“No Going Back”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”
27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”
29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”(NRSV)
Before joining the disciples in that locked room on Easter evening, I’m going to move us ahead twelve centuries to Dante Alighieri and his epic poem The Divine Comedy. In that poem, Dante describes facing a challenging life experience by saying, “One day I fell into a hole.”
That metaphorical fall sparked an enlightening and transforming journey into and through the depths of hell. Along the way Dante is guided by the Roman poet Virgil, who represents reason and logic, all that is dependable and predictable. Virgil leads Dante through nine levels of hell before finally reaching the center of the earth – the pit. And there, a three-headed Lucifer is buried in a frozen lake. In each of his three mouths, he chews on a notorious sinner. In the center, suffering the worst, is Judas. To his right and left are Cassius and Brutus, who betrayed and murdered Julius Caesar.
In a fascinating twist, Dante learns that to exit hell, he can’t turn around and retrace his steps. Virgil leads him to yet another hole, one lying right next to Lucifer’s ice-bound body. They scramble through the hole, climb down Satan’s old hairy leg and begin a trek through purgatory and toward paradise.
I was taught that when you hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up. Dante illustrates something different: The spiritual truth that when we hit rock bottom, the way forward goes down and through, not back up. The way forward leads not to a “new and improved” version of something familiar, but to something unexpected and fresh. That’s why Virgil eventually stops and says that he can go no further. Dante’s new journey requires a new guide.
Early in life, Dante had met and fallen deeply in love with a young woman named Beatrice. Beatrice eventually married a wealthy banker and died of the plague in her early 20’s, but she continued to illuminate and enliven Dante’s heart and soul. So, Dante uses Beatrice as his guide through the remainder of purgatory and into paradise.
What becomes clear is that Virgil’s masculine energy of reason and logic can take Dante only so far. He’ll need a holy vision, the feminine energy of love, compassion, and beauty to lead him into wholeness.
With all that in mind, let’s return to the disciples, cowering in a locked room. They’ve heard that Jesus has risen, and they know that when this news gets out, the Jewish authorities will believe that the disciples have started a ruse just to rile everyone up, again. Furthermore, if Jesus has really been raised, the disciples know that Jesus knows that while Judas may have betrayed him for money, they all betrayed him in their own ways and for their own selfish gain. And now, in that cold and lonely room, they lie flat on their backs, with a menacing Lucifer chewing on the treacherous Judas inside each of them. Where do they go next?
As if from nowhere, Jesus enters.
“Peace be with you,” he says. Then he shows them his wounds. And as wonder – that gracious precursor of faith – swells in their hearts, Jesus speaks, again: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
In that locked room, frozen in fear at the bottom of the pit, the disciples discover that their journey of discipleship isn’t over. But they are different now. Just as Jesus is different. So, going back is not an option. They must travel through. At this point of transition, they need a new guide.
“Receive the Holy Spirit,” says Jesus. And he breathes on them in an act that recalls the image of God breathing on a handful of dust to create the first human being. The Holy Spirit, the Breath of God, Wisdom herself, becomes the new guide revealing the new way.
At the end of Genesis 3, Adam and Eve are exiled from the garden because of their willful unfaithfulness. As they leave the garden, beginning a journey into the struggle of raw human experience, God places “a sword, flaming and turning, to guard the way” back into the garden. (Gen. 3:24) In beautifully symbolic language, the ancient storytellers affirm that whatever will be will not be a pendulum swing back to our Eden-like memories of the “good old days.” What lies ahead will be a way forward, not the way back. And it will be as fraught with wounds as it is bathed with God’s presence. Our individual and collective human journeys all pass through suffering – never around it.
In the resurrection appearance in John 20, often called the Johannine Pentecost, Jesus bestows the gift of the Holy Spirit on his followers. That includes us. With the Spirit as our guide, we are called and empowered to proclaim wholeness and hope to the world. And Jesus charges us this way: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Now, in no way does Jesus give us special dispensation to judge. In the gospel of John, sin is defined as the failure – either by refusal or inability – to recognize Jesus and to follow him. So, when the Johannine Jesus commissions us to forgive sin, he’s calling us to live in such a way as to reveal him, to make him known. We forgive only to the extent that our lives faithfully reflect the holy and gracious presence of Jesus.
Conversely, the power to retain sins doesn’t mean that we have the authority to withhold forgiveness from anyone. Far from it. According to John, to retain sins means not to live and love as Jesus lived and loved. So, this is a humbling call for disciples to repent and to live the new and abundant life of Christ.
The journey of resurrection, the journey toward and into the wholeness of God’s shalom, takes us through the grave, not just into and out of it – and certainly not around it. I have to think that Thomas’ initial refusal to believe that Jesus had been raised comes from a deep understanding of this spiritual truth. Indeed, when Jesus leaves to go raise Lazarus, Thomas is the one who says to the other disciples, Come on, guys, let’s go die with him. He knows that if Jesus raises the dead, he’ll be killed for it.
If Thomas doubts, it’s because he realizes that if Jesus is alive, in whatever way, shape, or form, following him will mean slogging through Friday and Saturday, because no one gets to Sunday by backing up – including Jesus. He didn’t come out of the grave. He went slap through it.
The world we have, and the world we will have is not the world we had. And we may often want to react by casting aspersions, but that’s just locking ourselves behind closed doors for fear of or even contempt for whoever or whatever it is that we’ve chosen to blame. Our vocation as individual and communities of Jesus-followers involves engaging personal, theological, political, ecological, economic, and social tensions with the peace and strength of Resurrection, which calls us to live Christlike lives of faith, hope, and love – regardless of the cost.
So, if you feel in some way caught, locked behind closed doors, fearful and flat on your back, Rejoice! You are in a place of transformation and new beginning. In that place the risen Christ is breathing new life into you, leading you in the loving and redeeming way of Resurrection.