St. John's Episcopal Church

Sermon for April 23, 2017 

Second Sunday of Easter

The Rev. Carol Hancock                                 

St. John's, Centreville
April  23, 2017
Second Easter A
John 20:19-31
     God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
     Every year, on the second Sunday of Easter, we hear the story of Thomas in the gospel of John. It is the evening of the resurrection. Mary has found Jesus' tomb empty that morning and she has told the disciples that she has seen the risen Lord. But the disciples do not believe her. They have to see for themselves, just like Thomas later in the story.
     That evening, the disciples, except for Thomas, hide behind locked doors for fear that the authorities will find them and kill them like they killed Jesus. They are terrified. They don't know what to do now that Jesus is gone.
     Then Jesus appears to the disciples, coming through locked doors. The first thing he says to them is "Peace be with you". "Peace be with you." The kind of peace that the world cannot give, the kind of peace that the disciples are lacking. The kind of peace that only Jesus can give, to give them the strength for whatever lies ahead. Jesus knows they are scared so he gives them his peace. In fact, Jesus says this to them three times in this passage alone. Jesus is the only one who can give them the kind of peace that the disciples desperately need - freedom from fear and anxiety.
     Then Jesus says to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." Then he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
     Jesus calls the disciples to forgive - forgive those who have hurt them, forgive those who have crucified Jesus, forgive others as God forgives us. In the newsletter "Synthesis" these two stories are told:
     "On May 13, 1981, Pope John Paul II was shot and wounded by Mehemet Ali Agca during a public appearance at St. Peter's Square. The would-be assassin was soon captured and sentenced to life in prison. The Pope immediately asked for prayers for Agca and offered his forgiveness. The Time magazine cover for January 9, 1984, featured a picture of the Pope meeting with Agca in his prison cell with the headline "Why Forgive?" At the Pope's request, Agca was later pardoned and released. When asked why he forgave the man who tried to assassinate him, the Pope replied, "That is what Jesus teaches us to do."
     "In October 2006, Charles Roberts shot ten and killed five Amish girls in their schoolroom in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, before killing himself. The Amish community, in the midst of their grief, didn't cast blame. Instead, they reached out with a spirit of grace and forgiveness, going to visit the killer's family to comfort them in their sorrow and pain. Later that week, the Roberts family was invited to the funeral of one of the Amish girls who had been killed. And the Amish mourners outnumbered the non-Amish at Charles Roberts funeral. In a further gesture of compassion, the Amish community raised money to help support the killer's widow and three young children."*
     In the Lord's Prayer, we ask for forgiveness of our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. In other words, until we are ready to forgive others, we cannot be forgiven of our sins. As C.S. Lewis states in "Mere Christianity, "Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive."
     Archbishop Desmond Tutu said when he was appointed as the Chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa on November 30, 1995, "True reconciliation is never cheap, for it is based on forgiveness, which is costly. Forgiveness, in turn, depends upon repentance, which is based on an acknowledgement of what was done wrong, and therefore on the disclosure of the truth. You cannot forgive what you do not know."*
     Forgiveness is an ongoing process. In Matthew's gospel, Peter asks Jesus if it is enough to forgive seven times. Jesus says no, that is not enough, but seventy times seven. There is not a limit to forgiveness. When we forgive someone, we give up our claim to whatever that person owes us for having hurt us.
     When Jesus appears to the disciples after his crucifixion, Thomas is not there. The other disciples tell Thomas when he returns that they have seen the risen Lord. But Thomas will not believe them until he sees for himself the mark of the nails in Jesus.
     A week later, Jesus returns to where the disciples are still in hiding and Thomas is there. Again he greets them with "Peace be with you." Then Jesus says 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." And Thomas replies, "My Lord and my God!" Thomas encounters the risen Christ and he believes. This is one of the greatest exclamations of faith in the bible. "My Lord and my God!"
     The resurrection of someone who has been dead for three days is quite outside the norm. So we shouldn't be too hard on Thomas for his unbelief, for wanting to see for himself. Wouldn't we want to do the same thing?
     Having some doubts is not a bad thing. When we wrestle with our faith and beliefs and we work them out, they become our own, not someone telling us what to believe. We have the freedom to question, to think, to pray, and to make our faith our own. When we own it, it becomes stronger.
     Jesus meets Thomas where he is. Jesus knows Thomas' need for proof that Jesus is alive and Jesus gives that to him. Jesus knows Thomas' needs as he knows our own. Jesus does not let locked doors or doubt get in the way of his getting to Thomas. Nothing will block Jesus' love and attention toward the one who has doubts.
     God meets us where we are, in our doubts, in our despair, in our fear, in our hopelessness, even behind locked doors and locked hearts. God will reach out to you and me as God reached out to Thomas, not in anger because of his doubts, but in peace because of the love God has for us. Amen.
*Synthesis - April 23, 2017, PNMSI Publishing   

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