By Paul Koch –
I love reading John 20:19-31. It is read every single year on the Sunday after Easter in churches around the world, and rightly so. After all, this is the account of our Lord’s appearance to the disciples in the upper room after His resurrection from the dead. This reading contains the tale of doubting Thomas and the longing desire to see and even touch our risen Lord. And most especially, this text answers the question, “now what?” Now that our Lord has suffered and died and risen from the dead, what do we do? Where do we go from here? What is the next step? This is what is presented to us in this incredible text.
Now, most of us are familiar with the story. On Sunday evening, on that very first Easter, the disciples gathered together in hiding with the doors locked for they were afraid. Afraid because the religious leaders had unjustly condemned and crucified their leader, their rabbi. But into their hiding, into their locked room, Jesus appears and announces his arrival by saying, “Peace be with you.” He shows them all His hands and His side but one of the disciples, Thomas, was not there. The most familiar part of the story comes a week later when the disciples are gathered together again, still hiding away, but this time Thomas is with them. Jesus shows up again with this same announcement, “Peace be with you,” but this time he says directly to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” He gives him tangible proof of the resurrection.
This is where we are tempted to spend our time, on the exchange between Jesus and Thomas. But to do so is to risk missing something crucial. To be sure Thomas’s confession of “My Lord and my God” is the heart of the Christian faith and hope. It is our confession to this day. Yet, it is that first night, that first Easter gathering, that holds for us the purpose and use of such a bold confession of faith. The answer to the question, “Now what?” is not found in Thomas’s unbelief or even our Lord’s appearance to him, but in the sending out of the faithful.
After our Lord’s resurrection, after He has paid the price for the salvation of mankind, He will not allow those He has redeemed to remain in hiding. Hiding has been man’s natural inclination since the fall into sin. Remember after Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the forbidden tree, when they heard God walking in the garden, they hid? They hid out of fear and doubt and uncertainty. They hid from their Creator and we’ve been hiding ever since. They hid out of shame for their sin, and our reasons for hiding are not much different. Oh, we don’t hide in the forest like they did. No, we hide in far more sophisticated ways these days. We hide in reasonable excuses and understandable dilemmas. We hide by just going with the flow of our world, by fitting in and not making waves. Sure, we believe that Christ rose from the dead, but we just keep that bit to ourselves and go along as if nothing happened. That is how we hide. We hide in plain sight, right along with everyone else.
Perhaps, we might say that our hiding is somewhat worse than the hiding of Adam and Eve. At least they were hiding from the Creator of the universe, whom they explicitly disobeyed. We hide from fear of other sinful creatures. We hide like the disciples did, because it isn’t popular to believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who became flesh and dwelt among us, the God who suffered and died so that we might have eternal life. We hide because we might be mocked or ignored or simply laughed at.
But into that room of hiding disciples our Lord arrives with His message of peace. He calls them out of hiding and into a new and more radical life, a daring and bold life, the life of a believer. He says, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” Their life is not to be one of hiding but of being sent. “And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.” Jesus tells these disciples that they are to go out as he went out. The plan of salvation, the plan for setting the captives free from sin and death is to put the word of forgiveness into the mouths of the disciples and send them out into the world to apply the works of Christ’ death and resurrection to the broken and dying lives of those they meet. “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven,” He says, “if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.”
Jesus says, “This is the plan of salvation for the world, and there is no plan B. You are going to do it: you are going to forgive sins. If you forgive sins they are actually forgiven and if you don’t do the work of forgiveness, if you don’t forgive others, then they are not forgiven.” This is an incredible commissioning of the disciples. One that will not allow them to remain in hiding. And why should they hide? After all, they are hearing from the lips of their Lord, from the lips of the one who walked out of the grave, that they will now go as His ambassadors to speak His Words of life.
And as He sent them, so He has sent you, my friends. This is the answer to the question, “Now what?” Now you are to go. You are to speak the word of forgiveness to others. You are to be bearers of the gospel of Jesus Christ to a world mired in sin. But the temptation is to think that there must be some other way, some other person, some other program, some other plan to accomplish this great work. The temptation is to lock the doors and go back into hiding, to not engage, to retreat from the truth, to be silent when you should speak.
Oh, we can list off a million reasons why someone else ought to take up this task. We may begin by sighting our own sinfulness, our own faults that ought to disqualify us. After all, we know our own hearts and we know the sin that lurks deep within. How can it be that we would even dare to speak the word of forgiveness to someone else?
But then something happens, something unexpected and sudden. As we gather together each Sunday, as we hide away among ourselves – Jesus shows up. I’ve always loved that part of the Lord’s Supper liturgy when right after the Words of Institution are spoken, the pastor declares, “The Peace of the Lord be with you always.” He is simply proclaiming to you what our Lord proclaimed in that upper room. As you gather here in sin and brokenness, as you sit frustrated and afraid, perhaps even doubting and timid, Jesus arrives in His gifts and declares to you His peace. That peace gives you His strength, His victory, His life. As you receive His body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins, you are lifted up once more out of hiding and sent again to others.
You come out of hiding for your family to speak to them the forgiveness of Christ and to proclaim into hurting hearts and troubled consciences the free gifts of salvation in Christ alone. You come out of hiding to be a warrior for each other to reach out in love and hope by speaking the living Word of Christ’s love. You come out of hiding not by your own strength, not by your own ability or cleverness, but in the confidence of Christ victory and promise. You come out of hiding in the assurance of the one who defeated sin, death, and the power of the devil once and for all. You come out of hiding to confess with Thomas and all the faithful that Jesus Christ is our Lord and our God. What, then, is there to fear?