Texts: Acts 4: 32-35; 1 John 1:1 – 2:2; John 20: 19-31
Jesus was hardly up from the grave when the faith community had its first test of life after resurrection. Consider it like the family situation that it truly was. The beloved elder brother had died. He was the one who had defined the family and kept them all together. Not actually even the oldest age-wise, he had drawn the genuine love and devotion of all the others who freely gave him their full trust.
After Jesus’s death, only by the most fragile and tenuous of connections did these diverse sisters and brothers fostered by Jesus into one community, stay connected through their grief and loss. According to John’s gospel one sister, Mary Magdalene, had brought the unsettling news that alone in the garden, she’d seen Jesus. The brothers were inclined to disbelieve this. What was it anyway, a vision born of grief? Perhaps hysteria?
The women were not with the men in the upper room during the discussions about Mary’s news. The women seem to disappear into the post-resurrection background in this gospel. But it’s not out of bounds to suppose that the news had passed among the women quickly and they saw no reason to doubt their sister’s experience. This would make sense of why Jesus had directed Mary specifically “But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and to your Father, to my God and your God.’”
So, the family was divided emotionally and physically. Grieving, struggling. This is not the lovely vision of the community that we heard about in the reading from the book of Acts. “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held common.”
Such a community did certainly exist at one time. In the early days of the Christian church, people were able to focus more on what they had in common than in what divided them. It was a moment, precious and fragile that was not to last.
A good question to ask ourselves, is how did that vision of God’s reign ever exist at all? How did the shattered family find its way past those first days and weeks into any kind of future together? And the answer is… The breath of Jesus of course.
AKA the Holy Spirit of God. After all, back in the fourteenth chapter Jesus had said he would send the Spirit, the Advocate, the Comforter to be with his family. “I have said these things to you while I am with you. But the Advocate/Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my own peace I give to you; I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
Now is that moment, as John’s gospel picks up the post-resurrection account in the twentieth chapter. It is a perfectly executed jeté moving from the disciples’ early fear of losing Jesus, into the upper room reality. Now, would Jesus be able to move the community forward?
It would take those very gifts that Jesus had promised to get beyond this crisis. Peace, and the Holy Spirit. Jesus didn’t just wish peace upon the disciples. He granted it to them. This peace of Jesus means actually: rest, and be at one again.
God knows the disciples needed to relax their guard, lay down their fear and become united again. Remember, Judas was gone, and Thomas was missing. They needed to reunite and reconstitute their community. Starting right there in that room. Only then would they have the strength to leave their stronghold and go onward to meet the risen Christ in Galilee.
When we hear this story the focus is always on Thomas. Is that really fair? Was Thomas so different from the others? All the disciples had to see Jesus’s hands and side before overcoming their doubt. Only after that would they see and believe that Jesus was with them beyond the grave.
The gift of the Holy Spirit was absolutely necessary too. Jesus had to breathe it on the men. First came peace and next, seeing. Now came God’s Spirit. And these words: “If you would release the sins of any, they are released to them; if you would retain, they are retained.”
We are accustomed to hearing this as if the mission is for the disciples to go out and address moral failures. As if, it is the first and most important commission of the Christian community, the church. But is this what Jesus called the church to be? In that room behind those locked doors Jesus set the men rejoicing with his words and blessing. Yet somehow being everybody’s moral gatekeeper doesn’t seem to be much of a gift, nor a reason for great joy.
Next, in almost a second story, Thomas arrives on the scene. There’s a brief exchange between the disciples. Thomas left, and seemingly nothing was resolved. Until a week later…And then Thomas went from not being with them to being with them. And Jesus returned and conferred upon Thomas the same peace and vision of his wounds as his brothers had received.
This gospel says that when Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit upon the ten disciples present in that room the first time, he gave them a spiritual gift with enormous consequences. They could compassionately retain their broken brother Thomas. Or forever ban him from the community.
This is a beautiful story. Thomas was retained while in his doubt; while he was moving away from them. You may already know that the definition of sin is to miss the mark. But there’s more to this definition. The whole thing is this: to miss the mark and so not share in the prize.”
Isaiah 53:5 says, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” Jesus came bearing the gift of the Spirit, and the vision of his wounds. By these things the men were able to give their broken brother Thomas room to return and move together toward wholeness.
This is the first post-resurrection gift from Jesus. To make their community whole by the Holy Spirit. And so to share in the prize. And the prize is? Joy of course! So, dear church….dear brothers and sisters, will we take to heart this story and this vision of our brother Jesus’s post-resurrection community life? Or perhaps it’s a simpler question: how can we be faithful in spreading joy? Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.