John 20:19–31 (NRSV)
Jesus Appears to the Disciples
(Lk 24:36–43; 1 Cor 15:5)
19 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.” 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.”
Jesus and Thomas
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.”
The Purpose of This Book
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 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.
Last week we celebrated the resurrection of our Lord and King from the dead. We contemplated the question, “what if we actually believed in the resurrection and if so how that would affect the way we live.” I gave us a couple of options to consider, do we kneel before an empty tomb caught somewhere between forgiveness of sins and life, or do we live as conquerors with Christ in his kingdom? I want us to consider this again as we reflect on this passage.
I find these questions difficult to answer even though my professional status within our community is as a spiritual leader. Because I know in my mind that that tomb is empty and it is empty for a reason, yet this happened so long ago. Could we possibly be following some invention of man? Yes, I doubt at times. Doubt is an important part of our faith because doubt should drive us to seek answers. It is only when we dwell in the doubt allow the doubt to consume us where we have trouble. Every single one of Jesus’ disciples doubted. Peter and the disciple that Jesus loved, who we assume to be John though he humbly does not name himself as that disciple, both saw the empty tomb and they went back to the house wondering. They saw the grave cloths that once covered their lord. They knew the ones that wrapped their beloved teacher in those cloths, it might be that those very men were in that very same house and they asked them for a testimony. They sit confused and in doubt. They believe in an empty tomb yet that does not comfort them. They sit there behind locked doors worried that the darkness all around them will take what little hope they have away. They kneel at the empty tomb caught somewhere between, in limbo, a very real purgatory a place between heaven and hell.
The knowledge of an empty tomb does not move them to action. It just adds to their fears, will they have to give an account to the temple official as to why that tomb is barren? If so they face very real problems and they have absolutely no answers. As every moment passes the doubts rise, the fears mount, they remember the teachers of Jesus yet they do little to comfort them because they saw him die and now they do not even have a body to point to as the source of the teaching. The words spoken by their teacher are as seeming empty as the very tomb Peter and John left Mary at.
Mary has a very different experience. She came back with some crazy tale in their eyes. They left her weeping at the tomb, they left her there without an escort weeping, and she returned to the house after going throughout the city excitedly telling everyone that would listen that Jesus was alive that he had spoken to her just outside of the tomb. Peter and John are both contemplating how big of jerks they were for leaving her and wondering if the grief had broken this woman. They allow the knowledge of her past to reenter their minds, she was a woman of great sin…she was once possessed by demons…could they have returned? They sat there looking at her, everyone else was crying and here she was sitting there telling them he was alive, and reminding them of His teachings.
Their teacher is dead, the tomb is empty, they have a friend that had a questionable background that is raving like a lunatic and we wonder why they were sitting with the doors locked. They are bound, they so want to believe but the story just seems so supernatural that they cannot even begin. “Remember that day at my brother’s funeral,” Mary says, “Jesus told us that He was the resurrection and the life, remember that Martha, and what did Jesus do just after he wept with us? He stood at the mouth of the tomb telling Lazarus to wake up. Remember? Look over there! Look at my brother, he was in the tomb for four days and Jesus called him out. He was dead. Martha and I both helped prepare the body, and you were all there and witnessed our grief.” She continued to talk and everyone nodded with agreement, but it was one thing for a living man to call life back into the dead and quite another for a dead man to raise himself.
For hours this had continued. Mary went to the tomb before the sun rose, now it is evening, for an entire day they had sat there with the knowledge of an empty tomb and the fear continued to mount. They sat, stood, paced, they checked the doors again and again, and they jumped at imagined sounds because they knew that the darkness was going to overcome what little hope remained. Suddenly, a voice startled them all. Right there in the center of the room a man tells them, “Peace be with you.” A man that was not there just a moment before, they just checked the doors, they were secure yet a man got in, then they look at him. He lifts up his hands. They see the marks, the marks where nails once occupied. Those mark hands slowly move to his side and they each stare in amazement as the wound from the spear is revealed to them and they all fall to their knees. Again the man says, “Peace be with you.”
They rejoice! Mary is right This Is Jesus! The tomb is empty and there is life. He has risen. He laughs and jokes with them and then he says, “As the Father has sent me so I send you.” The laughing stops. Confusion again settles in. And Jesus walks around to each of them embracing them, and breathes on them. Each one present feels the breath on their face, they breathe in as Jesus exhales before them. Their minds race back to the very dawn of time and they remember the story of their first father and the breath of life that God gave them, they remember the story of the fall, the separation from God that their fall from grace ushered in, and the death that resulted from it. Jesus with his nail scared hands gently touched them brought his face close to theirs and breathed. This is not the breath of a phantom, there is warmth in the embrace and humidity in the air that is hitting their faces. Death no longer held this man, the curse of Adam did not hold him. Life now occupies the body that was once dead, buried and sealed behind a stone. Life is being breathed back onto the ones that were caught somewhere in between. “Receive the Holy Spirit.” He says to them.
Do we get a glimpse into this passage? Do we see the power of the words? In the beginning God breathed life into the clay formation of Adam and he lived. Adam and Eve our first parents once walked with God in the Garden of Eden, the very Garden where the Tree of life and the tree of knowledge stood. The garden was the kingdom it was the place God lived in communion and love, it was the very place that He created to bring pleasure to himself, an outpouring of the great love and joy that flowed from His very being. In that place He created life, and that life was transmitted through breath.
Then sin entered the Garden because mankind sought to take for themselves the gift of knowledge. They looked at the fruit and saw that it was good, they reached out and took what was not given, and suddenly everything changed. What was once living became death. There were two trees one knowledge and one life. They took knowledge, they ate of Sophia and could not handle it. One could say that this is an image of the Trinity. Where humanity tried to harness the power of the Spirit of God, or wisdom without that being given. We were not ready and be in the presence of the raw spirit kills. Consider the first born of Egypt during the plagues, consider those that happened to touch the Ark in ancient Israel, consider the tongue of Zachariah when he questioned God. The Spirit of God is wild it is only tamed and reigned by God himself it is not something to be mastered by man. They ate the fruit and set forth a dangerous chain reaction. They sought knowledge but did not have wisdom. Without wisdom death enters. The affects are still felt today. Read any scientific journal or health magazine, a generation ago they said one thing was healthy and in the next that very thing causes death. A multitude of people took believed in the knowledge of man and as a result they face agony.
But Jesus breathed on them, and says receive the spirit. Receive what was once stolen. Be restored. For in the body of Jesus the Spirit of God was tamed and through Him life returns, creation is redeemed, and reconciled.
Receive, this word is one of deep meaning. Its usage can mean: Take hold of, grasp, obtain, benefit, collect, select, believe, experience, cause to experience, put on, and do. Those very things was the things we as humans try to do through our own efforts, and Jesus breathed on the disciples and told them, “if you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven, if you retain the sins of any they are retained.” What is he saying? Though humanity tried to take what was given, I have restored it and have tamed it so that humanity can experience it. We tried to steal the spirit and it brought death, and Jesus tamed the spirit so that those of us in Him can then use that spirit to restore. This is a very powerful essence we wield. It can bring death or life. It can restore or destroy. I failed to mention one possible meaning of the word we translate as receive and that is to exploit.
Exploit. This is the knowledge of man. The use of knowledge to rule over others. The misuse of knowledge to gain what is not ours or to control what is not ours to control. Forgive or retain, exploit or experience. Kneeling at an empty tomb or feeling the breath of life. Do you believe in the resurrection and if so how does it affect your life? Jesus stood there among his disciples in a room that was locked out of fear, he said to them peace be with you, he embraced them and breathed on them and then challenged them. Will you join him? Will you believe in the resurrection or just look into an empty tomb. Will you receive and pass on the gifts of grace or exploit? Will we live lives that will encourage others to take steps toward God or will we bar the gates of heaven? Will we be a people loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others? That choice lies in each of our hearts and in the collective of our community. But this experience in the room changed everything about the disciples. They once stayed behind locked door out of fear and then they ventured out. And their testimony remains with us even to this day and just as Jesus breathed on them they breath on us and say “Peace, receive, and believe.”