The end of John chapter 20 is one of my all-time favorite texts. I know I probably say that about a few different texts from Scripture but this time I really mean it. This reading is stunning. It gives direction and focus to the Christian life. In fact, I think it fills our daily comings and goings with purpose and meaning. And the great thing is, if you are a regular church goer, this text comes up routinely. No doubt you have all heard many a sermon on John 20:19-31. Every year, on the Sunday after Easter Sunday, this text is read. We hear once again about our Lord’s appearance in the upper room though the doors were locked. We hear about His proclamation of peace to the disciples gathered there and of course we marvel at the exchange between Jesus and Thomas. Thomas who demanded to examine the resurrected body of our Lord, to put his fingers in the holes in His hands and touch the place where the spear pierced His side. It is a text which moves from disbelief and fear to hope and a sincere confession of faith.
But what I really love about this text is how it deals with the question of, “What now?” Now that Christ is risen from the dead, now that the perfect and final sacrifice for the sins of the world has been offered and received by God, what now? It is a good question. In fact, in many ways perhaps it is the only worthy question this side of the empty tomb. What are we to do now? The work of securing your salvation is done in Christ. When He declared, “It is finished!” that is precisely what He means. You are secure in your salvation because Christ alone is the one who did the work. You have hope of eternal life because He did not waiver or fail in the least. You are baptized into His work. You die and rise with your Lord – so now what?
To be sure there are many attempts at answering this question. There are bookshelves full of volumes attempting to provide a meaningful answer. Of course, different churches line up in different ways to offer their answers. But the wonderful thing is, we do not have to search far for an answer to this question, at least not to begin with, for in the most direct and basic way our Lord Himself provides the answer to the question of, “Now what?” For that is what He comes into the upper room to tell His disciples. There they were afraid, locked inside, unsure of what to do next. In fact, for them, they did not even know Jesus had yet risen from the dead. No doubt they thought they were probably next on the chopping block and were looking for ways to get out of the city all together. But then our Lord arrives in their midst. He brings them a message of peace and informs His followers what the next part of the mission is, what they are to do next.
So, what does our Lord say? He says, “Peace be with you, as the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you.” They are sent out. No more hiding away, no more confusion about what to do next. Christ’s work is complete and now they are to carry the fruits of the mission forward. He then gives them the Holy Spirit and says, “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld” (John 20:23). This is what they are to do next. They are sent out into the world to forgive sins. To proclaim the forgiveness Christ secured on the Cross and through the Tomb to the sinners of the world is what they are to do. If they forgive anyone, they are, in fact, forgiven. If they do not do it, if they refuse to forgive or are silent before the broken sinner, there is not another way. This is what they are to be doing. They are to be proclaimers of forgiveness. This is the plan.
Of course, we learn almost immediately there is some hesitation, some issues regarding all this. I mean, one of their own, one of the disciples who had been with them the whole time was not there when Jesus showed up that first Easter day. Thomas was absent. When they tell him the good news, when they unveil the plan to him, he refuses to believe. In other words, he rejects the words of the other disciples. Perhaps it all just seemed too good to be true. But he wants proof. He wants to put his finger into the holes in Jesus’ hands and touch the place where the spear pierced His side. He wants to know this is not just some ghost or angelic spirit. He wants to know this is the One who was crucified really raised from the dead. For if it is true, if He has been raised, then it changes everything. But he wants to see for himself.
One week later, on the next Sunday, the Sunday after Easter, they are all together again. This time, though, Thomas is there. As they are still huddled away in their secrete room, locked away from the world, our Lord shows up again. He announces His arrival with His Word of peace. Here He is in their midst. Here is the risen Lord and He looks directly at Thomas and says, “Go ahead Thomas, go ahead and put your finger in the holes in my hands. Go ahead and touch where the spear pierced the Son of God. Do not disbelieve but believe.” Now, the text never says Thomas, in fact, does any inspection, any poking around in the wounds of Christ. Instead, he makes the great confession all Christians make. He says, “My Lord and my God!” He confesses this is God Himself. God in flesh. God who died for the sins of the Word. God who now calls him to believe.
Then Jesus pronounces a blessing. It is not a blessing for those in that room but a blessing for all those who will receive the Word they are sent to proclaim. It is for all those who will know and receive the forgiveness of sins through the living Word that goes out into the world. He says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). He blesses the Church. He blesses the preaching of the Word. He blesses the forgiving of sins. He blesses the whole mission you and I are part of. The answer to the question, “Now what?” is to go and proclaim the Good News. It is to be bearers of the forgiveness of sins. You and I are not only products of this work, but we are also now part of it as well.
In fact, notice what Saint John tells us after recounting this story for us. He says Jesus did all sorts of other things, things not written in his gospel but these words, “…are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31). John’s whole gospel is written so those of us who have not seen, those who were not there might believe. He writes so you might know and trust that your sins have been paid for, that forgiveness is freely given to you. To believe this is to receive life, true eternal life in the name of Christ alone.
The answer to the question, “Now what?” is we are to give life in the name of Christ. That is what you are to do now. That is your call, your purpose throughout the days you have left. Perhaps this means you are to become a preacher like myself. Or perhaps it simply means that you are to be bold and brave enough to forgive those who have hurt you. Maybe for you, your forgiveness will come in the form of an embrace of a child, or a kind word spoken to a spouse. As agents of forgiveness, you bring the promise of life in the name of Christ to all those whom you encounter. And no, it will not always go well. You cannot control the disbelieve and doubts of this age, but you can still forgive.
In many ways I think everything we are doing as a church ought to be focused on this simple task. The whole reason for the building and the pews and the singing of God’s people is so we can receive forgiveness, celebrate forgiveness, and be prepared to forgive others. This is our task. This is what we do now. Let us continue to forgive in the name of our risen Lord.