace, we have to rely on words. We have the testimonies of the disciples as found in the scriptures. John writes, “Many other signs therefore did Jesus in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye may have life in his name.” In our lesson from Acts, Peter said, “This Jesus did God raise up, whereof we all are witnesses.” We have the testimony of the Old Testament prophets who spoke about God’s plan. We have the testimony of those who have come before us and who lived in faith. With so many witnesses, you would think that everyone would believe.

Yet, there are many who do not believe. They do not hear the word or accept that it is true. They reject the witness because they want to see for themselves. But Jesus said, “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

Three times in our Gospel reading Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” The first time was spoken to the disciples when He first entered into their presence. They were afraid and uncertain, so Jesus greeted them in a way that would ease their fears. After showing them His hands and side, He spoke those words of comfort again. This time Jesus was preparing them for what was to come – apostleship. He was about to send them into the world to continue His work of redemption among the people. This too is a frightening thought. They could not stay hidden away, but Jesus was not going to send them into the world alone.

A week later, the disciples were in that room again, still hiding behind closed doors. This time Thomas was with them, unwilling to believe their word. Imagine how that must have felt for those disciples. If their brother in Christ, a man who’d also been with Jesus for years, who’d also heard Him speak and expound upon the scriptures did not even believe them, how could they possibly share this message with outsiders? Also, it must have hurt them to be doubted. There may have been some discord among the disciples. When Jesus appeared, He spoke the words of peace again. “Peace be with you.”

In this greeting, Jesus touched on the greatest problem within the Church even today. For the disciples to do the work they were called to do, there must be peace among them. How can they take the message of the Gospel out into a world if there is no reconciliation between brothers? Whatever was going on behind those closed doors during the week between the first and second appearance, Jesus pointed them in a new direction. Once Thomas was given the same experience, there was nothing to keep the disciples divided. But Jesus did not leave it there. Jesus might have reprimanded Thomas for his unbelief, but the rest of the disciples were hearing those same words. They too had to hear that the blessed ones would be those who would believe when they heard their testimony.

Peter speaks to those who did not see and still believed in today’s epistle lesson. “…whom not having seen ye love; on whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice greatly with joy unspeakable and full of glory receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls.” We may not have seen Jesus, but we believed the words spoken about Him and thus we have received the forgiveness which He gives.

In His first appearance, Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, “Receive ye the Holy Spirit.” This was like a down payment of what was to come – the Holy Spirit that would anoint them at Pentecost. In the days between His resurrection and ascension, Jesus taught the disciples everything they needed to know, but even then it would not be enough. Only by the power of the Holy Spirit could the disciples ever believe and do the work God was calling them to do.

What is that work? What is the word they are called to take to the world? It is the word of forgiveness that is found in the grace and mercy of God through Christ Jesus. Jesus said, “Receive ye the Holy Spirit: whose soever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven unto them; whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.” Forgiveness is a difficult thing – who deserves forgiveness? Certainly none of us do, not even those disciples. After all, think about the things they did in those last moments of Jesus’ life. They abandoned Him. They denied Him. They were afraid, uncertain, and doubtful despite the words of Jesus. Even moreso, I think about my own sin and know that I do not deserve what Christ has to give. I suppose that’s why the commission given by Jesus at this time is so difficult for us to grasp.

When we hear these words, we can’t help but think of the other teachings of Jesus. How do we juxtapose the idea of retaining sins with the lesson about not judging others lest we be judged? What about the words of Jesus that we should forgive as we have been forgiven. Is there anything that we can retain or, as other versions say, leave unforgiven? I suppose we could claim a lack of repentance as reason to keep forgiveness from someone. Yet, did not Jesus die for us while we were still sinners? Did He die on the cross after we sinned? Or was His forgiveness given even before we were born?

One of the difficulties of translating passages is that we do not have all the evidence we need to fully understand and appreciate what Jesus was saying. We have always assumed that when Jesus said, “those you forgive will be forgiven and those you do not forgive will not be forgiven” that this is a statement of opposites. Yet, I recently heard that the passage might be seen in a slightly different way. The Greek word for retain (or ‘do not forgive’) has many different meanings. What if we used one of those other words and made this a parallel statement instead. Take, for instance, the translation “seize.” In this case, Jesus would have said, “those whose sins you forgive will be forgiven, those sins you have seized will be seized.”

Other possible translations are “vanquish, lay hold on, get into one’s power, subdue, apprehend, attain and grasp.” How much better it is for us to help someone overcome their sins rather than leave them unforgiven. In this way we can take that word of forgiveness to the world without leaving some without the comfort and peace that is found in the mercy of God. God’s love and mercy is given without condition. Forgiveness was spoken even before the sin was committed.

Ah, yes. I can hear all the protests. What about this sin or what about that sin? Is there no sin that is unforgivable? Actually, Jesus tells us of only one unforgivable sin. “Verily I say unto you, all their sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and their blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme: but whosoever shall blaspheme against the Holy Spirit hath never forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” (Mark 3:29)

When we look back at today’s story, we realize that the disciples are not able to believe in Jesus without the power He gives them to believe. The breath He breaths is the Holy Spirit, and it is by the power of that Spirit that they have faith. To blaspheme the Holy Spirit is to deny His power – to reject Him. We aren’t called to go out into the world to condemn those who sin, but rather to proclaim that word of forgiveness into their lives. It is not our job to decide who deserves to hear that word and who does not deserve it. We are commissioned to take it to everyone.

Yet, we have to remember that many will reject the word we speak. They will not believe us. They will not believe our word. The reasons for this are many. Some believe their sin is too great for even God to forgive. They can’t accept that there is mercy that can overcome. Others do not think we are credible witnesses – like the women who were ignored on that first resurrection day. What have we seen that we can really report? They also do not see our own need for forgiveness. How can we possibly understand their guilt when we have none of our own? They don’t know what lies in our hearts, and so can’t understand our own needs for Christ’s mercy. There are yet others who simply need to see to believe and no words will ever be enough. And there are those who do not know they have sin for which they need to be forgiven.

Though the word we speak will be rejected, we are still called to proclaim forgiveness. We go out in faith to speak that word into their lives in the hope that one day, by the power of the Holy Spirit, they too will hear it and believe.

The message of these appearances of Jesus is as relevant to us today as it has ever been. It is a story about commission – the commission Christ gives to those who believe to go be witnesses to the Gospel, which is the good news of forgiveness given to a world that desperately needs to hear. Through us Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” a word that can overcome fear and discord so that all might rejoice and receive the outcome of faith – the salvation of their souls. Thanks be to God.

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