Are you tired of this weather already? Snow last week, snow forecast for tonight and tomorrow morning, bitter cold. It feels more like February than April, and while we didn’t have a particularly hard winter, this prolonged cold has put me in a rather bad mood, and I’ve got a persistent cough. The daffodil and tulip bulbs that we carefully planted last fall and nursed throughout the winter in the garage that are intended to go in our window boxes are in full bloom, but they’re in the house, not outside, because it’s just too cold for them.
There are signs of new life and spring. Road construction has begun, just one more thing for us to complain about, especially those of us who rely on Monroe St. But still, there are other signs of new life. On Friday, I went by the hospital to bless a newborn baby. And of course, it is Easter!
Our gospel reading today is the continuation of chapter 20 of John, the first section of which we heard last Sunday on Easter Day. That was the story of Mary Magdalene, the empty tomb, and her encounter with the Risen Christ. Today’s reading begins with a scene that is set in the evening of that day and continues with another, similar scene a week later. Our attention quite naturally focuses on the dramatic story of Thomas, who wasn’t present in the first scene, demands concrete evidence of the Risen Christ before he will believe, and then, the next week, has just such an encounter, and makes the proclamation, “My Lord and my God!”
I”m not going to preach on “Believing Thomas” for in spite of the traditional spin on his lack of faith, Thomas is in some sense the archetype of the believer in John’s gospel. His proclamation “My Lord and my God,” is the epitome of the Johannine understanding of Jesus Christ, I am going to focus on the other characters in the story, the disciples who gathered in that upper room on those two Sunday evenings.
While our attention is quite naturally drawn to the powerful and dramatic stories of individuals’ encounters with the Risen Christ, like those of Mary Magdalene and Thomas, the other encounters, with the gathered disciples are also important both in the context of the gospel as a whole, and for what they suggest about life in community as the body of Christ united by Christ’s death and resurrection.
We see the importance of communal experience in the Book of Acts. Our first reading offers an idealized depiction of the common life of the first Christian community. They were one in heart and soul, they shared their possessions with each other and with the poor, proclaimed the good news of the resurrection with power, and great grace was upon them all.
The gospel reading begins with a setting of the stage. It was the evening of the day of resurrection, the disciples were gathered in the room where they had shared the last supper with Jesus, and the gospel writer adds the detail that “the doors were locked for fear of the Jews.” It’s always worth remembering that the Gospel of John is relentless in its anti-Judaism, and it’s easy for us to overlook the fact that it’s being written around the end of the first century, in the middle of deepening conflict between the nascent Christian community, and the Judaism that is emerging in the aftermath of the destruction of the temple. There is deep animosity between the two communities, driven largely by the theological differences that were deepening as boundaries between the two communities were developing. As a description of the historical record, the category of “Jews” would have been meaningless—after all, all of the disciples gathered in that room were Jews, just as Jesus was.
Still, there are two important details to keep in mind in this brief description—the locked doors and the disciples’ fear. We should imagine them deeply afraid, not just because of the crucifixion and what it might mean for them as well, but because of their struggle to make sense of the empty tomb and the news they had received from Mary Magdalene that she had seen the risen Christ.
So they were afraid, hiding probably, not sure what to do, not sure what might happen next. And then the risen Christ appears in their midst. He shows him the marks of the wounds in his hands and side—which helps them recognize him as the Risen Christ.
What comes next is John’s version of what is commonly called the “Great Commission”—the sending out of the disciples to share the good news of Jesus Christ throughout the world. But it is couched in typically Johannine fashion, connecting the sending out of the disciples with Jesus being sent into the world by God. After saying this, Jesus breathed on them, bestowing the Holy Spirit on them and also giving them the power to forgive sins.
Now there are two more interesting details in this little story. First, the Greek word that is translated as “breathe” appears only twice in the Greek version of the Old Testament, once in Genesis, when God breathes into the man God has fashioned from the dust of the earth, and the man becomes a living being. The second time it’s used is in the famous passage from Ezekiel 37, the dry bones—that are given life by God’s breath, creating a new people.
The other important detail is in the last verse of the reading, what appears in our translation as: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” That last phrase is mistranslated, probably in order to make it conform to similar language in the gospel of Matthew, where Jesus gives the disciples the power to bind and loose.
Instead of reading, “if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” a better translation would probably be “whoever you embrace, they are embraced.” To put it a little differently, while the first part of the sentence has to do with sins being forgiven, the second half of the verse has to do with the persons, or even better, the community that is strengthened and maintained by the disciples.
Together, these two little details point to something quite important and overlooked. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not just or primarily about the individual experience or encounter with the Risen Christ, however important that may. Equally, or more important is that the Risen Christ calls into being a new community, united by the shared experience of the Risen Christ, and called to share that good news, that experience with others, and to hold fast to that community throughout time.
We already see the effects of the encounter with the Risen Christ in the disciples’ behavior. A week later, they gather again in the same place. There’s no mention of “fear of the Jews” and the door is simply shut, not locked.
The encounter of the Risen Christ with the disciples is not something that happened one or two times, two millennia ago. We encounter Jesus Christ in word and sacrament, in the gathered community, in our common life.
We live in so much fear in our lives and in our world—fear even here at church. Some of us later today will participate in an active shooter training, because, well, that is a horrific reality of life in the United States in 2018. It is easy to lock our doors, whether at home or at church and huddle together in fear and anxiety.
But the Risen Christ has breathed new life and spirit into us, sending us out into the world to share the good news, to forgive sins, and embrace those we encounter. May our life as a community of resurrection bring new life and hope to our city and the world!