Second Sunday of Easter, Year C
24 April 2022
Thomas is absent the first time the risen Jesus appears to the disciples. When Thomas returns he is incredulous at the report of Jesus’ visit and it isn’t until Jesus appears a second time that Thomas is convinced.
If it were only that easy to dispel our doubts or to convince those who do not believe. And perhaps it is for this reason that our passage ends with Jesus praising those who do not see yet do believe.
We live after the ascension of Jesus. Our resurrected Lord does not appear to us as he did to the disciples, in flesh and blood, passing through locked doors, inviting us to touch his wounds, eating and drinking with his friends, and breaking bread. Yet we know Jesus to be present in the breaking of the bread, in Word and sacrament, and in the life of the church.
I don’t believe that Jesus returned to the eleven simply to convince Thomas. And so Thomas does not answer with something that would suggest that he is now convinced because he was given proof, rather Thomas responds with a confession of faith, “My Lord and my God!”
This is an important distinction. Jesus’ appearances to the disciples and to Thomas are not to provide them with scientific proof of what seems unimaginable to us, Jesus does not appear to settle an academic argument, rather Jesus comes to elicit precisely the response that he receives from Thomas. “My Lord and my God!”
None of this is to negate that Jesus really did appear, only to say that it was not done to personally convince Thomas, or you, or me.
Why then did Jesus appear? Was it because he was hungry, after all he ate with his friends; or was it because he was lonely? I am not sure that the second person of the Trinity who is in eternal communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit can be lonely, although I have no doubt that Jesus longed for the company of his friends, as he longs for our company today.
In our Good Friday meditation on Jesus’ fifth word from the cross, It is finished, we pondered that it is finished but not over, that Jesus made us the church, and that the church, that we are the ‘not over’.
It was not until maybe ten years ago that I understood that in calling disciples and living with them, Jesus spent more time preparing them to be the community of the church than he spent time teaching, which is not to say that the teaching of Jesus is not important, only to raise the importance of the church as community.
And so when Jesus appears to the disciples it is to remind them that they are the church, that they are the not over.
It seems that for at least much of my life the second half of our reading has preoccupied the church, so much so that we forget to pay attention to the first part of our reading, the part where Jesus, after he appears, says to the disciples,
“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.” (v.21-23)
It makes sense that we pass by the first part and focus on the second. After all, the story of Thomas is more relatable as Thomas seems to articulate our own question. It is also more spectacular. But the part about forgiving and retaining sins seems more complicated, not only because forgiveness is hard.
At first sight the verses seem to suggest that retaining sins is an option for the church. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
And perhaps the church acted in this way when it condemned heretics or when it speaks of hating the sin but loving the sinner, which sounds like a good idea until we realize that it always turns into judgment of those whose conduct we find more offensive than our own.
Besides, we find it difficult to navigate that fine line that upholds the standards of the Gospel on one hand and to practice forgiveness on the other. We wonder at what point does forgiveness simply becomes permissiveness. And so there is another reason why we like the Thomas story. It seems simpler.
But what if Jesus did not return to convince Thomas of the resurrection but to let his appearance to Thomas be his forgiveness for his faithlessness, faithlessness not because he did not believe his brothers, but faithlessness because like his brothers he had abandoned Jesus in Jesus’ hour of greatest need?
And so the appearances of Jesus are not about proof, as if there could be such a thing on this side of the grave, or as if it mattered, but his appearances are about forgiveness. They are about forgiveness because the disciples need forgiveness but also, and this is just as important, because their ministry, the life of the new community, the life of the church is to be about forgiveness. And those who aren’t forgiven are not very good at forgiving.
And so it turns out that when Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained,” that for the church not to practice forgiveness is not an option, for how else can the world know forgiveness but to receive it from those who themselves are forgiven by God?
Rather, the word about retaining sins is a warning to the church that if the church does not fulfill the ministry of forgiving sins the world will be full of unforgiven sinners whose life becomes to hard to bear, who cannot see a future except one they create themselves, which usually is a future in which one’s own sins are projected on our neighbour, magnifying the spec in my neighbour’s eye.
All of us have been profoundly affected by the war in Ukraine, so much so that by now we have probably decided to listen to the news less.
I am deeply saddened by what is unfolding and the people of Ukraine have my sympathy.
And yet, I am saddened by the shipment of arms, I am saddened by the speech of politicians of regime change, and I am saddened at the idea of victory.
This is not because I harbour sympathies for the Russian dictator, I do not, but because in this scenario the people of Ukraine fight a war that is no longer just theirs but ours, yet they bring all the sacrifices in a war they cannot win.
Besides, the language of winning and losing is not the language of the Gospel. The language of the Gospel is repentance, forgiveness, and salvation, without partiality.
When churches and Christians no longer speak of peace but instead of victory and regime change they sound no different than the world around them. This does not mean that war crimes and aggression should be forgotten. I do not think they could be forgotten, even if we tried.
But it is not the task of the church to sound like the world, it is the task of the church to be the church.
That is what Jesus entrusted to the disciples. It is what Jesus entrusted to us.
The mission of the church is not victory but reconciliation.1
Thanks be to God.
1 The victory of God is the victory over sin, death, and the devil.