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2 Easter - Philip and James, Apostles

The following sermon was preached by Klaus-Peter Adam, Associate Professor of Old Testament, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Wednesday, May 4, 2011.


John 20:19-31

Remember the hilarious introduction to the Simpsons’ animated cartoon series?

For 22 years Homer Simpson has worked in Springfield’s famous nuclear power plant. The intro of each episode features him at the shrill sound of a bell in the workshop. When the bell rings  Homer Simpson carelessly drops a glowing plutonium rod. This is the time in which he really needs to get to his break and have one of his much-sighed-for donuts.

While Homer drops the fuel rod, a colleague is just about to mount a sign that cynically comments on nuclear incidents at the plant. It boasts: 3 days without an accident!
In a sort of a slapstick scene, the worker who is getting ready to put this sign up, barges against the ladder on which he is climbing, the ladder topples, and the colleague is in free fall, while Homer in this typical “couldn’t care less – where are the donuts”- attitude leaves his work place with the fuel rod falling behind him, and the colleague in free fall.

Homer represents an entirely careless attitude, ignorant of any of the hidden dangers of radioactivity.

We perceive invisible phenomena as less real than visible evidence.
But, invisible things are not necessarily less true or less powerful.
Rather it is true of invisible things: We only recognize what we know, what we have been told.

Radioactivity, though we won’t see it, can be detected, if only we have been told, how. Other invisible things are likewise real:
sulfur or asbestos hanging in the air,
quicksilver, nicely secreting itself in our tuna sandwich,
antibiotics floating through the milk in our cereal bowl:

All these are invisible – yet we do not question their existence.
We’ve been told they’re real.
We’ve been instructed, and yet, in our everyday life, we tend to be oblivious of their relevance.

Think of carbon emissions:
-Imagine for a second how much more real they felt if our jets left a black stripe from their carbon emissions in the air behind them?
Such an impressive visible sign would sure make us much more aware about the enormous destructive potential of our carbon footprint.

We’ve been told of it, we well know it, but we tend to play invisible things down, and, occasionally, forget about them.

In today’s gospel, Thomas struggles with the risen Christ’s invisibility - even though he has sure word about it and the disciples have told him “We have seen the Lord”, he will not believe it:

“Unless I see the mark of the nails
and put my finger in the mark of the nails
and my hand in his side,

I will not believe.”

Let us look closer at this encounter between Jesus in the second scene of our gospel. This is carefully described: Jesus first greets all the disciples with his greeting: “Peace be with you!”
He then urges Thomas: Lay your finger here
and look at my hands.
and take your hand,

and throw it in my side,
and be not unfaithful!”

Notably, Thomas does none of these 4 actions that Jesus invites him to do. It is not even mentioned that he saw. What follows is Thomas’ succinct confession: “My lord and my God!”

This discrepancy between Jesus’ command and Thomas sudden belief in the disciples’ words couldn’t be stronger!
The word about the risen Christ was sufficient! He could have known this. This is this short passage’s center: For Thomas and for anyone else – in order to believe in Christ, all you have to do, is to listen to the word spoken to you. Thomas only gets to see what he already knows.

This is one of the last appearances of the resurrected Christ in the gospel of John. It does not revoke Jesus’ earthly existence. – Rather, as this earthly existence has ended, it points to the word of the disciples as the now critical evidence for the risen Christ who is living among us.

Thomas’ problem was not that he did not see. Rather: his mistrust in the testimony of his sisters and brothers in faith who had told him about the appearance of the risen Christ: “We have seen the Lord.”

The daunting Thomas makes this unequivocally clear: What the gospel of John calls here “to believe” means: Trusting in the message about the resurrection that our mothers and fathers have handed down to us.
The empty tomb is not evidence enough, but, neither the visible body of the resurrected Jesus needs to appear: It is the witness of the disciples who have seen the risen Christ.
Their testimony is all we have – and it is all we can refer ourselves to.

That said: In the case of the risen Christ, the fourth gospel takes a clear stand against all reading in “the book of nature”: The empty tomb alone is not sufficient: it is the disciples’ testimony that is the critical witness of the resurrection: Compare it to you visiting the site of a grave without knowing where you are, you might even mistake the place for a wonderful idyllic site. Or, you may end up confusing Jesus with a gardener, as Mary Magdalene, who weeping with wet eyes, only slowly recognizes Jesus as she hears his words.

The empty and the filled tombs won’t speak to us. Only if we are told the story of the lives of those who were buried, we will understand. We see only what we have been told.
“Nature” can be a most treacherous source of revelation. The worms in the composter, the much hailed springtime air: They will not tell you the resurrection – unlike the testimony of our mothers’ and fathers’: What we need to hear are the stories of the living Christ and the word of his resurrection, the gospel.

In a sideways look to Monday at noon, when we commemorated the the Holocaust, the Shoah: The graves of the victims, and even the pictures of the many randomly scattered or buried corpses as we might have seen them, won’t reveal the secret of their lives. The graves remain silent and the bodies won’t talk. But the word, especially the spoken word of the survivors, told us what happened to some of them.

“I was arrested in November 1938…”

What a powerful and precious witness of the times!

Likewise, the knowledge about the resurrection of Christ is transferred to us only by the oral witnesses, by the disciples’ word: “We have seen the Lord!”

We only see what we know – what has been revealed to us.

The readings of this Sunday echo the importance of the word of the resurrection: 1st Peter talks about the ‘genuineness’ of the faith and Peter in his speech refers to Psalm 16 which anticipates the resurrection of Jesus, as foretold by his father in faith, David:

'He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.'

Sisters and Brothers, as this academic year comes to a close we are in for a lesson on our faith formation on our belief in the words of the resurrection.

Fundamentally this lesson is indeed as John’s introduction into this passage reveals: John opens it with a distinct entry formula: “When it was evening on that day”, and the second half is introduced by: “On the eighth day,” counting including the Sabbath and the next Sunday.
These episodes are not located in space, only in time. This is to say: John puts these words of the risen Christ as being of universal relevance. They play out on our entire life.

Fundamental this lesson is also in that Jesus sends the disciples and us on our ways, only after having twice greeted us with ‘Peace be with you’: “Like the father has sent me, so I send you.”

Third, this authority of Christ has a particular quality when Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into his disciples in what can be called a unique form of baptismal blessing in the New Testament.

This is immediately relevant in ethical or legal respects: The baptismal authority of those who received the Holy spirit materializes itself in their expertise, in their understanding of what is an ethically adequate life!  With this, Jesus grants the disciples a comprehensive and ultimate ethical or legal authority over the forgiveness or the retaining of their sins. In a very distinct, unique wording, V 23 refers to a contrast between the “remitting” of the sins and literally: retaining, or holding of the sins.
“As called and ordained ministers of the church…”,
you will declare such remission or holding of sin.

If you remit the sins of any – they are remitted from them. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained, hold, kept.

As pastors the community of saints entitles you to judge whether the lives of the members of your congregation and, beyond, in this society, are worthy to be called Christian, worthy of the baptismal spirit of the risen Christ. 

I wish you as you finish your term papers or as you go through your final exams and will graduate:

That you may discover in all the words of learning at the seminary the breath of the risen Christ as it has been breathed into you,
that all your learning may enable you to be faithful witnesses of Christ, who in consciously trusting the word of resurrection - “We have seen the Lord!”- through learning and praying, can declare what sins can be remitted and what sins will be retained.

Amen

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