Sunday, April 8, 2018

Good News Spreads: Believing

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.”

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.” 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.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 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.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.  John 20:19-31 (NRSV)

Grace and joy to you from our Lord and resurrected Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Welcome to Holy Hilarity Sunday! Or as it is also called - Holy Humor Sunday. Or also - Bright Sunday. This is a tradition from the early church on this second Easter Sunday (There are seven Easter Sundays in this season!). After the grandeur and celebration of the first Easter Sunday, this is the Sunday in which we revel in the hilarity of God’s action--the resurrection as the last laugh of God’s over the devil. 

It is also, traditionally, the Sunday when we hear the Thomas story. Or “Doubting Thomas” as he has been nicknamed. So, thinking of both Thomas and Holy Hilarity Sunday, I went online searching for any jokes about Thomas.

Do you know that I couldn’t find any? Or, at least, not any that were good jokes. The best i found was this cartoon, where Thomas is frustrated with the other disciples…”All I’m saying is we don’t call Peter “Denying Peter” or Mark “Ran away naked Mark.” Why should I be saddled with this title?” And, then, the response, “I see your point, Thomas. But really, it’s time to move on.” 

Not funny!

So, then, I decided to search for different artist’s renditions of Thomas. I was pretty amazed at the volume of art that depicts the scene we heard in our reading this morning. This classic painting by Caravaggio. Or another by German Martin Schongauer. Or here’s one by another German, Emil Nolde--on the the first Expressionist painters. Or here’s one from contemporary Russian artist Andrey Skorodumov. Or another contemporary--Chinese artist James He Qi. And, then, finally, John Granville Gregory, who does a contemporary version of the classic by Caravaggio. 

As I looked at this different artistic interpretations of today’s gospel, I was particularly struck by their similarities. Do you see it? In each painting, every artist has captured Thomas’ need to experience the resurrected Jesus. Whether it is touching the wound on his side or viewing the nail holes in his hands, Thomas needs his own experience with the resurrected Jesus.

To have his own experience.  Have you ever had a friend say to you, “You’ve got to see this!”? Maybe it’s a movie they’re ranting about. Or a particular product. Or maybe it’s to see the sunset from this particular spot. Whatever it is, your friend comes to you and is enthusiastic about it. Even a little over-enthusiastic. To the point that maybe you begin to doubt it a little. Or to wonder about what is real and what is hype. It’s not that you don’t believe your friends experience, but more that you don’t have anything to compare to it yourself. You haven’t experienced it. And, so, to be able to offer your own testimony of the greatness of the movie, or the product, or the sunset, or whatever it is, you need to have your own experience. Just like Thomas.

The Gospel writer knows this. And writes in this pattern throughout John. Where someone hears about Jesus and needs more information. And, then, they receive what they need to come to their own experience of the life that Jesus is embodying. 

Remember Nathanael, our earliest example. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Or the woman at the well. “Sir, you have no bucket and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” Or the man born blind. Or Mary Magdalene on the first Easter morning: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

Each person who meets Jesus. Needing more information. So that they can have their own individual experience with him. 

I’d like to back us up a little in today’s story. In the section before the resurrected Jesus and Thomas meet, Jesus first appears to the rest of the disciples on the evening of that first Easter. He appears in the midst of them and offers them a blessing, “Peace be unto you.” Peace meaning shalom. That word from the Hebrew scriptures that connotes more than just peace, but a wholeness. A state of completeness. 

Jesus then shows them his hands and his side. They have their own experience with Jesus. An experience that brings them much joy. And, probably, a lot of laughter, too. Then, Jesus once again offers them a blessing of peace. And commissions them: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus then breathes on them. In the Hebrew, ruach. That breath of God. The Holy Spirit. “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.”

There’s something interesting about this last sentence. Verse 23 in chapter 20. The phrase “the sins of” are not there in the original Greek. For years, translators have just assumed that these words are assumed. That they match the pattern of the first phrase--”if you forgive the sins of any.” But more recent scholarship has begun to question this assumption.  That perhaps these words should be assumed. 

So, what happens if we take the assumed phrase out? How does that change the meaning of this sentence.

In the closest verbatim translation, it would read like this “Of whomever you forgive the sins, they [the sins] are forgiven to them; whoever you hold fast [meaning embrace], they are held fast.

Or, to make it more understandable, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you hold fast to someone, they are held fast.”

If you hold fast to someone, they are held fast. This is what Jesus does for Thomas. He holds him fast. It’s what Jesus did for Nathanael, for the woman at the well, for the blind man, for Mary Magdalene, for the disciples in fear behind locked doors on that Easter evening, and for nearly every other character introduced to us in John, Jesus holds them fast through their doubt, or their fear, or their partial understanding or whatever else it is until they receive what they need to believe. Until they experience what they need for faith. This is what Jesus has been doing throughout John’s gospel. Holding each person fast until he or she has their own experience of belief.

And, when Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit onto the disciples, Jesus is making is possible for them to continue his work. To continue his work of “holding fast” onto those “who have not yet seen.” “Holding fast” to others along with the accompanying work of forgiving sins.

This, my friends, is what we are called to do in this place. In the midst of our doubt. Or our fear. Or our grief or our anger, we are called to hold fast to each other. To embrace and share in that brokenness. Because it is there, in the brokenness, in the embrace, in the holding fast, that God enters in. That God is incarnated within us. In, with, and under. God enters in, kills our brokenness and brings new life. Wholeness. Shalom. God brings life out of death. God resurrects us. Just like Jesus. And just like Thomas.

Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
Holly who?
Hollylujah, Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!


Preached April 8, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Easter 2

Readings: Psalm 145:13-21; John 20:19-31.

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