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Second Sunday of Easter, April 3, 2016

Sometimes when I am on a walk with someone, the person points to an animal far up in a tree and says, “Do you see that (whatever it is)? I look and I look, but I can’t see it. I ask the person to show me where it is again, but I still can’t see it. Then suddenly, the animal moves from where it was to where I can see it and I can share the experience with my friend and show it to others who may be as unable to see as I am.

Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene that Easter morning, but she cannot see him because of her grief. She is so worked up after wondering where the body of her Master is that even the angels do not have the chance to tell her he has been raised from the dead. She thinks she is seeing the gardener until Jesus calls her name, “Mary” and she recognizes him. She hears the love in his voice and is comforted. Mary tells the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”, but they don’t believe her.

The disciples are still terrified of reprisals from the Jews when they meet that night. The door is shut and bolted and they are just an emotional mess. They don’t know if a group bent on violence sent from the authorities will burst through the door any minute to arrest them. Then Jesus appears. He comes through the door, unlimited by time and space. They believed in spirits those days and they are not certain what this is. But it is indeed Jesus who stands among them and he sets about convincing and commissioning them. He does five things to help create and strengthen their belief.

First Jesus offers the disciples peace. The peace that feels like a taut rope that is holding you hostage has been removed. The peace that feels like a knot in your body has been kneaded away. The peace that feels like a 600-lb gorilla has been taken off your shoulders. A peace that forgives. A peace that is given to calm their fears and help them think clearly (Sarah Young). Peace that passes understanding. Peace not as the world can give but only Jesus can give.

But the disciples don’t respond to this. Jesus shows them his hands and his side and the disciples rejoice. They know it is Jesus not because he walked through walls but because he still has his wounds. The marks of the resurrection are ironically, the marks of the crucifixion. Jesus is still a person of flesh and blood, whose hands and side bear the signs of his suffering, rejection and death. The disciples know that Jesus is still like them, even though he is resurrected. He bears the memories of his life and death. He knows and loves them as he always did. He forgives them for their cowardice. He is aware of their need to see and hear in order to believe and he is not put off by that. On the contrary, just as with Mary Magdalene, he gives them what they need to believe. Once again he wishes them peace – wholeness, shalom. Peace so that they may become a community centered on a crucified and now living Christ instead of a group of people sharing the tragedy of a lost leader.

Jesus wants to create a community so that he can send them out into the world to spread the good news, just as the Father has sent him to spread the good news of the kingdom. Now they have something to share with others – the Father’s greatest sign of a kingdom of love and justice. They have a Messiah who loved them so much he was willing to die to stay true to the message of the kingdom – peace, inclusion, non-violence, freedom from oppression, the filling of unmet needs. He was willing to oppose the kingdoms of the world and their thirst for power and might, which ultimately got him killed. A Messiah who defeated even death and rose again. Now they are one with the message.

Then Jesus breathes on them the Holy Spirit to empower them to do their mission. The Spirit shows that the peace of Christ is an activating peace, one that doesn’t settle for just proof of the risen Lord, but moves that peace toward action on behalf of the world. Christ had God’s peace with him all the time, but it didn’t mean there was no conflict, no violence, no possibility of persecution and death (Kristen Johnston Largen). The peace that the Holy Spirit gave empowered the disciples to do the work Jesus has given them to do – to go out in the world and preach the gospel.

There are a lot of things the disciples are empowered to do, but the one Jesus mentions is the power to forgive and retain sins. God’s forgiveness is available to all who repent, but some may not want to do that. Some may want to keep on with their kingdom-of-the-world lifestyle even when confronted with the news of Jesus. Changing may be too scary, too uncertain. But the disciples should work hard to convince and then forgive.

And then there is Thomas, who was not with the disciples when they saw Jesus and did not believe them even when they told him about it. Thomas wants to be very sure that the anxious band of disciples was not just seeing things (Paul Simpson Duke) and he wants to be very sure it was Jesus, so he insists not on just seeing and hearing Jesus but touching his wounds. He wants more evidence than the others did. He wants to believe but he just cannot, not without proof. He is with them the next Sunday and Jesus appears, again open to giving this beloved friend what he needs to believe. Thomas too was interested in the wounds Jesus bore, in the evidence of his humanity and his love for his people. We don’t know if he actually touches the wounds, but he believes.

And now there were the witnesses, sure of the resurrection, commissioned as apostles, empowered by the Holy Spirit and given the peace that passes understanding to sustain them in their work.

The story of Jesus’ resurrection appearances to the disciples serve a purpose, Jesus says. They are to witness to those in generations to come who will not see Jesus, yet need him as much as the disciples do. They have to have a strong faith to get the story across to those who have not seen. After all, death at the hands of the state is easy to believe, but the resurrection life, which all believers are guaranteed, is not so easy, as the disciples themselves showed.

And that is why the stories are written in a book for us. For those of us who have not seen yet desperately want to believe, as Thomas did. For those of us who want as much proof as we can get, while being so removed in space and time from those first days after the crucifixion. For those of us who must trust the Holy Spirit’s hand in the gospel writer’s words and in our own lives. We need to hear the stories over and over again. We need to hear their joyful good news and celebrate it when we worship together and when we spend time together and when we minister together. Jesus says God blesses us who are believers and yet have not seen. It is sometimes a hard way to go. It is sometimes difficult to feel the peace Jesus gives to us. Yet we are called to believe so that we may have life in Jesus’ name. Even if you are unsure sometimes, act as if Jesus is risen from the dead. See his wounds and remember his humanity and his love for us. See his resurrected form, the one that could still eat a piece of fish. Remember that God wants that for us. Life with God now and life with God in eternity. And remember that we are God’s witnesses now. We have the Bible to help us, but the power is given to us to go and tell, to tell others about the saving grace of Jesus, who died for us and rose again.

Easter joy is ours, Easter peace is ours, Easter love is ours. We have witnesses who did Jesus’ bidding who have helped us believe. Now we are called out to go and help others believe.

AMEN

     -- Rev. Ann Barker

Works cited:
Sarah Young, Jesus Calling (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), p. 94
Kristen Johnston Largen, Feasting on the Gospels, John, vol. 2, Theological Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), p. 320
Paul Simpson Duke, Feasting on the Gospels, John, vol. 2, Homiletical Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), p. 329