a Homily for Easter 2A
Text: John 20:19-31
At one level, this is a simple story. Each year, the Second Sunday of Easter, we receive Thomas, the Twin. This is Easter.
And Each year, we gather on that Easter and each year, Thomas misses it. A week later, like that fateful day 2000 years ago, we remember the man who missed the great Jesus sighting.
Where was Thomas? Where did he go? Why wasn’t he there?
If Thomas were truly doubting, as he is taken for, he wouldn’t return or expect to receive the risen Christ. If doubting means what we think it means, then he would not have expected what others had. And he certainly would have locked himself in the upper room with the other doubters. Or else gone down to the Temple to look for a new job. There have to be some good opening for money-changers right about now.
The Rev. David Henson, an Episcopal priest points out that he isn’t Doubting Thomas, but Courageous Thomas—who just before the crucifixion, is the only disciple who tries to follow Jesus where they aren’t to go: to sacrifice himself for GOD’s transformation of the world.
In asking Jesus for what his friends already received, maybe Thomas is expressing his hurt; his sense of unfairness. He expected to be rewarded for his dedication, but now feels punished.
Thomas missed the visit. The rest all saw Jesus. They touched Him. They also received His breath. They received a gift from the Messiah, the Savior/Liberator, that Thomas only hears about. He doesn’t feel the breath, the air, the presence of the Spirit light upon his skin. Who knows what that is like? How could being told about this be enough?
It isn’t. That’s why Thomas wants it and why Jesus gives it to him. But in some crazy way, it becomes enough.
The Courage of Thomas
In the many times I’ve read this text, I’ve always focused on Thomas. Every year, I defend him from the outrageous criticism. Jesus doesn’t say that Thomas doubts, but that he is to believe. “Do not doubt, but believe.” And when Jesus says “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” he calls our belief blessed because all the disciples have seen! This is what I preach each time.
I’m moved by the teaching this Courageous Thomas misses. Not just the breath of Jesus, but the teaching that follows it: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Jesus tells His followers that people’s sins are forgiven and retained, not by GOD, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit; by a priest or temple authority; or by the individual in question. People aren’t forgiven because Jesus took away their sin. Or a priest absolves their sin. Or they corrected their own behavior and shed their sins.
No. If they, the disciples, forgive sin, it will be forgiven. If they retain sins, they’re retained. They have agency; control. They are responsible for whether sin remains here. It isn’t all up to Jesus.
Thomas’s absence means he missed the most important part. Not the seeing or touching, or even the breathing. But that the followers of Jesus are named responsible for the forgiving of the people’s sin.
We receive the testimony, not of Jesus’s first followers, but the generations that followed. We receive the testimony of not only Jesus’s identity or His power, but of His character and His mission. We are taught what He loves and how to love like He does.
We receive instruction and hope. And we are given incredible responsibility to participate in the saving of the world.
We are given the keys to forgiveness and redemption. That we might forgive and lead to others’ being redeemed. We possess the power to save people and condemn them: forgiving or retaining their sin.
It might sound like a lot of weight on us. That’s because it is.
This is why the faith matters. The doubt Jesus rejects is the kind that doesn’t allow us to forgive. The kind that keeps people sinful in the eyes of their friends. A doubt that ruins relationships and causes cynicism and distrust.
You know the feeling. That awful feeling. In the pit of your stomach. Painful, queazy-stomach, irritated. We are feeling that now as one of our friends made a huge mistake about a year ago. Big, serious, colossal mistake. And she knows it. But another friend won’t forgive her. It isn’t her marriage on the line. And yet she can’t forgive. So she retains it. So we all retain it.
We use this doubt to punish each other. This isn’t questioning whether or not Jesus said what we think He did. This is distrust-your-neighbors doubt Jesus is talking about. And it is doubt that keeps sin a problem for all of us.
There is no hope, no love, no trust without faith. The world’s sin remains as long as we keep it here. And it goes away when we together will it away. The true measure of Easter faith, then, is this: forgiveness without justification, knowing that GOD trusts us with that responsibility.
That we don’t deserve our forgiveness and that we are responsible for forgiving others means that our forgiveness is dependent on one another. And that their forgiveness is not dependent on whether or not they deserve it.
Each generation is blessed with the opportunity to finally prove Jesus right. So far, we haven’t. Now that is an act of faith.
[serious H/T to David Henson and Mark Sandlin, whose Moonshine Jesus Show lectionary-cast guided my thinking anew on this week’s sermon. Check it out here, then subscribe to it on iTunes. It is totally worth it.]