a sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Easter, John 20:19-31
Breath is a common and important device used throughout our Holy scriptures. The breath of God moves across creation, creating life, restoring life, marking the presence of the creator God. When Jesus breathes on the gathered disciples today, he does so to pass on something important, something that is beyond what they have yet to receive, experiencing the physical presence and touch of the risen Lord, and being entrusted to carry on the mission that lies before them. But, Thomas isn’t there. Thomas misses out on this opportunity to touch and feel and receive a physical gift from Jesus Christ as he breathes over the gathered group. Thomas, one who has been seen interacting with Jesus on multiple occasions throughout the ministry, misses his chance to greet the risen Lord. All Thomas wants is what everyone else has received. What Thomas gets, enables us to carry on the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ.
Jesus breathed on the disciples saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” What a remarkable gift that has been given. Here is the resurrected Lord, here is their teacher, their friend, and he is breathing on them. He is giving them the gift of the Holy Spirit. He is giving them the ability to go out and continue this mission, to change the world, to insure that this life, this sacrifice is not like any others before or after. Jesus puts forth a simple model for the disciples, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” With the power of the Holy Spirit, the disciples are well equipped to live into this mission. With the power of the Holy Spirit, breathed into them, the disciples can be confident in this mission, they have the power of God, they have the reassurance of their risen Lord, given to them in person, that they will be the forgivers of sin, the retainers of sin, that they will continue this mission forward.
And that’s great for the disciples and all, but what about us? How are we supposed to live into the mission of Christ, if we don’t have that same physical experience that has been gifted to the disciples. This question is why the importance of Apostolic succession has been so important in the Catholic and Anglican Church traditions. For if you can draw a physical link from person-to-person, bishop-to-priest, bishop-to-the laity through confirmation, or even priest-to-laity through baptism, and trace that physical link all the way back to the disciples, then it’s as if that physical touch of Christ has traced all the way through the generations. In many ways that physical connection helps lend a certain assurance to our work, a certain confidence that the work we do for Christ has been ordained by Christ through history and tradition. But, that connection through the history of the Church only goes so far. Particularly because we did not get to experience Jesus, receive the physical blessing directly from the risen Lord. So the question then is, is there something else, something beyond this physical realm that we can hold onto to know, truly, that the work we are doing for Christ has been ordained by Him, that the work we are doing is the work of Christ.
Thomas is our confidence, Thomas is the creator of the experience through which we can know Christ, even without that physical touch, that physical connection. Thomas, grieving the loss of his friend, has the added grief thrown onto him that he has missed the appearance of the risen Christ. The sense of loss he was already feeling is compounded because he has missed the resurrection. So, Thomas responds the only way he can in order to not completely lose it, he doubts the story of the other disciples. Not out of distrust, not out of a lack of faith, but out of a place of deep grief. Setting himself up to be deeply misunderstood by those who will read his story, Thomas does the only thing he can to hold onto his last gasp of sanity. For, if he has truly missed the risen Lord, missed the opportunity to receive the Holy Spirit, to be emboldened in carrying on this mission, then his reality will be shattered, he will be lost, he will be the doubting Thomas he has come to be known as. But he doesn’t allow himself to go down that path. He takes the only option before him, to deny, and hope that he hasn’t truly missed his only chance at encountering the risen Lord.
Can you imagine then his absolute joy when Christ appears again? We really don’t have to imagine, for Thomas’ response sums it up quite nicely, “My lord and my God!” Thomas responds to the words of Jesus Christ today, responds to the opportunity that has been granted him, responds to the fear and anguish that has racked him for the past week, and responds in a way that shows his faith, that shows his closeness and bond to this mission, and the relief that he will be able to continue in this mission. But, he does not receive the Holy Spirit, he does not receive that physical touch of Christ, so what makes this event special for Thomas, where do we draw our inspiration out of this moment?
When Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” He is not chastising Thomas, he is blessing us, for we have not seen and yet have come to believe. Thomas himself is blessed because his supposed doubt was due to the faith he had and the fear that he may be left behind. But, Christ uses Thomas to let us all know that the physical touch of Christ is not what is necessary to carry out the mission that is before us. Christ, through Thomas, shows us that all we need is a deep belief, the knowledge of Christ, the recognition of our lord and our God, and to know that Christ is with us, even as we move further and further away from his physical presence in this world. Thomas’ recognition of Christ, without the physical evidence (not to mention the physical gift) that has already been shared with the other disciples, shows us that we can and must recognize Christ through the voice of Christ, not solely through the physical touch of Christ.
When we recognize this presence of Christ in our world, in our lives, that the word of Christ is constantly with us, constantly supporting us, constantly engaging us and making us move deeper into faith, deeper into belief, then we know that the work of Christ that is before us is not just accomplishable, but it is our duty as followers of Christ, for it has been entrusted to us, just as the voice of Christ has been entrusted to our use in grounding our faith. Thus, through the example of Thomas, we are called to take up the mantle of the disciples and continue on the mission of Christ, particularly in forgiving sins.
Forgiveness serves as a grounding principle of our faith, and we often find ourselves with chances to forgive, but time and time again we fail to take the opportunity, we fail to live into our mission. True, we come here to seek forgiveness, for things done and left undone, for our trespasses and those who trespass against us, but we are often here to selfishly seek forgiveness for ourselves, we rarely come here seeking forgiveness for or from others. We fail to seek forgiveness for and from others, because it is hard. It is hard to admit sin, and it is even harder to speak for yourself when sin is done against you or those you love. We try so hard to get ourselves right with God, that we forget that our call as followers of Christ is to facilitate the ability for others to get right with God. As followers we must seek forgiveness, but more importantly we have to create forgiveness for those who do not know they can have it. Often, those who sin, act much like Thomas, doubling down on their current situation, because they are terrified that what they have done or not done has forever kept them from experiencing Christ. But, just as Thomas shows us in his declaration of faith, if we have received the word of God, then we can bring that word of God forth and forgive and create opportunities for forgiveness. If we have faith to declare “My lord and my God!” then we definitely have the faith to declare “My lord and my God, forgive me, help me to forgive them, help them find the forgiveness they need.”
If we can do this, then we can breath with the breath of God, we can be the physical presence of Christ in this world, we can be that physical reality that the disciples enjoyed, and that Thomas has enabled for us by receiving the presence of Christ through word only. Saint Thomas’ faith was never intended to be up for consideration. Thomas’ doubt that is mentioned by Christ, is not a doubt of faith, it’s a doubt of fear that he may have missed Christ. When Christ tells him do not doubt but believe, Thomas responds with praise and adoration, because that fear has been removed, and our own trepidation should be removed for through the experience of Thomas we are given the assurance that “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Amen.