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John 20:19-31

April 24, 2022

It happens every year like clockwork.  In the time around Easter, Christian leaders and theologians start asking whether it matters if Jesus actually came back from the dead in his physical body.  Was it a bodily resurrection or some kind of spiritual or supernatural experience?  I mostly find these debates tiresome and grumpily think to myself that these people must have far more time and far fewer e-mails to answer than I do.

To be fair, it’s a debate that’s been going on for centuries.  The Apostles’ Creed even gets in on the action.  That creed came together in its earliest form in the year 340 but kept being reshaped until somewhere around the year 700.  But you’ll notice that we say at the end of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”  Resurrection of the body, as if our Christian ancestors wanted to be clear that both the body of Jesus and our own bodies would find new life as bodies, not just as ethereal spirits.

Even the poets weigh in.  John Updike was a churchgoer who spent several of his churchgoing years in a Lutheran church.  Updike wrote a poem called “Seven Stanzas at Easter” that begins with the lines “Make no mistake: if He rose at all it was as His body.” [i]  The poem goes on to say:

…it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Updike uses visceral, bodily language to assert his belief that Jesus came back in a body.  Hinged thumbs and toes…valved heart…flesh.  Updike very clearly comes down in the camp of bodily resurrection.

The author of the Gospel of John would agree.  You heard all the bodily details in today’s gospel, didn’t you?  We find the disciples’ bodies huddled together in fear behind locked doors.  And then Jesus is right there with them, wishing them peace and showing him his hands and his feet.  The writer knows we get what that’s about.  Jesus is showing them his wounds – the places where his hands and feet have been pierced by the nails.  And then Jesus breathes on his disciples, filling them with the Holy Spirit.  He calms their terror with his breath.

When Thomas misses out on that first visit from Jesus, he understandably wants to experience it for himself – to see Jesus, to touch those wounds.  That doesn’t make him a doubter.  That makes him a faithful witness. 

It’s no surprise that Thomas and the others long to encounter the risen Jesus themselves.  Hearing about an amazing thing from other people is never as satisfying as experiencing it yourself.  And Jesus had taught them about treating bodies with reverence.  The last time they were in this room together, they had shared a meal together.  I imagine them laughing together, slapping each other on the shoulders, talking with their mouths full.  And of course Jesus had washed their feet, caring for what might have been the most repulsive part of their bodies at the end of a long day of walking the dirty streets.

Bodies matter to Jesus.  And the body of Jesus, crucified and risen, matters to Thomas.  It matters to us.

You may notice that the word “believe” shows up a lot in today’s gospel.  Who will believe and under what conditions?  We think of believing as something that we do with our minds, but that’s not primarily what John’s gospel understands belief to be.  The verb “believe” – pisteuō in the Greek – appears 99 times in the Gospel of John.  By contrast, that word shows up no more than ten times in each of the other three gospels.  The Greek verb and its noun form usually get translated into English as the words “believe” and “faith.”

One scholar, Jouette Bassler, notes that neither “belief” nor “faith” conveys the nuances of the Greek words.[ii]  The primary nuance of the Greek, she says, is “trust or confidence.”  It means firmly relying on someone.  It’s about trusting in, not believing that.

That’s an important distinction in John’s Gospel, which shows us again and again that belief is not primarily a cognitive activity.  Instead belief is about a relationship with Jesus – a trust in Jesus, who longs for us to experience a life of community and love and hope.  As the gospel says: Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But 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.”  Jesus wants belief – trust in who he is and what he embodies – to lead the way to life.  Abundant life.

It is, of course, a wonderful thing to bring our minds to our faith.  Jesus is all about welcoming people’s questions and wonderings.  But faith is not about signing off on a list of doctrines.  It’s not about agreeing to a set of intellectual propositions.  Faith is about trust.  It’s about relationship.  It’s about love.  And it’s about how we live out that trust and love in community.

Remember that in John’s gospel Jesus has a long conversation with a woman at the well, both of them, we imagine, sweating in the mid-day sun.  The woman trusts Jesus with her story – all of it – even the unflattering, scandalous parts – and then she goes and tells her neighbors about Jesus. That one-on-one conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well, speaking and listening to each other, leads her to new kinds of relationships in her community.

Following Jesus, may we keep talking to each other and learning from each other.

In John’s gospel a man born blind is healed by Jesus, who touches his eyes.  But that’s not where the story ends.  Jesus makes sure the man is reconnected to the community that for too long had tried to blame the man for his own disability.  The physical healing leads to a restoration of relationships.

Following Jesus, may we keep seeing each other fully and working toward inclusion for all people.

Each of the disciples whose feet he washed, though confused about what Jesus was doing, could sense that he was forming them into a new kind of community.  Those relationships – with him and with each other – would carry them through the chaotic, uncertain days of the early church.

Following Jesus, may we embody a sacrificial love as we serve and as we lead.

Today in our Prayers of the People, we will pray for several members of our community who have died in recent weeks while experiencing homelessness.  Kevin, Jonathan, “K,” and Bruce all had their challenges in this life.  But they also had people who loved them – a community of friends on the streets and those who helped them in all kinds of ways.  And they had a resilience far greater than most of us.  Let’s think of them as we collect clothing and socks and underwear throughout the month of May.  Because one of the first things that people need is dignity – to have their bodies warm and clothed. 

Following Jesus, may we care for the bodies that are too easily judged or rejected.

By trusting in Jesus, crucified and risen, we learn how to trust each other.  We practice how to care for one another.  We look and we listen, we breathe in and breathe out, we laugh, we cry.  We offer our strength when we have it and receive help when we struggle.

We believe, and we have life in his name.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ


[i] https://inallthings.org/seven-stanzas-at-easter/

[ii] https://www.spiritualityofconflict.com/readings/364/second-sunday-of-easter

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John 20:19-31

Of whomever you forgive the sins, they (the sins) are forgiven to them; whomever you hold fast [or embrace], they are held fast.”  John 20:23 (translation by Gospel of John scholar, Professor Sandra Schneiders)

 

Every week, 14-year-old Jamarion Styles set himself up for disappointment.[i] Every week, he came to a community center in Boca Raton, Florida, hoping to play basketball with the other kids, and every week, he was rejected.

[Jamarion explained]: “They would start picking teams and I would be the only one left out.  Then they would tell me just go home.”  [Jamarion added]: “You can break someone’s heart like that.”

It’s easy to judge the kids who kept rejecting Jamarion.  But to be fair, Jamarion is missing his hands and most of both arms because of a bacterial infection he had as a baby.  He doesn’t look like a winning pick for a basketball team.

Jamarion eventually tried out for the basketball team at Eagles Landing Middle School, where he persuaded Coach Darian Williams to give him a spot.  The coach admitted his reservations about having a kid without arms on the team, but Jamarion said to him, “Mr. Williams, I’ve never been on a team before.  Even if I don’t play, I just want to be on the team.”  How could a coach say no to that?

***

That’s what most of us want – to be on a team.  The team might look like an actual team – softball, basketball, soccer, baseball.  Or it might look like a group of close friends who support each other.  It might be a close-knit family.  Or a cohesive workplace.  A book club or a bridge club or a chess club.  It could be almost anything, but we want to feel like we belong somewhere, that there is a place where people accept us and care about us.

I think that’s what Thomas wants.  Even though he’s not there the first time Jesus shows up, he still wants to belong to the group of disciples who have seen the risen Lord.  We don’t know where Thomas had gone that first night.  Maybe he got tired of being trapped in a room with all that fear.  Maybe he needed some fresh air.  Whatever happened, Thomas wasn’t there to see Jesus the first time.  Thomas wasn’t there to hear Jesus say “Peace be with you.” Thomas wasn’t there to feel the breath of Jesus on his face, to receive the Holy Spirit as only Jesus could offer it.

Thomas had to hear about all of those things second-hand.  That group of people who had experienced the risen Jesus?  Thomas had been left out.  So I get why he might have dug in his heels a bit, insisted that he wasn’t going to join their little club based on word of mouth.  He wanted to see for himself.  Maybe he gets a little melodramatic: “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.”  But who can blame him?  Thomas just wants to be part of the team.

I was reminded this week of a different way to understand something that the risen Jesus says to the disciples the first time he shows up in that room.[ii]  Jesus says, according to the translation we just heard: “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.”  The word that means “retain” also means “to hold fast to” or “to embrace.”  This statement by Jesus has traditionally been interpreted to mean that he was giving the disciples the power to forgive sins, but in doing so, he was also giving them the power not to forgive in some situations. So if the disciples didn’t offer someone forgiveness, that person’s sins would be retained, held on to.

Except that based on a somewhat ambiguous sentence structure in the original Greek, the retaining – the “holding on to” – doesn’t necessarily refer to the sins.  It could also refer to the people.  So Jesus might have been saying: “Of whomever you forgive the sins, the sins are forgiven to them; whomever you hold fast [whomever you embrace], they are held fast.”  In other words, Jesus is telling the disciples to hang on to people, to embrace them, to hold them close.

I hope that’s one of the reasons we find Thomas there with everyone else a week later.  Thomas may not want to believe their stories, but the disciples haven’t thrown him off the team.  There’s room for someone who has questions.  There’s room for someone who needs more time, more evidence, more whatever.  The disciples are embracing Thomas.  They are holding him fast, even as he challenges everything they’ve tried to tell him.

And of course Jesus doesn’t leave Thomas out.  Jesus comes back.  He offers Thomas the chance to touch his hands and his side.  We’re not told if Thomas takes him up on that offer.  We only hear Thomas’ declaration of faith: “My Lord and my God!”  Maybe Thomas will look back and wish he had believed sooner.  But maybe not.  He held out for something more, and he got it – eventually.  And I’m willing to bet that Thomas’ refusal to believe too easily what others told him probably made him a powerful teller of this story to others who won’t have the chance to meet the risen Jesus in person.

Today we celebrate First Communion for Zoey, Ellie, Peyton, Alex, and Gabriela.  In our preparation together for this day, we have talked about how Holy Communion is a place where each of us is welcomed and embraced.  A place where we are always part of the team.  In this sacrament we are held in God’s unfailing love. Whether or not we believe exactly what we think we “should” believe.  Whether or not we’ve screwed up a hundred times since the last time we were here.  Whether we are filled with joy or struggling to keep it together, we are embraced. God holds us fast and does not let us go.

I recently joked in Confirmation class, “Can you imagine if Holy Communion were just for perfect people?” One kid laughed and said, “Well, church would a lot shorter.”

Remember Jamarion Styles, that basketball player with no hands and only partial arms?  He sat on the bench for most of the season.  One day the coach put him in with about six minutes left in the game. Jamarion scored not one, but two three-pointers.  The kid that no one would pick?  He is now a superstar.

Unlike Jamarion, we don’t have to justify our spot on the team by doing something superhuman.  But like Jamarion, we are often made to feel that we don’t belong, that what we bring to the world is not enough.  Jesus is here to tell Jamarion…and Thomas…and each one of us: You are enough.  You are always enough. There is a place for you here. Amen.

 

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

[i]https://www.cbsnews.com/news/teen-who-lost-his-hands-makes-3-point-shots-on-the-basketball-court/

[ii]I was glad to be reminded of Professor Sandra Schneiders’ alternate translation of this sentence, which I rediscovered in Pastor Mary Hinkle Shore’s commentary on the Working Preacher website: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3619

 

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