Sunday, April 8, 2018

Held Fast and Healed by Love: Sermon for the Second Sunday in Easter, Year B

Good morning, and welcome to the Second Sunday of Easter. And you know what that means: Here we go again with poor old Thomas.

Why is it that only Thomas gets called “Doubting Thomas?” In the Easter story in our gospels, we have seen Peter and the other disciples specifically not believe Mary Magdalene, when she tells them Jesus’s body is no longer in the tomb. Furthermore, we have seen Peter deny Jesus three times, and yet he’s not called “Denying Peter.”

Sadly for Thomas, this is the only story in which he plays a starring role. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he is merely one name among the Twelve. Only in John’s gospel does Thomas speak, and unfortunately, neither of them show him to be what one would call full of witty banter or joie de vivre.

At John 11, the story of the death and raising of Lazarus is told, and it is noted that the Judean authorities are looking for ways to kill Jesus if he returns to Bethany near Jerusalem. When Jesus states his intention to go to Bethany after he tells the disciples Lazarus is dead, Thomas moans, “Let us also go so that we may die with him.”


He’s like the Eeyore of the disciples.

At John chapter 14, Jesus is speaking words of comfort to the disciples, and he tells him they know the way to the place where he is going, and Thomas is the only one brave enough to say, “Hold on, teacher! We actually do NOT know where you are going! How can we know the way?”

Thomas’s main characteristic is not doubt—it’s honesty, which is often confused as doubt by many, even today. Even back in John chapter 11, Thomas has seen the writing on the wall, so to speak, and bravely if morosely is facing what he thinks is a certain death. Here in chapter 20, on Resurrection Day, even with Mary’s testimony, the other disciples have caught up with him, and, let’s face it, from their perspective, things DON’T look good. It’s clear that the disciples are aware of the extreme danger they are in. This was certainly not the first crucifixion they had witnessed. They knew what happened to the followers of people who were considered threats to the public order and rebels against authority.

However, there’s a lot going on here besides Thomas demanding proof, and that gets obscured when we fasten just on Thomas and his very understandable reaction. So let’s circle back to the beginning.

While we have loudly proclaiming alleluias all week, our gospel today takes up the story on Easter Sunday evening. The first emotion that is noted right from the very start is “fear.” The doors are locked because the disciples are still afraid of the authorities who have put Jesus to death just three short days before. They all doubt Mary’s story.

And then, despite those doubts and locked doors, Jesus appears before his fearful followers. In response to this fear, Jesus gives them his peace. For the third time in John’s gospel, Jesus’s response to fear among his disciples has been to wish them peace. That’s a good reminder for us, too.

As soon as Jesus bids them peace, he then shows the disciples his wounds. This is another important point that gets overlooked by focusing on the “Doubting Thomas” story.

Jesus’s risen body will always be the body of the Crucified One. His wounds and scars do not disappear—but now they are a part of who he is, and their presence helps prove his identity. And knowing that those wounds are there are important to us. We all carry the wounds and scars of our lives with us. They are what make us who we are. Jesus’s wounds mark him as the one who understands our suffering, and it is by those wounds that we ourselves are healed.

Upon seeing Jesus’s wounds, the disciples go from fear to joy, because now they know that this is truly Jesus. It could be that his risen appearance is different, somehow, as Mary’s confusion near the tomb attests, but the wounds convince the disciples, and they are filled with joy to know that Jesus has risen.

Jesus again wishes them peace, and then in the same breath (word choice deliberate) commissions them with the same mission Jesus himself had from God: to go and forgive sins and engage in the reconciliation of the world to God. In an action reminiscent of the creation of Adam in Genesis 2, he breathes upon them the Holy Spirit. Remember, the fact that he has breath also proves that he is truly alive, not a ghost or a specter or a spirit. Jesus is, and always will be, a living body, broken for us. And he has empowered us with a great commission.

Some scholars challenge that the Greek text may not support the translation we have here of Jesus’s actual commission. The second half of Jesus’s statement does not contain the phrase “the sins of” at all. Also, the word translated as “retain” more specifically refers to strength, and in this case means “to hold fast.” Instead, these scholars claim that the text of Jesus’s commission to those disciples specifically reads this way: “Of whomever you forgive the sins, they (the sins) are forgiven to them; whomever you hold fast [or embrace], they are held fast.”

Of whomever you forgive the sins, they are forgiven to them; whomever you hold fast or embrace, they are held fast.”

This accounts with the Biblical record. We see Jesus forgive sins repeatedly, even the sins of those who put him on the cross. The author of 1 Timothy 1:15 states it baldly: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.”

Jesus didn’t come to retain the sins of anyone. But Jesus did come to hold fast to all who turned to him. John 10:11-16 uses the image of the Good Shepherd to make that point: "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd."

Jesus sends his disciples into the world for the love of the world, not for its condemnation, as we were reminded a few weeks ago in John 3:16-17— “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

This is vital for us today to understand. We too live in a time of fear. Too many of those around us, even our leaders, want to hide behind locked doors, walls, guns, whatever. We live in a time when so many people do not know the God we worship, partly because the God who dominates the religious discourse in our society too often is a God of anger, retribution, condemnation. A God who divides people into winners and losers, a God who supposedly punishes people with sickness and poverty, a God who condemns people for who they love or for where they come from, and supposedly blesses those who seem to have no love in their hearts at all.

I have had numerous friends of mine tell me how they can’t believe in that God. And I tell them that I can’t, either.

Every time we gather for worship and join together to share the Eucharist, however, we enact and rehearse and proclaim a God who calls us to hold fast to each other, and then to carry that proclamation out into the world. Faith is only worthwhile if it produces good fruit. What we proclaim inside these walls we are called to then proclaim outside these walls, in our lives and our actions.

We are called to proclaim a risen Savior, not fossilized in the pages of a book, but living and active in the world today. 

We are called to proclaim a God who holds us fast and never lets us go. We are empowered to do this by the Holy Spirit, who we proclaim is still moving within the world and in our hearts, if only we let her.

We are called to proclaim a Savior who is with us in our suffering because he still bears the marks of his own suffering. Those marks Jesus bears are there to remind us that God loves us that much.

And we, as the Church, are called to bear our own marks into the world, so that the world, too, can see and believe. These marks and wounds are the sign of a love greater than words can express—a love that, when we open our hearts to it, overflows and spills out of us into a world starving for it. 

This is the mission of the Church, of each and every one of us. Hear it again: “Just as the Father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. Of whomever you forgive the sins, those sins are forgiven to them; whomever you hold fast, they are held fast.”

I am convinced that the world is hungry for this message. I am also convinced that the world is hungry for this message because too often the Church has done a terrible job embodying this message in our words and action, both individually and as an institution. How many people have hoped that the Church would show them the way of justice and salvation, the way of love and grace, and instead been hurt by the Church instead, been declared condemned rather than redeemed, made to feel shameful, irretrievably broken?

That is not why we are here. That’s not what the Jesus Movement is about. We are here, instead, as Christians, wracked with doubt and questions as we are, to make real in the world what we profess every Sunday, even if sometimes we have to do it with our fingers crossed behind our backs.
We are not called to be perfect.
We are not called to be unafraid all the time.
We are not called to never have doubts or questions.

We ARE called to embody Christ’s healing, reconciling presence into a broken, divided, hurting, fearful world, as best we can.

The Japanese practice an art of repairing broken pottery --it’s known as kintsugi, In kintsugi, the broken pieces of a bowl or cup are put back together with gold. And the healed places become beautiful.

If there were no brokenness, we would not see the beauty.

As Christian feminist author and children’s rights advocate L. R. Knost reminds us:

“Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world.
All things break. And all things can be mended.
Not with time, as they say, but with intention.
So go.
Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally.
The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.”1

Jesus’s wounds remind us that our brokenness is not the final word unless we lose hope and let it be. It is only in our own brokenness that we become aware of the need of forgiveness.

It is only in our brokenness that we become aware of the need to let love heal us.

It is only in acknowledging our own brokenness that we can love others in their brokenness too, in solidarity and in gratitude.

Just like Thomas and all the disciples, it’s when we see the marks that we believe. Our marks and wounds are transformed through Christ’s revelation of who God calls us to be. The healed marks we are called to bear into the world are proof of God’s love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation. THESE are the foundations of abundant life, eternal life—right here and now. We are called to give them, not just receive them.

Biblical scholar E. Elizabeth Johnson puts it this way:
“Jesus sends us to do what God sent him to do—to give ourselves for the world, as he gave himself for the world.

“People are waiting to see the marks. They are not looking for the marks in Jesus’ hands and side anymore. They wait instead to see the marks of the church—the wounds in our hands and our sides—the evidence that we are really connected to the Jesus who was crucified and raised. For all that we hear about the sophistication of modern people, they are much more willing to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead then that his death and resurrection mean anything for their lives.

“It is the church’s calling to testify to that very thing.”2

I am convinced that we are called to bear our marks into the world that it may see the One who has done wonders for us in our own lives.

The One who has held us fast, in times of joy and in times of trial.

The One who accepts us in our brokenness, and whose love transforms that brokenness into beauty, healed through the power of love. So that we can go and do likewise.

Let us hold each other fast, in mercy, hope, and grace. That’s how we heal and change the world. The world is hungry for the light that is each of us, through God’s grace.

Hold fast, and shine.


Preached at the 8:00 and 10:30 am services at Trinity Church in the Central West End, April 8, 2018.

Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1-2:2
John 20:19-31

(1) L. R. Knost, from her Instagram account.
(2) E. Elizabeth Johnson, from her Pastoral Perspective on John 20:24-31, in Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds., Feasting On the Gospels- John, volume 2: A Feasting on the Word Commentary, loc. 10672/11883, Kindle edition.

(1) Jesus showing his wounds to Thomas, detail from a mosaic in the Chapel of the Resurrection, Washington National Cathedral, photo mine.
(2) Eeyore looks at his balloon, which Piglet accidentally popped.
(3) 15th century mosaic, Jesus appears before his disciples in the upper room.
(4) Three friends and their teacher at a school for the deaf in Cuba; January 2017; photo mine.
(5) An example of kintsugi, "the art of precious scars."

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