Second Sunday of Easter; 19 April 2020; Easter 2A (RCL); Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31.
The reading from John’s Gospel seems more relevant this year than ever. Here we are, locked in our houses with the doors closed for fear of COVID-19, and Jesus comes and stands in our midst anyway. And if we’ve ever needed the assurance that the resurrection happens despite our fear, this is the year.
When Jesus shows up, the first thing he says is, “Peace be with you.” He knows that we need the assurance. And then he sends them into the world as the Father had sent him into the world. We, the disciples, become the extension of Christ’s ministry to the world. All of the discourse about the Father and Jesus being one, and Jesus being in the Father and the Father in him now extends to us, the Church. All the works that Jesus did in the world are now ours to do.
Jesus then breathes on the disciples and says, “Receive Holy Spirit” (the article is lacking in the Greek). In Greek there is one word for both Spirit and breath. We could just as easily and correctly translate, “Receive Holy Breath.” And the purpose of this spirit is the forgiveness of sins. At the very beginning of John’s Gospel, John the Baptist saw Jesus and said, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Here at last, John reveals to us how that is going to happen. We, the disciples, are given spirit and authority to release or hold sins.
That was the vocation of the high priest, who, on the Day of Atonement, entered the inner sanctum of the Temple, and sprinkled blood on the mercy seat, and then sprinkled blood on the people, for the forgiveness of sins. We, the Church, have become the inner sanctum and the high priest. And what an awesome responsibility we have.
Before Jesus entered Jerusalem, certain Jews at the feast were looking for him, and Andrew and Philip approached Jesus to tell him. Those Greeks then simply disappeared out of the narrative — something very unusual for John. We should be waiting to encounter them again. And here are the disciples closed away in their room. Jesus invites them to forgive sins (Gentiles were considered by Jews as de facto sinners). The disciples can admit anyone they choose to the community. That is the significance of the Spirit and the forgiveness of sins.
And Thomas, who was not with them that first week, refuses to believe (he doesn’t doubt, he refuses to believe), unless he can touch Jesus’ wounds. Jesus appears again, and meets Thomas where he is. Thomas then confesses “My Lord and my God.” Domitian the Emperor in 95 CE was insisting on being address as dominus et deus — Lord and God. Thomas points instead to Jesus, not Domitian. And he insists on touching the wounds. The powers of the world want us to believe that they are triumphant and without flaw; the gods of the world want us to believe that we never need suffer. Thomas knows better. Any God worth worshiping has wounds.
We will only recognize the Christ in ourselves or in others when we have touched the wounds. It is no good pretending that everything is perfect and that we are fine, thank you very much. If we insist on that kind of perfection, we will never encounter the risen Christ.
This pandemic has exposed many wounds in our society, and if we are willing to touch them, willing to be Thomas, we can see those wounds glorified and resurrected. But if we pretend they are not there, if we refuse to face them, the false gods will carry the day; we will worship Domitian, not Jesus. We will need the Spirit to help us, and we will need to find ways to forgive and heal what is broken, to think we can go back to normal will deny the painful reality that confronts us.