Acts 5.27-42; John20.19-31
I wonder if you’ve ever been to see a brilliant film or had an amazing meal at a restaurant or simply been bowled over by a magnificent view. Then you’ve told a friend about it saying, you really must see this or go there? And you’ve been surprised by the less than enthusiastic reception you’ve received; not because they didn’t believe you, but because they weren’t there to experience it for themselves.
Well, this is partly what’s happening in our gospel reading today. The disciples in the house haven’t yet experienced the presence of the risen Jesus among them. Mary Magdalene has come back from the tomb full of her early morning encounter with Jesus. This doesn’t seem to make any difference to the way the rest of them are feeling at that time. They are unable to share her excitement simply because they weren’t there.
Now it’s evening and they are locked in the house ‘for fear of the Jews’. A word about this: the disciples themselves were all Jewish so this can’t possibly be referring to the whole nation. It’s far more likely to be referring to those who were involved in the plot to remove Jesus. The disciples were afraid of being arrested because of their association with Jesus. ‘
Suddenly Jesus is there with them and greeting them with the words ‘peace be with you’, that shalom, that deeper peace which only God can bring. He also breathes on them and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit, with the words ‘if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.’ Many commentators have attempted to interpret these words. I’ve always found them difficult. Sandra Schneiders, a religious sister and an American theologian, points out that in the Greek, the word for ‘sins’ is not repeated in the second half. She offers a different reading. ‘Of whomever you forgive the sins, they (the sins) are forgiven them; whomever you hold fast (in the sense of embrace) they are held fast. So the persons are held fast, not the sins. That seems to make much more sense.
Jesus provides what they need and there is no more talk of fear.
Thomas is not present on this occasion, so when he hears the others have seen Jesus, he like the others earlier, is not convinced. He has not yet had the experience they had had. A week later he is with them. Once again Jesus appears among them and greets them and invites Thomas to put his hand in his side. There is no condemnation, Jesus simply offers him what he needs. And Thomas responds with a statement of faith.
Thinking about the disciples gathered in that house, how might they have been feeling, what might they have been experiencing?
First, perhaps they were immobilised by their fear of being arrested; maybe also they were afraid because most of them had failed Jesus when he needed them most. They were torn apart with grief; they were in despair – he wasn’t the Messiah after all; they had committed themselves wholeheartedly to Jesus and his teaching, given up everything to be with him and he’d let them down. They could see no future ahead of them.
So what changed for them? Certainly not Mary Magdalene bringing news of her encounter with Jesus. No, it was the presence of Jesus.
But what about us today and the situation in the world? If we think about what is happening around us at the moment: so much destruction in Ukraine, so many people grieving, so many stories of families who followed the rules and therefore couldn’t be with their loved ones as they lay dying of covid during the lockdowns; not even able to say their final goodbyes at a funeral service; stories of significant events being postponed because of restrictions; recent increases in the cost of living, with people having to choose between eating and heating. We have heard or read of so many people telling their stories of loss. There is an enormous amount of grief at the moment – just as the disciples were experiencing.
However, we do not live in those times. But we do have the Holy Spirit to bring us that sense of God’s presence and the scriptures to bring us the hope of new life, especially in this easter season. The light of Christ cannot be extinguished.
Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on the disciples gathered in that house and commissioned them to go out and tell the world that he had conquered death. Our reading this morning ends with the writer of the gospel, telling the disciples, and us, that his purpose in relating the stories, or signs as he refers to them, was so that all might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God; and that believing this would bring them life. There are three words for life in Greek whereas we only have one in English – here the word used is ‘zoe’ which means eternal life. He’s talking about something greater than simply living and breathing which is the meaning of the other two words.
Let us pray that we too may be filled afresh with the Holy Spirit.
The Revd Jackie Lock, Associate priest