2nd Sunday of Easter
April 3, 2016
John 20: 19-31
If you’ve been around here very long, you probably already know this story. We hear it every year on the Sunday after Easter, a Sunday the pastor usually takes off. So every seminary student and pulpit supply preacher has delivered a sermon on this text more than once. My Gospel professor wrote a commentary on the Gospel of John, focused on “Doubting Thomas’” need to see the crucified Jesus in the risen Jesus before he could confess that this was his “Lord and God.” But something very different caught my ear this year. “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me so I send you…he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins any they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Jesus is transferring the leadership of continuing work on earth to these nervous and frightened people, giving them the authority to interpret the law and assure people of their forgiveness. And first he confers on them the Holy Spirit, his remaining presence to guide them in their preaching and teaching. They will go out into all the world preaching the God of love and compassion whom Jesus has reclaimed from his tradition.
I wonder how the story of Thomas’ absence informs what comes next in the story. I wonder how receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit affects Thomas’ willingness to accept Jesus’ as Lord and God. And I wonder what difference it makes in your life if you say you believe that Jesus is Lord and God. I wonder those things because I live in a data-driven culture in which my skepticism makes it hard to trust all the things that accepting Jesus as God implies.
No one comes to faith without questions. Or maybe more true is that no one grows in faith and trust of God through Jesus without questions. Every question we have about life and love can be seated in our trust that God loves us and cares about what happens to us, and will never let us go. We wander away from trust in God and belief in God’s love for us when we confront the hard questions that our society puts before us. How can the stories I read in the Bible be true when it seems that science tells a different story? How could God love me after the awful things that I’ve thought and done? I’m just too busy with my job, family, school work, fill in the blank, to come to church, these have to be my first priority now. Will people think I’m a bad person when I come back every now and then? How could a loving God let such things happen in the world? How could God let this happen to me, I’ve always tried so hard to do the right thing?
It’s possible that it is the work of the Holy Spirit to push these questions in our hearts and minds. Otherwise we wouldn’t care, right? When we wrestle with questions about faith, about God, about Jesus, the Holy Spirit is drawing us closer and closer to the bottom line: God will never stop inviting us into relationship, will never stop showing us God’s presence with us. Nothing in this world can separate us from God’s love, except our own worry and fear and doubt about our worthiness or our own failure to trust that love. God came to us in person in Jesus to make it crystal clear that God understands everything about being human. And Jesus rose to show us that God’s love is stronger even than death, our final enemy.
I love Thomas’ realism and skepticism. “Unless I can experience it myself, I don’t trust it.” Living in the modern age, defined by data and documentation, I’m right there with you Thomas. My struggles to trust haven’t had the easy answer of meeting Jesus face to face and having him invite me to touch those wounds that prove he’s the same guy I loved and trusted before the unspeakable happened.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe,” Jesus says. That would be us, I think. We struggle in the age of documentation to trust that those ancient stories, written in a different understanding of the world could be true for us. But then we experience the Word coming off the page of Scripture and touching our hearts because they speak so clearly to our own fears and needs. We experience forgiveness in our relationships with each other and the generosity of our friends. We pray for understanding, and for peace, and behold, it comes, solid enough to hold us up when we feel at sea in circumstances beyond our control. We sing together and pray together and say that ancient creed as if we believed every word of it, and it is enough for today. And we go on our way with our fragile trust still working, still living everyday trusting in God’s presence. We live as if it makes a difference that we care about the world, knowing that we are God’s hands at work to bring justice and peace. And God’s Holy Spirit keeps breathing on us and in us. And God loves us.