Easter 2 – John 20:19-29
It was late that Sunday evening. Two days after Good Friday. If the Friday of the crucifixion was Day 1, Day 2 was Saturday, and this was “on the third day” as we have just said in the creed. Jesus appears to the disciples.
Today is the second Sunday in Easter, and we are celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. Easter is peculiar festival. We have two Bank Holiday days, the same as Christmas, to show its importance. But generally among the people it is a more confused festival. Christmas has fixed traditions: cards, office parties, stockings, presents, turkey dinners, nativity plays and a well known and heart-warming story. Easter is, well, a bit more confused: bunnies, chocolate, daffodils, Spring generally, and a story that, at least to begin with, is rather gruesome. Good news for Christians, probably, but we are not sure why.
Is the resurrection important? It was certainly important for the early church. In Athens, the crowds thought Paul was preaching about two gods, Jesus and Anastasia – the Greek word for resurrection (Acts 1718). In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul says that if Christ was not raised from the dead, we have nothing to preach, and you have nothing to believe… If Christ has not been raised, then your faith is a delusion and you are still lost in your sins. Last week the choir sang This Joyful Eastertide: Had Christ that once was slain, ne’er burst his three day prison, our faith had been in vain.
Our reading in John has one of Jesus’ post resurrection appearances. There are, of course, others, but while there is a lot in common between the various accounts in the Bible, they are not the same… There are about eight occasions recorded.
The first is in the garden by Jesus’ tomb. In John and Matthew Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene; Mark says it was Mary Magdalene and ‘the other Mary’, whereas Luke just has the angels appearing to the women.
Then in Mark and Luke, Jesus appears to two disciples on the road. Luke says it was the road to Emmaus, Mark just says the disciples were ‘on their way to the country’. In Mark, Luke, 1 Corinthians, and here in John, Jesus appears to the disciples together; ‘while they were eating’ says Mark. John, and Paul in Corinthians has a further appearance to the disciples in Jerusalem later. Matthew and John tell of the post-resurrection appearance in Galilee. Paul (1 Corinthians 15) talks of an appearance to more than five hundred, and Acts talks of appearances over 40 days.
Jesus did not walk down the street in Jerusalem; the appearances were all to his followers. So we are relying on reports from believers. But it certainly made a difference to believers: our New Testament reading was from Pentecost in Acts. The disciples were no longer hiding in fear of the Jewish authorities, but here is Peter proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah as prophesied by David.
So why is the resurrection important. Clearly, it was out of the ordinary; people do not come back to life. But it is not just a spectacular, inexplicable event, a miracle. It is the significance that matters. Look what Jesus says when he appears to the eleven in the locked room.
After the women had met Jesus in the garden, and the two disciples had met Jesus on the road, the rest of the disciples would have been exited but doubtful, confused, unsure. Then there is Jesus, among them. He says four things to them:
- Peace be with you
- As the Father sent me, so I send you
- Receive the Holy Spirit
- If you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.
Peace is what they needed. They had seen their world overthrown. All they had worked for and believed in for the previous few years had been destroyed in Jesus death. Their faith was shaken. Now Jesus reappears and helps them to rebuild those lives.
A large part of that comfort, that peace, is the giving of the Holy Spirit: God-with-them and in them for the work they had to do. And that work was to be sent out on Jesus’ behalf. As Jesus had been sent to a small bit of the Middle East by the Father, to influence maybe thousands of people, the disciples were to be the start of a movement to the whole world, to millions.
Finally, the message is forgiveness. What Jesus achieved was release from sin for all. He had put us right with God and given us a fresh start. We do not know quite how this works – there are lots of theories and metaphors – but the Bible is quite clear that it happened.
Do we need forgiveness? If you are an optimistic humanist, surely you can think that people are basically alright. Perhaps a few people are bad, or maybe disturbed, or with a bad upbringing, but generally we are not all depraved. Well, of course not. We are made in God’s image, and there is a lot of good in the world, and in people. But not enough. You can see in God’s dealings with Israel, from Abraham onwards, him bringing them to understand that their disobedience and selfishness did create a barrier between them and Him.
We also know that it does not take much to destroy a relationship. How many families do you come across who do not talk to each other. Thoughtless actions can be difficult to overcome. Lack of communication leads to drifting apart that can make it very hard to get back together. How much worse is it between us and God. God our creator, our Father and Mother, who never gives up on us, but who is always good and pure and true, and cannot tolerate selfishness, and evil, and indifference.
And somehow, Jesus has bridged that barrier. We are forgiven. We receive peace, and the Spirit. We can approach God as if nothing had happened, and know that we will be welcome. It is pretty amazing, and good for an Easter Celebration. This is why Good Friday is good.
One thing in this reading puzzled me as I was preparing this. The language Jesus uses is a bit perplexing. He says to the disciples that they can forgive people’s sins, or not forgive them. The first bit is OK, but when would they ever refuse forgiveness? It sounds a bit as if Jesus is delegating authority to the disciples, and saying God will go along with whatever they decide. This surely cannot be true. We, all Christians, are frail humans, and we sometimes get things wrong, sometimes right. It is surely not possible that, if we (even if ‘we’ was just the apostles, or their successors), through misunderstanding, or dislike, condemn someone wrongly, that God would feel bound to do the same.
It is an exercise in interpretation: what do you do with a passage you do not seem to agree with? I do want to take the Bible seriously, inspired by God, as the church has understood it through its history. So I have been asking people about John 2023 over the last week or so, and reading around it a bit.
It is a general principle that we take the Bible as a whole, and a difficult passage has to be taken in the overall context of others. The general theme of God giving forgiveness to those who ask him for it is so embedded in Scripture it is not disturbed by this.
This saying by Jesus does sound like some others where he commissions the disciples, notably Matthew 1818, where Jesus says whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose in earth will be loosed in heaven, which sounds similarly improbable. But binding and loosing were technical terms in Judaism which would have been understood by the disciples, and mean forbidding or permitting. It is more about the application of God’s will than dictating it. In English, judges bind people over to keep the peace, applying the laws of the country. Jesus statement about not forgiving seems to be a similar sort of binding, forbidding people to carry on as if there were no consequences to their actions. But the disciples also forgive, loosing, declaring that God does and will wipe away sins as if they had not happened. Jesus is passing on his commission from God to the disciples, to make Gods will known.
The passage finishes with Doubting Thomas. The resurrection was hard to believe, and he did not believe it, even when all his friends told him it was true. But forgiveness was for him too, and Jesus appears a second time, when he is there, and helps him to see the truth. There is room even for doubt on the way to faith. Jesus says again, Peace be with you.
St. John and St. Stephens.
Post- Resurrection Appearances
- Matthew 28: Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary”, then disciples in Galilee
- Mark 16 (later addition): Mary Magdalene, two disciples “on their way to the country”, 11 disciples while they were eating
- Luke 24: two disciples on road to Emmaus (one was Cleopas), 11 disciples together
- John 20-21: only to Mary Magdalene outside the tomb, then to the disciples in the locked room, then in Galilee
- Acts 1: over 40 days, Ascension
- 1 Corinthians 15: Peter, the 12, 500, James, all the apostles, Paul
- Road to Emmaus
- Locked room
- A week later
- Over 40 days
Jesus Appears to His Disciples
19 It was late that Sunday evening, and the disciples were gathered together behind locked doors, because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities. Then Jesus came and stood among them. “Peace be with you,” he said. 20 After saying this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples were filled with joy at seeing the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I send you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Jesus and Thomas
24 One of the twelve disciples, Thomas (called the Twin), was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
Thomas said to them, “Unless I see the scars of the nails in his hands and put my finger on those scars and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later the disciples were together again indoors, and Thomas was with them. The doors were locked, but Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look at my hands; then reach out your hand and put it in my side. Stop your doubting, and believe!”
28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Jesus said to him, “Do you believe because you see me? How happy are those who believe without seeing me!”
Acts 214a, 22-32
14 Then Peter stood up with the other eleven apostles and in a loud voice began to speak to the crowd:
22 “Listen to these words, fellow Israelites! Jesus of Nazareth was a man whose divine authority was clearly proven to you by all the miracles and wonders which God performed through him. You yourselves know this, for it happened here among you. 23 In accordance with his own plan God had already decided that Jesus would be handed over to you; and you killed him by letting sinful men crucify him. 24 But God raised him from death, setting him free from its power, because it was impossible that death should hold him prisoner. 25 For David said about him,
‘I saw the Lord before me at all times;
he is near me, and I will not be troubled.
26 And so I am filled with gladness,
and my words are full of joy.
And I, mortal though I am,
will rest assured in hope,
27 because you will not abandon me in the world of the dead;
you will not allow your faithful servant to rot in the grave.
28 You have shown me the paths that lead to life,
and your presence will fill me with joy.’
29 “My friends, I must speak to you plainly about our famous ancestor King David. He died and was buried, and his grave is here with us to this very day. 30 He was a prophet, and he knew what God had promised him: God had made a vow that he would make one of David’s descendants a king, just as David was. 31 David saw what God was going to do in the future, and so he spoke about the resurrection of the Messiah when he said,
‘He was not abandoned in the world of the dead;
his body did not rot in the grave.’
32 God has raised this very Jesus from death, and we are all witnesses to this fact.