The Risen Christ Sends us to Share the Good News, Easter II April 3, 2016 Christ Lutheran Church, El Cerrito, CA
Easter II April 3, 2016 Christ Lutheran Church, El Cerrito, CA
Acts 5:27-32 Psalm 118:14-29 Revelation 1:4-8 John 20:10-31
The Risen Christ Sends us to Share the Good News
Those who had the closest and most loving relationships with Jesus are those to whom he appeared as the risen Christ. That kind of love places us in Christ and provides us with the power of the resurrection. But notice that the appearances of the risen Christ are not just for their own or the disciples’ sake, but always involved in sending them to continue the proclamation of the Good News. In the first appearance, Mary Magdalene hugs Jesus feet, but he tells her to let him go and tell the other disciples that he is risen. In our story to day, Jesus tells the disciples to spread the forgiveness of sins; they can, however also retain them. He breathes the Holy Spirit upon them and sends them out to confess Christ. By his sending them, the risen Christ changes the disciples into apostles. The word “apostles” is related to “epistles.” [The epistles are not the wives of the apostles.] Epistles are letters that are sent, apostles are those who Jesus sent. Our hymn of the day should be, “You send us, honest you do.”
Notice that because Christ arose on the first day of the week; that is the day we gather together for worship, just like the disciples did. We are not all huddled together frightened with locked doors, although that day may come after the coming election. FDR: we have nothing to fear except fear itself. So let us be afraid of fear-mongers.
The disciples must have been fearful of the Jews. We know that the people of the way, as the Christians were first called, were persecuted by the Jews: think of Saul hunting them down and becoming changed into St. Paul by an untimely appearance of the risen Christ. Then in the Roman Empire wave after wave of Christian persecutions took place, where hundreds of thousands of believers were fed to the lions and torn apart for the entertainment of the Roman public. But after Christianity became the official religion of Rome, after Constantine, Christianity came into power and began persecuting others. History changes and of late we have persecuted the Jews. So we cannot use these texts in the Gospel of John to allow for anti-Semitism.
Back to the story: although the fearful and distraught disciples had locked their doors and were praying fervently, suddenly Jesus appears to them, saying, “Peace be with you.” Just like we still say: “The Lord be with you; and also with you.” The real presence of Christ brings shalom, empathy, harmony, and the oneness at heart, filled with the love among us with which Christ loved us. Here before his Ascension, he shows the disciples his hands and side, showing that he was the one pierced as the prophesies had foretold. And they rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Now notice the sending: “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit upon them, because John always goes way back to the beginning, when God breathed a living soul into Adam and Eve. The risen Christ fills the disciples with the living new breath of the Holy Spirit and tells them to spread the forgiveness of sins, so that the new humanity conformed to Christ, his brothers and sisters, the children of God, could arise and worship God the Father in spirit and in truth.
Now we all know the story how Thomas is not with them in this pre-Ascension appearance of Jesus revealing his spiritual body. We confess the resurrection of the body in our creed, so it must be some kind of a heavenly body, appearing even though the doors were shut. Mary Magdalene had tried to hold his feet and he asked her to let him go. Here he lets the disciples touch him. Later at the barbecue on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he eats fish with them. The text wants to assure us that he was not a ghost, an apparition, but he had some kind of a new physicality.
Thomas could be counted on with questions for Jesus. In a farewell before his crucifixion, Jesus says, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way?” Jesus answers, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Thomas asks Jesus to show him the Father. Jesus answers, “I and the Father are one.” In today’s text he won’t believe the other disciples unless he has his very own experience of the Risen Lord.
“Unless I put my fingers into the holes of his hands, my hand in his side…” I had to teach critical thinking for many years. Thomas was one who felt that reliable knowledge comes only through the senses. “But our senses deceive us,” as one of my physics teachers used to say. Our sense of sight tells us that the sun, moon, and stars revolve around the earth, because they rise and set. But they are only right about the moon. It is the exact opposite for the sun. Since Copernicus we know that our planet earth revolves around the sun and the stars only appear to rise and set because the earth is a planet spinning like a top. When you look out of the windows of a bus, the telephone poles appear to be moving, but really you are in the bus.
Now because of science, we know that often we cannot trust our eyes, and because of our faith, we listen to the Risen Lord saying, “Blessed are those who without seeing believe.” Through the proclamation of the living Word of God, Christ becomes really present in our worship, and we receive a fresh encounter with Christ. Because of our theology, we know that faith comes by hearing.
But Jesus loves Thomas and for his sake he appears again and said, “Reach out. Put your finger into the holes in my hands and place you hand in my side. Don’t be unbelieving, but believe.”
In his online commentary, Brian Stoffregen explains that there are many Greek words for doubt, but none of them are used for Thomas. This is really a fine point. Pistos is the Greek word for faith and apistos is used here: meaning without faith.
Stoffregen uses this fine point, however, to describe how our faith can mature. First like children we have that complete trust and faith that has not yet been tried and tested by what goes on in life. (You may have seen the sports commercial in the Giant’s dugout. “Trust fall!” They fall backwards trusting they will be caught. He lets him fall. Sorry, you’re not a pitcher.) When we learn that not everybody can be trusted, we ask, “Is God trustworthy?” So we can enter into a questioning stage of our faith, where we have to get our head in line with our heart. We can’t afford to come to church with our head under our arm. A more mature faith brings the heart and head together. Thomas is the model for that stage, the questioning faith. He is a faithful seeker. But he stays with the other disciples, who do not exclude him. He stays in a faithful relationship with Christ, and that leads him to a more mature faith, which is not by our strength and effort, but it’s a gift of God, worked by the Holy Spirit in us.
Paul Tillich, who spoke of Thomas in terms of doubt, said, “The old faith must die, eaten away by doubts, but only so that a new and deeper faith may be born.”
This new and deeply maturing faith becomes ever stronger until we completely surrender to God. Faith means there can be no evidence – not even the empty tomb, just pure trust. Mostly evidence is all to the contrary, especially when we are dying. But we thank God when we notice the answer to our prayers, the joy in our hearts, and the transformation the resurrection brings. Like the disciples were not the same!
Thus Thomas experiences the appearance of the Risen Christ on that second Sunday of Easter and he utters the confession that becomes the whole climax of the Gospel of John, “My Lord and my God!” Then talk about being sent! St. Thomas goes all the way to India confessing Christ and preaching the Good News. The churches that he founded still flourish in that Hindu country, in the Southwestern most tip of the peninsula in the Indian state called Kerala. That is the kind of evidence the Holy Spirit gives us. You cannot see the wind, but you can surely see the trees moved and swayed by it.
Just one more comment: look at the power of language frozen into the written text. John’s words give us a window into the experience of the first disciples way back then and how the appearances of the Risen Christ bid them and us to tell others, spread love and forgiveness, sending us out with the good confession on our lips: Jesus is my Lord and my God!
I love the way we read Acts of the Apostles for Old Testament lessons after Easter. John could not write down all the signs and acts of Jesus because we still perform them in Jesus name. Somebody still has to write the book of Acts of the Disciples of Christ Lutheran Church in El Cerrito. I’ll just mention Ernest and Ethyl Jacobson. I have the 1991 directory here. We could write a book merely about Mildred Bradfield! She led a lay-renewal movement visiting other churches to activate the lay people. And just wait and see what the Holy Spirit will accomplish here, where we are changed by the real presence of the Risen Lord and where our hearts become strangely warmed!
Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed, Alleluia!