Sunday, April 19, 2020

Easter II

John 20
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the religious leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
24 Now Thomas (also known as the twin), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 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.”
26 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!” 27 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.”
28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

To be human is to judge.

Mostly we judge ourselves, but when we set that aside we are generally expert at judging others. It is in our nature. Moments after we left the primordial ooze we started comparing ourselves to others, and along came judgment. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with comparison, because in comparison we improve ourselves, or we improve the elements of the life we share. Innovation, progress, renewed application—all these come when we imagine a better way.

On the shadow side, we judge to make ourselves feel better. Again, comparisons are inevitable, because most people want to do the right thing. When someone is being foolish, we should name it—at the same time acknowledge that we’re far from perfect ourselves.

So I see two problems: The first is that every time a news item says “do this” or “don’t do that,” we lapse into comparisons, yet we fail to remember that ‘this and that’ are constantly changing. The second problem is never knowing the full context, and making comparisons without all the information. My quick example is seeing a couple at the Dollarama wearing N95 masks. For days, we were told that these were for frontline health workers only—but there they were, amid the Easter chocolate, wearing their priceless masks. My internal reaction surprised me, but then I remembered I have no context to judge—I don’t know what struggles they face that would lead them to wear these masks. So I have to try to reserve judgment.

So what about the reading Olivia shared? The first and obvious thing to note is all the judgement implied in the passage. Where was Thomas when Jesus first appeared to the others? Something more important going on? And why does he need all that proof? Can’t he just take their word for it? They are his best friends, after all. And why does he get special treatment? Surely everyone in the group had doubts, or some unique need in the face of these events?

And then there is a whole other layer in the passage. Why were they so fearful of the religious leaders? As far as the Romans and their allies were concerned, the threat had been neutralized. And why does Jesus need to share this homily on forgiveness? What’s that about? You can bet we’ll come back to that question. Then, a week later, the doors are locked again! Jesus was both clear and generous in week one: “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 have the gift of the Holy Spirit, and you have been commissioned by the Risen Christ to reenter the world, what on earth are you doing behind locked doors?

I’m not going to attempt to answer all these questions. But they will be here, resting online, for you to ponder all week. Since this week belongs to Thomas, we should begin there. In preaching class, they taught us to never psychologize Jesus, but the rest of the people in the story are fair game. So Thomas. He is the guy who needs that extra layer of proof, that extra bit of convincing before he can accept the truth. But we don’t know his background. We don’t know what losses he suffered, or his experience of death before this moment. How can we know? And it is for this reason we step back.

Thomas, like the rest of his companions, understood that death was final. “You are dust,” God said, “and to the dust you shall return.” Formed of dust, we are animated by the breath of God. But when that breath leaves us, we die. Thomas and the others understood that the dead were ‘gathered to their people’ (Gen 49) or ‘descend into Sheol’ (Ps 139)—somewhat vague descriptions that do not undermine the static nature of the death. Yes, there were equally vague references to the resurrection of the dead, and there were metaphorical resurrections in the Valley of Dry Bones, but these did not erase the finality of death.*

So this left three options for Thomas: either his friends were wrong, or Jesus was temporarily resuscitated like Lazarus, or resurrection was possible. Taken together, the last option seemed the least likely, since Thomas knew the first two options were very possible, and the last was just a vague hope. So we forgive him his doubt, and we applaud the fact that he immediately stopped his doubting and believed.

The other reason Thomas gets a pass in this story is the general misunderstanding that comes with resurrection. The other disciples were likely feeling all smug and judgy, when it’s obvious that they didn’t believe in resurrection either. The first clue is the locked door, but there is more to it than that. When they describe resurrection to Thomas they do so in the most prosaic way they can: “We have seen the Lord.” And what they do say only highlights their lack of understanding, a lack of understanding based on what they could have said: ‘We have been resurrected by the Lord.”

Consider: like the Valley of Dry Bones, God (in Jesus) has breathed life into them, said “receive the Holy Spirit,” and resurrected them to new life in Christ. They were no longer witnesses to the resurrection, they were resurrected themselves! St. Paul understood, having been resurrected on the Road to Damascus: “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” (Rom 14) Paul had the benefit of high drama, but the disciples would need more convincing. Nevertheless, that day, and for all time, both the living and the dead are resurrected, alive forevermore!

And just when we’re tired out from thinking about those that need proof, and the slow to comprehend, and those who remain behind locked doors, Jesus has a word for us: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

We shelter in place, but the doors of our hearts are not locked. We struggle to understand God’s grace, but it’s still freely given. And we practice forgiveness: for the proof-seekers, the quick-to-judgers, and even ourselves. We are resurrection people, and the resurrection is our own, alive with Christ, now and always, Amen.

*Walter Brueggemann, Reverberations, p. 47.


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