The Rev. Canon John L. Peterson
In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The One God. Amen.
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when Jesus said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
After the horrors of Good Friday and the total confusion of Easter morning, that Sunday evening Jesus’ made his first resurrection appearance. The first words he spoke to his disciples were, “Peace be with you.” Just imagine how incredible those words were. The previous week’s events were anything but peaceful. The entry into Jerusalem, the betrayal at the Last Supper, Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, the trial and the crucifixion. Even the resurrection event on Easter morning would not have been understood in Roman Palestine as a peaceful event. And Jesus speaks to his disciples with the words, “Peace be with you.”
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has pointed out that during the Greek and Roman period, “Resurrection was not a joyful sign of hope, but an alarming oddity, something potentially very dangerous. The dead, if they survived at all, lived in their own world—a shadowy place where they were condemned to a sort of half-life of yearning and sadness. Even the ancient Hebrews, who first made resurrection a positive idea, thought of the condition of the dead in just the same way; and resurrection was something that would happen at the end of time, when the good would be raised to receive their reward and the wicked their punishment.”
Put into this historical context, one can understand why women were weeping, why people were running away, why people fled, trembling and in astonishment. Just imagine why the Jewish and Roman authorities would have been perplexed.
Once again, Archbishop Rowan said, referring to Jesus, “an executed criminal, instead of disappearing into oblivion, is brought back into the world and his friends are told to speak in his name to his killers, telling them that for their life and health they must trust that he has made peace for them with God.” It was Easter Sunday evening when Jesus said, “Peace be with you…. Receive the Holy Spirit”
What an incredible moment in first century Palestine. What an incredible moment in the twenty-first century here in Washington, D.C. I wonder what we would have done had we seen Jesus’ resurrection? Would we, too, have run away? Would we, too, have been afraid? I also wonder how many of us would have seen Jesus as an “executed criminal”?
We are blessed because we do not live in the first-century context. We know the joy of the resurrection. We know that the bonds of death have been broken because of that event in Jerusalem on that first Easter Sunday. At the same time we must remember that it was a terrifying moment for those experiencing the resurrection.
Today we are able to celebrate that which was terrifying and frightening. Today we are able to reassure each other by the words, ‘Christ is risen.’
But is that really true? Are we really that much different from Thomas who wanted to see the marks of the nails in Jesus’ hand and his side before he would believe. Don’t we too want to have that physical proof of Jesus?
Jesus himself was fully aware how important those physical qualities were for his followers. And God understood that as well. After all, God chose to take on human flesh as God revealed God’s nature to us in the person of Jesus.
This morning I would like us to reflect on the three physical qualities that Jesus shared with his disciples. Those three are that:
- Jesus’ disciples heard his voice
- Jesus’ disciples felt his breath on them
- Jesus’ disciples saw him
Hearing, feeling, seeing. Three of the most important senses that we are able to experience in our contact with other people. And in Jesus’ resurrection appearances Jesus shared all three senses with his disciples. But when the disciples reported to Thomas (who was not with the other disciples in the house when Jesus first met them), Thomas’ response reflected the scepticism of not having heard, felt, or seen Jesus. Hence he said, “Unless I see the marks 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.” What was so important to Thomas is that he wanted to have the physical proof of seeing the mark of the nails and being able to place his hand in Jesus’ side.
So often when we hear this verse, or when we are speaking about Thomas, we frequently put an adjective before Thomas’ name: doubting. And indeed Thomas is known as Doubting Thomas.
But Jesus also knew that physical contact was so important. A week after Easter the disciples were back in the house and Thomas was with the other disciples this time. When Jesus appeared, he greeted the disciples with the same words, “Peace be with you,” and then he immediately told Thomas to put his finger in the nail marks and to put his hand in his side. When Thomas did this he made the affirmation, “My Lord and my God.”
It was important for Thomas to see, touch, and feel to believe. But then Jesus, knowing it was important for Thomas, went on and said, “Have you believed because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
In our more honest moments, I suspect all of us want to see and touch Jesus. Jesus’ breathed on his disciples saying, “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.” And we are the recipients of that breath.
Imagine being the recipient of God’s breath, God’s creative breath that brings life into being. That breath in the Hebrew Scriptures is called ruah, and it is God’s ruah, breath, that breathes into the clay that God has molded into the form of a person to give life to that person, “then the Lord God formed Adam from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and Adam became a living being.” We are the recipients of God’s ruah, God’s breath.
In the back of the Cathedral in the display panel is a picture of me in South Africa holding a precious toddler infected with HIV/AIDS. As a part of the Cathedral’s global reconciliation program, I was in a township called Rondebult, which is outside of Johannesburg. It is a day I will never forget, but it is also a day I will always remember every time today’s Gospel is read. I remember Beauty, who embodies the breath, the sight, and the touch in today’s Gospel.
Beauty has six children. She is literally the cornerstone of her community and is the true advocate of the downtrodden. In her township in Rondebult, she has planted a garden to feed her children and her community; she has built a nursery out of a large ship container for more than 30 children. Most of the children are infected with HIV and tuberculosis.
When we visited Beauty’s nursery full of toddlers, I picked up and held the little boy wearing the green sweater in the photo in the display panel in the back of the Cathedral. He was so starved for the human touch that every time I tried to put him down he would start to scream once again. It took me 30 minutes to put this most beautiful child down and when I left he was still crying, as was I.
This toddler reminded me of Thomas: wanting to touch, and to be held, wanting to have the breath of love to embrace him, and wanting to see someone who was willing to give time to him.
We are like this toddler, we are like Thomas. We want to hear Jesus’ voice, we want to feel Jesus breath, his ruah, on us. We want to see Jesus.
And Jesus said to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.” We are the lucky ones today because in this Christian community we are given the opportunity to see Jesus … as Jesus’ followers reach out and touch us … as we are breathed upon … as we see Jesus at work. And there are plenty of opportunities for us to touch the wounds of Jesus’ followers today in this city and in the global community in which we live:
…be it, to hold a child infected with HIV/AIDS in Beauty’s nursery
…be it, to pray with a suicide victim who has lost all hope
…be it, to hold a person who has lost everything today in financial scams
…be it, to be with a family who has lost their home in foreclosure
The Easter message is indeed Alleluia. The Easter message is indeed Resurrection. Let us be open to God’s breath upon us so that we can pick up the toddler who needs our love, so that we can reach out to that refugee who is being threatened with deportation, to that 50-year old woman who was told last week that she has a cancerous mass the size of a grapefruit growing near her spine and that she might be paralyzed for the rest of her life.
Breathe on us, let us receive the Holy Spirit, so that we will be able to respond, knowing that God is holding us, as God was with and held Jesus on Good Friday, so that ultimately, regardless what our situation is, all of us will be able to make the Easter Acclamation: Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia, Alleluia.