John 20:19-31. When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘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.’
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’
27Then he said 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.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But 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.
The gospels go to great lengths to show that Jesus really was dead when he was put into the tomb. Then they go to great lengths to show that he really was alive when he came out. I think you know what this means for us. Jesus is the “firstborn from the dead.” (Colossians 1:18) He leads the way out of death – he rises – and we follow. He has done what we will do. We will live again. The new life Jesus offers through faith can begin right now. So, that means there is more than one way to be dead.
I think most of us are familiar with John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
But I wonder if you’ve paid attention to verses 17-19:
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned (dead); but those who do not believe are condemned (dead) already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.
We live in this state of spiritual death, this condemnation, this separation from God, until Jesus brings us out of that tomb, out of that death. There’s a part of our nature that wants to live in destructive ways. Inside the tomb are things that we know instinctively aren’t good for us. Things we do, things we drink, things we smoke, places we go, relationships we shouldn’t have. The tomb can be any preoccupation or obsession with something that keeps you from God. Before you get consumed by guilt and can’t listen to anything else I say, try to understand that we are all in this tomb in some way, and we all need the power of God to bring us out, to make us live again. The disciples – and all of us – are in a tomb until Jesus leads us out. I want to show you how he does that.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, 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 20:21-23
Peace be with you. Peace. Relax. In Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus and the angel first see Mary, they say, “Don’t be afraid.” Relax, God says. I’m not here to hurt you. When Jesus comes to his friends who are in hiding, Three times he says, “Peace be with you.” (vv. 19, 21, 26) This isn’t just a hello, it is something angels say in the Old Testament to calm down frightened people (Judges 6:23; Daniel 10:19). Who is this? They don’t recognize him. Jesus really died and they were not expecting to see him again. It’s not until Jesus shows them his hands and side that they know who this is. So, the first thing Jesus does is calm us down. Peace. Relax. One of the biggest problems with our faith is our inability to just stop, be still, look around, get your bearings, let go of your anxiety, and understand what God is saying. Hear that voice of God saying, “Peace.”
Then Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” As we soak in God’s peace, Jesus starts to explain the mission. Jesus didn’t come out of the tomb just to show us that he could do it. It’s not some trick he did to impress the world; it’s for a purpose. It’s for us. God sent him, God brought him back to life. When we believe, God brings us back to life and sends us. It’s not just a trick with us either. There is something God wants us to do. But first, we need the tools.
When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. (vv. 21-22) Sounds a little strange until you remember that in the book of Genesis, it’s with wind, or breath that God creates and gives life (Genesis 2:7). In Hebrew, wind is the same word as Spirit. Who is this? Who is this who is able to give life with his breath? It’s God. You see, until this point in John’s gospel, although there are strong hints, nobody has told us exactly who this is, but because of him, something special is happening to this little group of people hiding out somewhere in Jerusalem.
First, they believe Jesus is alive – they have faith. Then they are given the Holy Spirit – God enters them because of that faith. Their lives are different from that moment on. They are different people. They are alive. God did this; this person speaking to them is God. First, we know God is at work because Jesus came out of the tomb. Now we know God is at work because these people are changing. The impossible is happening – to them! They are believing and receiving the Spirit. Faith does not mean you are changing yourself. Faith means that you have believed Jesus is alive, given yourself to him, and allowed God to go to work. You’ve said, “God, I can’t come out of this tomb. I want to, but I can’t. I trust you to bring me out.”
There can be a moment when light shines in your darkness and you realize that God is truly with you and is stronger than the tomb. You have a chance to breathe again, big gulps of fresh air. You have a chance to start over.
But you can’t keep this new life just for yourself. Now Jesus gives us marching orders: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” In other words, “through the Spirit, I am now in you, so do what I have been doing: forgiving sins. Some who listen to you will believe what you say and some won’t.” Some will want forgiveness and some won’t.
Do you remember last week, Easter Sunday, when Jesus made his first public appearance to most of the disciples (in the Gospel of Matthew), there were some who doubted, even with Jesus standing right in front of them? And it’s personal for that little group hiding behind a locked door, probably still blaming themselves for what happened to Jesus. “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” He is saying, don’t do that. I forgive; you forgive. Then to close out the gospel of John there’s a story of reconciliation with Thomas and another with Peter.
I think it’s awesome that we had church members wearing these shirts at the last community breakfast here at St. Paul’s. For – giving. Forgiveness is a big deal. I think it’s what the world is craving and the one thing we all need to learn. Forgiveness is something we all need to support each other in doing. It’s a very hard thing God is asking us to do. And you might be thinking to yourself, can I forgive… whatever situation that came into your mind? Maybe you should ask first, “can I be forgiven?” God says yes. And God gives us orders to go out on a mission of forgiveness.
Be God’s representative. Be a channel of forgiveness. Let somebody off the hook. I don’t have words to describe how important this is. The people who walk into this building need to sense an atmosphere of forgiveness. They need healing.
There’s a Spanish story of a father and son who had become estranged. The son ran away, and the father set off to find him. He searched for months to no avail. Finally, in a last desperate effort to find him, the father put an ad in a Madrid newspaper. The ad read: Dear Paco, meet me in front of this newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you. Your Father. On Saturday 800 Pacos showed up, looking for forgiveness and love from their fathers.
Christian singer Matthew West wrote a little piece about forgiveness that goes like this (excerpts):
…while I am being honest, I should probably confess that I have a hard enough time forgiving the person who cut in front of me at the grocery check out, or my wife when we find ourselves at odds, let alone someone who has done irreparable harm to myself or my family. Yes, unfortunately holding a grudge is something I do quite well. How about you? Is there someone in your life who wronged you? Maybe a relationship that has been severed because a lie was told or trust betrayed? Or perhaps, …you hold on to a deep resentment that you carry with you every moment of every day. Maybe… someone has stolen away something or someone so precious to you that you can never get back. Big or small, forgiveness can be a seemingly impossible bridge to cross.
In Philip Yancey’s book What’s So Amazing About Grace?, he describes forgiveness as an unnatural act. I could not agree more. He writes, “I never find forgiveness easy, and rarely do I find it completely satisfying. Nagging injustices remain, and the wounds still cause pain. I have to approach God again and again, yielding to him the residue of what I thought I had committed to him long ago. I do so because the Gospels make clear the connection: God forgives my debts as I forgive my debtors.”
Forgiveness makes little sense, as long as we are the ones being asked to forgive. It goes against everything we feel inside when we are the wronged party. And being the flawed humans we are, we do have our limits. However, when we are the ones in need of forgiveness, well, isn’t that quite a different story?
C.S. Lewis wrote, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” Let us always be mindful of our own deep and endless need for forgiveness, and grateful for the limitless forgiveness that is extended to us through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
Let us be grateful that He did not wait for us to make the first move. “For God demonstrates his great love for us in this; while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8.)” He initiated forgiveness of our sins, and in doing so, released its healing power into the lives of all who accept.
The stone is rolled away from the tomb for all of us. God did that. It was our sin that Jesus on the cross and he is waiting to put his arms around us and say, “It’s all right. It’s all right.” Your faith in him brings the forgiveness you’ve been looking for. We just have to look up and see the way out of the tomb. Take that step with Christ – you’re free! And so we pray.
Guide us and guide our church, O God, into a new sense of what it means to live for you and have faith in the resurrection of your son Jesus. Bring us out of our tombs and give us the strength to stay out, day by day, with you. Teach us daily how to forgive, and through us, help others understand your good news of forgiveness. Give us peace; teach us patience. Touch with healing those who need it most. Help us find strength and confidence in your presence. And help us grow into a deeper appreciation for the privilege of worship, for this is a special place and a special time, and we have had a special experience through meeting Jesus Christ, – our risen Lord. Amen.