I don’t know about you all, but I ate too much over the Easter holiday. Too many eggs, too much candy, too much of everything. The Tuesday following Easter I crawled back into the office feeling as if I had been run over by a truck made of sugar and fat. Marshmallow Peeps® having haunted my disturbed sleep as I dreamed of giant Cadbury eggs from which I could not escape.
Moderation is not part of my nature, I’m afraid, when it comes to the good things in life. It comes to me only haltingly and under great duress. We divided creatures live lives of compartmentalization. There is a drawer in our minds for things we know we should do and one for things we know we shouldn’t, but we reach in and act on those items indiscriminately at times as if we don’t read the labels. When I overeat, I know I’m not going to feel good later, and sometimes I don’t care, I can’t see far enough ahead. Thankfully in my more lucid moments I am able to connect the dots between action and result, between now and later, and avoid costly mistakes, as are we all, to at least some degree.
Those who are able to connect the dots best are the ones that seem to succeed the most. They are able to see a little farther down the line than others. They can do the right things day after day and wait upon the eventual payoff without giving into temptations of the moment to go off track. Part of getting wiser is to get a little better at connecting those dots all the time. Although we all, no matter how old we are, ignore our own advice occasionally. We are not angels, after all, but men and women, and I have to believe that our sometimes comically limited vision is part of why God loves having us around.
You know though, it makes you wonder about God’s plans. It makes you wonder about the ways in which God has set up this faith, this gospel, this Church. Looked at from a certain point of view, it all seems like a giant mistake or, at least, a very unlikely thing for God to do, to leave the proclamation of his salvation in the hands of folks like you and me. Folks like the disciples who argue amongst themselves, and deny Jesus multiple times, and who flee when persecution shows up. Folks who doubt like Thomas from our gospel. People that have to be led by the hand slowly along the way of understanding. Folks who need to be knocked to the ground while they are on the way somewhere else, struck blind in order to come to a place where they can truly see like Saint Paul.
It takes a lot of connecting dots in order to be motivated to do God’s will from a purely intellectual point of view. We know that in the here and the now we are called to live like Jesus is Lord of the universe and Lord of our lives. We are called to live out the kingdom of God by doing things in radically more loving ways than the way the world does them. We are supposed to be empowered to sacrifice for others here and now because we are looking forward to and anticipate with certainty that great and glorious day when Jesus will return and it will all be as in our reading from revelation. We are called to live today as if it were the day that Jesus will come on the clouds of glory and all will know that he is the alpha and the omega, the son of the almighty. When every living creature in heaven and on earth calls out glory. And we are called to do all that even though when we get up and get dressed in the morning and we walk out of our front doors, we run smack dab into the world. A place where selfishness is more likely than selflessness, a sometimes dog-eat-dog place. A place very unlike the heaven that reigns in our imaginations and in the Word of God. We are called, even while in the world, to live as the people of this Jesus. With our faith in him and his coming kingdom as our only encouragement. It seems like a tall order for creatures like ourselves, who most of the time cannot even see far enough ahead for something as simple as not eating too much fried chicken and apple pie.
We are blessed that living for the kingdom is not a purely intellectual exercise. It is not based solely in our ability to see the whole picture. In order to connect the dots for us and help us continue living as if we were already in heaven, God has given us a comforter who guides us along the way. For the disciples in today’s reading, they were encountered by the risen Christ; for we later disciples, we are encountered through the Word by the Spirit. The Spirit is the one who time and again in Scripture makes present the Kingdom of God for those so eagerly awaiting its fullness. The Spirit is breathed, the Spirit falls upon disciples, the Spirit empowers, the Spirit helps even us limited creatures to see and act rightly. Perhaps even more amazing is that God has promised that his spirit is here, where two or more are gathered in the name of Jesus.
When I was 20 and had never been to a Lutheran church service before, and I was about to go with my girlfriend at the time, Cheryl, I asked her nervously what would be expected of me. She said, don’t worry, everything is printed in the bulletin and all you have to do is sit, then stand up, then sit, then stand up, then sit, then stand up, then sit, then stand up, then leave. This was refreshing to me having been involved before in worship services where the order of things was not so predictable. For sure as I participated for the first time and then the second and the third, I came to appreciate this simple rhythm of the congregation’s togetherness, and came to appreciate these communal actions as activities which were signs pointing to a much larger truth, as activities meant to go with me when I left. This space and time ordered toward God as best as we are able, reflecting the things of God, reflecting the order and the things of heaven, an hour, give or take, which is a model for the rest of our week, and the rest of our lives.
In today’s gospel, this resurrection appearance on this first Sunday after Easter, Jesus mentions two of the things which make up the rhythm of our togetherness as Church: The sharing of peace, and the forgiveness of sins. On the surface it is just shaking hands and a few words, but if we take these things as they are meant to be taken, they are foundations for us to stand on for the rest of our week. As we shake the hands and share peace with those around us here, so are we meant to extend our peace and the peace of God to those outside of this space and this hour, to take the peace that we find here and share it. To make the point that there is nothing, no distinction and no failing which is more important than the peace we share together in Jesus Christ, and if we can share peace here in such a way, then we can do the same elsewhere. To share peace is to abandon all the vain judgments that man and woman can conjure in favor of a wholly different way of looking on others.
Jesus goes on to say to his disciples, and by extension the infant Church, if you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them, if you retain the sins of any they are retained. In a less enlightened time in the Church, the authority to forgive sins became utterly rooted in the pastor or priest individually. But the authority to forgive sins, what Luther called the office of the keys, is best understood by its foundation in this very reading as an authority and a responsibility that God through Christ gives to the whole Church. Though they set aside certain people who say the words of forgiveness in the gathering, those people are not speaking by their own authority but speaking by the authority that God gives the whole community of the baptized. It is to you, the Church, that God has given the blessing to forgive sins. What is forgiven here is forgiven indeed.
Thomas, whose attitude of doubt toward the message he got from his friends, stands at the center of this resurrection appearance, is also, we should note, forgiven for his doubt. He demands evidence. Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands, unless I touch them, I will not believe. His desire for evidence is called doubt, but to be fair, he was only asking for what the rest of the disciples had already received, and the Lord gives him what he asks for.
In my observation of people over the years, both those who express faith and those who express hostility toward faith, there are really three different attitudes that emerge. The first is the Thomas before he sees Jesus. He wants hard evidence, evidence that he can put his hand in. Scientific evidence that Jesus is raised from the dead. Secondly, there are those who find occasionally in the course of events, miraculous occurrences and that is the evidence that they need in order to believe in Jesus. A sickness which reverses for no understandable reason, a seemingly miraculous change of fortune when all hope seemed lost, an intervention into the normal way of things which speaks to them of God’s reality. This second group usually receives the scorn of the scientific Thomases who are quick to point out that chance and chaos are at work on every situation. But then there is a third group. Jesus proclaims a blessing on them after he shows Thomas the marks of his sacrifice. Those who have not seen but yet who have come to believe.
From a certain mindset, there is no evidence of God; but from another, everything is evidence of God. We are evidence of a loving creator, as is the person next to us. The earth, the cosmos, is evidence of God’s handiwork. God is in the story of the suffering servant whom death could not hold. God is our simple togetherness and rehearsal of the stories of God’s goodness. God is in a handshake, and a word of peace. God is within us when we come to him in honesty and confess our secret failings, then to receive entire forgiveness. Miracles in the traditional sense are wonderful when they happen, but we don’t need the regular course of life to be so interrupted in order to find miraculous evidence of God. It is all around us.
Jesus shared his peace even with him who doubted and God keeps showing up to us, both in our gatherings and outside of them, keeps sharing peace with his modern day disciples, keeps forgiving sins. So when we doubt, when we fail, when we struggle, we should know that we are in good company. We are limited creatures, but the Spirit of God is limited by nothing. Thanks be to God for Jesus who showed up risen from the dead for his first disciples, and thanks be to God for continuing to bless the gathering of his disciples with peace and forgiveness, and thanks be to God that we, even we whose vision is narrow at times, are given the opportunity by the Spirit to see God. Amen.