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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Easter 04/08/2018

The lectionary gives us Doubting Thomas every year on the Second Sunday of Easter and I think that’s been the case pretty much forever so obviously it is a story that is thought to be important. I might get around to him, but with the focus on Thomas and his doubt, what can get lost is the first part of this gospel reading, the part having to do with the disciples who were present when Jesus’ appeared in the locked room. As is always the case with John, one can assume that every scene he describes is significant, so here we go.

First of all, we don’t really know who those locked room disciples were. At no point in his gospel does John name all of the disciples and only twice is the number twelve even mentioned. John is more concerned with what the disciples represent than with who they are. In John then, a disciple is someone who follows Jesus, someone who is a learner, a pupil. From today’s text, all we know is that a couple of days after Jesus’ crucifixion, a group of those followers were in a locked room for fear of the Jews.

There’s always concern about John’s repeated use of the term “the Jews,” concern that it represents anti-Semitism but when John uses the term he has to mean the religious authorities because the disciples themselves were Jews and they probably weren’t afraid of themselves or each other. What they were afraid of was being identified with Jesus and of suffering the same fate he did. Because of that, they locked the doors.

Locked doors however, were not an obstacle for the Risen Christ. The resurrected Christ passes through the locked doors which raises questions about the nature of his resurrected body, questions shared by the other gospels that include resurrection appearances and questions that also come up in Paul’s writings. There’s loads of speculation about this, but suffice it to say that while we talk about a bodily resurrection, it apparently was a body that included but was not limited by normal physical properties which of course, as Paul would say, represents foolishness to the debaters of this age but for now we’ll just leave it at that, in the realm of mystery, a matter of faith.

Importantly though, the resurrected Christ shows the gathered disciples his hands and his side. It’s not an incidental detail because it confirms that the Risen Christ is the Crucified Christ, a point the gospel writers were careful to make in order to ward off any suspicion that somehow a different Christ appeared after he was crucified. Instead, the resurrection is closely tied to the crucifixion in essence making them two parts of the same event.

Back to the locked room though. Having shown the disciples his hands and his side, the Risen Christ then gives them four gifts and by extension they are also four gifts given to us. The first gift is the gift of peace. “Peace be with you,” Jesus says to them and of course we echo those words in almost all of our worship services as we share the peace, a ritual that probably continues to feel awkward to some even after all these years. Perhaps though, if we thought about sharing the peace in relation to Jesus’ appearance to his disciples it might help to remove the awkwardness.

As much as it can seem like intermission or the seventh inning stretch, what we are actually doing is re-enacting Jesus’ gift. Earlier in John, as part of what is known as Jesus’ final discourse with his disciples he had promised to give them peace, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” Now, as the Risen Christ he repeats the words and completes the transaction. Peace or in Hebrew, shalom, was a traditional greeting, but on the lips of Jesus in this way it takes on new significance; it’s more than a greeting as it announces the nature of the community formed around Jesus.

Similarly, for us what we say and do doesn’t just represent a “Good morning; nice to see you,” greeting; it signifies our desire to be people of peace which in this case means being people and agents of forgiveness. We are to be an image of the forgiveness we believe we have received from God. “Peace be with you,” signifies our desire to continue to be that community formed by and gathered around Jesus.

That means the peace Jesus gives isn’t just about a warm feeling of contentment, it’s a call to action with Jesus’ next words, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus’ second gift to his followers is a mission. Jesus makes those who believe in him apostles, an apostle being one who is sent. This too was previewed earlier in John when after his final discourse, Jesus prayed to the Father saying, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” Jesus’ sending of the disciples is modeled after the Father’s sending of him.

They and we are to continue the work Jesus started, which is the work of peace, the work of forgiveness, the work of bringing hope to a broken world. We do that by proclaiming a reality different than the one offered by an empire set on keeping the rich, rich and the powerful, powerful. Our task is not an easy one. Being sent into the world means being sent into the teeth of the world’s power and into the midst of the world’s brokenness as in John the word “world” represents the entire realm of brokenness and separation from God. What we remember though from the familiar John 3:16 is Jesus being sent was about God’s love for that broken and separated world.

Being sent as Jesus himself was sent becomes even more daunting when we consider that Jesus being sent was for the salvation of the world. 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.” To be Jesus’ agents of peace and forgiveness is difficult enough, but to be sent in his place for the salvation of the world is hard to fathom; it’s a task that seems beyond us.

Empowerment is needed and it comes as Jesus’ third gift to those locked room followers is the gift of the Holy Spirit. “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” This is John’s Pentecost story. We’re familiar with the wind and fire and confused speech of the Acts Pentecost story that we’ll hear again in six weeks. But as is the case with so many things, John has a different way of presenting it but the point is the same: the Holy Spirit provides comfort and guidance but also empowers those who receive it to do things they would otherwise be incapable of doing. As it empowered those first followers, it continues to empower us.

The fourth and final gift is authority. “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any they are retained,” and here we recall that these are not words necessarily directed to an elite group, but to those locked room disciples, whoever they may have been. That means they are words and a gift directed to all of us as well, words and a gift that connect back with Jesus’ gift of peace but it’s perhaps a gift and an authority we just as soon not receive as it brings to light how difficult it can be to forgive. Perhaps even more it raises the question of when is it appropriate not to forgive.

The authority to retain sins is not really an authority I want, because I think, who am I to judge and don’t we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, our sins, as we forgive those who trespass against us?” If I retain the sins of others, what sins of mine are being retained? Didn’t we just hear Jesus’ words from the cross, “Father forgive them?” I know there are those who think they know exactly which sins ought to be retained and because of that they are quick to judge and not forgive and that in turn makes me quick to judge and not forgive them so here we go, an endless cycle of failing to forgive.

I kind of wish Jesus had stopped at three gifts, if he’d just left it at peace, a mission and the power of the Holy Spirit. Or even if the authority was authority to forgive sins and nothing was said about the authority to retain sins, that would be better. My faith says that in and through Jesus all sins can be and are forgiven; I count on that. If the community John describes in these verses is to extend the work of Jesus, to offer the peace of Jesus, doesn’t that mean that we too are called to forgive the sins of others and not just some of their sins but all of them?

Forgiveness doesn’t mean approval and permission to sin again, it means the new life of a new opportunity to walk in the ways God would have one walk. For all of us, whatever our sins are, that’s the struggle of faith, but we struggle in the light of Easter. We struggle in the light of the new life of Jesus’ resurrection. We struggle in the presence of the Risen Christ. It’s not always easy, but it’s where we want to be.

I never did get around to Thomas, but he’ll be back. Maybe next year.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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