Second Sunday of Easter, 11 April 2021, St. David’s Episcopal Church, DeWitt, NY
This Sunday is sometimes called Thomas Sunday. When we hear this passage, we tend to focus on Thomas, and his interaction with Jesus. But there is a lot more going on here than just Thomas’ refusal to belief and then his confession of Jesus as Lord and God.
The collect hinted at some of what else is going on, by stating that in the Paschal mystery, God has established a new covenant of reconciliation. Jesus’ death and resurrection allow us to live a new kind of life in community, a life of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Way back at the beginning of the Gospel, John the Baptist testifies to Jesus. One day, Jesus is walking by, and John calls out, “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” I’ve said before that in the Old Testament, there is no lamb that takes away sin; it’s only the goat on the Great Day of Atonement. But John’s Gospel has Jesus die at the exact hour that the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple courts. Jesus is the lamb of God, but what about taking away sin?
All through the Gospel, the author has raised the question of sin: with the blind man, who sinned, this man, or his parents? With the Pharisees – since they have heard Jesus’ message, but refused to believe, their sin remains. All too often, John casts the Jews as the sinners. For John, sin has to do with one’s relationship with God. Sin is not some moral act or failing, but an inability or refusal to apprehend God’s self-revelation in Jesus.
But the Gospel never gets around to telling us, the reader, how sin is taken away. Until now. Jesus shows up to the disciples cowering in fear, and says, “Peace be with you.” Notice, Jesus says that three times in this passage. It must mean the disciples needed to hear it: Peace be with you. They would need to hear it if there were conflicts among them, so I think we can assume this is so. When has it ever not been true of the Church? Always, we need to hear, “Peace be with you.”
And then, he showed them his hands and his side. He showed them his wounds. No one would expect a resurrected body to have wounds, but there they are. And then he says, “As the father has sent me, so I send you.” We, the Church, are to become to the world what Jesus was to the world, the medium of God’s self-revelation. And then, he breathes on them. The word in Greek is unusual; we might translate it, “he inflated them.” It is exactly the same word as for what God did when he blew the breath of life into the nostrils of the first human in the Garden of Eden.
This is a new creation, a new humanity, empowered with a new Spirit. And here is the distinctive characteristic of this new humanity: the sins of whoever you forgive are forgiven them; the sins of whoever you retain are retained for them. Nowhere in John’s Gospel do we hear of Jesus forgiving anyone’s sins. In the other Gospels, there is the story of the lame man, to whom Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven,” and then “take up your pallet and walk.” But not in John’s Gospel.
So, we are the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We become in the world what Jesus was – the locus and mode of God’s self-revelation. We can bring people into relationship with God – or not. This is pretty heady stuff. We can remake the world by forgiving sins; or we can hold on to grudges and keep things the way we are.
No wonder the disciples rejoiced when they saw Jesus! But Thomas wasn’t with them, and when they told him they had seen the Lord, he refused to believe. We call him doubting Thomas, but he doesn’t doubt. He refuses to believe. In fact, you could translate the Greek, “Unless I see the wounds, I will never, ever believe.” The Greek duplicates the negative.
So, the next week he is with them, and Jesus shows up again. He invites Thomas to touch his wounds, and Thomas cries out, “My Lord and my God” – the highest title for Jesus anywhere in John’s Gospel. Jesus says to Thomas, “Do not be untrusty, but trusty.” The translation is really bad right there. “Do not be undependable, but dependable,” would be better.
What happened there? The disciples have been given the power to forgive or retain sins. We have been given power to forgive or retain sins. But Thomas demands to see and touch the wounds of Jesus. I think he is saying to the other disciples, “Not so fast; we can’t forgive sins unless we take into account the harm done, first – unless we touch the wounds.”
I think in our joy at the resurrection, we want to rush into a world where nothing has ever gone wrong. Isn’t this America’s problem with race? We want to live in a post-racist society, we want to think color doesn’t matter. Thomas would say to us, “Wait a minute. We have to touch the wounds first.” What harm has race done? And notice, Jesus’ wounds don’t go away after the resurrection. They may be transformed and become revelatory, but there they are. We will never live in a post-racist society. The wounds will always be there. We may be able to forgive sins, but the wounds remain – transformed, but there.
Think of the Peace and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. If perpetrators of violence wanted to avoid prosecution, they had to allow the people they had harmed speak their truth. And once those people had spoken their truth, and it had been heard, the desire for retribution went away. Only in this way did South Africa avoid a blood-bath of retributive violence.
Think about it in your own personal experience. Maybe in your family, or among friends, harm has been done. And you have forgiven, but never without acknowledging the harm done, and owning up to it. I think that is why Jesus says to Thomas, do not be untrusty, but trusty. Trust must be reestablished. If we rush into forgiveness without touching the wounds, the peace won’t be a real peace, but just a papering over of conflict. All of our lessons today suggest that the resurrection has real-world consequences. Jesus’ resurrection isn’t just our ticket out of this world and into heaven. It means we have to live differently here. For John’s Gospel, it means we, the disciples, are given the hard work of forgiving sins and seeing the wounds of Jesus transformed into the signs of a new humanity fully alive.