"The Incredulity of Saint Thomas" – Caravaggio c. 1601-1602. On Display in the Sanssouci Picture Gallery, Potsdam, Germany. Public Domain.
John 20:19-31 New Revised Standard Version
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘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.’ But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Among some communities of faith, the label “preacher’s kid” has negative connotations. Preacher’s kids are too often defined by their relationship to their pastoring parent in some disparaging way. Sometimes they are portrayed as smug and self-righteous; other times, they are depicted as little hellions.
It’s a strange moniker in that perhaps outside of teachers, kids rarely get a label from their parent’s occupation. There are no working and pervasive stereotypes of a dentist’s kid, auto mechanic’s kid, or relator’s kid.
As a pastor and parent of three children, I worry about the label “Preacher’s kid.” I strive to give my children a normal childhood, and one of my greatest worries in life is that they will be treated differently because of my profession.
I want them to make friends of their own, and I don’t want parents to worry that if they drop their kids off at our house, we are going to try to baptize them or offer them communion after supper.
But my children have grown up in church and around faith, and there are beautiful moments when this upbringing shines.
A few years ago, we were running late one Wednesday morning – late for school and daycare, late to get the day going. In the mad rush, I was taking orders from my children.
“Can I have cereal – no, not that cereal, the other one – no not cereal, a bagel… “
“Can I have orange juice? Actually, I don’t want orange juice, I want milk.”
“Daddy, I don’t want that packed in my lunch. Dad, can you get me socks from upstairs, I forgot them? Dad, Dad, Dad…”
“Guys! Back off! I only have two hands! Be patient! And lower your voices “– I yelled, of course.
I then proceeded into my weekly lecture about getting up when you are supposed to, about being kind and patient with one another in the morning, and taking care of your responsibilities – all with a raised voice.
There was silence… And then my young daughter stood up on her chair and yelled… “Peace be with you… And also with you… Let us pass the peace!”
Those words – put out the fire that morning. “Peace be with you…” It’s still a running gag in our household. Whenever family time gets a little tense, especially in the morning, someone will yell, “Peace be with you. And also with you. Let us pass the peace!” These words have been said a few times these last several weeks during the pandemic.
In today’s gospel lesson, the disciples are hiding in a locked room after the crucifixion of Jesus and rumored resurrection. For them, the resurrection is still just a rumor because they had seen the empty tomb, and they had heard a report from Mary but had not yet seen Jesus in the flesh.
The disciples are hiding in this room because they are afraid. Perhaps they were fearful of the authorities; after all, their leader had just been rounded up and killed. Maybe they wondered if they where they next.
Some Biblical scholars think that they were afraid of Jesus. If he was alive, the disciples could be in trouble. When Jesus was arrested, they scattered, and denied, leaving their leader and friend to face death alone.
But then, amid his disciples in this locked room, Jesus appears. And his first words to them are, “Peace be with you.”
And our text says that he breathes on them, and they receive the Holy Spirit, like a little Pentecost, and he talks to them about forgiveness of all things.
I think of Jesus breathing on his disciples as a big sigh. Jesus and his closest friends have been separated and undergone pain and grief. Jesus sighs in relief, the type of sigh we have when we see loved ones after time apart. The kind of sigh our bodies will naturally express when we can see loved ones in person after the pandemic has lifted, and we can hug one another again.
Jesus then leaves his stunned and hopeful disciples.
But Thomas is not there to witness the events. When the disciples tell him about their experience with the risen Christ, Thomas states that he wants the same experience as everyone else, to see Jesus in the flesh.
Later, Jesus appears again with the same words “Peace be with you.” Thomas believes. The gospel concludes with a nod to the rest of us that believe something important happened after Jesus’ death by saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
We get the phrase “Doubting Thomas” from this passage. Likely though, our story has very little to do with faith and doubt. Instead, it’s about this mini Pentecost, this holy sigh, where the disciples receive the Holy Spirit and holy orders. If the disciples were hiding because they feared Jesus, this is important. How would the risen Lord meet those that had abandoned him in his greatest hour? He meets them with words of blessing, “Peace be with you.”
Those words laid to rest the worries of Jesus’ disciples that evening. It was an offer, “you are forgiven,” and a challenge to “go, forgive others.”
In verse 23, Jesus tells his disciples that, “if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Jesus is teaching here. Forgiveness is a choice. It can be given or withheld. He does not ask his disciples to forgive everyone every wrong. Instead, he tells them to offer forgiveness like he offers forgiveness.
Many of us today are in situations where “Staying Home, and Staying Safe” means being family all the time. There’s something incredible in this, and I’ve found moments of pure joy and experiences that will stay with me forever. But being together all the time limits outlets for personal space, play, and decompression. Boundaries, personal and other, are often trespassed, stepped on, or popped when we are together this much. Something small like not replacing the toilet paper roll (if you have toilet paper these days) can set off a cascade of frustration, anger, and rage aimed at the only people around.
The parallels abound. The disciples, too, had locked themselves in, fearful of what lay outside. Imagine the smelliness of eleven first-century men in one room and the Odd Couple arguments about Peter’s sandals being left in the middle of the floor and Andrew leaving the milk out again. More to the point, imagine the stress and anxiety moving through every person there. Would they make it out of the city alive? How would they return to their jobs and families? Imagine the finger-pointing and the second-guessing that erupted from time to time. Even if they had grown to love one another, there were times when irritations boiled over into harsh words, sulking, and threats.
The Greek word used in our passage for forgiving and forgiveness is interesting because outside of our Scriptures, the term was used to describe the action of releasing something or letting something go. Because most of my media consumption is Disney related these days, the song from Frozen called “Let it Go” comes to mind as one way of understanding this concept.
Finding ways to be more forgiving is a vital tool during this time. Ask for to be forgiven more often. Life is altered, and our usual routes and rhythms are gone. We are all learning how to make the best of this situation, but we are all still learning what those best ways are. Be gracious with one another during this time and forgive often. Acknowledge those moments when frustration is building and sigh a holy sigh.
Peace be with you. And also with you. Let us pass the peace. Amen.