The Holy Gospel according to John.
Jesus Appears to the Disciples
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.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Jesus and Thomas
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 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.” 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.” 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.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 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
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 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 gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
When you hear the word “church,” what picture comes to your mind? Just close your eyes and think “church?” What did you see?
- A large neo-gothic cathedral?
- A picture-perfect white frame building with arched windows and a high steeple?
- An upside down ark like you’re sitting in now?
- Perhaps a sturdy brick building with a bell tower?
- Maybe something more modern; with soaring glass walls and sharp angles vaulting toward the sky?
- Maybe a community gathered around Word and Sacrament, sitting in folding chairs in a rented room used for something else most of the time?
- Perhaps a stage with people playing drums and guitars and people with closed eyes and upraised arms singing words of praise?
What do you see when you hear the word church? More on that question in a minute but let’s take a look at our readings.
I love the contrary nature of Scripture. By that, I mean the way that it seems to do exactly what its “enemies” don’t want it to do, which is spread.
The high priest of Israel—a man whose heart was firmly fixed in what he was sure was a defense of the faith of his fathers—tells Peter and the gang that they MUST NOT preach in the name of Jesus anymore. Of course, they do…
And then we get the wonderfully evocative phrase, “you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.” These unlearned fishermen and assorted backward Galileans have overtaken, in the opinion of Caiaphas, the sophisticated imaginations of the faithful of every people.
A fabulous text, only one week removed from Easter triumph. Feel the intensity of John’s, “Look!” Despite the enormity of the resurrection event just past the Lord is not finished yet. There is still more to come. The Living Christ, soon to be ascended, is also the Returning Lord who will place the appropriate bookend to all of God’s saving activity all through time as the Alpha and Omega.
Thomas is just being honest. He says what pretty much all of the rest of us would have said, had we been in his sandals.
- “I won’t believe it until I can see it.”
- “You know you can’t believe everything you hear.”
- “Well slap me silly and call me George!”
Okay, that last one is probably pushing it a little bit…but, you get the idea!
Nobody was expecting to see Jesus as anything other than dead. Even a whole week later—and after actually laying their eyeballs upon the Risen Lord—all the other disciples were still quaking in their boots (notice the locked doors.)
So, Thomas may well be forgiven for his healthy dose of skepticism. Yet even he needs no evidence that demands a verdict when he comes face to face with Christ. The response of faith is there, “My Lord and my God!”
Now back to the question about what you think of when you hear church…
I’d almost be willing to bet none you saw fifteen or twenty scared and lonely people, huddled behind closed and locked doors, whispering among themselves, jumping out of their skins at every noise from the outside. Whatever our image of church is, it usually doesn’t include locked doors and frightened people. Yet that is the picture John paints of the very first church.
First Church, Jerusalem: gathered together on that first Sunday after Jesus’ death; huddled and hiding, trembling and terrified, lonely and loveless. They’re not much of a church; no organ, no pews, no pulpit, no stained-glass windows, no joy, no praise, no word, no sacrament. Nothing but a room to meet in and memories to talk about.
- “What was it he said at Supper the other night? Something about the bread being his body and the wine his blood? Peter, what did he mean by that?”
- “Did you hear what Mary Magdalene and the other women said? They said they went to the tomb this morning and Jesus’ body was missing, the stone was rolled away and the body was missing. And Mary Magdalene said she saw the Lord?”
- “Well, sure, did anybody check her breath to see what she’d been drinking? She saw Jesus alive this morning? Right!
And so on. They talked, they fretted; they worried themselves sick about what it all meant and what the Roman soldiers or the Chief Priests might be up to. And maybe, just maybe, somebody in the room was praying, but it’s not likely. Doesn’t sound like much of a church does it?
Preaching professor Tom Long says they are a picture of the church at its worst, “scarred and scared, disheartened and defensive.” Long wonders what sort of advertisement might this church put in the local paper to attract members?
- THE FRIENDLY CHURCH WHERE ALL ARE WELCOME? Hardly. Locked doors are not a sign of hospitality.
- THE CHURCH WITH A WARM HEART AND A BOLD MISSION? Forget it. This is the church of sweaty palms and shaky knees and a firmly bolted front door.
Here is a church that has almost nothing going for it, has practically no claim to being church except….except that when they gathered, the Risen Christ pushed through the locked door and stood among them. That is what turned that little group of scarred and scared people into the church. It wasn’t anything they did or didn’t do, it wasn’t anything they said or didn’t say—it was the Presence of the Risen Christ in the room.
Church happens when the gathered community pays attention to the presence of the Risen Christ in the room. And, when that presence is ignored, nothing of any consequence can or does happen. It was the disciples’ awareness of and attention to the presence of the Risen Christ that made the difference then; and it is our awareness of and attention to the Presence of the Risen Christ that makes the difference now.
Jesus comes to us today, Jesus comes to us showing us his love for us by showing us the wounds he has suffered on our behalf. Jesus comes to us offering us peace and the fiery breath of the Holy Spirit. Jesus comes to us, to tell us, “I love you and I have great plans for you!”
Look around and pay attention! The Risen Christ is in the room!
Not unlike the early disciples, we gather each week to hear scripture and to encounter Jesus in bread and wine. In our gathering we are strengthened for the journey by sharing the stories of our common faith. Yet even though our faith is held in common, it finds unique expression in each one of us. Not only is it unique, faith is an organic sort of thing; we don’t control it, we don’t manage it, we experience it. Our faith is not a static thing either. It swells and flows like the ocean tide. In the “Introduction to the book of Romans” in his German Bible of 1522, Martin Luther said: “Instead, faith is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God. (John 1:13). It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith.”
This notion of faith as gift is what makes this particular passage from John’s gospel so meaningful for me. It gives me hope and courage to think of that band of confused, bewildered, and frightened disciples locked in that upper room trying to make sense of the shattered remains of their movement. Things had certainly not gone as they had expected. Their faces were long, and their hopes were short. And then, just when things were really looking awful Jesus shows up right in their midst proclaiming peace and bestowing the breath of the Spirit on them. Talk about an instant infusion of hope and life!
The good news is that Jesus is still meeting us today at the point of our greatest need, even when we don’t realize it. Jesus comes to us in the waters of Holy Baptism, bestowing on us that same gift of the Holy Spirit that he gave to his early disciples. From the moment we encounter that water, word, and wind we are reborn, and a lifelong work of change is ignited in us.
We may walk for years in a state of doubt, disbelief, or discouragement, but that Spirit is still at work within us kindling faith, instilling peace, and dispensing mercy and grace.
Like Thomas, many of us have our “My Lord and my God” moment when we least expect it. It may not happen like a bolt of lightning in a rainstorm like Luther, and we may not be blinded by the light of Christ (as Paul was), but we may suddenly find ourselves drawn into a deeper relationship with God and a community of faith. We may encounter God in relationship with a modern day disciple. We may see Jesus in the face of a stranger. The point is this: God is active in the world, Jesus continues to be revealed, the winds of the Spirit still blow, and that is very good news indeed.
- This is why, dear friends, we will continue to gather no matter what the world throws our way.
- This is why we tell the stories of faith again and again and again.
- This is why we must make a place at the table for all people–those who doubt and those who don’t.
For it is in the sacred space of community and relationship that we may come to believe, and believing we may indeed experience life as God intends. May peace be with you this week and always–in the name of Christ.