[This post is the transcript of a sermon for the second Sunday of Easter I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]
Today’s Gospel reading is John 20:19-31. You can read the text here.
Picture the scene. A week ago, joyous crowds thronged the streets as Jesus rode into Jerusalem, hailed as Israel’s king. Expectations were high: surely this would be the culminating moment when Jesus would finally make his move and go from being a backwoods preacher to restoring Israel’s greatness and visibly ushering in the kingdom! But now, a week later, he’s dead and gone and the disciples are in hiding. Where did it all go wrong?
The state the disciples were in
From our twenty-first century vantage point, we can easily misjudge what the disciples must have been thinking and feeling at this point. Because we know how the story ends, it would be easy for us to assume they were hopeful and full of eager anticipation. But that would be a very misguided assumption.
Within the last three days, they’d seen Jesus – this man they’d given up their lives for – arrested, whipped and beaten, and led off to be crucified. Peter and John had seen an empty tomb that morning, but what did it mean? The text tells us they were hiding in fear from the Jewish leaders. They probably thought Jesus’ body had been moved or stolen, and that they were likely to be held responsible. If the empty tomb meant anything, it surely meant trouble.
And where were Judas and Thomas? Judas had brought the Temple guards to arrest Jesus three days earlier, but John’s Gospel makes no further mention of him after that. And we’re not told why Thomas wasn’t with them. (As an aside, I should perhaps mention at this point that I’m not going to talk about Thomas today: there’s just so much to think about in today’s Gospel that there simply isn’t time to cover everything. And I think dear old Thomas has probably had more than his fair share of post-Easter sermons…)
So here they are, our trusty band of disciples, cowering behind locked doors. We know they were scared. And I think we can reasonably assume they also felt confused, guilty and ashamed: confused at how everything had come undone so fast; guilty at having mostly abandoned Jesus in his hour of greatest need (John’s Gospel only mentions one disciple at the crucifixion); and ashamed of their own weakness and cowardice.
And to cap it all, they probably felt pretty bitter and angry with each other too. When things fall apart, we humans have a tendency to look for someone to blame, don’t we? If we can find fault with what others have done, it helps keep the focus off our own failings.
It’s in this atmosphere of fear, shame and mutual suspicion that Jesus makes his appearance.
How Jesus greets the disciples
Our text from today’s Gospel simply tells us that “Jesus came and stood among them”. Luke in his Gospel fleshes it out a bit for us: he tells us “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost”. (Luke 24:37, NRSV). I bet they did: it’s not every day that someone who’s been publicly executed casually reappears. Maybe that’s part of why Jesus showed them his hands and side: to reassure them that it really was him, and not some spectral apparition.
The first thing I notice here, though, is that Jesus comes to the disciples where they are. He doesn’t wait until they’ve overcome their doubts and fears and got their collective act together: he comes to them right in the middle of their darkness, fear and recrimination. And how does he greet them? Not with anger, reproach or disappointment, the Gospel tells us, but with these words: “Peace be with you!”. And then, as if to drive his point home, after showing them his wounded hands and side, he says it again: “Peace be with you!”.
These words are very familiar to us, aren’t they? In a few minutes we’ll say them to each other, as we do every Sunday morning. But what is this peace that Jesus offered, and that we in turn offer one another? Well, it’s shalom, a state of wholeness and security. But this peace isn’t just some kind of private, inner state that Jesus magically bestows on his disciples: this shalom is also very much a social peace that they’re invited to share and participate in. What Jesus is announcing and offering is the shared peace of his kingdom, which at its core is built on non-violence, reconciliation and inclusion. As to how they – and we – participate in that peace… well, we’ll come to that in a few moments.
So, Jesus offers the disciples peace and shows them his wounds. What can we take away from this?
First, Jesus comes to us just as he came to his disciples that first Easter: right where we are. He doesn’t wait until we’re all clean and shiny; he doesn’t expect or even want us to put a brave face on things. Whatever we’ve done, whatever we’re afraid of, whatever we think we might deserve, this is how Jesus comes to us: offering peace.
And second, Jesus comes to us not as an unscathed, pristine figure who’s somehow above the pain and messiness of life and death, but as a wounded healer. As we make ourselves vulnerable by allowing him to see us in our weakness and fear, he comes to us in the vulnerability of his wounds. Whoever heard of a God who makes himself vulnerable? Well, here he is! This is the God Jesus is showing us. He comes not, as we might fear, as an avenging warrior; he comes as a forgiving victim.
How Jesus commissions the disciples
And what does Jesus do next? Three things: he sends them out, he breathes on them, and he gives them a job to do.
1. First, Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you”. They – and by extension we – are to carry on the work Jesus had been doing. This, if you like, is John’s version of the “Great Commission” we read about in Matthew 28. Can you imagine? Jesus, Lamb of God, saviour of the world, who came to reconcile men, women and children to God, now passes the baton not only to his disciples but to you, me, all of us. He says “You’ve seen me do it; now you do it.”
And notice again how he doesn’t wait before sending them out. If we were in Jesus’ place, I think we might want to see some signs of due penitence and even reform before trusting the disciples with such an important mission. But no: as far as Jesus is concerned, they’re ready. We’ll come back to this in a moment.
2. Second, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says “Receive the Holy Spirit”. In other words, he doesn’t just tell them to go out; he equips them for the job he wants them to do.
The point of receiving the Holy Spirit isn’t to give the disciples amazing new spiritual experiences, or to mark them out from everyone else as some kind of special, Holy Ghost elite. The point is so they can do, in and for the whole world, what Jesus had been doing in Israel. “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” 
It’s also worth noting the particular way in which Jesus gives the Holy Spirit: he breathes on them. This takes us right back to the moment of creation, when God breathed his breath – the breath of life – into Adam, and humankind became alive. So what we’re witnessing here is a kind of new creation: Jesus breathes out the restoring, reconciling, empowering life of God, and in so doing he “remakes” the disciples, and commissions them in turn to go out and help remake the world. 
3. Third, Jesus gives the disciples a job to do. What does he say to them? “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” If we’re honest, this seems quite strange and a bit cryptic, doesn’t it?
What is Jesus saying here? Is he giving the disciples authority to arbitrarily dispense or withhold forgiveness on the basis of their own whims and preferences: You seem to tick the right boxes, you’re forgiven; I don’t like the look of you, you’re not forgiven? I don’t think so; that doesn’t seem very consistent with Jesus’ own life and ministry.
Here’s what I think: forgiveness is at the very heart of what it means to be children of God. And forgiveness is more than just words: it needs to be demonstrated, which in practice means it needs to be given and received. Jesus lived, breathed and died forgiveness – remember his prayer on the cross: “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing”. And I think he’s telling his disciples – and again, by extension, you and me – to go and do likewise.
If you read the Gospels, it’s also quite noticeable that Jesus seemed to frequently tell people they were forgiven without waiting for them to ask, or go through any kind of religious conversion process. Is it not reasonable, then, to think he might have been asking his disciples to go out and tell people they were forgiven, just as he himself had done?
Our sins don’t offend God: He’s already decided to cast them away as far as the east is from the west; they’re already buried in the unfathomably deep ocean of his infinite mercy. But our sins do still have the capacity to hurt ourselves and each other. That’s why it’s up to us to release each other from the debt of sin. God has already forgiven us; now Jesus invites us to follow him in the way of forgiveness and to release one another from the captivity of sin and all the damage it entails.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams put it like this:
There is no hope of understanding the Resurrection outside the process of renewing humanity in forgiveness. We are all agreed that the empty tomb proves nothing. We need to add that no amount of apparitions, however well authenticated, would mean anything either, apart from the testimony of forgiven lives communicating forgiveness. 
As I draw to a close, I’d like to return to two questions I left hanging earlier: how, specifically, are the disciples to share and participate in the peace Jesus offers? And how is it that Jesus can possibly think the disciples are ready to go out and continue his work?
Actually, I think we’ve already answered the first question: the way the disciples – and you and me – are to share and participate in the peace Jesus offers is to go out and take the message of forgiveness and reconciliation to the world. We’re not called to go and find those who are worthy enough (or rich enough, or respectable enough, or even likeable enough) to join our holy huddle; we’re simply called to go and be about the business of forgiveness. That’s how the peace of the Lord Jesus becomes something more than just some nice words we recite to each other by rote every Sunday morning.
As to why Jesus thought the disciples were ready to go out and continue his work, the answer, I suggest, is staring us in the face. Who better to go out and share forgiveness and reconciliation than those who know themselves to have been forgiven and reconciled? One commentator puts it like this:
You and I are called as disciples of Jesus. Why? Because we are somehow better than others? No, the job description for being a disciple of Jesus begins with knowing how wrong you are, with knowing how much you are forgiven. It begins by recognising our own guilt and then having the wonderful experience of being forgiven for it. Life can begin anew! There is a joy in being forgiven, and that joy is knowing the life-giving power of being forgiven.
Our Risen Lord comes to us today once again in the Holy Sacrament of Communion. He comes to say to us, “Peace be with you.” Not only that, he comes to call us. He comes to hire us to help spread the news. He comes to ask us to extend this word of healing, life-giving forgiveness to others. 
Maybe you feel you’re not qualified to continue the work of Jesus because you’re carrying too many regrets, too much baggage, too great a weight of failure. This morning, here and now, Jesus offers you himself, in the reality and vulnerability of his wounds – which, of course, we’ll remember in a few moments as we eat the bread and drink the wine. And the word he speaks to you and to me is the word of peace, just as he did to his disciples, in all their self-pity and recrimination. And, just like the disciples, he breathes the life of the Holy Spirit into you and me, and says, “Know that you’re forgiven and reconciled; now go out and pay it forward to the whole world.”
 Cf. Wright, T. (2004). John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21 (p. 149). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
 Cf. Wright, T. (2004). John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21 (p. 150). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
 From a sermon by Paul Neuchterlein (source: http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-b/easter2b/)