Toorak Uniting Church

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What Next?

John 20: 19 – 30
Rev. Glennis Johnston
1 May 2011

Even if we dare to believe the reports that Jesus is still alive, what next? The first followers of Jesus were locked together in a room in fear. Then suddenly Jesus is standing among them. Before death, Jesus’ physical body experienced all the same limitations of any human being. Now that is changed. Now his appearances are more like a vision, a very real kind of presence that communicates with them.

What strikes me is that in John’s description, Jesus’ resurrection body still bears the scars of death and torture. The new spiritual presence of Jesus does not erase the scars – it isn’t a going back to how things were before the horrors of that cruel execution.

The spiritual life does not lead us into a fantasy world where pain doesn’t exist. God’s presence doesn’t pretend that evil, violence, and injustice are not real.
We live in a world infused with contradictions – beauty and terror, love and cruelty, gentleness and pain, compassion and injustice. We live with those contrasts as much as those first disciples. And Jesus, the one who bears the scars of crucifixion, is the one who is present in all of it. There is no joy and no pain that God’s Spirit cannot be present to. We do not have to wear rosy-coloured glasses to be living in the presence of the Spirit.

There is to be no denial of reality for those who live empowered by the spiritual presence of Christ.
This is John’s version of Pentecost – not 6 weeks later, as in Luke, but on the evening of Easter Day. Here is the moment when the disciples will either stay locked in their room, huddled in fear, confused about what to do next, or the moment when they will pull together, get outside of their own self-contained group, and start living this new life that Jesus had been teaching them about all the time he was with them.

Jesus had infused them with a passion for true and real religion, for a just and compassionate community called the kingdom of God, but without him, could they teach what he taught, live like he lived, create that community on their own?

And so Jesus appears to them to help this huddle of friends move beyond the house they were locked inside.

I believe the Spirit still seeks to help us here and now do the same. Sometimes we allow the confines of our upbringing, our church, our workplace become a locked room for us – a room that we must move beyond.

"Peace be with you." Three times he says it.
The faith community that Jesus had drawn together, trained and empowered was to offer hope to a hurting and broken world. And that hope depended upon their experiencing and understanding what real peace is.

Peace isn’t a "thing" that can materialize all at once, out of nothing, just because people get tired of strife and violence. Peace – whether international peace or simply good and open relationships in the home or workplace – is a hard-won treasure from a demanding process in which we learn to lay aside our own agendas and look at life from the other party’s or the other nation’s perspective.

Of course there would be battles to be fought. After all, peace without justice is only a silencing of the weak or the poor.

And people suffering from abuse, injustice or oppression will need to go through the difficult process of truth – telling and courageous confrontation on their road to peace.

Nevertheless, peace is the gift, the experience which Jesus wanted us to have.

Then we read, "He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’

The word for ‘breath’ and the word for ‘spirit’ are the same in Greek. (Pneuma). Our breathing in and breathing out – the thing at the centre of our experience of being alive is our spirit, our core. It is the "Holy Breath" that Jesus gives – He breathes life into them.

It’s not that God’s Spirit is our possession any more than a person can possess the wind, but we can turn our face towards it and breathe it in. With that openness to the Spirit or life of God, we are empowered to move into the future – we are given the courage to ask, "What next?"

And then Jesus gives the disciples authority. "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." Wow! What a statement! Does that sound scary and dangerous to you?

Did Jesus really trust us with the power to forgive or hold sins against others? Humans have a long history of abusing the power that’s given them, including within the walls of the church.

But never in the gospels do we read of Jesus retaining the sins of anyone, no matter what they had done. Even on the cross, he says, "Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing."

Is this not the model he has given us?

The way of the world is the way of punishment, of judgment, of un-forgiveness. Not just in the first century but still now, the way of the world without God is the way of condemning people to live with the damage, mistakes or horrors of the past all their lives.

That, commonly, is the way of binding people in regrets, bitterness, shame, low self esteem, anger and hopelessness. Everywhere we turn we see it happening in the lives of people in our community.

This is the choice for all of us. Do we bind others by our judgment of them? Do we refuse to allow people to move on – people who have hurt us or damaged us or opposed us? By assuming we know what they are like and deciding that they can’t be trusted, do we bind people to the past?
And do we sometimes bind ourselves by our own sense of shame and an inability to let our past be past?

Jesus demonstrated another way – the way of forgiveness, of new beginnings. He healed bodies and released minds and souls from the captivity of guilt and shame. Surely then to be followers of Jesus means that setting people free from the past is integral to our calling?

Do we dare to believe that the future is not bound by the past?
Can we hear Christ speak this power of release into our own lives?
Can we speak the freedom of forgiveness into the lives of others?

And finally, a word about Thomas: I don’t accept the judgment that Thomas’s natural tendency was to doubt. Thomas was no different from the others. They all doubted until they saw Jesus for themselves. But remember, Thomas was not with them when that first happened.

Thomas heard the message "Christ is risen" with astonishment. He had had no transforming vision of a risen Christ. Can you imagine his turmoil? Yet, he bravely spends a week with the disciples in spite of the fact that he alone doesn’t "get it."

What I love about this story is that, although they were caught up in the wonder and hope of resurrection, the disciples continue to welcome Thomas during that week that followed. His doubts don’t frighten them, nor do they need to silence him or argue him out of his doubts.

Healthy resurrection faith makes space for doubts and questions. Questions are not a sign of faithlessness.

Though Thomas doesn’t experience resurrection day as the others do, he stays with them. And no doubt the week was quite difficult and confusing for him as he heard their wild stories of seeing Jesus, but could feel nothing of their excitement.

He could have left for home but he stayed in the community in spite of his personal uncertainty and spiritual dryness. We need to make room for the seekers in our community and the seeker in ourselves.

We need to be patient not only with others who are at a different place in their spiritual life from us, but also be patient with ourselves, when we seem to be out of step, when we struggle with what others seem so sure about. It’s OK to be out of step now and again in the journey of faith.

And then Thomas’s confusion evaporated when he had his own personal experience of the spiritual form of the risen Christ. We can’t always live off the faith of others. In the end it has to be our own trust, our own hope, our own experience of God’s Spirit within – not our parents’ or our friend’s, but our own.

So after all the Easter celebrations, what next for us?

"Will we, you and I sit within the confines of our room (physically, emotionally, spiritually, relationally), or will we move forward?

Let’s attend to the Spirit who will be present whether we are living with joy or pain. We can be real with God.
Let’s claim the gift of inner peace and be gentle with others and ourselves during those times of doubt and confusion knowing that these feelings are normal experiences on the journey of faith.
And then holding onto that vision of Jesus for every human being, let’s exercise our authority to forgive others and ourselves and dare to set the future free from the past.

© Rev. Glennis Johnston, 2011

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