Last week we celebrated the great feast day of Easter, when the highlight of the story is Jesus’ resurrection. This week our readings look at some of the witnesses to that resurrection, and their reactions too.
Our Gospel reading tells us simply that Jesus came and stood among the disciples, saying Peace be with you. He appeared even though the door was locked! This is a clue to the nature of his resurrection body – there is something different about it. It is not the same as his earthly body. And yet he was still physical, still made of flesh. He showed the disciples the wounds in his hands and side, establishing that it really was he that stood with them. Unfortunately Thomas wasn’t there, and had trouble believing the story that the disciples so excitedly related to him. Let’s wind the clock back a couple of weeks where we met Thomas before, in the story of Lazarus. You may remember that it was Thomas who urged Jesus and the disciples to go to Lazarus, even though Jesus had just told them that he had already died. Thomas believed that Jesus could raise Lazarus from the dead, at that point.
Something happened to Thomas’ faith between that incident and Jesus’ resurrection. Something caused him to doubt in the reality of Jesus, who he is, that he could defeat death and live again. Watching his Lord be crucified was the likely culprit. Things happen to us too, that cause us to doubt.But Jesus doesn’t get cross with Thomas, or call him ‘Ye of little faith’. He simply turns up again, this time when Thomas is there, and offers him the chance to touch his wounds for himself.
And this is a pattern for us. If there are times when we may be doubting God, wondering how it can all be real, especially when there is pain and trouble in our lives, we can be reminded of Thomas. He doubted, and has an eternal nickname because of it. But he was not rejected. He was lovingly invited to see for himself. To test the evidence. We have a God who understands us, who understands our flesh and our logical minds. We too can ask God for proof, and know that we will not be any less loved because of it. Maybe Thomas should be known as Thomas the enquirer, or Thomas the learner, or even Thomas the scientist. His need for answers fits well into our world.Jesus has a comment for Thomas however, that those who believe even though they have not seen him are truly blessed.That’s us isn’t it? We cannot see Jesus in the flesh – that is, not unless his second coming is in our lifetime. We have to have faith and trust, we have to believe the accounts of other people, written down two thousand years ago.
This comment of Jesus points to the spread of the Gospel, of faith in Him. Last week’s readings showed a movement towards women and Gentiles – people who were not regarded with the same status as Jewish males. This comment of Jesus takes us into the future, and ensures that the disciples know that the Truth of God is indeed for everyone. There is no hierarchy of importance with those who actually met Jesus being the only ones allowed to lead his group of followers, even though their witness has been hugely important in telling us what and who happened.
How can the disciples be inspired to take this message out from their locked room, to the world? What sort of confidence led Peter, the emotional, inarticulate fisherman, to stand up in the marketplace and preach the word of God with such eloquence that thousands believed when they heard him? Many people travelled to Jerusalem, from all over the world, for the feast of Pentecost. they were not looking or a new faith, but what they discovered was the fulfilment of their faith. They learnt that Jesus was indeed the Messiah they had waited for.
To find the source of this power, let’s look again at the reading from John. Jesus breathed on the disciples, and said, receive the Holy Spirit. Here we see his human, breathing body, and his divine, spirit nature, combined, to give the power that they needed to the disciples. No longer did they need to rely on their own talents and abilities solely. Now the spirit of God was with them, enabling them to do whatever they were called to do.Controversially, Jesus gives them the power to forgive. Verse 23 -‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
Traditionally, only priests could forgive. Our Anglican services continue in this tradition – you may have noticed a difference in the wording of our confession and absolution today, from when Cath gave the absolution last week. This is because I am a deacon, not a priest. I have not been ordained for this purpose. When I received the Holy Spirit at my ordination, the church’s tradition limits the permission it gives me so that I may not absolve you from your sins.This is just in a liturgical context however.
We all know the power of forgiveness. If we forgive someone, they are forgiven. We don’t need to be anyone with a special collar, or letters before or after our name. If we have received the Holy Spirit – and I know that it has transformed many of your lives – we can all forgive.
Last week on the news there was a case where a policeman who had shot and killed a young man in the line of duty had received permanent name suppression. The victim’s grandmother had an interesting comment- ‘I would just like to see who I’m supposed to forgive’. She wanted to be free of holding this crime against the policeman, she wanted to forgive him. Of course, God knows who he is, but for her own peace of mind she needed to see him.
When we forgive someone, we are set free. Yes, they are too, but it is for the impact on us that it is so important. If we don‘t forgive, we hold grudges that can lead to sin, to illness, to a terrible life, and often for many generations. Forgiveness leads to freedom, and this is the first gift that Jesus gave to his disciples with his breathed-out Holy Spirit.
This is the living hope that Peter, or more likely one of his followers, talks about in his letter. If we untangle the first sentence, which is very long, there are several key points: First,God has given us a new birth into hope, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Second, we shall receive an imperishable inheritance, kept safe for us in heaven.
Third, God is protecting us because of our faith in this salvation, which we can hold onto, even if we are still in the midst of trials in our life.
The letter of Peter finishes with the same idea that Jesus expressed to Thomas: Although we have not seen him, we love him. We believe in him, and we rejoice that we are receiving the outcome of our faith, that is, salvation of our souls.Today, may you rejoice that Jesus has risen from the dead, that we can share his resurrection with him, and that even if we doubt, God will lovingly reward our faith with salvation.