April 27, 2014
I Peter 1: 3-9
John 20: 19-31
May grace and peace be yours in abundance.
The author of the First Letter of Peter proclaims that we have been given a new birth into a living hope. We have become new people with a new future, which is more important than whatever sort of problems are currently making us feel stressed-out. That is what the Christ experience means; we are transformed by the love of Jesus and the renewal of our spirit through the Holy Spirit. So, what does that really mean?
The Gospel of John is thought to have been written at approximately the same time as the book we know as First Peter, probably after 90 A.D. They were written to people like us, who are aware of the stories about Jesus, but for people who did not personally see or hear Jesus during his earthly ministry. So, when the Bible refers to a new birth into a living hope, that is directed to people like us. And when Jesus is described as being seen by his disciples after being killed on the cross, we need to clarify the difference between how we understand this, and what it meant for those disciples.
The gospel passage for today follows Mary Magdalene seeing Christ at the empty tomb and returning to tell the disciples. Apparently after she told them, they didn’t believe her, because that evening they were locked in a room for fear of the Jews who had called for the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus appears to them and says “Peace be with you.” On the one hand that could be like saying, “Shalom”. Or it could be like the angels telling the shepherds, “Be not afraid, for we bring tidings of great joy.” But I think we can understand Jesus a little better when we compare this to Jesus telling the disciples what was going to happen, back in the 14th chapter of John’s gospel. Jesus says to them, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” & then tells them he will be killed and he will return to them.
So, now he returns with the same greeting, knowing that the disciples really do not yet understand, really do not yet have faith, really have not yet been transformed from the fearful followers locked in a room into being the community who will become the Church. We know this, because if they had really understood what Jesus had been teaching, or if they had believed in the creative & transforming power of God’s love, as expressed to them by Mary Magdalene, they would not have been hiding in a locked room for fear of the Romans or the Jewish leaders.
Faith is not primarily about what we think or claim to understand, faith is not just about some philosophy or belief system, but faith is the foundation for our identity, our priorities, and how we live our lives. We may assume that Jesus returned to greet the disciples primarily to show them that he really had been resurrected, but for the disciples, that was not the main point. For one thing, during his earthly ministry, Jesus had brought others back to life. The purpose of giving new life is to allow the person to live with the awareness of God’s Love, and to use your life to do what Jesus did, to love others. Jesus returned to the disciples to point them in the other direction: instead of hiding, to go out and proclaim release to all the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and not just in a strictly physical sense. Jesus had gotten started teaching and changing people, but he returned in order to empower the disciples to continue his ministry.
Jesus tells them that they have power over sin, power over all that separates us from God, because Jesus is giving them Holy Spirit, which is God’s transforming love for all of us.
We don’t know how much they understood about this gift Jesus was giving them. I know how we often think about the gifts of the Holy Spirit today (I want gifts like joy & peace; gifts like patience and self-control sound like I may be in for some challenging life-lessons!) But it does appear that the disciples did understand something of what Jesus was saying to them, because they were apparently eager to try to share the news of seeing Christ with Thomas, the disciple who was not locked in the room, that first Easter Sunday evening.
Thomas acts just like the other disciples, in not understanding, not believing the account of someone who claims that Jesus is alive. This has led to the modern phrase, “Doubting Thomas”, as though Thomas was the only skeptic in the group, even though the Biblical accounts do not call him Doubting Thomas at all! The word used in the Greek, means he does not trust whole-heartedly, yet, a week later, when Thomas does encounter the Living Christ, Thomas replies, “My Lord and my God!” which is a personal confession of faith. So, maybe we should be referring to him as Confessing Thomas, instead of Doubting Thomas!
Be that as it may, what would it have been like to hear the other disciples talking with Thomas in the week between Christ’s first appearance to the other disciples, and the following Sunday when Thomas encountered Christ and made his confession of faith? The disciples probably tried to convince Thomas that he should believe what they were saying; after all, they were all friends, they had all been travelling with Jesus for the past three years, and for Thomas to continue to refuse to trust them might have been a bit aggravating. Have you ever been in a situation where you and your friends keep saying, “Really, we have seen this.” Only to have someone who was not with you reply, “I don’t believe you.” “We are telling you the truth, I saw it with my own eyes.” “I still don’t believe you.” Over and over all week long! So, what does that have to do with us? Perhaps we need to learn that even when someone else doesn’t share our theology, we need to remember the disciples’ example, because we see that in spite of their differences, the other disciples did not kick Thomas out of their fellowship; Thomas was with the others the following week, when Jesus appeared again.
I suspect that most Christians today need to understand Why Jesus appeared to the disciples. Was it to prove that Jesus had risen from the dead? Or did Jesus return to the disciples in order to send the disciples out into the world, just as Jesus himself had been sent to us by God. In the NRSV, Jesus asks Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are they who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” It sounds as though Jesus is down-playing the importance of our assumption that “seeing is believing”, and his focus is really on what he did with all of the disciples. He gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit, and sent them back out into the world. Belief matters because it changes our behavior.
Faith in the risen Christ is about recognizing the new life that Christ offers in the kingdom of God, which is coming into being all around us. It does have a personal, individual component, where someone who experiences the life-affirming gift of God’s grace & love feels a sense of peace. Yet, Jesus is not simply giving the disciples a magic stress-management technique, a sense of inner tranquility. Jesus is sending the disciples out into a hostile world to share love, to create relationships based in God’s love, not to withdraw from anyone who has a different opinion about some theological concept.
Jesus returned to the disciples to send them out with his message of peace. Just as Christ is offering each of us today the opportunity to claim a new perspective & a new identity, where we are not to condemn the world, but to offer love and grace to people who are hurting; or as it is expressed in John 3: 17, “God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
I understand this to mean that we are not commissioned to go out into the world in order to tell people what they are doing wrong. We are to love one another as Jesus loves. Then, when we are living in connection with God’s love, with the fruits of the Holy Spirit, we reveal God’s love to the world, which demonstrates the possibility of new life and living hope to everyone we meet. Sin is separation from God, and Jesus has sent all of his disciples to heal this separation by living into the awareness of God’s constant love for all of creation. This is what Jesus was giving his disciples when he said, “My peace I leave with you.” Or as it is written in John Chapter 20, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent me, so I send you.” That is our mission, to be witnesses to God’s transforming love, which brings peace to individuals and communities. We are an Easter people, and we have been sent to heal the separation that people have created between humanity and the love of God we witness in Jesus.
Thanks be to God. Amen.