"Peace Be with You"            John20: 19-31          April 19, 2009

How can you tell if your mission on Earth is completed? If you are alive--it isn't.                                                                                                              --RichardBach, Illusion.
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The gospel reading for this week includes two crucial appearances of the resurrected Christ – first, the eleven disciples, then the twelve. Instead of focusing on the popular story of what doubting Thomas did, this week we want to look more closely at what Jesus said.
The disciples were huddled for safety behind bolted doors of their hiding place. Jesus' resurrection appearance to his disciples (minus Thomas) is instantaneous as he appears in their locked room without the normal use of a door.
Today's reading consists of two parts.
First, the miraculous resurrection of Jesus from death--which Jesus proved to the disciples when he "showed them his hands and his side"(v.20).
Second, the miracle given to the disciples--the gift of the Holy Spirit--, which the resurrected Jesus breathes out upon them. Jesus appears to his disciples not just to prove the miracle of the Resurrection, but that the final action of his earthly mission be accomplished--the giving of the promised Spirit.

Jesus' resurrection appearance, in John's gospel, actually allows for two gifts--imparting the Holy Spirit and bestowing Jesus' "peace" upon the disciples. Jesus had spoken about this "peace" and had long promised it to his disciples (Farewell Discourse 14:27-28a),
27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.  28"You heard me say, 'I am going away and I am coming back to you…'.  
 
In John's gospel, Jesus never greets his disciples with this salutation of Peace ("Peace be with you") until after the Resurrection has been accomplished. For John, this "peace" is intimately connected to Jesus' passion since this peace comes from Christ's completed work on the cross: reconciling humankind with God.

The Holy Spirit is a shalom-Spirit. Close communion with God, which only the Holy Spirit makes possible, can bring true peace, the peace of
Christ, to the believer. Jesus could bestow neither his peace nor his Spirit upon the disciples until after his death and resurrection (as implied in John1:33 and 7:39).
(John 16: 7) "But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you." Jesus relinquishes his own spirit on the cross (19:30) so that it may become available to all after his resurrection.

Jesus formally proclaims, "Peace be with you" to his disciples as introductory words to a great commissioning sentence--"As the Father has sent me, so I send you." This is not the first time Jesus discussed sending his disciples (as seen in 4:38; 13:16, 20; 17:18), but this commissioning sentence stands apart.
For the first time, Jesus has offered his disciples the gift of his "peace." This peace serves as a doorway to a new shalom-age--the Age of the Spirit. The commissioning sentence is, in essence, a creative word. Just as in Genesis, God spoke before creating the world, so Jesus declares the existence of this new shalom-saturated reality before he breathes the Holy Spirit out onto the disciples, creating them anew. (Born from above, Nicodemus)

The focus of this new creation, the Age of the Spirit, is immediately revealed.
Jesus defines the primary characteristic of this age to be giving and receiving forgiveness. Because of salvation, divine forgiveness is made possible through Jesus' sacrifice to all of humanity.
22And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."
 
The disciples themselves are not the cause of the forgiveness offered to others, even though they have received the Holy Spirit. The verb here, "they are forgiven," is proclaimed in the Greek perfect tense--a grammatical structure that expresses a past action which results in a present state (Barclay M. Newman and Eugene A. Nida, A Translator's Handbook on the Gospel of John [New York: United Bible Societies, 1980], 615). Thus, Jesus' declaration is of God's already accomplished forgiveness. This gift the Spirit-endowed disciples may now offer to others.

T
he disciples' new mission as Spirit-filled proclaimers of Christ's resurrection is immediately put to the test. Their first witnessing experience is before one of their own - Thomas.
 
24Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord!"
Rather than being an "easy sell," Thomas adopts a hard-liner attitude - refusing to believe unless he, too, sees the risen Jesus. Earlier in John's gospel, Thomas had been depicted as fiercely loyal to Jesus, even recklessly zealous for Jesus (see John 11:16). The contrast makes his current "doubtfulness" especially powerful.

Thomas' rejection is emphatic. The Greek describing the disciple's witnessing efforts is better translated as they "kept on telling him" - repeatedly without success. The tone of Thomas' surly response would be more accurately rendered into English, as "unless I jab my finger ... I will never believe."
Thomas, who had been part of Jesus' earthly mission that was marked by signs and wonders, refuses to accept the gospel as it is now offered in its brand-new form - the preached (or proclaimed) word of the church, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

 
However, Thomas' demands to see the wounds on Jesus' body is no different from the evidence Jesus himself had given to the other disciples at his first appearance. Yet, Thomas' refusal to believe without first seeing puts him into a new category.
Thomas was the first person approached by the Spirit-endowed disciples. He was also the first person to refuse to take the Spirit-empowered witness to heart; first in a long line of doubtful converts right on into the 21st century.

 
Dorothy Sayers says this about the character Thomas: 

"It is unexpected, but extraordinarily convincing, that the one absolutely unequivocal statement in the whole gospel of the Divinity of Jesus should come from Doubting Thomas.
 
It is the only place where the word "God" is used ... without qualification of any kind, and in the most unambiguous form of words .... And this must be said -- not ecstatically, or with a cry of astonishment -- but with flat conviction, as of one acknowledging irrefragable (undisputed) evidence: '2 + 2 = 4,' 'That is the sun in the sky,' 'You are my Lord and my God!'"
 
                                     (Sayers, The Man Born to Be King (London: Victor Collancz, 1943), 319-20.)

Sayers' commentary makes sense in light of John 11:16 when Thomas exclaims "Let us also go, that we may die with him," in response to Jesus' declaration that He must go to Jerusalem even though it may mean His death. Thomas was a matter-of fact kind of person; black or white, no gray areas in his thinking. It is at the point of our strengths, rather than our weaknesses, that we are most vulnerable.
 
The good news, however, is Jesus comes to cynical skeptics as well as confused sheep. Christ reveals Himself to us at our point of need
 
Jesus' sacrifice was given freely, and humans retain their own freedom to respond to that sacrifice positively or negatively, with belief or with disbelief. The disciples' mission is empowered by the same Spirit and limited by the same freedom that marked Jesus' own mission.
 
No one is forced, or coerced, to believe. However, Jesus has made himself available and accessible for all time and to all persons that accept His gift of forgiveness. Even after 2000 years, people find it difficult to believe God loves them and has forgiven them in Christ. Some think they have to earn God's forgiveness; some think they don't deserve it; some think it’s a hoax.
The question is not whether or not God will forgive. You are, you stand, now, forgiven; in other words, we don't have to beg God's forgiveness—we already have God's forgiveness. However, it is our choice to believe, accept and receive it on our own personal behalf and not just generically for the sins of the whole world.
Accepting Christ's forgiveness in our own personal lives is not a one-time-only event; we daily need to draw on God's forgiveness and live our lives knowing we are loved, accepted, and that God rejoices over us.
A businessman (sic) was asked to tell what his personal faith meant to him. He reached back to his boyhood experience. He recalled walking with his father one day, having to reach up to hold on to his hand. After a while, he said, I can't hold on any longer, and you'll have to hold on to me for a while. And he remembered the moment when he felt his father's hand take over. That, he said, was the way it felt to him to have faith in God. And that was precisely an act of grace.

It is important that Christians not let grace become a universal principle or ideology. … God's grace is not some abstract principle of justice or love or acceptance.
… So why not take hold of God's hand, and with a clear conscience, walk boldly, bravely into your future. Amen.
Rev. RosemaryStelz
 
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