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On the day that we call “Maundy Thursday,” Jesus ate the Passover meal with His disciples in the Upper Room and transformed the Passover meal into the Lord’s Supper. After the meal came to its conclusion, Jesus led the 11 disciples minus Judas to the Garden of Gethsemane. It’s about two miles from Jerusalem, up the Mount of Olives to the Garden. As they walked, Jesus had a lot to say.
St. John records much of what Jesus says along the way. In fact, half of chapter 13 and all of chapters 14,15,16 record Jesus words to His disciples as they follow Him to His arrest. Some of what He wants them to know is that He must leave them, and that He will rejoin them. “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again in a little while you will see me. Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.”
He compares their experience to a woman in labor. “When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” (John 16:20-23).
When Jesus was taken away from them and brutally abused and crucified, they were in great sorrow and severe distress. The whole world had collapsed. All of their hopes and dreams where crushed and they were deeply disappointed and depressed. They were like sheep whose shepherd was suddenly taken from them and they were all alone and terrified.
I’m tempted to say, ‘maybe some of you can identify with the disciples.’ But none of us can. All of their trouble was due to the fact that Jesus had left them. But He has never left us. We will never experience the fear and despair that they experienced.
Their tribulation however was only for a short time. “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’
“A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again in a little while you will see me.” Jesus never fails to keep His promise.
Can we begin to imagine what those words of His must have meant to them? “Peace be with you.” “Shalom.” The world is coming apart at the seams, the foundations are crumbling under our feet, everything that I hoped and dreamed for my life has come undone. And here stands this man who says, “Peace be with you.” What good are words at a time like this – whoever you are and however you got in here?
“When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.” This is Jesus, the crucified Jesus. The “he breathed His last” Jesus. This is their shepherd.
“Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” The world has gone mad and nothing makes sense. The danger and disappointment is all still there. BUT JESUS IS HERE. MY JESUS IS HERE. And all is well.
“I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” What a night that must have been. What an Easter that must have been.
A second time Jesus speaks His Word of peace. “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you.” With His first word of “peace” He sets them free from all of their fear and fills their heart with joy. Now with the second word of “peace” He sends them to feed others with His forgiveness and love. They’re not to stay in this little room and keep their joy to themselves. It’s meant to be shared, because there’s a world of people who live in fear and with deep disappointment and despair and who need to know that JESUS IS HERE. YOUR JESUS IS WITH YOU.
“As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” The Father sent His only begotten Son into the world, not to condemn the world but because He so loved the world. “So I am sending you.”
“And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.” It’s a ‘little Pentecost,’ 50 days before the ‘big Pentecost.’ They can do nothing apart from the Holy Spirit.
Here, in this ‘little Pentecost,’ Jesus gives them the authority of the Holy Spirit to preach and to speak in His name. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
Some people have a problem with the fact that the ‘called and ordained servant to of the Word,’ should have the arrogance to say, “I forgive you all of your sins.” ‘Don’t you know that only God can forgive sins?’ ‘Yes, of course I know that. But I am not speaking for myself. I am speaking for Jesus. When you hear me say what only Jesus can say, you should know, JESUS IS HERE. YOUR JESUS IS HERE.’
The first one that these ‘called and ordained servants’ exercise their new office with is Thomas. Thomas was one of the twelve, but he wasn’t in with the others on that first Easter night. See what you miss when you miss church.
“The disciples told him, ‘we have seen the Lord.’” That’s the first recorded sermon that the disciples preach after their commission from Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Short and sweet. After the ‘big Pentecost’ sermons get much longer. But here, it’s simply a matter of the eyewitnesses saying what their eye has witnessed. ‘We have seen the Lord.’ It’s an incredible sermon really.
“But Thomas said to them, ‘Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails and place my hand into His side, I will never believe.”
Thomas has a problem with believing the word that comes from the Apostles. In the Nicene Creed, we say that we believe in “the one, holy Christian and APOLSTOLIC church.” That means that we believe the word of the Apostles. That’s what the New Testament is really.
But Thomas wasn’t ready to confess the Nicene Creed just yet. He couldn’t bring himself to say, “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ… He suffered and was buried. AND ON THE THIRD DAY HE ROSE AGAIN…” And he didn’t believe that BECAUSE he didn’t believe the Apostolic word. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is inseparably connected to believe in the Apostolic Word.
The Apostolic word is not enough for Thomas. Thomas is a charismatic. The Word is not enough for him. He’s got to feel, touch, see. He wants a word directly from Jesus.
To be sure, Thomas’ doubt is not just ‘weak faith.’ It’s full-fledged faithlessness and disbelief. Which kind of makes you wonder why this text for the 2nd Sunday after Easter every year, even in the three-year cycle. You would think that Thomas might be discreetly kept out of sight, like crazy aunt Gertrude who’s behavior is an embarrassment to the whole family. But in fact, Thomas is put before us every year.
What is it that we are supposed to see in Thomas? What are we to learn from him and how are we to be strengthened on our faith and hope by his example?
One of the early church Fathers, St. Gregory the Great, answers our question like this.
“The disbelief of Thomas has done more for our faith than the faith of the other disciples.” “In a marvelous way God’s mercy arranged that the disbelieving disciple, in touching the wounds of his master’s body, should heal our wounds of disbelief.”
In other words, Thomas is someone in whom we can all see ourselves. It’s not a pretty picture and its nothing to be proud of, for sure. How often have we put demands before our Lord and spell out the terms that the Lord must meet if He expects us to believe?
But Gregory directs us not so much to how Thomas doubts the Apostolic Word, but to how Jesus responds to doubting Thomas.
Jesus comes and meets Him right where he is, even in his disbelief. “Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ And then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it into my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.’
There is no scolding or reprimand of Thomas. No lecture on what a disappointment he is. No penance dolled out that must be paid just to be sure that his is sufficiently contrite of heart. Not even a, “why weren’t you in church last Sunday.”
This is just the way it is with Jesus. His grace is greater than our doubts. He doesn’t leave Thomas to drown in his doubts or perish in his disbelief but comes to him and offers His side to Thomas’ hand and speaks His forgiving word into his ears – just as He does for you.
“Thomas answered Him, ‘My Lord and my God.’ There is more here than meets the eye and we dare not miss it. What Thomas sees with his eyes and touches with his hands is the humanity of Jesus Christ. That is, he sees and touches a human being. But what Thomas says is, “my Lord and my God.” He sees true man and confesses true God. In other words, Jesus gives Thomas all he had demanded and much, much more.
Historians record that after the ‘big Pentecost,’ Thomas went to India where he preached the good news about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and died a martyr’s death. The Christian Church in India to this day holds Thomas to be its patron saint.
Listen to St. Gregory again.
“What follows is reason for great joy: Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed. There is here a particular reference to ourselves; for we hold in our hearts one we have not seen in the flesh. We are included in these words…”
We are not ‘eyewitnesses’ of Jesus. The old spiritual asks, ‘where you there when they crucified my Lord?’ And we can only answer, ‘no, I wasn’t there.’ We’ve only heard about it.
Peter writes to the Christian Church saying, “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1Peter 1:8-9).
According to that same APOSTOLIC, we believe that we will one day see Jesus “as He is.” But for now, we live by faith and not sight. We hear His voice, spoken through a called servant, “I forgive you all of your sins.” We receive His crucified body and death defying blood hidden under bread and wine. And we believe. And we have His peace. And we have His joy. JESUS IS HERE. MY JESUS IS HERE.