In all three years of the Revised Common Lectionary, on the 2nd Sunday of Easter the Gospel text is the same: John 20:19-31.
You can catch my thoughts from this time last year through this link. Today’s situation is different (oh my, how different…) and so I’m sharing new thoughts. Similar, really, but current.
One can speculate a couple possible reasons for the lectionary’s annual repetition of this text.
- Perhaps the compilers thought we needed to maximize the resurrection appearances of all the Gospels, since if they stuck to just Matthew in Year A they would run out of material before the season ended.
- Perhaps they thought we Christians of later centuries find ourselves aptly reflected in the story of “doubting Thomas,” looking in on the scene like the patrons of the painting by Rubens in the side panels of the triptych, full of their own doubts.
- Or perhaps they knew that the Sunday after Easter has extremely low attendance, and repeating this great text would improve the odds of it being heard at all.
The Good News of Peace
I am struck today by Jesus’ message to his anxious followers. There they were, hunkering down in a locked room like there was a global pandemic or something. And in pops Jesus, in the resurrected flesh, and he says to them,
Peace be with you.” (John 20:19 NRSV)
Just in case the message didn’t stick the first time, he repeats it:
Peace be with you.” (John 20:21 NRSV)
So first of all, notice that this is the Good News of the resurrection: we are invited into peace.
And like them, we need peace. They were terrified, bereft of their friend and Lord. And we are terrified, or angry, or both — and with good reason as the virus sweeps through the world, and the attempts to contain it put millions and millions out of work.
Oh yes, we need peace. We need that good news. We need to hear Jesus say,
Peace be with you!
And we need it not to be mere words and best wishes.
In a crucial sense, this peace is his substantive gift to us. Victory over death is peace in the ultimate conflict all must face, and that is what Easter, his resurrection, is all about.
But why did he repeat the message?
After he said it the first time he showed them his scars, and so they knew full well he was there in their midst.
I think it was his perceptiveness, and his kindness.
Jesus knows that anxious people, whether in grief or in a pandemic, forget the possibility of peace — and that means we forget his Good News, the very gift of peace which he came, and died, and rose to provide us.
I hope that Jesus’ resurrection promise of peace goes deep into your heart in the midst of the present conflicts.
We all need peace as we shelter in place, isolate, and keep social distance. It’s crazy-making, this situation, filling individuals with conflict and creating conflicts aplenty between us and those we live with.
But am I at risk of “psychologizing the Gospel”?
Well, I don’t want to turn our salvation to a mere matter of psychology, if that means merely feelings and individual inner states.
But the “psyche” in psychology is your soul — your self, the inner and real you that must go through the world and live the life we are given. If the Gospel doesn’t actually reach your psyche, your soul, then it is hardly good news.
I don’t want to say the Gospel is “merely” psychological, any more than I would say that the Gospel is “merely” forgiveness.
The Gospel is the good news that salvation has come to us in Christ — forgiveness of sins, and the rebirth of our lives, our very souls, selves, psyches, to a life in which there is peace.
Jesus says, to you and to me, as well as to his first disciples,
Peace be with you!
And a Mission
But once Jesus confirmed his message of peace, he did something more.
Jesus gave his disciples a mission.
When you think of Jesus defining his mission you probably remember Matthew’s version:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20 NRSV)
(There’s actually more to it in Matthew: Jesus’ starts by declaring universal authority, and follows up with the promise that he will be with us always. All of that is part of the Great Commission in 18-20. It isn’t intended to make us activists who think it all depends on us.)
Or perhaps you think of Luke’s version from Acts 1:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 NRSV)
(There’s a bit more to the Great Commission in Acts as well: Jesus frames this call with his declaration that the disciples don’t get to know anything specific about the timing of the end times. Alas, Christians often fail to take that bit to heart.)
But this is John’s “Great Commission,” the risen Christ giving his disciples their marching orders, just like in Matthew and Luke/Acts. Here it is:
Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me,
so I send you.” (John 20:21 NRSV)
Sounds much more simple than the Synoptic versions. But it isn’t.
Just as the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us.
You have to ask, “How was it that the Father sent Jesus?”
God was incarnate in Jesus. By sending Jesus God came in person.
The Father sent Jesus to reveal the Father’s own nature and will, to do the Father’s own acts of redemption — to be the Father’s own presence.
John is emphatic about this point, really. Take a look through John some time and see how many ways Jesus says that he came to reveal the Father, to do the Father’s will, to speak the Father’s words. He was so fully the presence of God in the world that he could tell people that if they’d seen him, they’d seen the Father.
When you think about it, that’s a much bigger calling than “be witnesses” or “make disciples … baptizing … and teaching.”
In John we have a calling not merely to “do” for Jesus, but to “be” something.
We are to be so filled with Jesus that we are as united to him as he is united to his Father. (If you don’t believe me, give John 17 a good close read.)
With that as our calling, nothing is hindered by our pandemic plight.
- Draw close to Jesus, like a branch is close to its vine.
- Live in the one who is Resurrection and Life; find his life and show it to others.
- No matter how much or how little you can go about in the world, you are the light of the world because he who is the Light of the world is within you.
The Holy Spirit given and described
And that’s why he then breathed on them and gave them the Holy Spirit.
That’s how the Father sent him into the world. Remember how the Spirit in the form of a dove descended on him at his baptism? Now, from this early resurrection appearance, we too get this Spirit and are equipped to be for him in the world.
(What happened at Pentecost was not the first coming of the Spirit, but a coming with power, and a coming more broadly to those who follow in faith.)
The surprise here, in our era when the Holy Spirit is expected to come bringing gifts of tongues, and healing, and prophecy, is the purpose Jesus defined for giving the Spirit.
“…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.’” (John 20:22-23)
That’s a very different kind of empowerment.
That’s probably more authority than most of us actually wanted.
So much easier to go and preach and teach than to have responsibility for other people’s being forgiven or not…
Maybe the whole point of this story is to get us to finally take seriously what he said earlier in the gospel about abiding in Christ.
Thomas and Us
I have to say something about Thomas here before I go. He gets such a bad rap for being a “doubter.”
All he really wanted was the same evidence the others got while he was out buying groceries (surely wearing his home-made face mask like you and I do when we have to go out).
When the rest of them saw the risen Christ,
…he showed them
and his side.” (John 20:20 NRSV)
So when Thomas came back, he wanted that too:
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.” (John 20:25 NRSV)
To me it sounds quite reasonable. And Jesus provided.
But the Gospel is clear, both in Jesus’ words and John’s editorializing, that this isn’t going to be the case for everybody.
When they go out as he sends them (in the same way he went out sent by the Father) they’ll tell people Jesus rose. But most people will hear about it after his ascension.
Blessed are you and I who hear from trustworthy witnesses, down the centuries’ long chain of testimony.
Blessed are you and I who hear the inner testimony of the Spirit affirming the outer testimony of friends and the Word.
Blessed are we who believe because, as he did with Thomas, Jesus brought us revelation in just the way we needed at just the right time.
Stay healthy, my friend.
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