TEXT: John 20:1-31
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ (John 20:26)
In most of our churches, at chancel front or otherwise prominently displayed, we find … a symbol of death. A Roman cross. An instrument of execution, as vivid as a hangman’s noose or guillotine, as surely lethal as an electric chair.
But of course, unlike those other tools of destruction, the cross is not only a symbol of death. It is also a powerful symbol of something else. And that something else is reconciliation.
The apostle Paul says we are reconciled to God through Christ (2 Cor. 5:18-19), for—as he told the Christians at Colossae—”in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19-20).
During a Good Friday service some years ago, I set up at the front of the sanctuary a very large wooden cross (about eight feet tall). As worshippers arrived, each one was handed a square of red paper. Later in the service, I asked everybody to write down—on those squares of red paper—their own personal wishes or prayers for reconciliation. About a broken relationship, perhaps. Or a grudge. A regret. A situation over which they had no control. Anything and everything that was getting in the way of their relationship with God—or their relationships with other people. Then those squares of paper were collected and fixed onto the cross. Because that is the symbolism of the cross. There, upon those rough pieces of wood, all of our sorrows and sins die along with Christ—so that we can be raised with him—raised in him—as brand-new creations.
It’s all about us starting over, as people who are reconciled—to God, and to one another.
Reconciliation is about bringing things together; or, more specifically, bringing things back together—things which are meant to be together. It’s closely related to the idea of atonement—or “at-one-ment.” We believe that, in Christ, God himself became “at one” with us. Actually, he became one of us.
See if you can wrap your head around this: God felt estranged from us. God created us to have intimate fellowship with himself, but the relationship had broken down—because we “wanted some space.” So we made space. Lots of it. So much space that, when the freedom we craved proved too much for us to handle … Well, we couldn’t find our way back home, through all that … space.
But no one mourned this broken relationship more than God did. He longed for things to be the way they were. As someone once put it, “The Lord missed Eden!”
God tried lots of things. He gave us rules of conduct, but we couldn’t follow them. He sent prophets to point us to his kingdom, but we ignored them. Humanity and God just kept getting farther and farther apart.
So, finally—“when the time was right”—God took drastic action. He became a human being named Jesus of Nazareth. He took on our mortal flesh and became one of us—subject to all the limitations and afflictions that are common to us.
He was born as we are born, and then he had to grow and learn, just as we have to grow and learn: how to walk, how to talk, how to live in human society. He had to learn a trade so that he could support himself. He knew the joy and the agony of our earthly existence. He faced hunger, temptation, sorrow, physical pain, emotional suffering—and even death! He became completely “at one” with us—and you can’t get any more reconciled than that!
Because of what Jesus did, the rift between God and humanity—that great, bottomless canyon separating earth and heaven—has been bridged. No longer can we claim that we don’t know what God is like, or that God is remote and far away and doesn’t care about us. Or that we’ve got no future because our sins and stupidity condemn us.
No. We are reconciled with God, and we have an eternal future with Christ; he even came back from the grave to tell us that.
Which is what Easter is all about, of course. If Jesus had not come back from death, who would understand the significance of his life?
Yes, from heaven’s point of view, God had been reconciled to us in Christ. That work of atonement was completed when Jesus spoke his last words upon the cross: “It is finished” (John 19:30). But nobody on earth knew that. Jesus had to rise again—and make himself known to us—before the reconciliation could be made effective.
The Easter story is just dripping with reconciliation! All the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus ooze this theme of reconciliation, as broken relationships are mended and made new.
Remember John’s account of Easter morning? When Mary Magdalene came to the cemetery early on Sunday morning, she was filled with despair. Her relationship with Jesus—which had been so deep and so close—was now broken in the most final and complete way possible. He was dead, and she had no hope of ever seeing him again. All she could do was weep. She would have given anything, to hear him speak her name … just one more time …
Then a voice behind her called out, “Mary!” In an instant, her broken heart was mended. And she was given a commission. Jesus called her to carry the most important message ever proclaimed: “Go to my brothers,” he said, “and tell them I’ve come back!”
His brothers? Mary understood that he meant the male disciples, who were still in hiding, back in Jerusalem. His brothers? To be sure, Jesus had often called them that. But … after they had deserted him … and denied him … Really? He called them his brothers?
Yes. Really. In Jesus’ mind, they were already reconciled.
However, the disciples did not realize that. They were just a group of defeated, demoralized, frightened men. If I had a time machine, and could travel back 2,000 years … and give the disciples little squares of red paper … I wonder what kinds of things they would write upon them. They had promised Jesus they would stand by him no matter what—that they would even die with him, if they had to. But then, when the chips were down, they all deserted him and fled. And now they were ashamed of their cowardice.
At the same time, maybe they felt that Jesus had let them down. They had truly believed he was the Messiah—that he was going to save their people from Roman oppression, and restore Israel to greatness. But instead, he let himself be arrested and killed, without even attempting to raise an army or make any kind of resistance. Perhaps—whether they dared to express it, or not—some of them even harbored bitterness toward God, for allowing this terrible disaster to take place.
They had completely lost hope. Even when Mary Magdalene came pounding on their door with her breathless report—“I have seen the Lord”—it did nothing to lift their spirits. In Luke’s account of this story, he mentions that there were several other female eyewitnesses, as well, and—along with Mary—they brought the glad news of Jesus’ rising. But to the disciples, their words “seemed … an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:11).
Which is why Jesus needed to do what John tells us he did later that evening. Into the midst of the disciples, through the barricaded door of the room where they were cowering in fear, “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’”
“Peace be with you.” Not, “Where were you when I needed you?”
No recrimination. No accusations. Just, “Peace be with you.” Blessed words of reconciliation. “All is well between us, dear friends. You are still my brothers.”
He doesn’t need to tell them he forgives them, because it is obvious: he never blamed them! John tells us, “the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” That must be the greatest understatement of all time!
Just one problem, though. One of the disciples is not present. For whatever reason, Thomas isn’t there. He seems to be the only man among them who is not afraid to walk the streets. Or maybe he’s just so devastated that he doesn’t care what happens to him. Maybe he’s down at the Jerusalem Bar and Grill drowning his sorrows. We don’t know where Thomas is, but he is not present on this particular evening, and he misses the whole thing.
So when the others try to tell him about this miracle that has happened, Thomas thinks they’ve lost their minds. They say to him—just like Mary had said to them—“We have seen the Lord.”
In reply, Thomas says, “Bull!” Thomas says, “What a load of manure!” He must be thinking, “What is this? Some kind of cruel joke? Have they all gone crazy?” So Thomas responds with words of bitter doubt: “Unless I see the holes in his hands, I won’t believe it!”
Actually, it sounds to me like something more than doubt. This is utter disbelief. These are the words of a man who believes his friends are lying to him … for what reason, he cannot imagine. And so Thomas is placed at odds with the rest of them. Now, he is the only one who does not believe. Now, his relationship with these men—with this “band of brothers” who had walked with Jesus on dusty Judean roads … His relationship with them is broken.
And it probably would have stayed broken, except for Jesus, whose dearest wish for his friends remains, “that they may all be one.” Remember him saying that? Back in chapter 17, John quotes Jesus’ prayer for his disciples: “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me”(John 17:21). Again, blessed words of reconciliation, meant to break down all the barriers separating us from God—and from one another.
God cannot bear to see Thomas estranged in this way. So, a week later, when Thomas is with the others in that same room, Jesus returns for a repeat performance, with the same opening line: “Peace be with you.” He has come back—intentionally, purposefully—just so that Thomas can see and hear what the others have seen and heard. “Put your finger here,” he says, “and see my hands … Do not doubt but believe.”
John doesn’t waste words trying to describe Thomas’s feelings in that moment. He simply records his joyful exclamation: “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus’ work of atonement continues, as the community of the disciples is restored. Restored, that is, except for Judas. Poor Judas. If only his anguish and guilt had not so utterly destroyed his own hope for reconciliation—had not driven him to suicide. If only he had waited—even for just three days—the gospel record might contain a second story about a prodigal son.
How about you? Have you been waiting? Have you been struggling to hold on? Have you been watching your own hopes fade? Have you been carrying—for far too long—a heavy burden? A burden of guilt? Or regret? Or resentment? What is it that keeps you awake at night? The terrible secret that you live with? That you can’t let anybody know about?
What have you done, that you think even God could never forgive? What has been done to you, that you cannot forgive … or don’t want to?
What are the barriers in your life? The things that keep you from accepting love from God—or from others? What prevents you from giving love?
In other words: what, in your life, cries out for reconciliation? Whatever it is, I tell you this: today—this very day—Jesus can make it right. You don’t have to write out your request on a square of red paper. All you have to do is ask him, sincerely, in prayer … and then watch what happens.
If you will let him, the One who healed Mary’s broken heart can mend your heart, too. If you will but give him permission, the carpenter from Nazareth can renovate your entire life, tearing down all the walls that keep you confined. If you feel like you’re in prison, Jesus is the One who can break you out!
It’s what he does. It’s what reconciliation is all about. It’s what the cross is for.