Second Sunday of Easter, John 20:19-31
On Good Friday, when our choir was singing the Passion according to John by the late Lutheran composer, Richard Hillert, I was struck by how the drama of the music, at least in my experience, brought out and gave expression to the wrenching conflict that was integral to Jesus’ last hours – when he was betrayed, arrested, and brought before both religious and secular authorities and ultimately was executed at the hands of officials of the Roman empire.
The tension of the conflict was palpable to me, and evoked in me a range of emotions – anger and fear and sadness, all evident in a sense of physical agitation.
On this Second Sunday of Easter, on this side of the resurrection, we’re beyond all of that tension and conflict, right? Wrong. Alas. Today’s reading from Acts describes a time very much after Jesus’ resurrection, “when the temple police… brought the apostles…. [to] stand before the council… to be questioned by the high priest” because of their teaching about Christ’s resurrection (cf. Acts 5:27-30).
The temple police? Really? Was that necessary? Why should a holy place require a police force to maintain peace and security?
Such a reality is far from our common experience here and now, at least in this congregation. The closest thing we have to temple police here at Resurrection is our team of ushers who do tell people where to go – but as a gesture of hospitality!
On the other hand, tragically, temple police are not far from contemporary experience. When I visited the temple mount in Jerusalem years ago, with its mosque and Western Wall, a place sacred to both Jews and Muslims, the tension was palpable. Armed Israeli soldiers were everywhere to be seen.
After 9/11 in New York City, it was discovered that the CitiGroup tower under which sat Saint Peter Lutheran Church, where I was a member, was among terrorists’ identified targets. And the church was to have been the soft spot for an attack to bring down the skyscraper. As a result, in those many weeks following 9/11, officers with machine guns were a regular presence in my church on Sunday mornings.
And so it continues to go in our sad, sorry, bitterly divided, and dangerous world.
Think of and pray for the Orthodox Churches in Ukraine, celebrating their Easter today, where hundreds of those churches under the authority of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, who has been outspoken in his support of Russia’s invasion of and war on Ukraine – a holy war, he suggests, which is a cosmic battle against the perceived forces of evil in the West. Needless to say, this violent conflict is tearing apart the communion among Orthodox Christians and churches. Many churches are now severing ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. This has been and continues to be our sin-filled, captive human reality.
Today’s gospel reading from John finds Jesus’ followers behind locked doors for fear of the Judeans. Older translations say it more starkly and stridently – for fear of the Jews. Such references to the Jews throughout John’s gospel have contributed to centuries of Christian anti-Judaism and in recent centuries, racial antisemitism. John’s gospel has been used through the Christian era to justify attacks on Jewish people – as part of Good Friday observances, and in pogroms, and most tragically, in the Holocaust of the mid-20th Century.
In short, the resurrection of Christ has not miraculously cured the fever in our human hearts and minds. In fact, proclamation of the resurrection of Christ, as we saw in today’s first reading from Acts, has created further divisions among religious people.
This divisiveness weighs heavily on us, especially in the current climate in our nation and world. Don’t you feel torn by it all? I know I do, and on a daily basis.
And yet, it is into these very realities – when we are fearfully behind our versions of locked doors, and in our virtual bubbles and cocoons of the like-minded – where the risen Christ appears again and again, even as Christ appeared to the disciples in that locked room two millennia ago.
And the risen Christ appears again and again with this simple, but profound message: “Peace be with you.” Peace be with you. Peace. Just what we want and need to hear amidst all the fear and conflict and violence and warfare, cold and hot. Peace be with you.
This is a peace offered amidst fear, and resentment and conflict, a peace in fact born of violence and death. That is to say, it’s a peace that is conveyed via Jesus’ wounded hands and side and feet.
Indeed, Jesus revealing his wounds to the disciples is precisely that which authenticated Jesus’ embodied presence as that of the resurrected Christ. Jesus’ wounds made for genuine presence. In the wounds, they recognized their Lord.
So-called doubting Thomas only wanted the same thing that his compatriot disciples got – namely, a presence made genuine by the mark of the nails in his hands and his pierced, wounded side. That’s how Jesus showed himself to the eleven. Thomas simply wanted the same benefit – to see for himself the wounds, but also and at the same time, the embodied, living Christ.
The peace which Jesus offers is intimately connected with these wounds. This peace flows from his wounds. It’s real presence.
Thus, in the connection of Christ’s peace with Christ’s wounds, it’s no naïve, Pollyanna version of peace that Jesus gives. It’s not a peace that glosses over the terrible conflicts and warring violence of our world. Rather, it’s a message of peace that is offered right in the thick of the worst of our fearsome conflicts and divisions and warfare.
And again, to reiterate, this is not a peace that was given only once some two thousand years ago. No, the risen Christ appears again and again behind our varied formats of locked doors – each and every Sunday, here in this place, and other places of Christian assembly throughout the world. In Ukraine. And Sudan. And Syria. And every wounded, warring place that Christians gather on the Lord’s Day.
In fact, we re-enact the scenes with the eleven disciples and Thomas every Sunday. We, too, gather on the first day of the week. We are often locked in our fears, captive, paralyzed, speechless. But Jesus appears in the word, he who is the word of God made flesh, with the same eternal message: “Peace be with you.” These words were written down as signs recorded, according to John, so that we might believe in our messianic risen Christ and enjoy life in his name.
Moreover, when we share the Peace on Sunday mornings – even if now it’s only a bow, or wave, or eye contact, not a handshake or a hug – it is still the very Peace of Christ being made known among us, reverberating through the centuries when we convey the sacramental, sacred peace to each other in simple but profound gestures.
And then we come to the table to eat and drink of Jesus’ wounds, touching them in our very selves, our own bodies, taking them into ourselves that our own wounds may be embraced by Christ’s life-giving wounds. Jesus in the flesh via bread and wine being incorporated into our very flesh for life and healing and reconciliation – that is to say, for peace.
Then, like Thomas, our faith awakened and renewed, we exclaim, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus then breathes on us through his word and sacraments imparting to us his Holy Spirit and giving us the same charge that he gave to the original disciples:
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you…. 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.” (John 20:21-23)
And then we are sent on our way, full of faith, full of the Holy Spirit, to enter again into a world at war in oh so many ways with Jesus’ eternal message of Peace. We also go as church with Christ’s authority to forgive sins and make for reconciliation, for God’s shalom – not just the absence of war, but holistic, comprehensive well-being for all of creation.
In such sending, Christ, who loves us and frees us from our sins by his blood, and makes us to be a dominion, and makes us priests also to serve God (cf. Revelation 1:5b-6a) by proclaiming – albeit imperfectly – in word and deed that Christ is raised from the dead. We give expression to our priesthood in Christ by proclaiming in word and deed, to friend and foe alike, those near and those far away, those on both sides of our many divides, “The Peace of Christ be with you,” for Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia. Amen.