When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “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.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now 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.
Here we are, one Sunday after Easter, one Sunday after that wonderful celebration of new life and an empty tomb. Death is not the last word. Christ is risen; he is risen indeed!
Yet this one Sunday after Easter looks different than a week ago. The daffodils are gone, the cross that they adorned has been put away, and only some of the lilies remain. Special Easter outfits have been returned to their closets, and we’re back to wearing our usual Sunday garb. We’re worshiping just once, at 10:00, and most of the faces are familiar.
The mood in our scripture reading today is different too. The amazement, fear, and excitement of the rolled away stone have given way to doubt, questions, and hesitance. A small group of disciples of Jesus are huddled together behind locked doors after Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus’ ministry and teaching, which began with great promise in Galilee, seems to have been defeated. The disciples are low in spirit.
This Sunday after Easter has traditionally been referred to as a “low Sunday.” Fewer people. Less excitement. The mood gives us something in common with those disciples who were huddled together, in their questioning and discouragement after the crucifixion of Jesus. It was the evening after a horrible weekend in which they saw Jesus, the one who was supposed to be the Messiah, put to death on a cross. It was night and they were down.
For the disciples, it was Easter evening. But think about it – they didn’t know it was Easter. For the disciples, it was still Good Friday. The darkness had overwhelmed the light. Their master was gone. Their ministry – everything they had done for three years – was in shambles. I suspect there was a lot of blaming going on. Imagine how not just Peter felt – after all his declarations of courage and his promise of faithfulness – but how all of the disciples felt. What had they done when the going got rough? They had all run away, not just Peter, “the rock.” They had abandoned Jesus and fled when the soldiers came to take Jesus away. Now they were behind locked doors and at a loss.
Yet here is the incredible thing that happened to them in the midst of their questioning and doubt: It was to this discouraged, blaming, mournful little band of failures that the Risen Christ appeared. He came through their locked doors and greeted the exact people who had so terribly forsaken him. He greeted them with the words, “Peace be with you.” It was an amazing moment. “Peace be with you.”
In saying these words, Jesus wasn’t telling his disciples “I hope peace will be with you,” or “I wish that you would have peace.” He was stating a fact. Peace IS with you. Jesus was making a statement about a present reality. And he says it not only once, but three times. “Peace be with you.”
Like the early Christian church, we take time during our worship services for the “passing of the peace,” recognizing that Christ is in our midst when we gather. Over the years our congregation has had varying practices at the beginning of the service – at one point we called it “Greeting One Another…” Personally, I find such greetings – “good morning” “welcome” “good to see you” – not nearly as meaningful as proclaiming Christ’s peace. “I hope you’re having a pleasant morning” is a far cry from “The Peace of Christ be with you.” One is wishful thinking. The other is a statement about the way things are: Christ is with us and has brought us peace.
Here’s what’s significant: the only way that Jesus could have greeted them like this is because he had forgiven them. Jesus returned to his disciples and offered them peace and forgiveness.
Often the focus of this passage on the Sunday after Easter is the disciples’ recognition of Christ, or the doubt of Thomas, or the disciples’ joy and amazement. But equally as amazing and joyful is the fact that Jesus doesn’t hold any grudges – when he had every right to.
What if the first words out of Jesus’ mouth were “Where did you go? After all I did for you, look what you did when I could have used a little help. You call yourself disciples? When I was up on that cross looking out into the crowd – were you anywhere to be seen?”
But instead, Jesus greeted his deserting disciples with the words “Peace be with you.” In other words, the first thing he said to them was, “Don’t be afraid. I forgive you.” Imagine: Jesus, their fallen hero, appears in their locked room and shows them his wounded hands and side. They’re thrilled to know that he’s alive again. But even more amazing, he greets them with “peace” – and three times, at that! When they were probably expecting a lecture about being fair-weather friends and faithless cowards, he shocked them by greeting them like it was old times. His greeting of peace showed that all was well. It was as if nothing had happened. He calmed their dread of what he might say or do to them, and he offered them forgiveness. It was to these people, caught in their despair and guilt, that Jesus pronounced peace and gave forgiveness.
Of course forgiveness was what Jesus was all about. Think of all those times when Jesus walked up to people and one of the first things he said to them was, “Your sins are forgiven,” often when they hadn’t even been asking about sin or forgiveness. Jesus kept extravagantly announcing forgiveness, even when people didn’t say they were sorry in the first place.
Jesus commands us to be forgivers as well. He tells us to forgive our enemies. When Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer, he didn’t encourage us to bring all of our aches and pains and complaints before God in prayer. Instead, he talked about forgiveness, of forgiving those who trespass against us. He urged us to forgive those who betray and wrong us. And when he hung on the cross, he looked down upon us and pronounced, “Father, forgive them.” Because forgiveness is the very nature of God.
So if you’re going to try to be a disciple of Jesus, if you’re going to try to be faithful and obedient in following him, then you sure better get used to receiving a lot of forgiveness. And fortunately – or UNfortunately – most of us have a lot of opportunities to need a God who forgives sinners.
When the going gets rough – when you or I are hunkered down amidst difficulty and failure, mistakes and guilt – remember that we have a God who not only comes back to life on Easter in his glorious resurrection. We have a God who also comes back to his bumbling and imperfect followers and gloriously forgives us. So that we can go on. We can get out and go forward in our faith. We can follow him, because he won’t let us be trapped by our failures. Every step of the way, with each faltering, stumbling step that we take, he forgives us. That is the great resurrection message. Christ is risen! And we are forgiven indeed. Amen.