Sermon for Williamstown
3rd of April 2016
The picture on the screen is Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, painted in 1602. I’m not sure whether you can see it clearly enough, but in the painting Jesus is guiding Thomas’ hand into the wound in his side. In illustrating this Caravaggio is going beyond what the Gospel according to John describes. We’re never told that Thomas takes up Jesus’ invitation to touch him. It sounds, from what John writes, that the appearance of Jesus is enough. Jesus tells Thomas, ‘Do not doubt but believe,’ and Thomas instantly responds with the most complete declaration of faith in the gospels: ‘My Lord and my God!’ I’ve said before that poor Thomas is misnamed ‘Doubting’ and should be remembered as ‘Faithful Thomas’.
But I don’t want to focus on the questions of doubt and faith raised for us by the story of that second Sunday, fascinating as those are. Instead, I want us to think about the evening of the first day, when Jesus first appeared and breathed on his disciples.
This story is John’s version of the coming of the Holy Spirit. It’s a Pentecost story, but with gentle breath rather than tongues of fire and multiple languages; Pentecost for introverts rather than Pentecost for extroverts. The word ‘Pentecost’ is a version of the Greek word for ‘fiftieth,’ the fiftieth day after Passover, and that’s when Luke’s story of the coming of the Holy Spirit takes place. In contrast, John’s story of the coming of the Holy Spirit takes place on Easter Sunday, the very day of Jesus’ resurrection. At this point in John’s story the disciples, who have accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry, have seen his miracles, and have learnt from his teachings, haven’t yet come to complete faith. John tells us that Peter and the Beloved Disciple, even after seeing the empty tomb, did not understand the scriptures, that Jesus must rise from the dead. After they left, Mary Magdalene saw the risen Jesus who told her: ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ She went and announced to the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and told them what he had said to her.
We don’t know whether the disciples believed Mary Magdalene when she, apostle to the apostles, announced the resurrection. We’re not told that they didn’t, but in today’s reading we find the disciples gathered together in fear behind locked doors. We aren’t told how many disciples are there, nor are we given any names. John is telling us that this group of disciples in hiding represents us and every disciple of Jesus who has ever lived. Into this scene of fear, Jesus enters and greets them: ‘Peace be with you’. Peace, Shalom, can be just another way of saying, ‘Hello’ but here it means so much more.
Jesus shows the disciples his hands and his side, and they rejoice. They see for themselves the risen Lord whose resurrection Mary had announced; whether or not they had believed her, they now know that Jesus has been raised from the dead. He enters the room that they are in despite the fact that the doors are locked; the disciples can see that his resurrection has given Jesus victory over physical limitations. Yet when Jesus shows the disciples his hands and his side they can see that the wounds of crucifixion are still open. The risen Christ remains the wounded one; the one whose death, John tells us, is glory. It is this man, tortured and killed, who offers the disciples, hiding in fear, the greeting of peace. Death has turned into peace, and the disciples’ fear turns into joy.
Jesus breathes on the disciples, giving them the Holy Spirit, as God breathed into the nostrils of Adam to give him the breath of life at creation. The new creation is brought about by the resurrection. This is one of Jesus’ last appearances; one of the last times when people can come to faith by sight. As Jesus says to Thomas, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’. From now on, that will be everyone who comes to faith in Christ. The only exception will be Jesus’ appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus; as Paul describes it: ‘Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me.’ (1 Corinthians 15:8) But despite the fact that Jesus is no longer among us doing signs and wonders, we are given the promise that God is still close to us. Jesus breathes on the disciples and says to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’. God the Holy Spirit is as close to us as the breath in our lungs. This is why I describe today’s story as Pentecost for introverts. In John’s telling the Holy Spirit does not come in an extravaganza that leads onlookers to wonder whether the disciples are drunk. The Holy Spirit comes as quietly as our breath. It’s no coincidence that every type and form of meditation and mindfulness tells its practitioners to begin by paying attention to our breathing. Be quiet; focus on your breathing; in and out. When we do that we are not simply becoming attentive to the present moment, we are entering into the peace of God who gives us the breath of life.
‘Peace be with you,’ Jesus tells his disciples. Not peace as the world gives, but the peace that passes all understanding, being at peace with God and at peace with one another through God. This is why we greet each other with the sign of peace before we gather around the Lord’s Table. The passing of the peace isn’t simply a way of saying ‘hello’ to each other, although that is part of it. By passing the peace we are ensuring that nothing is dividing us before God. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says: ‘when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.’ (Matthew 5:23-24) When we pass the peace to each other before communion we are guaranteeing that we are reconciled with each other before approaching God.
Christ’s appearance doesn’t only bring the disciples joy and peace. The disciples are given a commission. Christ’s resurrection brings responsibility. Jesus’ death was a pouring out of love and compassion for the whole creation. Now the resurrected Jesus calls on the disciples to share this love and compassion with the world. They are sent by the Son as the Son was sent by the Father. They are given a mission to the world, and the gift of the Spirit is given to them so that the disciples can be to the world what Jesus was in his own life and death.
Through this gift of the Spirit, the disciples are able to do the work of God, including the forgiving and retaining of sins. That sounds a little strange: ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ It doesn’t mean that the disciples or the church have the power to refuse to pardon people’s individual transgressions. What it means is that it is the role of the community, sent by Jesus as Jesus was sent by the Father, to reveal the nature of God and God’s love to the world. The presence of the love and compassion of God will reveal sinfulness, will lay bare, illuminate, all that is not godly in our lives and our world. Some people will embrace this revelation. Some people will refuse to enter into a relationship with the God of limitless love and as John wrote: ‘this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness’ (John 3:19). Some will come to the light; some will turn away. The role of the church is not to be the arbiter of right and wrong, but to witness to and reveal the love of God in Jesus Christ. The gift of the Spirit enables the community live this life of witness, to carry out the commission that Jesus gives.
Later in today’s service we will echo Jesus’ greeting to the disciples. We will say to each other, ‘Peace be with you’ ‘And also with you’. In this exchange of eight words we will be saying many things. We will be rejoicing that through the resurrection of Jesus all of us can have the joy of being at peace with God. We will be affirming that no matter how different we are, or how difficult we might occasionally find each other, we are all united in the one body of Christ. And we are encouraging each other as we seek to live as witnesses to the love of God. Sometimes it’s hard to live as Christ’s disciples, and we can only do that through the gift of the Holy Spirit and in the peace of Christ. That is what we are wishing each other as we greet each other with the sign of peace.
The disciples hid in terror until Jesus appeared among them and breathed peace upon them. For us, as for them, the very breath in our lungs is the presence of God. We are able to believe despite not having seen, because God never leaves us alone. And so, in this world of violence in which all too many people have to hide in fear, we can have peace. As Paul wrote to the Thessalonians: ‘Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in all ways. The Lord be with all of you.’ (2 Thessalonians 3:16) Amen.