Gospel: John 20:19-31
1st Reading: Acts 2:14a, 22-32
2nd Reading: 1 Peter 1:3-9
Remember your first bicycle? What color was it? Was it a hand-me-down, or did you get one shiny and new? Who taught you to ride it? How long did it take you to learn? Where did you go on your first bicycle? What adventures did you have?
When Jesus first met the Disciples, they were riding tricycles. There is nothing wrong with tricycles. They are steady and safe, but they don’t go very fast. They are pretty good at helping a person develop muscles, but they are pretty inefficient. Tricycles are preparation before riding a bicycle. They teach the basics about pedaling and stopping and starting. The disciples had been fishermen, and there was a tax collector and a doctor among them. Jesus seemed to see these as tricycle professions, that helped prepare them for their lives of discipleship, following him and doing his ministry.
So Jesus comes along and invites them to be fishers of people and to follow him. Jesus invited them off their tricycles and instead set about leading them on bicycles with training wheels. During this time, the disciples ride alongside Jesus. He pedaled and they pedaled. He used his brakes, they used their brakes. He signaled a right or left turn and they did the same. They were practicing ministry on their bikes with training wheels. Occasionally, Jesus would send them around the block under the buddy system, but asked them to check in after each time around to make sure they were in one piece before they went around again.
Over Holy Week, the Disciples took their training wheels off. They didn’t expect it to be so difficult. They felt ready, reassuring Jesus that they wouldn’t deny him, that they would stay focused on his teaching. Instead, they found themselves covered with scrapes and bumps and bruises. They fall again and again. Judas betrays Jesus and he runs straight into the street without looking. He doesn’t survive the week. The other disciples have their own mishaps. Peter betrays him. They all feel like failures as their friend Jesus lets go of the bicycle seat and they can’t seem to make this work. They can’t seem to get anywhere without his help.
Now we come to the disciples this morning. They have parked their bikes with no intention of ever riding them again. They are so frustrated and afraid that they are ready to go back to their tricycles. They are ready to go back to their everyday lives and forget everything that Jesus taught them, everything they ever experienced with training wheels on or even the brief moments of exhilaration they felt before they went tumbling to the ground. And since Jesus has been killed, their teacher won’t know that they gave up. They will never have to face him and see his disappointment.
Now enter Jesus. If you think they were afraid before, think how they feel now. Jesus comes to them, locked up in that room in fear. They are expecting to get a well-deserved scolding, to be read the riot act. All they get from Jesus is grace. “Peace be with you.” Jesus isn’t going to escalate their fear or point out all their failures and failings. Instead Jesus gives them peace.
Then he breathes on them. You can’t just tell someone to be at peace. It is something you can show and you can share. You can’t give peace unless you are at peace. If you are anxious, peace won’t be communicated. A slow, even breath is one way of communicating peace. Go ahead, try it.
When Sterling was a little baby and he’d cry when he was teething or something, I’d feel frustrated sometimes. But I knew that the best way to give him peace was to be at peace, myself. I’d take a deep breath and relax my tense muscles and I’d just feel him relax in my arms. Sometimes he would even take a deep breath to match mine.
Jesus does that for the disciples. He gives them a gift of his breath, his peace, his forgiveness. He gives them his calm breath to calm their fears and invite them to breathe so their bodies and minds would be ready to get back on the bicycle and try one more time or however many more times it would take until they were experts.
Once Jesus imparted his calm breath to them, he does give them one piece of advice. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” If you are going to ride this bicycle, to share the good news swiftly and effectively, you can’t always be looking backward, blaming, beating yourself up, dwelling in the past. Retaining sins, yours or others, will only hold you back. Forgiveness is the only way forward. He was telling them they would need to learn forgiveness to be disciples and they were going to need to accept his forgiveness.
They had let him down. They had increased his suffering when he needed them most. They had denied his friendship. They had pretended they didn’t even know him. He had died a most horrible, lonely death and they had survived because they had denied him. They had the worst kind of survivor’s guilt. Now here is Jesus standing before them, the one they had abandoned. He offers them peace. He offers them forgiveness. He offers them another chance to do his ministry, to share his love, to be his disciples. He refuses to look back or retain sins. It is all forgiveness for Jesus and he recommends that course to his disciples.
But one disciple wasn’t there that day. Thomas had been away and when he came back the Disciples told him that Jesus was raised and had visited them. Thomas took one look at this cowering group of Disciples and he's not buying it. They are still all locked up in fear. Their bicycles are still parked in the garage. If Jesus had come and breathed peace on them, if Jesus had forgiven them and told them to let go of their grudges and regrets, if Jesus had told them he was sending them out, what were they still doing here? Because of their paralysis, Thomas can't possibly believe. Their actions don't match the story they've told.
Thankfully we know that they eventually did venture from that locked room and found the courage to get back on their bicycles and share their story far and wide even at great risk to themselves, until it reached our ears today.
The Sundays of Easter we proclaim, Christ is Risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! We say it loud and proud with our voices. Do we show it in our actions or are we still locked up in our fears?
Jesus empowers us in all different ways. In the Gospel, Thomas is away when Jesus comes to the Disciples. Jesus ensures that he is empowered by community--that he is reunited with the witnesses and thereby strengthened to share the Gospel. In the same way, we have this testimony of the witnesses that they touched and saw with their own eyes. We have the generations who have gone before as part of our community that give us strength to live the Gospel, to reach out in love, to forgive, to move forward. And we have the generations who are yet to come, that give us courage to live the truth of the Gospel.
We have Jesus' instructions in the Bible, the Sermon on the Mount reminding us that blessing is more than just what is on the surface, his example of giving his life for the sake of others, his parables making us think deeply about our own participation in God's Kingdom ways now today.
We have Jesus' challenge to stretch ourselves, to look deep within ourselves and face our brokenness from other people and from this beautiful earth that God created. God wants to show us how to be a better team player. God invites us to have a changed life because of him, not just keep repeating the same mistakes over and over. God wants us to have a life that, although quite possibly more difficult than the one we have now, will also be more fulfilling, more life-giving, more balanced. Finally, Jesus offers peace when we are afraid, encouragement to get right back up on that bicycle and get moving forward to do God's work of love.
By this new life, we find ourselves blessed and we become a blessing to others, so that others can meet Jesus in their own way, have their own experience of forgiveness and healing and new life and salvation.
Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!
You are risen! You are sent by Christ to have new life and share new life! Live in God's love!