19When 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.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So 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.”
26A 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.” 27Then 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.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But 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.
This season of Easter—of death defying hope—messes with our very human desire for predictability, logic and control. Christ’s resurrection insists that we open ourselves up to mystery and transcendence; that we make room in our grown-up lives for child-like amazement, wonder, curiosity and playfulness. Easter is the circus of faith invading our sleepy dull dust-bowl town of doubt, entertaining us with dazzling feats of grandeur (empty tombs, angels, strange gardeners who can walk through walls) insisting that we too join in the fun—and find our way out of despair into laughter. Easter is more than a spectacle, a carnival, an amusement—it is an earnest truth that provides hope and light, rekindling the flames of faith when it seems all hope is lost.
For me, Easter is above all about God’s infinite forgiveness. The excruciatingly violent public execution of a rabble rousing homeless prophet is not left out of this story—no, it’s all there in painful realism in the first few words of the first sentence. There they are, that motley crew of fisherfolk, tax collectors, imperial sympathizers, would-be zealots, and prostitutes who left homes, jobs and families to wander around with that odd wonder working teacher. There they are, hiding out behind locked doors, sorry leftovers of a clumsy revolution, a literally put-down, dragged-out revolution, fearful for their very lives. Imagine the thoughts racing through their traumatized minds, the painful images of their beloved teacher being humiliated, stripped, beaten, crucified still vivid for some, the second guessing “why did I follow him?,” shame for having run away, guilt for having betrayed him, disturbing questions about an empty tomb and what Mary Magdalene said she saw. Into that dark locked room of failure, intense anxiety and crushing despair, the disciples hear those gentle words from that familiar voice: “Peace be with you.”
I don’t know about you, but what I find just as difficult to believe as the physical bodily resurrection, is Jesus’s forgiveness. The first thing out of Jesus’ mouth isn’t “Where were you people? When I was up there dying?” or “How could you lie about knowing me?” or “Man, that really hurt!” Nor are the first words “Surprise, we won!” No, it’s the simple “Peace be with you” and a commissioning, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And this odd line about reconciliation. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” What the heck does that mean? Sounds a bit Buddhist, a bit Taoist. Jesus breathes on this odd assortment of characters who anyone watching closely would say kind-of-sort-of let Jesus down, and gives them this profound gift—this significant freedom to bind and release sins.
There’s that word. Sins. Now, I’m an Episcopalian and you folks out there are I’m assuming, since we’re at Old First Presbyterian, that most of you are probably Presbyterian or are leaning that way. I hear your forebears Calvin and Knox used interesting terms like ”total depravity” to describe the human condition (which, by the way, sounds like a bar on Polk Street or in SOMA) —our human incapacity to do anything about our sinfulness aside from accepting the grace of God freely given. The best definition for me of sin is anything that separates a person from the love of God, which could just about be anything really, including the study of theology. But I digress—this is not a lecture about original sin or predestination. Let’s go back to the story.
So Jesus has breathed on the disciples, and given them this commission, saying just as God, the Source, the Creator sent the Word, the logos, the Divine reason into the world, Jesus sends these huddled, fearful, confused, and disorganized people out to transform the world and to get in trouble much the way he did. So just as God at the beginning of creation breathed life into Adam, Jesus breathes on the disciples. Jesus breathes on the embers of a nearly completely stomped out fire, and that same breath continues to breathe life into us—into our huddled, fearful, confused and disorganized groups of aspiring Jesus followers. And what does that life look like? It looks like real life but with more love, more grace, more forgiveness, more compassion, more generosity, more connectivity and probably a keen awareness of human suffering too. As Calvin and Knox would remind us, it doesn’t mean we aren’t still sinners, but through God’s grace we are able to become more and more Christ-like. We are able to forgive one another, because we have been forgiven. We are able to stand up for truth, justice, hope and peace (and pay a price for doing so) because Jesus showed us how in his life, death, and resurrection, and gives humanity the Holy Spirit, as a companion and guide for the hard work of reconciliation.
The second part of today’s gospel is odd. Thomas, one of the Apostles, missed out on the whole thing. The text doesn’t tell us what he was up to, just that he wasn’t there in that dark locked room. Perhaps he needed some time alone, or was unsure about continuing to hang around with those Jesus people. Who in their right mind wouldn’t be off signing up for a vision quest, self-help seminar or hastily updating their Linkedin profile after a mess like that? The first thing the Apostles do, emboldened by the Spirit, is go find their missing friend and, using the same words Mary Magdalene first proclaimed, they say, “We have seen the Lord.” You can’t blame Thomas for not taking his friends’ word for it. These are people who have experienced collective trauma, anguish and despair. They could be on something, which would be completely understandable. So human, reasonable, rational, sober, Thomas, who much later is made patron saint of architects, wants more information, details, data…
Amazingly, Thomas’s demand for proof is met. Jesus again appears to the disciples saying “Peace be with you” and Thomas is shown the mark of the nails in his hands, and puts his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in Jesus’s side. The vulnerability of both Thomas and Jesus in this scene exemplifies the trusting, honest, and sometimes quite painful work that all of us must undertake to be reconciled with our sisters and brothers. Again and again life presents us with unimaginable pain, disappointment, injustice, failure, oppression, grief, confusion, heartache. Again and again we must, like Thomas, ask for more information, must speak our truth, lay down our burdens, admit our doubt and our fears, open ourselves up to criticism and ridicule. And as Jesus did, there will be times when we will have to show our scars, and also get up close and personal with others who have endured the worst kinds of suffering. Too often, it seems the church doesn’t want to go there, we are afraid of being real with one another about just how hard it is to believe, to keep the faith, to stay in community with one another. This city is full of people like Thomas, who just aren’t showing up anymore, if they ever did, to breathe with one another and to be breathed on by Jesus—unless you count yoga or crossfit, which might just qualify. I wonder, though, if we who do gather in churches on a somewhat regular basis are feeling emboldened, do we experience amazement, are we witnessing lives transformed by the Spirit, people who have stared oppression and death in the face and found life on the other side? Do we, like the Apostles, have reason to share our faith and hope with friends and families? Perhaps we aren’t making enough room to share our stories, to be vulnerable, to expose our wounds—to show and tell one another about the ways of the cross we and our fellow human beings have been walking?
We don’t have to go very far for more information—for data on the human suffering all around us and also to find stories of resilience and hope. We could ask the victims of the prison industrial complex which locks up more African Americans in the U.S. today than were ever enslaved. In the last 30 years, California has built 20 new prisons and just one new college campus. Fortunately, there is a growing movement to bring about profound change in this state and across the country. Perhaps there are ways for Old First and other congregations to create spaces for conversations about these efforts to dismantle what has been called the “New Jim Crow.” We could ask veterans who have given heart, body and soul for this nation and continue to suffer, often silently, from PTSD, leading some to take their own lives at a staggering rate. Or we could ask a child whose parents have been deported due to our country’s “detain and deport” policies. Or we could more aggressively and honestly speak up about economic inequality, and lift up the voices of those who have endured enormous hardship from one generation to another. Or we could talk with victims of human trafficking and learn more about ways to be part of a contemporary abolitionist movement. We could talk with scientists about climate change and the opportunities that abound for cutting emissions and investing in clean energy. One might say, wait a minute, wait a minute, this is politics! What does this have to do with the gospel? Everything. These are the stories of real life human beings, perhaps even the stories of people you and I both know or pass by on the street or sit with on the bus or participate in your inspiring Interfaith Food Pantry. These stories may even be your story. They are certainly the story of our world, nation, state and city. And most importantly to us who gather each week in Jesus’s name, these are the stories of the living breathing Body of Christ. These are some of the scars and wounds suffered, endured and hopefully, with God’s help, overcome. It is through reaching out and allowing ourselves to be moved by the witness of others that we encounter the truth in front of us—the resurrected One in our midst.
Today, instead of an abstract theological discussion of sin, predestination or bodily resurrection, the church throughout the world listens to the story of frightened disciples becoming emboldened apostles, of a man left out, finding his role in leading others to Jesus. May we hear from Thomas and Jesus an invitation to deeper conversation, greater vulnerability, more honest engagement and living hope—not just for ourselves, but for the world that God so loves. May we, when we doubt, find truths, even if they be painful reminders of our total depravity, in front of us, inviting us to life in Jesus’s name. May we become witnesses to resurrection by giving loving attention to the human details of one another’s real lives.
In closing I want to share a poem by a Presbyterian/Episcopalian from Yale Divinity School named Thomas Troeger.
These things did Thomas count as real:
the warmth of blood, the chill of steel,
the grain of wood, the heft of stone,
the last frail twitch of flesh and bone.
The vision of his skeptic mind
was keen enough to make him blind
to any unexpected act
too large for his small world of fact.
His reasoned certainties denied
that one could live when one had died,
until his fingers read like Braille
the markings of the spear and nail.
May we, O God, by grace believe
And thus the risen Christ receive,
whose raw, imprinted palms reach out -
and beckoned Thomas from his doubt.
copyright 1994 Oxford University Press
sermon preached Sunday, April 27, 2014 at Old First Presbyterian, San Franciscoby the Reverend Will Scott