Easter 2 (Low Sunday) 2012
Sermon preached by The Rev Charles Royden Year B 2012
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors 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 side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."
Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord!" But he said to them, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it."
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."
Thomas said to him, "My Lord and my God!" Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Our reading from John’s Gospel today takes place on the evening of that first Easter, and we read that the doors "had been shut" by the disciples because of their fear of the Jews. We can only wonder at how they must have felt.
Ashamed, perhaps because of having let Jesus down. They had run away and hidden and not wanted to be known as belonging to Jesus. They had failed to live up to their calling and would have felt downhearted and discouraged. Their dreams had been shatered and there would perhaps have been a sense of hopelessness.
Fear, we know that they were frightened that they same fate which had befallen Jesus would come upn them also. They were frightended of the Jewish leaders who had targetted Jesus for events such as the attack on the temple and the operation of the financial system.
Then we read that in spite of the locked doors, Jesus "came and stood into the middle" and said "peace to you." They might have expected jesus to say many things, but they would have been overjoyed that he had words of peace and not criticism or anger.
Jesus then displays his wounds to the disciples. This is the same Jesus who had been crucified and he shows them his hands. The reference to his side refers to the spear of the Roman soldier after the death of Jesus, from which had flowed both blood and water. The disciples recognize Jesus on the basis of his wounds and rejoice at "seeing the Lord." Jesus says again, "Peace to you." These two statements of peace frame the action of Jesus in showing his hands and side. It is on this basis, his wounds, that peace is won.
No sooner has Jesus calmed their fears than he shifts immediately to mission--"As the Father has sent me, so I send you." Then, "he breathed on them." The disciples are given power from the divine breath. The Greek word translated as "breathed" is emphusao. It is the same word the Septuagint uses to translate Genesis 2: 7: "And the Lord God...breathed into (Adam's) nostrils the breath of life." John’s use of this word is the only one in the entire New Testament. Clearly, the author of the fourth gospel is equating the breath of Jesus with the breath of God. Where the Lord God breathed life into a human being, the Lord Jesus breathes life into his church. This is one of many of the fourth gospel's references to the book of Genesis.
We need to remind oursleves that Jesus regards his blessing upon the disciples as something which promts them to go out into the world. The blessing which they receive is to enable them to share.
Then we have some very interesting words from Jesus. The disciples have been shown peace and encouragement and they are now taught the importance of forgiveness, just as Jesus has clearly forgiven them.
"If you release the sins of any, they are released," says Jesus, and "if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." This is not a parallel for a similar saying in Matthew. There is nothing here about eternal "binding and loosing." Rather, the New Community is to be characterized by the forgiveness of sins. Conversely, if sins are not forgiven, they are "retained" within the community, thereby threatening the community's life.
So the disciples are shown peace, sent out by Jesus and told to be be a forgiving community. We might wonder how it is that the church is so often not characterised as being at all peaceful, is self absorbed and is regarded as judgemental rarher than forgiving.
Then we are told that Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. He had clearly missed Church and missed Jesus ! 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.’
The disciples proclaim to Thomas, "We have seen the Lord." This is the third proclamation of seeing the Lord in the fourth gospel's Easter narrative. This is not good enough for Thomas, who not only wants to "see" but also to "touch" the places where Jesus had been wounded.
Then we are told that ‘a week later’ Jesus came again and stood in their midst. Jesus announces "peace" again, and focuses immediately on Thomas. "Put your finger here and see my hands," says Jesus. Then Jesus says, "Reach out your hand and throw it into my side."
Thomas responds, "My Lord and my God." Domitian, the Roman Emperor at the time of the writing of the fourth gospel, was known as dominus et deus noster, "our lord and god." Thomas' confession of Jesus as "My Lord and My God" is both a statement of faith in Jesus and a polemic against the Emperor.
Jesus blesses "those who have not seen," which, at the time of the writing of the fourth gospel, would have included many in the church. By AD 90, most of the people in the Johannine community would not have actually seen the wounds of Jesus. The stated purpose of John writing about these signs is so that "you" might come to faith in Jesus is the "Christ" and the "son of God," that we should believe.
I want us to think for a moment about Thomas and his reaction when his friends told him about Jesus. He will forever be known as Doubting Thomas. This is not meant be a compliment.
In some ways it is true that doubt is not a great thing, it troubles and upsets us, we want to 'stop doubting and believe.' Yet in another way it can also be quite good. Paul Tillich saw doubt not as the opposite of faith but as an element of faith itself.
Doubt is one of those taboo subjects. People feel that they should not doubt. We are afraid that people will think less of us, that we look stupid. Yet doubt is not an unusual or particularly unhealthy thing. Surely we must ‘stop doubting and believe’ and yet doubt is a step on the road to belief.
Doubt is not scepticism, the decision to doubt as a matter of principle. Neither is it unbelief and act of will, the decision not to have faith in God. Doubt often means asking questions, or voicing uncertainties from the standpoint of faith. You believe but you have difficulty with that faith. As such, doubt is probably a permanent feature of the Christian faith. As life is a permanent battle against disease, so a life of faith is a permanent battle against doubt.
Many people come to faith with doubts. We don't have to understand everything, indeed it would be strange if we did. This is what all relationships are like, we don't know the half of people before we get involved with them, how could we! When we embark upon any relationship we take a risk. Our doubt reminds us that we are in need of growth and development in our relationship with God and from that perspective it is a good thing. We know that God is bigger than our minds, we know that we have to use analogies and images. Doubt is a spiritual reminder that we don't know it all and that we have a limitation as a result of our humanity. We long for absolute security and certain proof. Yet we do well to remind ourselves that what we can know with absolute certainty is likely to be not that important
Tennyson said, 'For nothing worth proving can be proven, nor yet disproven: wherefore thou be wise, cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt.'
This is not to say that Christianity is intellectual suicide. It is not like the emperors new clothes, we are not afraid of questions and analysis. If we have serious questions we should ask them and think them through. Christianity is about encounter with the living God and yet there is also a challenge to the mind to begin to understand and grasp our faith. Experience should be reinforced with understanding. But we have to realise that life will be filled with much we do not understand.
There is an interesting passage from Romans 13:11-12.
'The night is nearly over, the day is almost here'
this gives the idea that the Christian life is as walking in the dark. Paul also use the classic illustration in 1 Corinthians 13:12
'Now we see but a poor reflection in a mirror.'
He is acknowledging that there are many things which we can expect to be unclear to us.
Faith enables us to trust in the midst of the turbulence which surrounds us. We have not let God down if we doubt. Indeed our faithfulness is proved when we persevere through our doubts and uncertainties.
God promises us his love and assures of his presence with us, even when we find it difficult to comprehend. We live in a culture in which faith is hard we must accept that fact and not worry about our doubts. We must see doubt rather as an opportunity to grow, for faith grows like a muscle by stretching. Doubt encourages us to pray more, to seek God more, to worship more, to read our bibles more. Charles Royden