Fellowship and forgiveness

12 April 2015
Second Sunday of Easter
Easter 2B (RCL)
Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1 – 2:2
John 20:19-31

The Second Sunday of Easter is known as Thomas Sunday, because we always have this reading from John’s Gospel. Thomas is often called “Doubting Thomas” on the basis of this reading, but the nickname is unfair. Thomas does not doubt, but refuses to believe, an entirely different matter. When Jesus says, in the NRSV translation, “do not doubt but believe,” a more accurate translation would be, “Do not be untrusty, but trusty.” The word in Greek is pistos(and its negative apistos). The word means faithful, trusty and true. A pistis was a letter of credit from a temple or a bank for gold on deposit. The bank had to be pistos.

Thomas refuses to trust, until he sees Jesus’ wounds. In the early history of the various Christian communities, Thomas often represented gnostic tendencies (the Twin being an important theme in gnostic mythology). Among communities of that tendency, there was belief that Jesus had only appeared (dokein) to suffer; a tendency called docetism. John makes Thomas insist on seeing the wounds as a way of combating these docetic tendencies. Those tendencies also tended to lead to a kind of Christian triumphalism. Christians need not suffer either; they were already living in the resurrected life, and could therefore avoid martyrdom in the same way Jesus avoided death. Thomas insists on seeing the wounds of the risen Christ before he will trust it is the Christ.

Often in congregations, there is a tendency to minimize and deny problems and conflict: everything is wonderful here. That can happen in regions as well: there is no racism in our town. Thomas would demand to see the wounds before trusting any community to be Christian. When Jesus appears to his disciples in John’s Gospel, he wishes them peace (three times) and then breathes on them to give them the Holy Spirit in order that they might forgive and/or retain sins. To live in community requires the ability to forgive sins. Hurts are going to happen. To pretend otherwise is to deny reality. Thomas insists on seeing the wounds within the Body. And when he does see them, he is able to recognize Jesus as dominus et deus, a title the Emperor Domitian was insisting be addressed to him.

The passage from the First Epistle of John makes a similar point. If we say we have no sin (notice this is plural), the truth is not in us, and we make Jesus a liar. In order to have fellowship or partnership with one another, we are going to occasionally rub one another the wrong way, and also establish unhelpful patterns. We need to confess (say out loud together) our sins in order to live one another. This is where the difference between personal bias and systemic racism becomes important. I may think I have no bias, but if I say I do not participate in sinful systems, the truth is not in me. There can be no forgiveness and no fellowship until we touch the wounds.

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