(A sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter based on 1 Peter 1:3-9 & John 20:19-31)
Long before there was a denominational calendar with things like mission offerings and ministry emphasis days, which are certainly important, there was a Christian calendar, the purpose of which is to order our worship and our lives according to the seasons of the Christian year. When we consider the Christian calendar we find that some interesting facts emerge. For example, on the Christian calendar, Christmas Day is both the end of the Advent season and the beginning of the Christmas season, a season that does not end until the second Sunday in January. For another example, Easter Sunday marks the end of Lent and Holy Week but also marks the beginning of the Easter Season, which does not end until Pentecost. Observing the Season of Easter allows us to pay particular and prolonged attention to what difference Easter really makes in the world, in the Church, and in our lives. It reminds us that we are always Easter people.
So, for a few Sundays I want to think with you about what it means to be “Easter people.” We begin by observing that because we are Easter people, we believe. That is, we believe in the resurrected Jesus Christ. And that’s not as easy as we make it sound.
If we are honest, many if not most of us would have to admit to some struggle with such belief. It’s not that easy to believe in someone being raised from the dead, given that none of us has ever experienced or witnessed such a thing. I did see a sign in a business once that said, “If you don’t believe that the dead can be raised, you should be around here at closing time.” Really, though, none of us has ever seen it happen. We want to believe and we need to believe. But the resurrection of Jesus is not scientifically verifiable and so we are left with a belief that must be based on something besides physical evidence.
In public worship, we proclaim our belief. In private reflection, sometimes we wonder.
Thomas is helpful to us here. Thomas has come to be regarded as something of a patron saint for doubters. “Doubting Thomas,” we call him, but he has frankly gotten something of a bum rap. Let’s take a close look at what happened. On Easter evening, the disciples were locked away in case those who had done Jesus in came after them, too. Suddenly, in that locked room, Jesus appeared and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he showed them his hands and side. “Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” Thomas was not there. We are in no position to fault him for his absence because we have no idea where he was. When the other disciples told him that they had seen the resurrected Jesus, Thomas said, “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.” Notice that all he was asking for was the same opportunity that the other disciples had received. They believed only upon seeing for themselves. He wanted to see for himself, too.
Upon seeing and believing, Thomas made a tremendous affirmation: “My Lord and my God!” Hearing that, Jesus said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Every believer after that generation of disciples who saw the resurrected Lord is numbered among those happy ones. From where does our belief come? We have the testimony that has come down to us through the gospel message (v. 31). And surely the faith that we are able to express comes somehow as a gift from God: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). Such faith comes exactly from hearing the gospel message: “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
So our faith comes through hearing. But there is a sense in which we have seen the resurrected Lord even though we have not literally seen him. We have seen the effect of the resurrected Christ on other people. We see him in the lives of those who have come to believe in him. Those out there who do not believe can see the effect of the resurrected Lord on us.
But they struggle, too. If we who follow the resurrected Lord have our own crises of faith and our own struggles with belief, we can imagine how hard it must be for those who have not yet reached the point of belief. All kinds of things get in their way. Sin gets in their way. Tragedies and trials get in their way. Wealth and success get in their way. Sometimes, unfortunately, professing Christians get in their way by bearing inadequate witness to who Jesus is and to what salvation is all about. It can be different than that, though; they really can see the power of the resurrected Christ in our lives.
They can see the power of the resurrected Christ in the ways our lives are changing. In 1 Peter we read,
By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1:3b-5)
Easter people have been given a new life with a certain future, all guaranteed by the power of God. We have a deep heart-felt joy that shows itself in our lives, even when we are going through trials and suffering, because we know that our trials strengthen our faith. Indeed, Peter said,
Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1:8-9).
Jesus said that we are blessed when we believe in him even though we don’t see him. Peter expands on that by saying that in such faith we can display love and joy because we know that we are being saved. That’s what the people out there who are struggling to believe can see in us: faith, love, hope, and joy. And that’s what they need.
They can also see the power of the resurrected Christ in the workings of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The resurrected Jesus breathed on his disciples and told them to “receive the Holy Spirit.” As the events of the Day of Pentecost and the teachings of the New Testament reveal, all Christians are empowered by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is God’s ongoing presence with us. We are empowered, molded, led, and taught by the very Spirit of God. That must make a powerful difference in our lives! “The fruit of the Spirit,” Paul said, “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23a). God gives us the power to live remarkably transformed lives, lives that run counter to the predominant ways of the world and thereby bear powerful witness to our life in Christ.
Finally, they can see the power of the resurrected Christ in our lives through the ministry of forgiveness. When Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on his disciples he named a particular way that they would be empowered: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (v. 23). Now, the overall witness of the Bible is that only God can forgive sins. But here we are told that the followers of Christ have a role to play in forgiveness as well. What does this mean, then?
First, it means that the ministry of Jesus is continued through his Church. Jesus came to be the avenue through whom people would find God’s forgiveness. We of the Church are to be a similar avenue. But it is important to note that we are empowered by God’s Spirit to carry out that ministry. We do this not in our own power but only in the power of God.
Second, it means that we are to proclaim the message of forgiveness. We do this with our words and with our actions. When someone repents of her sins we are to communicate the assurance of forgiveness to her. We do that in the ways that we talk to her; we also do it in the ways that we treat her. A church that holds a grudge or that refuses to acknowledge repentance or that chooses to be closed to the people who need God’s forgiveness forfeit this ministry of forgiveness. On the other hand, we are not called to treat forgiveness as if it is a light thing or to treat grace as if it were a cheap thing. We are to live lives that are changed by God’s Spirit and love and we are to call others to live such lives as well.
Third, it means that we offer forgiveness ourselves. Jesus calls us to forgive as we have been forgiven. Jesus calls us to forgive radically and abundantly. We can do so only because we are empowered by the Holy Spirit and by God’s grace to do so. But as people see we who bear the name of Christian forgive, they will be better able to receive the forgiveness of God. But if they see us withhold forgiveness, they may be impeded from believing in God’s forgiveness.
We are Easter people. Because we are Easter people, we believe. We are blessed to believe even though we have not seen Jesus with our own eyes. But we have seen his power in the lives of others and we have heard the good news proclaimed. Through the hearing of that good news we have had awakened God’s gift of salvation by grace through faith. Now we have the wonderful privilege and responsibility of showing the power of the resurrected Christ in our lives through our changing lives, through the workings of the Spirit, and through the ministry of forgiveness. We believe. Now, we want others to believe. May they see Jesus in us.