It is evening of that first day, that day when Mary stands weeping at the tomb, that day when Jesus calls her by name, that day when she tells the disciples: “I have seen the Lord”. The doors of the house where the disciples are meeting are locked “for fear of the Jews”. This seems strange. After all, the disciples are Jews. It is like saying that they have bolted the doors for fear of the Christians. Here John’s gospel leaps forward to the time half a century later when Jesus’ people are shunned by their own families and congregations. Here Easter is a time of locked doors, a day of anxiety, a place of fear. We imagine that Easter Sunday is all rejoicing and hallelujahs, a day for trumpets and organs at full stop. But here, in John’s gospel, Easter begins with Mary weeping and ends with the disciples locked in a room in terror. Their future is not obviously full of life. Their future is shrouded by death, by grief, by loss, by fear. I know what that’s like. I spent Holy Week in hospital, far from you, wondering what the future holds for me and for you. The doors weren’t locked but, yes, there was fear.
Then Jesus is standing among them, among us. He says “Peace be with you.” He shows them his hands and his side. When they see this they recognize him. They do not recognize his face. It is his wounds that they recognize. Seeing, they rejoice. It is the first passing of the peace of Christ. We re-enact it whenever we gather here. Do you see? When we offer one another the hand of the peace of Christ we are not simply greeting one another. When we pass the peace of Christ we are being greeted by Jesus. We stand here, behind locked doors of fear, in our grief and ache, and we are greeted by the risen Christ who declares: “Peace be with you.” Shalom be with you. Well-being be with you. Healing be with you. Life be with you. And notice how we recognize him. We recognize him by the wounds - the suffering - in the person who reaches out to offer us the gift of Christ’s peace. We recognize the one who brings peace on the other side of death by the trouble that those hands have known and carried. We offer and receive the peace of Jesus Christ through the wounds we carry. And we rejoice because the Risen Christ comes to us with risen life on the other side of our suffering.
Then he says it again: “Peace be with you”. This is odd. Haven’t they heard it the first time? Do they need to pass the peace of Christ again? Except this time he says more: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Now the peace is not simply a comfort, a healing, an assurance. Now the peace is a sending, a commissioning, a calling. The disciples are sent in the same way that Jesus has been sent. They are sent to the world. We are sent by the Father. Then Jesus breathes on them. Yes, he breathes on them - he breathes new life into them for the task at hand. Then he says “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.” It is John’s version of Pentecost. Here, at Easter, the church is inspired, commissioned, sent. Jesus’ life breath becomes the life force of the church. Jesus' self-giving in forgiveness becomes the church’s reason for being. The church as bearer and agent of forgiveness in the world. Really? Wow. But how will the church - how will we - know when to give, and when to retain, forgiveness?
It is a big question. One that the church too often rushes past, sure that this cannot be our task. Yet the command to forgive and to live the way of God’s forgiveness cannot be ignored. When Jesus arrives on the scene John the Baptist announces: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, saying: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” He eats with the unforgiven, the outcast, the sinner as a sign of God’s amazing grace. He lifts the cup and says “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Now, here, at Easter, Jesus sends the church on God’s mission of forgiveness, charged with giving and retaining the mercy of God. But how? This is the most difficult pastoral conversation I have in my ministry. You come, one by one, to wrestle with the problem of forgiveness in your lives, your families, your work, this nation. Forgiveness is not a simple calculation. It does not happen overnight. The obstacles to reconciliation seem overwhelming. We would sooner forget than sort out how to forgive. But the gospel is clear. The good news is all about forgiveness, the forgiveness of God met in Jesus Christ. If there is one thing that the church should know about, should be practised at, should understand in depth it is the work of forgiveness. This is the reason that our weekly study in the fall will take us into an exploration of forgiveness in the Bible and in our lives. We owe it to ourselves, to the gospel, to our neighbours to be a people who are practiced in the ways of forgiveness. It is our calling. Jesus says it clearly: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
We want to stop here, to wonder what this call to forgive can mean, to sort it all out. But the text moves on. The story continues to unfold. Thomas is away on Easter Sunday. He misses everything. Perhaps he is out running errands. Maybe he is just late. For that matter, he might be stuck in a hospital bed. For whatever reason, Thomas is not there. He does not receive the peace of Christ, he does not see Jesus’ hands and side. The others tell him: “We have seen the Lord.” Naturally, Thomas wants to see for himself: “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.” For this he has forever been branded ‘Doubting Thomas’, as if he needs some extra proof, as if the other disciples’ faith is somehow more faithful. But Thomas simply asks for the same Easter experience that the others received. Thomas wants to see and touch and meet Jesus in the same way that they saw and touched and met.
Seven days later, doors shut, they are together again on a Sunday, the second Sunday of Easter. Thomas is there this time. Jesus stands among them again and for a third time says: “Peace be with you.” He invites Thomas to touch his wounded hands and side. He encourages Thomas to believe, to trust, to see him alive, on the other side of death. Thomas does not need to touch. He sees the evidence with his own eyes and names Jesus: “My Lord and my God!” Thomas lines up with the other disciples who are first-hand witnesses to the resurrection. They see Jesus raised from the dead with their own eyes. And they believe.
Now Jesus speaks of those who are not first-hand witnesses. Now Jesus speaks of the church through time since that first Easter. “Have you believed because you have seen me?” he asks Thomas and the others. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” It is a beatitude. It is a blessing. You remember the Beatitudes? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Here, at Easter, Jesus proclaims a new beatitude: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” It is not a command saying that those who have not seen should believe. It is not good advice announcing that it is a good thing to believe even if you have not seen Jesus raised from the dead. Blessings don’t work that way. Blessings are, well, blessings. They are gifts. Beatitudes name a new reality and, in naming it, make that reality occur. Those who mourn are not blessed because they are in grief. They are blessed when Jesus announces that they will be comforted. And those who have not seen the risen Christ, those who have not experienced Easter newness on the other side of death, are not blessed with life in their doubt. They are blessed when somehow, in someway they receive the wondrous gift of trust, faith, belief in the God who raises Jesus from the dead. To live as one who trusts in God’s power to bring life from death is to be blessed. It is as simple and as mysterious as that.
To live by faith, without proof, without first-hand evidence, without Jesus’ wounded hands and side to inspect, is to be blessed with life, life in the face of death. It is this faith, this faith in God’s power to raise Jesus from the dead, that is meant to be the hallmark of the church. It is this amazing, surprising blessing which people beyond the church imagine and hope that the church will steward and live by. At times the church that formed me has celebrated its openness to doubt, as if this was a great strength. But the capacity to doubt is neither strength or weakness. It is not doubt but, rather, the gift of trust in God that we long to receive, to know, to live in and from. No wonder the disappointment that many have in the church when it loses faith in God’s power to raise from the dead. But when the church miraculously comes to trust, to believe, to place its hope in the God who raises Jesus from the dead well, then, it is a blessed place and a blessed people. Then the church is a blessing because then the church is alive with surprising life on the other side of death. Then the church is a candlelight of hope and life in a sea of darkness and despair. Then Jesus’ new beatitude speaks truly: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
This is where the gospel of John comes to an end. Once the new beatitude has been given John tells us that enough has been said: “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.” Many more stories about Jesus could be told. But now enough has been said for a people to trust that Jesus is the King, sent by God, to bring life in a world living in the shadow of death. The point of the gospel is summed up in these words: that “through believing you might have life in his name.” Life. That you might have life. Life when overwhelmed by grief. Life when tempted to despair. Life when in danger of succumbing to anxiety and fear and worry. Life. That you might have life when starving for bread and for love. Life when there is no room, no shelter, no homecoming. Life on the other side of addiction, divorce, defeat. Life when the diagnosis says death. Jesus Christ is life, life when all hope for life is past. Jesus Christ is life on the other side of loss. To trust in him, to fall on him, to rest in him is to discover new life in his name. Here. Now. Life. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. It is the gospel truth. Amen.