Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
19 When 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." 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So 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."
26 A 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." 27 Then 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." 28 Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" 29 Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe," to trust in resurrection.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." That would be us, folks! We are included in the generation that John was writing to and the 2000 years of generations since .... folks who had heard the story and yet not seen with their own eyes and are called to believe. Those who trust the story with their whole hearts and base their lives upon God’s resurrection power. In the New Testament belief is synonymous with trust.
As 21st century folks we resonate with poor old Thomas, don’t we? Thomas had a hard time trusting. Doubting Thomas who has gotten a bad rap for doing something that those of us in the 21st century find natural. – wanting to see for himself, get the facts, the first hand experience. He is just trying to sort out false news from truth. And his brain was reacting like our brains still react under crisis and stress or shock and grief in the 21st century. We jump to the most manageable story. The most concrete....at least at the moment .... so we know whether we need to go into fight or flight...What is real? How can that be real? Won’t believe it till I see it!
Have you ever prayed, “God, just give me a sign SO obvious that I can’t miss it! Let me know what is real so I know what to do?” If so, you understand Thomas.
We resonate with Thomas and his desire to know for himself.
And, like Thomas, we forget what Jesus has just given the disciples in his appearance on that first Easter evening as he appeared to them even through doors locked in fear. He gave them the power to trust through the Holy Spirit and through community. He breathed on them the Holy Spirit just as the Creator God breathed on the unformed waters of creation in the Genesis creation story. This holy, transformational breath creates form out of void. Community out of randomness.
“Receive the Holy Spirit,” says Jesus. And then that odd statement. “if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Which has often in the history of Christendom has been interpreted to give authority to hierarchy to include or exclude. But I think the implications are much deeper for Christian community....I think Jesus’s statements reveal the true power of community. What I hear is that in community we as disciples have the power to be create a place of compassion where forgiveness is freely given or a place of rigidity where hurts are retained and continue to damage the fabric of life together. Good community is a place where there are boundaries and consequences for hurtful actions....but these are based in compassion and forgiveness and transforming love rather than punitive retribution.
Forgiveness creates community among difference. We may be very different from one another and misunderstand one another and take offense even. But with forgiveness we stay in community....with the holy spirit of forgiveness we must listen across the differences and divides. We stay with the process of growth. When we reject forgiveness...when we retain the sins and withhold forgiveness, community is damaged if not destroyed. Could Jesus’ statement about retaining sins be a warning....this will not serve you as community? You have great power in community. Forgive or hold on, retain?
I find it insightful that the next scene after Jesus words is Thomas rejecting the testimony of the community. And what is their response to him? The implication is that he stays within the community despite his rejection of their testimony of good news. Which could have stirred up on conflict and ill feelings. Yet Thomas is still part of them....was there forgiveness of harsh words, understanding despite difference?
He is still with them and so has the opportunity to experience the transforming grace of Jesus’ presence. And to be transformed himself.
Perhaps Thomas’s mistake is not doubting the extraordinary and shocking news of the resurrection. But instead the misstep came in not trusting the witness of the Spirit-filled community that loved him. Doubting and questioning is not bad...in fact they can lead us to new understanding. And the community of the Body of Christ holds this transforming power. We need a community in which to ask the questions, to kick against the incomprehensible. A community steeped in the breath of God, filled with the Holy Spirit. A community of compassion and courage, of forgiveness and unconditional love, of strength and boldness and tenderness.
In such a community we can be in crisis and grief and express our doubts, our despair. And we can lean on the faith of the community when we feel we have no faith of our own. Not the doctrine, but the living faith of the community. We can trust the prayers, the songs, the sacraments, the words of testimony, both contemporary and in ancient scripture, when we can no longer trust our own reactions. And eventually we will find we are led to the presence of God that astounds and heals us. I believe this is what happens in the story of poor old, unjustly maligned Thomas...who was doing his best to be faithful. In God’s holy community, Jesus gave us all the grace of transformation as we each struggle with seeing for ourselves even as we learn to trust the power of the community who has not seen and yet has come to believe.
So I finish with questions for us in this Body of Christ. Are we, as the community of Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC, fully receiving the Holy Spirit into our midst and embracing God’s compassion, forgiveness, courage and love for us all? Are we fully receiving the Spirit into each of our individual lives so that we may offer these gifts of the Spirit to one another and to all who come through our doors and to all whom we meet? Will we hold the space of Spirit for each other and for the world in times of belief and dis-belief. Will we hold a space where utter despair can held along with utter joy as we trust the presence of the Risen Christ in God’s Holy community of faith?
Think on these things as you worship today and walk with the Risen Christ in the coming week.
Amen. And Amen.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.
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