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4/16/23 Sermon

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John 20:19-31

New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors were locked where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “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.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 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.”

26 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.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

We begin this morning with a disclaimer. Verse 19 tells us that the doors were locked where the disciples were “for fear of the Jews.” This statement was not and is not meant to be anti-Semitic. Jesus and his disciples were Jews. They feared the Jewish elite who had authority to punish or ostracize those viewed as outside the orthodoxy of their religion. They had good reason to fear.

The gospel writer that we know as John wrote the words that Myrna read for us this morning, so that we, centuries later, will continue to know and believe that all these things happened. And that through believing we may have abundant, eternal life in Jesus’ name.

And yet, a mere week after we celebrated Jesus’ victory over the grave, the keystone of the Christian faith, our scripture compels us to acknowledge our doubt. All of the disciples doubted Mary when she said, “I have seen the Lord.” Thomas doubted the others when they said, “We have seen the Lord,” when he had not. This morning we come face to face with their doubts, and if we are honest, with our doubts. We wonder how we, as 21st century inhabitants of this world, can believe these sacred texts written many lifetimes ago.

How do we support one another today through our doubt and unbelief? One way is to share our faith experiences. For many of us that requires expanding our comfort zone.

When you meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus, or on the road to Ellsworth, or on the beach after a night of fishing do you keep it to yourself, or do you share the good news with others? Do you risk not being believed? Do you risk your reputation as a safe and sane individual?

While pondering the resurrection narrative of the Christian church, I heard Padraig O Tuama –host of the Poetry Unbound podcast – and I was delighted by his words. He stated that a myth is not false. On the contrary, a myth is so true that we find fantastical ways to tell it.

That is, I believe, an appropriate lens with which to view this and many other of our sacred texts. Can we believe the text literally? Yes. Must we believe the text literally? No. But are the texts true? Yes, absolutely.

I have mostly heard this scripture preached as “doubting Thomas,” but why not “the doubting disciples”? They all doubted until they experienced the post-resurrection Jesus for themselves. Up until this point only Mary Magdalene had seen the risen Christ and none of them believed her. The male disciples did not believe until they had seen Jesus for themselves. They were no different than Thomas. They only came to belief sooner because they witnessed the risen Christ sooner.

And again, to be honest, wouldn’t they have doubted what they had seen as the days and weeks wore on? Don’t we all begin to question ourselves and our sanity, when we experience something that defies words and logic; something that doesn’t fit in the world as we know it? Perhaps that is another reason why Jesus came to the whole lot of them. They could help one another hold on to the reality of what they experienced as the questions and doubts plagued them.

Some decidedly good news is woven throughout this scripture. Doubt is normalized and accepted. The doubters were never ostracized within the fledgling community of faith. Mary was not turned away for relating her experience, however unbelievable it seemed at the time. Thomas was not shunned for his doubt, but continued to keep company with the disciples and was present the next time that Jesus appeared to the group.

And, of course, Jesus was patient with Mary, patient with the disciples, patient with Thomas – as God remains patient with us. All came to believe of their own accord, through their own experiences, or eventually, through the lived experiences of others.

Is one type of faith better than the other? Eyewitness versus oral tradition or written word? Absolutely not; God has no hierarchy of belief.

In this scripture, Jesus greeted the disciples at each opportunity with the conventional Jewish greeting “shalom,” translated, “Peace be with you.” According to my Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, “This greeting constituted an implicit prayer to God for the well-being of the person addressed.” Let us not forget that Jesus was concerned for the well-being of his beloved disciples, the very ones that had deserted him in his hour of need only days earlier.

And from the Oxford Companion to the Bible: “The usual Greek word for ‘peace’ …denoted the opposite of war or conflict; later it came to describe a harmonious state of mind, an imperturbability that could exist irrespective of external circumstances. This is what Jesus wanted for the disciples; and for us.

“Receive the Holy Spirit” Jesus says to those gathered with him. “As I have been sent, so I send you.” And then he breathed the Holy Spirit on them. When Jesus completed his earthly work he commissioned his followers to carry on for him and with him. That is our task.

It says in the scripture that the disciples rejoiced when they recognized Jesus. They were happy to see him again, but I am not so sure that they were happy to be commissioned. God sent Jesus as messenger, as healer, as subversive agent against the religious and governmental status quo. Most of us do not rejoice in the expectation of following Jesus in this way.

At this encounter with the disciples Jesus was continuing his teaching ministry. You have the ability to forgive, he told them. And you have the ability to withhold forgiveness. The choice was theirs. The choice is ours.

For John, and for many, forgiveness of sin is the reason for the cross. Jesus forgave all while on the cross… and we are to do the same. With that awesome power comes awesome responsibility.

There is a freedom in forgiveness. And there is a burden in refusing to forgive.

“Peace be with you,” Jesus said three times in these 13 verses.

Again, from the Oxford Companion to the Bible, “God is described as peace, and its creator and source, who gives it to his people. Peace in its fullest sense thus cannot be had apart from God. The distinctive idea about ‘peace’ in the New Testament is its mediation through Jesus Christ. He is described as the peace which ultimately unifies humanity, reconciling humanity with God.”

To retain sin or to release sin? It is a conscious choice we must make every day. If peace is with you, and in you, then you are truly walking with God; walking the path that Jesus walked.

Jesus showed us the way to forgiveness, the way to peace.

God be with you, or more accurately, you be with God.

Peace be with you.


Rev. TJ Mack – April 16, 2023

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