(Sermon preached at Cromer 8/4/18)
On that first Easter evening Jesus came and stood among the disciples and said, “Peace be with you.” That was a usual greeting – salaam aleikum. Then he showed them his hands and his feet. The marks of crucifixion proved that it was Jesus himself, and no other: he had been crucified, dead and buried, and now was alive, resurrected from the dead. Joy! Luke tells us the disciples still didn’t really believe it, so Jesus ate a piece of fish in front of them. But I suspect Jesus meant more than that. “Peace be with you,” he repeated. And peace is what the Messiah had come to bring. Isaiah had said, “His name will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end.’ The angels at his birth sang, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’ But true peace can only come when there is peace with God; and that can only come when our sins have been fully dealt with. The marks of the crucifixion are the marks of peace.
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Jesus’ mission to bring peace on earth could only be accomplished in the power of the Holy Spirit who came upon him at his baptism, and can only be fulfilled today in the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ words are for us too – not just for the ten who were present. His words were for Thomas, too. And for all those who received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and subsequently. The Holy Spirit witnesses to our spirits that we are children of God – God is at peace with us. And he sends and equips us to bring to others what Peter once described as ‘the good news of peace through Jesus Christ who is Lord of all. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” said Jesus. “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” What? Surely only God can forgive sins! Quite right. But if the Holy Spirit is working in someone’s life, convincing them of sin and of righteousness and of judgement, they need to hear the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, and they need someone to explain it to them. How can they believe and find peace and forgiveness if God’s people keep silent? We may not trust ourselves to say the right thing, but if we have received the Holy Spirit we can trust him to work through us despite out weakness.
Thomas was not with the others that Sunday and refused to accept their story. The next week he was with them – and Jesus came again; and we have that lovely scene in which he takes up Thomas’ words exactly: “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” How did Jesus know exactly what Thomas had said? We can be sure he knows exactly what we too say, both aloud and in our heart of hearts.
Thomas’ reaction is the high point of John’s gospel. “My Lord and my God!” What a response! “My Lord” we can understand – the disciples often called Jesus, ‘Lord’, as did all the early believers, even when to say “Jesus is Lord” carried the charge of treason against the Roman emperor. But Thomas went further: “My Lord – and my God!” Thomas, how can you say that to a mere man, even if he is resurrected from the dead? There is only one God, as even Jesus said, quoting Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart…” And Thomas could reply, I know – but I can’t help it: Jesus must be the Messiah, the one whom Isaiah said would be called Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Notice how Jesus responds. In all other cases in the Bible when people or angels are worshipped as God, they object – except for Herod who was happy when people called him a god, and died because of it. But Jesus received Thomas’ words with approval: “Because you have seen me, you have believed.” Jesus truly is both Lord and God.
But Thomas didn’t say simply: Lord and God. He said, My Lord and my God. There’s a big difference. As a child I was brought up to believe that Jesus was Lord and God. But when I read Thomas’ words as an 18 year old, I realised that I could not say, ‘My Lord and my God.’ I did not want him to lord it over my life – I was young, I wanted to be in control. Maybe some of you are in the same position – you know Jesus is Lord and God, but you don’t want to give him absolute control over your own life: you want the right to lay down conditions. ‘You can be my Lord provided that you don’t let me suffer too much, or don’t send me in the way your Father sent you, or whatever.’ That’s not the way to have peace with God.
Jesus’ response was, “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.” That’s us. We may have doubts at times, and always have unanswered questions – it is impossible to provide scientific certainty about historical events. But there is overwhelming evidence that Jesus is alive, evidence that Thomas refused to accept. Our faith is based on evidence, not wishful thinking, and it is worth taking a good look at what that evidence was. But it is still faith; we have not seen the resurrected Jesus in the flesh. And Jesus tells us we are blessed.
The last two verses sound like they should be the ending of John’s gospel, and perhaps they were, in the first draft, with chapter 21 being added later. These verses tell us the whole purpose of the book: These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. Jesus had said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live even though they die, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” If you can say with Thomas, ‘My Lord and my God,” you have life, resurrection life, life that will never end because it is life with God.
Notice that it is life ‘in his name.’ Just as prayer in the name of Jesus is prayer that is fully connected to Jesus, and uttered with his full backing, so life in the name of Jesus is life that is fully connected to Jesus. Because Jesus now has resurrection life and will never die, so we too have resurrection life and will never die. We don’t feel it, we can’t see it, but when Christ who is our life appears, we too will appear with him in glory. We believe, and we are truly blessed. We have a new life, a new mission, the Holy Spirit, peace with God. Alleluia! The peace of the risen Christ be always with you!