19When 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.”
24But 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.”
26A 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.” 30Now 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.
It was a stormy summer evening and a mother was tucking in her young son. The boy was obviously frightened by the storm and asks his mother if she can sleep in his bed.
“I can’t,” said the mother. “I need to sleep in daddy’s bed.”
The boy replied, “That big sissy.”
We all get scared. It is natural, it is a safety precaution. It is good to fear heights and alligators that way we don’t go risking our lives unnecessarily. But when we fear people it leads to hate. And hate is the opposite of what we are called to do because we are called to love. And 1 John 4:18 tells us that there is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out all fear. Furthermore, I would say that when we fear another person, we are denying the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Our text picks up on the evening of the first Easter. Jesus has been crucified, laid in the grave, and on that glorious morning, he conquered death by rising from the dead. Mary witnessed the risen Lord and she told the disciples what she had seen. But here are the disciples, locked in a room. Some scholars believe that they were likely still meeting in the Upper Room, the place where Jesus and his disciples met for the Last Supper. That’s debatable, but the reason for their hiding is quite clear: They fear death, they fear pain, they fear their own neighbors.
The disciples were Jesus’ closest companions. Where Jesus went, they went. What Jesus did, they did. They seem to always be together with the exception of a couple of occasions where Jesus sent them out to preach and teach to the masses. They were proclaiming a different kingdom and they were compromising the authority of the leaders of the church. So the disciples knew that the enemies of Jesus would be their enemies as well. Jesus even warned them that this would happen. He said, “The world will hate you because they hated me first.”
So it is really no surprise to me that the disciples are hiding out, at least until things calm down a little. But then Jesus appears to them and says, “Peace be with you.” In their daily conversations, Jesus probably spoke to the Jews in either Hebrew or Aramaic. Either way, the words that Jesus used here would have reflected the Jewish word “shalom”. Shalom is more than just the absence of warfare, shalom means well-being. So Jesus isn’t just saying to them, “Don’t fight with one another” he is saying, “May everything be well with you.”
Kind of a strange greeting at that time, isn’t it? “May everything be well with us?! We just saw you crucified and we are likely going to be next!” Yes! In the midst of all that has happened, Jesus is giving the disciples a greeting of well-being. Peace be with you. May everything be well with you.
Jesus then shows the disciples the holes in his hands and in his sides proving to them that he is indeed the very same Jesus that they saw crucified. He wasn’t some ghost that they couldn’t touch, no they put their fingers in his hands. He wasn’t some previously unknown twin brother, this was Jesus. And he says it once more to them, “Peace be with you.”
Then Jesus says something else that I am sure the disciples didn’t expect. He told them “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Hey Jesus, it’s great to see you and all, but look at your hands and your side. We don’t want that to happen to us. You’re sending us? I think I would prefer to stay right where I am, thank-you very much.
And with this sending, Jesus breathes upon the disciples and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit. This does not guarantee them safety. We know that because none of the disciples died of natural causes. They were all martyred for their belief in, following, and teaching about Jesus.
Okay, so much of that would have been confusing for the disciples, but what is next has been confusing people for the last 600 years. Jesus then says in verse 23, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” This verse has been causing me a fair amount of headaches this week as I try to understand what Jesus would have meant when he told this to his disciples. And in my research I have found that this verse has been interpreted in one of three different ways by the biblical scholars (often depending on what tradition people are coming from).
The first interpretation is that Jesus is commissioning the disciples to be the instruments of grace on earth in his absence. This means that it is the disciples and their spiritual followers that actually have the ability to forgive people of their sins. This is one of the scriptures where the practice of confessing your sins to a priest is based.
But how does this coincide with the belief that only God can forgive sins? This is a belief that is deeply rooted in Judaism. On multiple occasions in the New Testament we see Jesus telling someone before or after he heals them that their sins are forgiven. And how do the people looking on react? They often say, “Who is this man that he thinks he can forgive sins! God alone can forgive!”
So many protestant churches have approached this scripture a little differently than those that believe that a priest has the authority to forgive sins. In the Barclay commentary on the Gospel of John, the commentator says this, “This sentence does not mean that the power to forgive sins was ever entrusted to any man or to any men; it means that the power to proclaim that forgiveness was so entrusted; and it means that the power to warn that that forgiveness is not open to the impenitent was also entrusted to them. This sentence lays down the duty of the Church to convey forgiveness to the penitent in heart, and to warn the impenitent that they are forfeiting the mercy of God.” (pg. 319, emphasis mine)
I would say that what Barclay says here is more consistent with what much of the Protestant church teaches today. The ability to forgive people of their sins does not belong to the people, but the duty to proclaim the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ does belong to the people. I would say that most Christians would agree with that statement. And I believe that the Bible teaches this in other parts of the scriptures. The problem is, that’s not what this text says and to make it say that requires that we add something to the text. And the Bible strictly warns against doing that.
The third way that people often approach this verse is by ignoring it all together. As I read through commentaries and sermons on today’s scripture, I found a lot of people just ignoring verse 23 all together. And I think that is not a healthy approach to scripture either. I believe that our scriptures are inspired by God, so to simply ignore this text seems to me to not be faithful to God.
So as I thought about today’s text, I tried to think about a fourth approach to this verse. I don’t believe that this text is telling us that God has given the duty of standing in for God and forgiving people of their sins. I don’t believe this text is telling us that we have been given the duty of proclaiming forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ. And I don’t believe we can ignore it altogether. What I realized is that I believe we do have the duty of forgiving others of their sins.
What I mean by that is not that we have the ability to forgive people’s sins so as to bring them back into right relationship with God, but we do have the ability to forgive people’s sins so as to bring them back into right relationship with ourselves. When someone sins, they often don’t just sin against God, they sin against people as well.
I think again of the parable of the Prodigal Son. The younger son has gone out and he has squandered his inheritance doing things that he knows that God and his father would not appreciate. And to acquire this money in the first place he had to embarrass his father and shame his family. So when the son returns to the father he plans to say, “I have sinned against God and against you.”
Our actions, our sins, affect not only our relationship with God, but also our relationships with others. If I struggle with greed, my greed not only affects my relationship with God, but with the person that I tried to swindle out of a buck back at the farmer’s market. We are all sinners in need of forgiveness; forgiveness from God and forgiveness from those whom we have wronged. And we are called to forgive those who have sinned against us not 7 times, but 70 times 7.
So as the disciples are there locked in the room on that first Easter evening, Jesus appears to them and wishes them shalom, well-being. In the midst of their fear as they are seeking to avoid the authorities that could help them to meet the same demise as their leader, Jesus proceeds to send them out into the world to continue the ministry of reconciliation that he embodied. But to do this, they must first forgive those who killed Jesus and may be trying to kill them.
Jesus calls all of his followers to love their enemies, to do good to those that persecute them. And you can’t love someone until you forgive them. Have you ever tried to love someone or something that you fear or hate? It is impossible. Fear and hate are so tightly connected. Fear leads to hate and hate is the opposite of what we are called to do.
Some friends of ours have a very adventurous cat named Tiger. And Tiger likes to go out on hunting trips throughout the neighborhood. The family has a doggie door that permits Tiger to come and go as he pleases. Tiger is really good at bringing his hunting trophies home, which pleases my friends to no end. Tiger brings home mice, Tiger brings home birds, and Tiger brings home frogs. He brings them right into the kitchen and leaves them beside his food and water bowl. But one thing that Tiger is not good at is making sure that his hunting trophies are dead before he brings them into the house.
Well recently Tiger added another trophy to his collection. He brought a small snake into the house. And in true Tiger fashion, he failed to kill the snake first. So one moment the snake was there, and the next moment it was gone. Wouldn’t you love to think that it found the doggie door and escaped into the wilderness on its own! Yeah, not likely. It is more likely that the snake found a place to slither into the kitchen cabinets, the living room, or dining room and is still there.
Now what I didn’t tell you is that one (maybe all?) of our friends is afraid of snakes. Think Indiana Jones. She about made her husband tear the cabinets apart and even considered selling the house because there was a snake loose inside. I’m pretty sure that she would say that she hates snakes.
Fear makes us do things that we normally would not do. Fear can interrupt our daily lives. Fear can keep us from doing the things that we know we are called to do. The disciples are afraid of what could happen to them, and rightly so. And though our text doesn’t say it, I am sure that there is a certain amount of hatred that the disciples have for those whom they fear. They are allowing their fears to keep them locked up in a room instead of going out and loving those people who are seeking to kill them. But if seeing the risen Lord means anything to them, it means that they do not need to fear death. Yes, others can cause us temporary pain and suffering. Yes, they might even take away your life. But death does not have the last word. If only the disciples were to forgive those people that killed Jesus, if they could get past their anger, frustration, and fear to see that death doesn’t have the final word, then they could do the things that Jesus had called them to do.
The second half of our scripture for this morning is the account of Doubting Thomas. Thomas wasn’t present when Jesus appeared that Easter evening to his disciples and when he returned to them they told him what they had seen, felt, and heard. But Thomas didn’t believe that Jesus had been resurrected. Thomas says that unless he can see and touch the risen Jesus, he will not believe that he has been raised from the dead.
We often give Thomas a hard time for this, but how many of us deny Jesus’ resurrection every day? Maybe we believe it in our hearts and in our minds or even profess the resurrection with our mouths. But if we truly believe in a resurrection, then we will stop living in fear and in hate and instead live the life that Jesus has called us to live: A life of love.
I went to seminary with a very philosophical guy named Dave. Dave was a Christian but he did not believe that Jesus was physically raised from the grave. He believed instead in a metaphorical resurrection (Jesus Seminar). You see, people don’t often rise from the dead. I guess this is not a common occurrence today, nor was it in the 1st century. So a lot of smart people like Dave and like Doubting Thomas deny that Jesus ever physically rose from the dead.
There is a scholar by the name of Peter Rollins who comes from Ireland. Christianity in Europe has been fading for years now as secularization has really become the norm. So it is even more uncommon for a European scholar to deny the resurrection of Christ.
Once in at a seminar, Peter Rollins was asked if he denies the resurrection of Christ and this is what he said:
Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think…
I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.
However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.
If we believe that Jesus Christ rose from the grave, we are called to live as he lived. We are to serve at the feet of the oppressed and the poor, to reach out to those that have been kicked in the teeth by society. What good is it if we affirm the resurrection with our mouths yet fail to affirm the resurrection with our lives?
On that first Easter evening, the disciples had heard the good news that Jesus had been raised from the dead, yet they hid. They hid out of fear and they surely hated the very people that they were called to love. And in their hiding, they denied the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We as followers of Christ are called to teach and live a message of reconciliation. Reconciliation with God and reconciliation with our fellow human beings. Living out of fear and hatred is allowing death to have the final say. We must not deny the resurrection of Christ. Peace be with you.