The story we read at CWM last evening (John 20:19-29) is a familiar passage. While the lectionary reading puts a week of events together, we most often like to focus our attention on one event, on one person. When we hear this story what stands out to us the most? What do we remember? For most of us it is Thomas…good ole, Doubting Thomas. It’s a story that captivates our imagination; perhaps because of the gory detail and gruesome scene that unfolds, or perhaps simply because we relate to Thomas. We too want to see Jesus. And so we quickly move past the fearful disciples, skip over Jesus’ first appearance and go straight to Thomas’ doubt.
Yet, I’m not convinced that this is actually the most amazing part of the story we just read.
The story begins just hours after Mary Magdalene has returned to the upper room having claimed to have seen the risen Christ. The frightened disciples are holed up in a room behind locked doors. Shocked, grieving, terrified the disciples have not just lost a friend, a teacher, a leader, but now their greatest hopes and dreams lie shattered in pieces, broken as surely as Jesus’ body. Sitting and waiting like that I imagine all of the should’ve, could’ve, would’ve-s play back as if on continuous loop in the memories of the disciples…what if, what if, what if…And now, now here comes this woman making the most incredible claim, a claim that if true that would change absolutely everything. The disciples find themselves stuck between belief and disbelief of two realities that seem equally terrifying.
If what Mary is saying is not true (and really how can it be?), the disciples find themselves facing an even graver situation than before. Not only are they left in the sorrow and disappointment of Christ’s broken promises, but now they must also deal with the fact that someone has actually stolen the body. I mean who goes about stealing corpses unless you want to punish others. If they would steal Jesus’ body, what would they do to those who followed him? Will they come for us? Are we next? Who’s at the door?
If, on the other hand, what Mary says is true (but really how could it be?), the disciples were in for an equally terrifying reality. If Jesus really was the Christ, the Messiah and is still somehow miraculously alive, if the promise for the kin-dom is still on, well, something big is about to happen. If this is all true, and the Messiah is coming with vengeance on a world of injustice and oppression, to judge between the righteous and the sinner, to throw into the fires of hell the unworthy and faithless, to set about an age of weeping and gnashing of teeth as we have heard foretold, what in the world will Jesus say to us? We who failed to be faithful, who doubted, who ran, who tried to save ourselves above all else? I have to wonder if any of the disciples actually wanted to confront Jesus, to have to stand face to face with their own disappointment, shame and guilt.
To believe or not to believe seems equally terrifying and so the disciples remain closeted in their own fears, shut up in a small stuffy room, windows shut, doors locked, waiting, waiting, waiting.
Suddenly in the very midst of their terror, shame and sorrow, Jesus appears.
Imagine for a moment how you would feel to stand face to face with this Jesus, the one who you loved, but ultimately disappointed? Dead now alive, Jesus stands before you and you brace yourself for the worst.
But the worst has already come and gone. “Peace be with you,” says Jesus. “Peace be with you.” No fear. No scolding. No turmoil. No anger. Peace.
In the middle of the darkest days these disciples had known Jesus comes and offers them peace. Peace comes not on the other side of fear and trauma, grief and shame, but right there, right in the very middle of it. “Peace be with you,” says Jesus. “Peace be with you.”
Jesus then goes on, almost in the very same breath to shake the disciples from their paralyzing fear and send them forth. “Peace be with you. As God has sent me, so now I send you.” It was their commissioning to go out and be the peace and be the love and be the justice for the world. In the midst of the disciples’ fear and grief they are sent forth. No time to dwell in pain…there is work to be done.
But Christ does not send the disciples out into the broken world empty handed. Even as the women and men are commissioned, Christ breathes upon and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit. In this breath we notice the echo of Genesis and God's breathing life into all creation. Here in Easter, as in the beginning, we are re-created through resurrection.
Having breathed new life upon the disciples, Jesus commissions them to be Christ for the world. In empowering them with the authority to forgive sins, Jesus in essence is handing down to the disciples the powers of the kin-dom., the very power to be Christ for the world.
This is no He-Man-I-have-the-power-messiah. Here, Jesus is passing along the powers of the kin-dom to be shared among disciples. This is not a god who hoards power, but a God who gives away power time and time again. The power and spirit and presence of the Christ is now handed down to the living, breathing body that is the disciples, the nascent, emerging church. Christ’s presence can no longer be found in the death-laden, decaying flesh and bone body of Jesus of Nazareth. It has been resurrected and dwells here on earth, in the lives and concrete actions of those who seek to follow.
It is the Holy Spirit, this real presence of love, joy and peace that Christ gives to the disciples then and now. The message is clear. “As God has sent me, now I send you.” We cannot keep the Spirit to ourselves. We are gifted with it for the sake of others. God gives the church the spiritual gift of resurrection life so that the church will bring it to bear on the world. This is no personal Jesus kind of religion. This is a radical redistribution of divine power handed over to those who would allow the power of the Holy Spirit to move in and through them.
So, when we read this passage and only focus on Thomas, I think we miss it. Thomas is not there to make us feel bad about our own doubts. Thomas is there as a foil, to help us understand there is no need to see the wounded body to believe. Rather we are called to see, to know, the resurrected body which is no longer shut up in some stuffy closet of fear 2000 years ago, but here among us, living, and moving and breathing right now.
If it's true that we are indeed recreated through Christ's resurrection, then we confess that Easter does not happen just one morning but every morning of our lives. In moments both small and large we witness resurrection life all around us and testify to the living presence of the Christ in us: Christ’s body on earth.
The problem is in order to be the presence of the Christ we have to first allow the presence and peace of the Holy Spirit to permeate our lives. Theologian and pastor William Sloane Coffin, once said: "As I see it, the primary religious task these days is to try to think straight...You can't think straight with a heart full of fear, for fear seeks safety, not truth. If your heart's a stone, you can't have decent thoughts – either about personal relations or about international ones. A heart full of love, on the other hand, has a limbering effect on the mind."
In order to claim the love, joy and peace of the resurrection promise, we have to risk letting go of all the fear, resentment, disappointment and grief we hold on to. We must venture outside the safety of our own blanket of fears to experience the peace of Christ waiting to enfold us. It doesn’t mean that all that fear and baggage will magically disappear. Remember, Easter joy comes right up into the middle of disappointment and despair. No, it will not magically go away, but it will become easier to bear.
Kate Huey summarizes it best: "Whenever we're afraid and hiding out, all locked up, God comes to us in the midst of our fear and says, "Peace be with you." Whatever doubts churn in our minds, whatever troubles our consciences, whatever pain and worry bind us up, whatever walls we have put up or doors we have locked securely, God comes to us and says, "Peace be with you." No matter what hunger and need we feel deep in our souls, God calls us to the table, feeds us well, and sends us out into the world to be justice and peace, salt and light, hope for the world. We can do it, if we keep our eyes open, our minds limber, and our hearts soft and willing to love. "
Gifted with the power of the Holy Spirit, we are Christ for the world. As God sent Jesus, God sends us, this day.