No Going Back (Sermon)

“No Going Back”

John 20:19-29

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


19 When 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.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So 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.”

26 A 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.” 27 Then 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.”

28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Jesus 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)

         In his epic poem, The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri, taking the role of the protagonist, describes a personal crisis by saying, “One day I fell into a hole.” That metaphorical fall sparks a transforming journey into and through the depths of hell. Along the way he is guided by the Roman poet Virgil, who represents reason and logic, all that appears certain, predictable, and dependable. Virgil leads Dante through nine levels of hell before finally reaching the pit, the center of the earth where a three-headed Lucifer is buried to his waist in a frozen lake. In each mouth, he chews on a notorious sinner. In the middle, suffering the most, is Judas. The others are Cassius and Brutus, who betrayed and murdered Julius Caesar.

         In a surprising twist, Dante learns that to exit hell, he can’t turn around and go back. Virgil shows him another hole right next to Lucifer’s ice-bound body. They scramble through the hole, climb down Satan’s leg and begin traveling toward purgatory and paradise.

         I’ve always heard that when you hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but back up. Dante illustrates the spiritual truth that when we hit rock bottom, the way forward doesn’t lead back to anything. It takes us down and through, toward something unexpected and brand-new. That’s why Virgil eventually stops and says that Dante’s deepening journey requires a new guide.

         Early in life, Dante had fallen in love with a young woman named Beatrice. In her early 20’s, Beatrice married a wealthy banker, but soon died of the bubonic plague—which caused three pandemics over some 1400 years. Even in death, Beatrice continued to inspire Dante. So, she becomes his guide through purgatory and into paradise. Dante’s point is that Virgil’s masculine energy of reason and logic alone cannot lead to wholeness. Humankind also requires the nurturing compassion and beauty of feminine wisdom.

         With all that in mind, let’s join the disciples, cowering in their locked room. They’ve heard that Jesus has risen, and they know that the authorities will believe that the disciples are behind the disappearance of the body. That’s the logical and reasonable explanation. However, if Jesus has really been raised, the disciples also know that Jesus knows that while Judas betrayed him to the authorities for money, they all betrayed him in their own ways and for their own selfish gain. And now, in that cold and dark room, with a menacing Lucifer chewing on the treacherous Judas inside each of them, they wonder, How do we come back from this?

         Suddenly, Jesus stands among them.

“Peace be with you,” he says. He shows them his wounds. As wonder swells in the disciples’ hearts, Jesus speaks, again: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

In that locked room, quarantined at the bottom of the pit, the disciples discover that their journey isn’t over. Remember, Jesus is very different now. He’s been resurrected not resuscitated! So, too, are the disciples different. Because going back is not an option, going forward will require a new guide.

         In an act that recalls God breathing on a handful of dust to create the first human being, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

The Breath of God, Wisdom herself, becomes the disciples’ new guide revealing a new way forward, and revealing the new creations within the disciples themselves.

         From Adam and Eve’s exile from the garden, to exiled Hebrews returning to a forever-changed Jerusalem, to disciples learning to deal with resurrection, biblical storytellers consistently affirm that whatever will be will not be what was. And what lies ahead will be fraught with wounds even as it is bathed with God’s presence. Our individual and collective human journeys all pass through suffering—never around it.

         When Jesus breathes on his disciples, he breathes on us, as well. With the Spirit as our guide, we are called and empowered to proclaim wholeness and hope to the world. So, Jesus’ charges us: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

In the gospel of John, sin is defined as a failure to recognize and follow Jesus. So, when Jesus commissions us to forgive, he does not grant us the right to judge. He calls us to live in such a way as to reveal him and make him known. We share God’s forgiveness only to the extent that our lives faithfully reflect the inclusive and redeeming grace of Christ.

Similarly, to retain sins means to refuse to live and love as Jesus lived and loved. So, discipleship involves our commitment to repentance and to living the new and abundant life of Christ. This is the resurrection journey.

         I think Thomas’ initial doubt that Jesus had been raised comes from that deep spiritual understanding. Remember, when Jesus leaves to go raise Lazarus, it’s Thomas who says to the others, Come on, let’s go die with him. He knows that if Jesus defies logic and reason and raises a dead man, he’ll be killed for it.

So, if Thomas doubts, it’s probably because he knows that if Jesus is alive, in whatever shape or form, following him will mean slogging through Friday and Saturday, because no one—including Jesus—gets to Sunday by going backward. Jesus doesn’t come back out of the grave so much as he goes slap through it.

In the slowly-receding wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the world to which we are awakening is not the world we remember. It can’t be. Much about that is painful. Virtually all of us know people who experienced the virus and its lingering effects. Some of us are grieving friends or family members who died of the virus. And as we all know, Covid-19 isn’t going anywhere. It will be part of our new reality forever. Thanks be to God for modern medical science which created effective vaccines so quickly.

There’s also much about the new reality that has the potential to be positive. I say potential because to perceive the positives demands a shift in perspective. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, Covid-19 reminds us of how small this “great big old world” really is. It reminds us that neighbors aren’t just next door and across the street. They’re across the country and across the planet.

During the pandemic we also learned that quarantine can be healthy, but it’s dangerous when we use it to isolate ourselves from people against whom we are prejudiced, or hold a grudge, or about whom we are ignorant.

God has truly created humankind to be one community, one family. And our connections run deep. Our lives and choices can affect people far away from us and generations yet to be born. We need each other; and we need each other to be good stewards of our own lives, of our communities, and of the earth we share.

As God has sent Jesus, so Jesus now sends us. He sends us through death, through the grave and into this Creation which God is making made new and whole through the presence of the eternal Christ whose Spirit is our guide, our redemption, and our hope.

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