Sermon for Second Sunday of Easter April 28, 2019
I was having breakfast at a local restaurant when the waitress came to me and said she had a story she thought I would appreciate. The true story took place while she was at work on Good Friday. She came to a customer ready to take his order. He ordered “Holy Ghost”. She thought, this can’t be right, so she said, “I’m sorry, but would you repeat your order”. He repeated, “Holy Ghost”. The waitress had no idea what was going on but with patience she said, “I still did not hear your order, would you please tell me again?” This time she heard him say not “Holy Ghost” but ‘whole wheat toast”. Now that made sense. “Holy Ghost….whole wheat toast”, they sound the same and even rhyme. The waitress said the man was soft-spoken and looked away from her when he spoke. She concluded her story by making this appraisal: “My heart was in the right place because it was Good Friday.”
Later in this season of Easter, a celebration of seven Sundays, we will hear Jesus actually grilling toast at the seashore for his disciples. But in today’s gospel we don’t hear about toast, but we do hear about the Holy Ghost, or as we say in more modern speech, the Holy Spirit. The setting was the first Easter, in the evening. The disciples heard from Mary Magdalene that she had seen the risen Lord Jesus. But the disciples of Jesus were not too sure what to believe. They had practical fears to deal with: the doors were locked because they feared arrest from the authorities that crucified Jesus. Then Jesus came. He didn’t knock on the door but simply stood among them. He spoke “Peace be with you.” This was the way people greeted one another, and they still do so in the Middle East today. Then Jesus showed them his hands and his side. This is mysterious. Jesus, risen from the dead, is able to come and stand in the midst of people. And yet, the wounds of the crucifixion are clearly visible. We celebrate the resurrection with a lot of alleluias. The reading from Revelation called Jesus the “firstborn of the dead”. Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning, the start of a renewed creation with resurrection promised for all who believe. But still we must see the wounds of the cross. Jesus still shows us his hands and his side. The cross is certainty that sins are forgiven through faith in Jesus Christ. The reading from Revelation stated Jesus is the faithful witness of God’s love for the world, love exalted at the cross where Jesus freed us from our sins by his blood. So we imagine Jesus in our midst saying “Peace”, not only a greeting, but grace: the grace of the forgiveness of sins and the gift of his life which means eternal life for us.
The gospel of John began with the introduction that with Jesus we receive not just little grace, but grace upon grace. We also receive peace upon peace. Jesus said to the disciples again “Peace be with you.” When Jesus says “Peace be with you, Look out!” New life happens. The disciples despair was changed to joy. The disciples’ fear was taken over by faith. Jesus didn’t come to condemn them but to free them from their sins by his blood, by his sacrifice. Now he said “peace again”. Jesus told them “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Right after he said this, Jesus breathed on them and said “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In the original languages of the Bible, both Hebrew and Greek, ‘spirit’ and ‘breath’ are the same word. Also think of the 2nd chapter of Genesis which described how God formed the first human being from the ground. But this form only becomes a living human being when God breathes life into this first human being. Think of Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. The bones live when Ezekiel was commanded to preach the word of God to the bones. For with the word of God comes Holy Breath or Holy Spirit, and the dead bones come to life when God breathes new life into them. Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones was the whole house of Israel that felt cut off, slain, in despair. But new life came from the Word and breath of God. The disciples are breathed upon meaning they are inspired or in-spirited, to speak words that overcome despair and fear. Jesus put it this way, “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Here is the church: not a building to be maintained, but the people of God commissioned by Jesus to bring the healing word of forgiveness. Here is the church, not people who complain, but as the reading from Revelation declared, Jesus has made us to be a kingdom, a kingdom of priests to serve God. Martin Luther would speak of the ‘priesthood of all believers”. We have the exciting mission of forgiving sins. By our words and deeds we are communicate to people that God is not against them or angry with them. We can recall the words of the preacher St. Paul writing in his letter to the Romans, “If God be for us, who or what dare to be against us. In Jesus Christ, God has given us full salvation so that nothing at all, not even death, can separate one from the love of God proven, revealed, signed, sealed, and delivered through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Our Gospel lesson today has two parts. Only in the gospel of John do we hear about Thomas. Thomas is infamous because of a nickname “Doubting Thomas”. This does not seem fair. Thomas was not in the room when Jesus first appeared. Thomas heard their witness “We have seen the Lord.” But Thomas replied, “Not so fast.” He made it clear “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and put my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Good for you, Thomas. He wasn’t ‘just interested in “seeing the Lord”; truth faith must see the wounds of the cross. In the gospel of John Thomas had a reputation for speaking up. When Jesus said “you know the way to the place where I am going”, Thomas said “Hold your horses, Jesus. We do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?” An important question to ask for Jesus answered, “I am the Way, the the Truth, and the Life.” Thomas liked to ask questions, he would not hide his uncertainty. What we misunderstood as ‘doubting’ actually is a prayer for the gift of faith.
Years ago a church I was serving went on an evangelism mission. We called on members and explained a simple tract called the ABC’s of faith: Admit you are a sinner, believe the good news of Jesus who died to take away sins. And C: Confess faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord. I shared this with a man who listened politely. But he told me he could not believe in the resurrection of the dead. He felt all scientific evidence pointed to life is over at death, there is no more. I shared this incident at a ministerial meeting. An older pastor advised, “Don’t be too hard on the man. Jesus understands when people find it hard to believe. Jesus does not condemn doubters, agnostics, questioners, and even atheists. More than ever Jesus wants people to believe. This is not just a wish on Jesus’ part, for in some way Jesus will help people come to faith.” What he said made sense to me, because in our text, Jesus came to Thomas not to berate him but to bless him with peace. As we said when Jesus says “peace”, something happens. With grace Jesus came to Thomas and invited him to touch his hands and sides: feel the wounds of the cross, with the invitation to believe. Just hear what Jesus’ gift of peace did to Thomas, for Thomas gave a clear confession, “My Lord, and my God.”
We may have our questions about faith. We may have doubts but our uncertainly does not stop Jesus. To you and me today, he is in our midst with a word of peace. Jesus gave a benediction or blessing for all of us when he said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” The gospel writer, John, narrates, “Now Jesus did may 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.” Faith comes by hearing, and what we hear is the good news of Jesus; the firstborn of the dead, who has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us a kingdom of priest, called to serve our loving and gracious God. So may we have life in its fullness from Jesus who knows our sins but does not hold them but forgives them, who knows our fears, and faithfully stands with us to say, “:Peace be with you.”