Early last Sunday we got up, got everyone dressed, and began to gather. We journeyed with Mary, early in the morning, through her grief, her stunned surprise when Jesus, who she thought was the gardener, called her name. And we gathered, sanctuary packed to the hilt, the choir was awesome, leading us as we sang, shoulder to shoulder, "Jesus Christ is Risen today! Alleluia!" It was a fantastic day. Then we went home to a beautiful North Carolina spring afternoon, just enough time to relax, but also, I imagine, just enough time to forget about the power of the resurrection. Just enough time to get back to normal, as if nothing were really all that different.
It has been a week for us, but it was just a day for them, for the disciples. After Mary had broken in early that morning, after Peter and another disciple sprinted back to the tomb. They bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, Jesus’ body gone. At least one of them saw, and believed. Then they went home. We don’t know what they did at first but, but later that evening John tells us at least some of them were huddled, afraid. They had seen the fate of their Lord, the beatings, the awful crucifixion, and feared they would share it. But even as evening came, their hearts racing, someone flinching every time they heard a loud noise outside, all of the sudden Jesus stood among them. "Peace be with you," he says. "Shalom. That is a traditional Jewish greeting, David Bartlett reminds us, in the first century as now, but also has a deeper meaning of peace, well-being, confidence. The gift of God that drives away fears."1
Jesus shows them his hands, his side. I wonder about those as they approached him, tentatively, as the first person touches those wounds in his hands, still tender. He looks at them again. "No, really. Peace be with you. My peace I am giving to you." And here, in a crucial point in John, the blessing becomes a commission. The risen and glorified Son of God sends his disciples to bear witness to the life and light they have found in him.2 This is John’s Pentecost, condensing Luke and Acts 50 days into one resonant day.
But in this commissioning Jesus makes sure the disciples understand that this peace must function in community. Receive the Holy Spirit, he said as he breathed on them. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven, if you retain them they are retained. The Holy Spirit empowers them to be a forgiven and forgiving people. We stand here and proclaim each week – like Taylor did a moment ago, that we believe that our Risen Lord is in the business of forgiving YOU, forgiving each one of us, calling us to put the past behind and embrace resurrection living. Lamar Williamson reads this text as descriptive: if, when, members of the community forgive one another, those sins are forgiven and the community is living in the Spirit of Jesus; but if we harbor grudges and resentment toward other members of the community, then those sins spoil the bonds of unity, and the spirit is no longer present.3 It is about the quality of our relationships with each other.
I think it is this loneliness, the fear of the lack of those relationships, which motivates Thomas. There are sermons to be preached about how important doubt is, and how it is important to us to be a people, to be a church, that honors the questions and the struggle inherent in the life of faith. But I wonder if Thomas’s issue is really doubt. It seems to me Thomas feels left out. He missed this first time Jesus came by, and it was pretty important, and he is upset. Unless I see his wounds I will not believe. I don’t know if this is a theological statement as much as him saying, unless I get what you all got, I won’t give credence to this. Thomas isn’t asking for something unique. He’s asking to belong.
I got back from a conference a few weeks back and started reading Marc Dunkelman’s book called The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community.4 He argues, following Robert Putnam’s thesis in Bowling Alone back in the mid-1990s, that Americans are becoming more and more estranged from one another. More specifically, Dunkelman points to the loss in what he calls ‘middle ring’ ties – our neighbors. We are spending – even though it may not feel this way some time – significant time with family, significant time with good friends – people with whom we are close, the inner circle. And we are spending a ton of time navigating groups where we don’t know many others, coming in and out of large groups, concerts and shows and sporting events, at the mall, online, even.
But it is the middle ring, relationships of people we know – not as well as family, but have significant, complex relationships with – are disappearing. We used to meet each other at these places – Rotary and Kiwanis, neighborhood associations, communities, places where people gathered, the local restaurant or bar. Churches are a perfect example of this kind of place. Now, Dunkelman argues, these groups, where we navigate social relationships, where we learn, where we experience people different from ourselves, and where ties of community are made, those middle ring groups are being squeezed out. And we are losing something of what it means to be community.
And it is when Jesus appeared to Thomas later on – not by himself, but when they were all gathered together again – that he was able to trust what he had heard was true. He had trouble taking the word of his friends, believing their testimony. And that first community was sent boldly out, to tell the story, to bear witness, to build relationships in Christ’s name. That is the way we, in some small way, seek to do something about the pervasive loneliness that I imagine we all feel in some way. It is amazing to me, week after week, how many people I encounter who are around people a decent amount of the time but feel so utterly ALONE. Technology, everyone staring at their phones, plays a role, but isn’t too blame. We get lazy. We feel overwhelmed by all the other things we need to do. But we don’t take time, even a little bit of it.
Yet we must. We go to a Sunday School class – some of our Church School classes are important communities in the ways they care for each other. Or we jump into one of our pop-up short term supper clubs. We seek out people we don’t know well – I would have loved it if one of those disciples had said to Jesus: ‘Hey, wait. Thomas isn’t here. Where’s Thomas? He’s important, we want him to see you.’ There isn’t a note in the text about someone running out to try and find Thomas. But we are called to seek each other out. We check in on our neighbors, going beyond the same 45 second conversations we have every week about our weather or how nice their yard looks. This happens when we travel together, on youth trips or to ASP or to Haiti, when brothers and sisters like Pastor Leon come here, so we might share what God is doing among us and hear about what God is doing there. I am really excited about working together with Pastor Leon more. I am also deeply hopeful about our community workday – us and at least 5 other churches – so we’ll work side by side with people we know and people we don’t know as well yet, forming bonds, being a part of the ways God in Jesus Christ is transforming southwest Durham, just as God in Jesus Christ is transforming the world. We risk being together, breaking through the loneliness of those all around us, and the loneliness we feel ourselves. We experience Christ’s peace, a peace that leads to communities of forgiven and forgiving people, who live and love and serve.
Then John shifts to what most scholars think is the original ending of this book. "Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But, "John writes," 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." Through these stories. Through God’s love for the world, and our sharing of that love with each other. That is where life is, life that means something.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. David Bartlett, "Preaching After Easter," in the Easter 2015 Journal for Preachers, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 3, p 40.
2. Lamar Williamson, Preaching the Gospel of John: Proclaiming the Living Word, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), 282.
3. Williamson, 283.
4. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2014.