Second Sunday in Easter
TEXT: John 20:19-31
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.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’ (John 20:19-25)
Have you ever felt overwhelmed? I’m sure we all have. We know that feeling of being bowled over by the sheer immensity or complexity of something. You can’t comprehend it. You can’t get it figured out. You cannot organize it or bring it under control. You’re overwhelmed in a way that makes you feel small, weak, and inadequate.
I think that probably describes the way the disciples were feeling three days after Jesus died. Really, how much worse could things get? There they were, hiding behind locked doors, not knowing where to turn or what to do next. Their leader and teacher—Jesus, whom they had thought was the invincible Messiah—had been executed like a common criminal. He was gone—dead and buried (or so they thought). Into the tomb with Jesus went all their hope, all their vision, all their sense of direction and purpose in life.
Now, all they had was an overwhelming sense of failure and loss and shame, because they knew they had deserted Jesus in his hour of need.
And I have to wonder: were they more disappointed and disillusioned with themselves—or with Jesus, who had raised their hopes so high? It would be hard to wrap your head around that kind of disappointment, to organize the feeling of that kind of loss, to bring under control that depth of shame. Of course they must have felt small, and weak, and inadequate!
But now, one of the women—Mary Magdalene—was saying things that didn’t make any sense: that she had actually seen Jesus and had talked with him. She claimed that Jesus was alive, that he had risen from the dead just as he had promised. Could this be true? How could it be true?
They did not believe Mary’s words, of course. After all, what she was telling them seemed impossible. So they did not rush out to look for the risen Christ. No. They stayed put, behind locked doors, and waited to see what would happen next.
And then, suddenly—astonishingly, quietly—there he was. Jesus was right there, in their midst, before their very eyes. It was true. Jesus was alive!
Now, I wonder whether at least some of the disciples might have been a little bit worried—afraid that Jesus might be angry with them for abandoning him (and, in Peter’s case, for even denying him three times). It’s frightening enough to think about seeing someone who was dead suddenly alive, but what if he has every reason to say: “Where were you when I needed you? Why did you run out on me? Peter, you especially, I picked you out to be the leader; how could you have denied me three times?”
But that’s not what happened. There were no recriminations, no anger, no condemnation or judgment. There was not even any venting of disappointment and hurt. No. The first words Jesus offered were: “Peace be with you.”
He knew what was in their hearts. He knew why they had barred the door. He knew they weren’t re-grouping, getting it together and deciding on their next move. He knew they were terrified and confused. He knew they were hiding out. And suddenly, in the midst of their fear and confusion, there he was—not with angels, trumpets, and legions of the heavenly host … but quietly, gently … only Jesus, all by himself. And with him he brought no hint of anger, no accusations, no trouble or turmoil—only peace.
Then, the very next thing, he gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit—doesn’t just give it to them, but breathes the Spirit into them. It’s kind of like Pentecost, except here the Spirit comes not with wind and flame but with Jesus’ own breath—the life-force of one raised from the dead who tells them to go out and demonstrate peace and forgiveness and love in the world. Just as the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends them into the world that God loves so dearly.
Doesn’t it sort of remind you of Creation, when God breathed life into Adam? Here, Jesus re-creates this sorry crew of defeated men, giving them the gift of new life—the gift of grace—and commissioning them to share that gift, that good news, with the world. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, these weak and overwhelmed disciples become Jesus’ gift to the world.
Then he talks about something that’s more difficult to speak of in the church than sex or politics or even money. He talks about forgiveness. This gives us some sense of what’s uppermost in Jesus’ mind, doesn’t it? Forgiveness.
Right away, though, the story shifts to Thomas, who must have been out running errands. When he returned and heard that the others had seen Jesus, he understandably wanted to have the same experience himself.
Now consider this: all he was asking for was the same assurance the other disciples had received. Thomas was no more a doubter than they were, before they saw the risen Christ. He just wanted to experience the Resurrection for himself, to put his finger and his hand on the marks of Jesus’ suffering and feel for himself that this incredible news was really true. His faith was no less. Thomas was just that one little sheep that the Good Shepherd (sure enough) would come back for, to tie up this one loose end.
You know, I think John included this story—about Thomas wanting to see for himself—because he sought to encourage the believers in his own community, a generation or so after the events occurred. Their faith was based not on what they had seen with their own eyes, but on what they had heard. Jesus is really talking to them (and to us) when he says to Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Or, as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message: “Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.”
Even better blessings. That would be the promise to you and me today, a week after Easter morning, when we’re back to life as usual. Back to our lives with their own “overwhelmings”—with an economy which either is or is not recovering—depending on which news report you hear (but which, in any case, still leaves many of us underemployed). Back to a pandemic which still isn’t over, more than two years in. Back to a world full of wars and refugees and famine.
Yeah. Back to life as usual. Back to our own private griefs and burdens—health problems, kid problems, too much work, too much worry, too much coming at us … so much to run away from, so much to fear. What’s an overwhelmed Christian supposed to do?
William Sloane Coffin, one of my favourite prophets of the past century, once said:
As I see it, the primary religious task these days is to try to think straight … You can’t think straight with a heart full of fear, for fear seeks safety, not truth. If your heart’s a stone, you can’t have decent thoughts—either about personal relations or about international ones. A heart full of love, on the other hand, has a limbering effect on the mind.*
All of us disciples—when our hearts fill with a fear we can’t organize or wrap our heads around, a fear that makes us feel weak and small and inadequate—all of us disciples are offered that same gift of grace and forgiveness and the Holy Spirit, a gift that limbers up our minds. It also melts our hearts, turning them from hearts of stone to hearts full of love. That’s why Jesus sends us out into the world, to put our hands on the marks of its suffering, to bring good news and hope to all of God’s children. Isn’t that why we are the church?
Whatever overwhelms us, Jesus comes to us in the midst of our fear and says, “Peace be with you.” Whatever doubts churn in our minds; whatever sins trouble our consciences; whatever pain and sorrow bind us up; whatever walls we have erected or doors we have locked securely … Jesus comes to us and says, “Peace be with you.” Whatever hunger and need we feel deep in our souls, Jesus feeds us well with living bread, and sends us out into the world to be justice and peace, to be salt and light, to be hope for the world.
We can do it, you know. You can do it!
We can do it because we, ourselves, have been overwhelmed by the love of God.
As God sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us—on this day. This very day.
* William Sloane Coffin, A Passion for the Possible: a Message to U.S. Churches, 2nd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 2.