Our gospel lesson starts with new beginnings.
John points out that it is “the first day of the week.” That’s not just a time signature. “The first day of the week” is technical language in John’s gospel. It means the first day of the New Creation. Remember that John’s gospel is a re-telling of the creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2. That’s why he starts with: “In the beginning was the Word…”—it’s meant to remind us of the first beginning in Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created…” So when John says it’s “the first day of the week,” he’s trying to say that with the resurrection of Jesus there began a radical renewal of creation.
Our Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers have a beautiful way of talking about this. “On Easter,” they say, “we celebrate the eighth day of the week.” Easter has a way of shocking us out of our ordinary way of moving through time into a brand new day, which has continuity with the old; yet it is unlike any day that has come before it.
It is the eighth day.
“Morning has broken” sings Cat Stevens, “like the first morning.”
It is the first day of a new the week.
But why? What does the resurrection of Jesus have to do with creation?
Well, first century Jews—the first hearers of the gospel—believed that the original creation had fallen into disrepair. Our first parents had rebelled against the Creator and shirked their responsibility to cultivate the land. So the world that God had once declared “very good,” now was characterized by injustice, violence and oppression, by sin, sickness and death. They also believed that one day God was going to proclaim judgment upon all this evil and renew the creation to its original glory—even beyond it.
One strange feature of this hope—going back to Ezekiel’s vision in the valley of dry bones—is that they believed the renewal of creation would be accompanied by the resurrection of once dead saints. Take care not to over-spiritualize here. They literally believed this! Many first century Jews fully expected, when the creation was renewed, to bump into their once dead ancestors in the street or at the market. So the resurrection of Jesus was what Paul called “the first fruits” of the New Creation. Jesus is the signal—right here in the middle of history—that the end is upon us. The old world, with all of its sin and violence and oppression, is coming to a close and the New Creation has begun.
It is the first day of the week.
But Jesus’ disciples had not yet got word that their teacher had been raised from the dead, so they were still living with old-world-fear. They were cowered together behind locked doors trying to hide from the religious authorities who had had Jesus put to death.
By the way, the translation in your bulletin says that they were afraid of “the Jews.” But that’s technical language in John’s gospel that probably should be translated “the religious leaders of Israel.” And if you know much about the history of first century Palestine, then you know that these are just kind of old-world-leaders who oppress through the use of coercion and deceit. So anytime you see the phrase “the Jews” in John’s gospel, mark it out and write in “religious leaders.” If we get that straight we can avoid some anti-Semitic readings, which the Church has at times been guilty of.
So the disciples were there barricading themselves off from religious leaders, when all of a sudden Jesus shows up among them. Immediately they understand. Not only has their teacher been raised from the dead, but that also means that the New Creation has begun. That’s why today they’re hiding behind locked doors, but in a few short months they’ll be the ones being dragged to public execution sites for proclaiming to the powers of the old word that Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not. They have come in contact with a new reality. They’ve been given eyes to see.
Then Jesus does something strange.
He breathes on them. Does that remind you of anything? It should. Remember, John’s gospel is a re-telling of the creation narrative. Just like God breaths into the lumps he has formed out of the clay to create human life, so now Jesus breathes on his disciples and tells them “receive the Holy Spirit.”
Now that Jesus has been raised they don’t have to settle any longer for old-world-lives of sin and fear and death. The can have New Creation life.
Then, after Jesus does something strange, he says something strange: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; and if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Seems like quite a heavy responsibility to place on the shoulders of human beings, doesn’t it?—to forgive sins. It is! Notice again that it is a recapitulation of the original creation story in Genesis, in which humans are given the grave responsibility of ruling over and caring for all that God has made. Only in the new creation story that John is telling we are given responsibility, not over the physical world, but over spiritual things like sin and forgiveness.
In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) Jesus says it this way: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Because the resurrection of Jesus inaugurated the New Creation right here on earth, what you and I do in this world does not die with us; it bears weight in the kingdom of heaven.
The theological term for this New-Creation-responsibility to forgive sins is “the power of the keys.” In synoptics Jesus gives the power of the keys specifically to the Apostle Peter, which is why, according to Roman Catholic doctrine, a priest has the power to absolve a penitent of her sins. The power of the keys has been passed down from the Apostle Peter through an unbroken succession of bishops and priests, so that when any priest looses a penitent from her sins here on earth, they are loosed also in heaven. This is one point at which Martin Luther basically agreed with the Catholic Church, except that Luther said when Jesus spoke those words to Peter he was giving the power of the keys to all believers. That’s what Protestants means when we talk about “the priesthood of all believers.”
So this morning when we confessed our sins and Pastor Wanda declared “I forgive you of all your sins,” she did so on behalf of Christ himself, with the power of the keys. Therefore, you have no right to leave this place feeling guilty for your sins, or frightened of God’s judgment. When another believer speaks the words of absolution over you, God himself declares that you are forgiven—believe him!
Well there was one disciple who was not here for this exchange. Thomas showed up late for Easter.
You know, I think Thomas has gotten a bad rap. He’s known to history as “Doubting Thomas,” because when the other disciples told him about their experience with the risen Christ, he refused to believe them. We reprimand Thomas for his failure to believe. But I don’t think Thomas was a doubter, really. I think he was just a realist, an analytic—the kind of guy who would evaluate the evidence and draw a conclusion based on the facts. I can empathize with a guy like that.
Thomas looked at the world around him and saw no evidence that the New Creation had begun. Quote to the contrary, Caesar was still on his throne oppressing God’s people with coercion and violence. All around him sin and sickness and death still seemed to reign supreme. How was Thomas—the realist—to believe that resurrection could take place in a world like this?
The world that Thomas saw all around him was not so unlike our world…
…A world in which, as my Sunday School class has been learning, some 13 million children around the world are held in slavery, forced to do grueling labor for 12-15 hours a day until they can pay off their parents’ or grandparents’ debt. Many of these debts, even though they are as little as 25 US dollars, will never be paid off.
…It’s a world in which men exploit women, and parents talk unkindly to their children.
…In which, given enough time and space for Lenten reflection, each of us find that our own lives are marked with pride or greed, maliciousness or indifference.
…A world in which people suffer from incurable diseases, and find relief only in death.
How could we possibly believe this is the promised New Creation? How can we believe in resurrection in a world like this?
Well, Thomas, for one, wasn’t going to be taken for a fool. He’s a realist, after all. He knows that there’s nothing worse than getting your hopes up only to have then dashed again. Ask any woman whose abusive husband has ever told her that this time he really has changed. Any long-time cancer patient whose doctor wants to try just one more trial drug.
Thomas was jaded…
…by a thousand failed messiahs and a thousand shattered hopes for a renewed creation.
…by a thousand promises of hope and change.
And this time he wasn’t going to believe it…
…not until he saw it with his own two eyes…
…felt it with his own two hands.
That’s when Jesus came by for another visit.
Jesus doesn’t reprimand Thomas for his unbelief. Gently, humbly, he invites Thomas just to come and see. “Stick your hand in my side,” he says. “It’s really me!” But Thomas doesn’t need any more proof. “My Lord and my God!” he cries. He has beheld the risen Christ and now he knows that its true—not only that Jesus is raised, but that that means the New Creation has begun. It must have been like waking up on the first day of Spring and realizing that the whole world has changed right under your nose, if only you had been awake to see it.
Now I want you to notice something. Thomas’ doubt may have disappeared in this encounter, but not his realism. Thomas’ newfound belief is part of his pragmatism. He’s still a realist—he’s just been awakened to a new reality. It’s not Thomas the doubter who has been changed, you see. Reality itself has changed. The New Creation had sprung up around him—he just didn’t have eyes to see it.
The good news of Easter is that, because you and I have been joined to the Risen One in baptism, we can participate in his resurrection life now…
…We can stand up for the oppressed and pray for the oppressor.
…We can speak kindly to one another.
…Give out of our abundance to those in need.
…We can visit the sick and comfort the dying.
…We can do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.
The good news is that the New Creation is all around us. It is breathed in us. And it is coming one day to its full and final consummation.
If only we have eyes to see.