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.
The greatest thing about the Easter season is that it is constantly filled with hope. As Friends, we do not often participate with the other churches in the liturgical calendar, but prior to Easter is the season of Lent. During this season, many will fast. I usually will fast from something personally, I do not often share what I fast from because it does not matter to you because it is something I do for my own spiritual enrichment. Last year I took a fast from Dr. Pepper, I never thought a fast would be so hard. This year I tried something different, and I tried to fast from meat one meal a day. Why do I do this even when I do not have to, it reminds me that I fail so often. When I was fasting from Dr. Pepper I found that every stressful situation I craved that bubbly bliss. I craved a substance instead of Christ. This year I must admit that the fast did not go too well. I started off strong, I ate salads during lunch at work I was starting to feel healthy and then we started getting ready for inventory at work. As the stress increased I began to choose comfort foods instead of something healthy. The day was getting stressful so I would get a pint of ice cream instead of hummus. What started off as a fast for health became a binge of junk, but for the most part I did hold to the fast from meat. Then we started getting busier as the holiday approached, what should have been a greater anticipation of the hope found in Christ, I instead found myself desiring more unhealthy foods. So, I quit my fast. I gave up because the fast was not directing me closer to God instead I was allowing the stress of the world to overcome and my way of coping was doing the opposite of what I anticipated.
I mention this because I imagine this is how the disciples of Jesus felt during the days following Jesus’ crucifixion. They had just spent the previous three years following their teacher around listening to every word he had to say and witnessing the most amazing ministry they had ever heard about. Then Jesus was arrested and he did not respond in a way that they had hoped. I am sure they expected Jesus to make some sort of rebellious move to throw off the chains of Rome and bring in the anticipated Kingdom of Israel. I believe this is the way they thought because Peter took out the sword as the guards approached and sliced off the ear of one of them only to be told by Jesus to put it away as he reattached the man’s ear and willingly went with them to face his trial and death.
They did not understand, they were filled with fear and became disoriented so they locked themselves in a room only to have the women among them to continue walking by faith. The remaining disciples wanted to live for God, but they did not know how anymore.
I get it. I understand just how they might have felt because I have tried to live that life on my own. That is the thing though I tried to live it on my own. So often we try to live for God trusting only on our own abilities only to be caught up in the stresses of the world. Like Mary in last week’s passage, we can get so wrapped up we do not even recognize that God is showing us fascinating and miraculous acts. We get distracted and we find something to help us cope. I gravitate toward Dr. Pepper and ice cream, the disciples just locked a door. They were afraid. They were afraid of the religious leaders, they were afraid of the Roman soldiers, they were afraid that they wasted their lives and that all their hope was lost so they locked the door trying to keep the world outside while they safely remained where they were. And Jesus met them there.
Imagine if you were there that day. Sitting in a room safely locked behind a door and suddenly your teacher is standing right there with you. None of you moved, no one was even near the door to unlock it and here he is. You had just calmed Mary down trying to convince her that she was just seeing things because of the immense amount of stress that you have all been experiencing. But now you are not quite sure you gave good council because your eyes are seeing things that should not be. You look over to Peter and you notice his jaw is agape. You look at John thinking surely one of them would show some indication that your mind is not playing a sick trick, but he too is staring in the direction you were staring just a moment before. Everyone in the room is looking the same direction so you close your eyes and turn again to look. Then He speaks, “Peace be with you,” and he begins to show you the wounds that He obtained a few days earlier. You still do not know what to think.
He speaks again saying the same blessing but adding, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And he walks over and breathes on each one of you. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” He continues, which causes your mind to race all the way back to the beginning of time. Adam was just a lifeless form of clay until the breath of God was breathed into his nostrils. Just a moment before you too felt as if you were dead. Your life seemed to be over, you felt as if you failed, your teacher and king had died and was buried, now a mysterious wind from the very same man was being blown over you and you know it is true because you can smell the same scents you had known for the past three years. Then he says something that stupefies you, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.”
Feel the breath, hear the words. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. These disciples know that they too are among the many, the all. What does this mean? The Gospel of John teaches us many things, but the most prominent thing that John tries to tell us is that God loves us. God do not merely like us but God passionately pursues us to the point that He sent His son to bring us to Him. John’s greatest teaching is that God wants to have friendship with us, wants to be with us, to have a relationship with us. Sin, from the perspective of John, is anything that keeps us from that relationship. John says in his writings, “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already because they did not believe in the name of the only son of God.” Condemnation is not a result of moral failings, but of relational failings. Our world is not in chaos because of immorality, we have immorality because our relationships are fractured and through our fractured relationships we seek to ease the pain through immoral means.
Let that sink in for a moment. Why do people become addicted and begin to abuse substances? What is the root of substance abuse? If we were to consider the family history we would find a trend. My sister is a licensed family therapist, and this is one of the things that they are taught to look at during their work. It is a counseling technique called systems theory. Every family is a system that works together and if there is some sort of disorder within the system, it can be seen in the history and will continue to be seen in the future unless the system is encouraged to change. The distress of a family is not caused by one individual and it cannot be remedied unless the entire system or family works together to overcome and change behavior. So, in the case of substance abuse, if you were to look deeper you would see that there is brokenness in the system with each generation. You would see that maybe one event three generations back triggered a change in the relationship within a family that prompted a successive draw to the use of substances to alleviate pain. There are relational scars and fractured relationships.
Even within good families and systems there are fractures. There are events and feelings that have never been resolved. We may not even know what the problem is but through our time within the system we have been reared to act accordingly. There is a story that has gone around mainly within business leadership circles that speaks of a study involving primates. In the supposed study, a basket of bananas on the top of a ladder in the center of a room that was occupied with primates. Whenever one of the animals would go onto the ladder to obtain a banana the entire room would be sprayed with water. Eventually the animals became violent toward any animal that would touch the ladder. And since the animals did not move up the ladder to get bananas water was no longer sprayed. As the study progressed they would systematically remove one animal and replace it with another and when it touched the ladder the other would attack. They continued to replace animals and after all the animals were replaced and not one of the animals in the room had been up the ladder or been sprayed with water, yet none of the animals would touch the ladder even though they knew food was on top. They were conditioned not to go near and none knew why and if any tried they were forcibly deterred. The primates within the system were conditioned to avoid the ladder. This story, and that is all it is because this actual study was never published, is used to warn people of the conditioning that is promoted within mob type rule. I use it for us to consider the concepts of forgiveness or retention. The primates in the study retained and the relationships were hindered and none got the bananas. What if they forgave? What if they could understand that the fact they were sprayed with water might have been that they did not take the whole basket down to share, but they were selfishly keeping the bananas for themselves?
Jesus breathed on them and encouraged the disciples to restore the relationships around them. To look past the personal injuries that might have occurred and to encourage systematic healing within the whole group. That is what forgiveness is. It is not allowing the injury to bind us. By saying I forgive you, I am not saying it is ok that you injured me I am instead saying that I am not going to let the fact that you injured me keep me from doing what God has called me to do.
And we see this within the passage. All the disciples left Jesus on the night of his betrayal, and they eventually came back to this locked room. All but two. One, was Judas who we are told was racked with guilt over his part in the death of Jesus that he threw the money he received at those that tricked him and he hung himself from a tree. The other was the disciple we know as Doubting Thomas. Thomas was not with the others that day in the locked room. He was somewhere else. He had removed himself from the community even though he had been one of the most eager disciples of Jesus. He was the one that told the others let us go and die with Him when Jesus decided to return to Judea to visit Lazarus’ grave even though the religious leaders were seeking to kill their teacher. Yet now that Jesus had been executed Thomas was the first to leave the fold.
When Jesus rose, and visited the others their first act of faith was to restore the relationship with their friend Thomas. They went to him telling him of the amazing things that they witnessed. And Thomas said I will not believe unless I see it myself. But where do we find Thomas a week after the first visit of Jesus? He is with his friends in the room. The broken relationship was not retained but forgiven and Thomas was restored in the community. Then Jesus comes again, this time He seeks Thomas out personally. Jesus knows Thomas and loves him. He knows that Thomas must see the marks must interact with the wounds before he can believe. So, Jesus looks at his friend, His friend that has experienced brokenness and separation within the group because he is the only one who had not seen the resurrected teacher. Jesus seeks Thomas to restore the relationship and Thomas is the first to announce the truth about Jesus saying, “My lord and my God!”
Jesus sent the disciples out to spread the Gospel. He sent them out to continue the work that he had begun. He told Mary not to hang on to Him because his role and her’s along with every other disciples’ was about to change. The students were being sent out to be the teachers and the teacher was going to prepare the place for them. He sent them out to preach the Gospel that the kingdom of God is at hand and that we need to repent or return to God. We do this by believing in the Son who came to save us not to condemn us. Jesus tells us that we need to preach the gospel through our lives, by becoming active participants in the restoration of relationships. By helping others break through the broken systems that are keeping us distracted from the fullness of life God desires for us and bring healing to that brokenness. Paul tells us this in another way, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility regard others better than yourself.” Forgive and restore relationships, stop retaining the brokenness. Stop beating each other up for touching the ladder. Stop climbing the ladder to get a banana for yourself. Climb up and get the basket and share.
Do we believe in the resurrection? Do we believe that Christ can breathe life into us? Do we believe that he came to love us even though we live as broken members of broken systems? Or do we believe that he came to condemn us? Jesus came to give us life. Life in the fullness that He experienced. Life that was lived in communion and community with God and all of creation. What is keeping us from it? Often, we retain the brokenness, we retain it because we think we can overcome it. When the truth is when the heat gets turned on we reach out for ice cream instead of the good life. We seek comfort instead of truth. We seek injury instead of healing. Whatever we forgive will be forgiven and whatever we retain will be retained. We can either let go and move forward or hang on to the past and be left out.
As we enter into this time of open worship and communion as Friends let us challenge ourselves and encourage ourselves to forgive and let go. And let us embrace the hope that we have in Jesus our lord and our God.