A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A – Easter 2 – John 20:19-31
Later that same day! (That’s how our reading from John 20 began today.)
It’s evening on the first Easter Sunday – and “the disciples” – maybe 10, probably more, maybe all of Jesus’ followers – are hiding in a locked room for fear of the authorities.
They’re afraid about what they should do, where should they go, how should they live.
They’d put all they had into following Jesus and now they’re afraid that it was all for nothing.
They’re broken, disheartened, miserable, defeated, scared, defensive, and their dream is dead.
Put yourself in the story as John’s gospel tells it. They must be an absolute mess.
On Thursday they were having dinner together, by the next night their friend and leader – whom they’d given up everything for – was captured, tried, convicted, and was executed in the most brutal manner imaginable – crucifixion.
And on Saturday, the Sabbath, God’s day, yesterday, all they could do was sit in sadness and grief – hurt, lost, defeated.
And then that very morning – just 12 hours before – Peter and John stood in the empty tomb and Mary says she actually talked to Jesus.
How does your brain wrap itself around all that?
Can you imagine how they spent that Sunday? 12 hours of wondering what happened to his body? “Is Mary crazy? Might he actually be alive? But we watched him die?!”
And then, right there in the middle of that locked room, Jesus – their dead friend – suddenly appears out of nowhere – right before their eyes.
Was there a sound? Angels singing? The Hallelujah Chorus ringing out?
A huge whoosh and flash of lightning and smoke like in the movies?
A bright light maybe?
Whatever it was, picture the disciples in that room – one’s screaming his head off – another’s eyes are bulging out of their sockets – 2 over there start babbling like fools – that one’s legs have just given out – and very likely, more than a few fainted.
And Jesus says “Shalom – Peace be with you”.
A dead guy appears in the middle of a locked room – peace is the last thing I’m thinking of.
But it’s not some dead guy – it’s not a ghost – it’s the Risen Christ!
And peace he does bring – and they stop screaming and babbling, they wake up, stand up, put their eyes back in and they ARE at peace.
Then he shows them his wounds, just so they’ll know it’s really Jesus – and they are overjoyed.
“Jesus isn’t dead! He’s alive. He’s been raised up. But how? I don’t even care, I just know that he’s standing right here in front of us. This is wondrous!”
(John 20:21-23) Again Jesus said, “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.”
It’s sad that we can’t hear that “breathed on them” part today and not cringe! Nobody oughtta be breathing on anybody these days! But let’s set that aside and hear it for what it really means.
Jesus says for a second time, “Shalom. This is Peace. My peace I give you. Receive the Holy Spirit. I’m sending you like Abba sent me. Teach what I have taught you – live the Way I lived – love the Way I loved – accept people for who they are – let them know that God loves them and that whatever they think stands between them and God is only a barrier for them – it’s already forgiven – invite them to turn back to God and embrace a deeper, fuller, truer love than they have ever known – the only thing that stands between God’s love and them is them. Peace be with you. I am with you! Go and live – Go and love!”
At least that’s how I imagine it went.
I can’t say exactly how it all went down, but somehow in that upper room they experienced Jesus coming back and breathing the Holy Spirit upon his followers – and they were commissioned – given the authority to be Christ for others. They were breathed upon – they were brought back to life – they were resurrected!
Like in the story of Ezekiel and the dry bones where the Holy Spirit of God is breathed into a field full of dead, dry bones – the metaphorical people of Israel – and God’s spirit brings them back to life – to new life.
I wonder – did Jesus just disappear or did he hang around and chat?
If he stayed, what do you think they talked about?
And if he disappeared, what do you think the disciples said next?
Imagine the scene. You’ve just had a supernatural encounter with a guy you saw die 2 days ago, and now he’s commissioning you and breathing new life and the Holy Spirit into you.
How long did they just sit there and stare at each other trying to take it all in?
Peace be with you indeed!
It also doesn’t say what happened in the intervening week.
Can you imagine them walking around town? – faces lit up, eyes dancing, fist bumps and high fives, smiling with a goofy grin even though their friend and leader had just been tortured and executed. The people around them must have thought they’d gone mad.
Do you think anybody asked them, “Hey you, your buddy Jesus just died and here you are all giddy and joyful? What’s up with that?”
How would they answer?
Would they tell the truth?
Remember they’re still in danger from the authorities – could they tell the truth?
Would anyone believe them?
Even poor Thomas, one of the 12, didn’t know what to make of it.
You see, for some reason Thomas wasn’t there that Easter evening. Nobody knows why, but he wasn’t present in that upper room and he didn’t see the Risen Christ with his own eyes.
Thomas wasn’t among the eyewitnesses.
Thomas comes later.
Into the mouth of Thomas we get to put all of our own questions and doubts – because we weren’t there either.
We came later too.
“Unless I see the holes the nails made, and put my finger in them and my hand in his side, I’ll never believe.”
Where’d Jesus’ body go anyway?
How’d he get into that locked room?
If his physical body was raised how come it could just appear?
Is he a spirit, a ghost?
Or is he a re-animated body – or a zombie – or is he something else entirely?
Dead people don’t walk around. And they certainly don’t talk and breathe on people.
And what about this Way that Jesus is sending us out in? Living like he lived got him killed.
Is that what Jesus wants from me?
Do you know what?
I don’t have the answers to those questions.
I have no idea what happened to Jesus’ body.
I cannot scientifically prove the Resurrection happened.
But I know that it did.
If you’re a person who has great difficulty with this as a historical story, consider this: I don’t know how it worked, but I know this – after Jesus died those defeated, dejected, dead disciples came to life in ways that cannot be logically explained.
Something transformed them – something gave them strength, and courage, and conviction, and purpose.
Was it a mass hallucination?
Did they only see what they wanted to see?
If so, don’t you think they would have concocted a better, more believable story?
Don’t you think a made up version would have had followers enjoying the good life instead of preaching light into a world of darkness that ended up getting most of them killed too?
No, it wasn’t made up. This is no fairy tale.
I doubt it happened word for word like it’s recorded in the gospels but there can be absolutely no denying that those disciples were transformed from desolation to rejoicing – from fear to conviction – from death to life.
They experienced the resurrected Christ, and it resurrected them! Somehow.
Thomas saw the change too.
Think about what it must’ve been like for him. All his friends have gone through a radical transformation. Thomas has just spent the week after his friend Jesus died listening to his other friends saying “No, he’s really alive”. Thomas has been listening to this crazy talk – this improbable story – for a week.
And then, a week after Easter, it happened again – and Thomas was there this time. In that special room – that holy ground – that sacred space where the followers of Jesus, the believers in the Resurrection of Jesus had gathered together – he appeared again. Where the faithful gather the Spirit of Christ is present – and this time, so was Thomas (and so are you!).
“Shalom”, says Jesus. Now it’s Thomas’ turn to be awestruck.
The other disciples must have been standing around grinning going, “See, we told you!”
If you read the text carefully, contrary to the famous painting by Caravaggio (and in keeping with current physical distancing rules), Thomas doesn’t actually touch Jesus. Just to experience Jesus’ presence was enough.
I think Thomas gets a bum rap for being a doubter. He didn’t really demand any more “proof” than any of the other disciples got – and what’s more, Thomas does something they didn’t do – he was the one who made the great confession of faith “My Lord and my God”.
Actually, Thomas kind of had an advantage!
He had heard the story the disciples had been sharing, was gathered in spirit with a group of committed believers, and had an experience of the Risen Christ.
And Jesus replies – “You believe because you have seen me. Those who can believe without having to see are the ones to be congratulated.”
To “see” without having to see!
Or in another, more familiar translation – “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” [John 20:29]
Unpacking that one line is a whole sermon in itself.
For now, I’m going to make a bold suggestion that I don’t have time to support or defend – but one that I believe is truth.
This verse in John’s gospel – “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” – was not recorded as actual dialogue from Jesus – it was written onto Jesus’ lips as a message to us.
To the Thomases – the ones who weren’t there but came later.
You see, at the first Easter there wasn’t anyone else except the disciples who believed – so “those who have not seen and yet have believed” didn’t exist yet.
Only the seers were believers at that point.
The “not seers” – people like the community that John’s gospel was written for 60 years later – people like us – would have to come to faith without eyewitness experience.
Those who were about to hear this amazing, incredible story would have to make a leap of faith in order to believe.
Ok, here it is.
Look at the conditions under which Thomas – the one who came later – came to believe.
He was with a group of transformed believers, in a holy space, primed by rumours and stories, wanting to believe in the possibility of something so great but unable to get over his skepticism.
It took an “encounter” with the Presence of the Risen Christ in order for him to believe.
Believing doesn’t mean convincing yourself to accept something impossible – believing means to embrace something unprovable – a truth that defies simple explanation.
Prove to me that love exists.
Prove to me that you love your partner, or your children, or your best friend.
You can’t. It is unprovable.
But it’s also undeniable.
It’s something you have to experience for yourself in order to really understand. Just like God.
No, we can’t have an eyewitness experience but many, many Christians – myself included, and probably lots of you – have had powerful experiences of “seeing” or “talking to” or “encountering” Jesus – and those experiences are as real as our sitting here today.
In some ways we “experience” the Risen Christ every time we call on his name in prayer, and seek to follow his Way. You didn’t have to live 2000 years ago to know and love Jesus.
No, we weren’t there.
We came later. We come today.
And we are offered the same living hope, the same breath of life today that the disciples received in that locked room on Easter evening.
Three things happened to the disciples those two Sundays when they first had their encounters with the Spirit of the Risen Christ –
Jesus said “Shalom – Peace be with you” – and they stopped being afraid and found courage and faith.
Jesus said “Shalom” – and they received the Holy Spirit, were brought back to life and were sent out to be Christ in the world – to live in the Way – compassion, acceptance, love, grace.
Jesus said “Shalom” – and they trusted in God, and believed, and confessed their faith “My Lord and my God.”
So now, here, gathered together as transformed believers, in our sacred spaces, primed by rumours and stories, and wanting to believe in the possibility of something so great but perhaps unable to get over our own doubts and skepticism, I say to you:
Shalom my friends – do not be afraid for God will always be with you.
Shalom my friends – breathe in the Holy Spirit and live out the Way of Jesus.
Shalom my friends – trust in God, and believe in love, and rejoice.
You are resurrected!
You have new life!
Peace be with you!