1 Peter 1:3-9
They slipped through the alleyways, after the sun had set, each from different directions. They were careful to keep their keffiyah pulled forward, over their faces. They were certain that every centurion recognized them, every policeman was following them. They spoke to no one along the way, ten silent shadows, fearing the light, taking refuge in the darkness. But they all made it to the tiny house with the upper room, overlooking the garden. A quick rap on the door and it opened, silently, and each stepped inside, locking it behind them.
They crept up the stairs and stood around the room, candles flickering against the drawn shutters. Every footstep outside raised the hairs on their neck, the whinny of every horse echoing like an equestrian army from the streets below. They whispered their stories.
Peter was first. “We went to the tomb this morning, before the sun was really up. Magdelene had woken John and me up. She said that she had gone there earlier and that Caiaphas had stolen the body. We ran there, and there was nothing inside but the shroud he had been wrapped in. I can't believe those people. It's not bad enough to murder the greatest teacher in all Israel, but now this. I don't even love this country anymore. I feel like I don't belong here.”
John interrupted. “I went inside, because Rocky, as usual, was making some kind of excuse.” Peter started to object, but he held up his hand. “I'm talking. I looked around the tomb, and even in the gray dawn it was really strange. There was the linen cloak neatly folded up in the corner, and the shroud, rolled up like someone had taken it off him. I left Mary sitting there, crying, and Rocky just standing in the doorway, his mouth open, but, for once, not saying anything.” He glared at Peter with red-rimmed eyes.
“You didn't even stay with us when he died. I took his mother to my house. She never stopped crying until this morning when her sister and Magdelene came back and they all left.” Peter was looking at the floor. “But as strange as that was, what was even stranger was that they came back later and said they saw him, and he was alive.” Peter was staring off into the corner. In the darkness, you could make out the tears streaming down his face.
“Women, hysterical creatures. They came by my place today too,” said one of the others. “And they told me the same ridiculous story. That they saw Jesus, in the garden, and he was alive.”
Opf course, it was impossible. They had seen the trial. They had watched his torture. They had seen him nailed to the patabulum and hoisted like a signa militaria over the city. They had seen his feet nailed and heard the crowd mocking him. They watched as the last hope of Israel choked on his blood and died. And they stood, on the hill, as two old, rich men bore his body away. He was dead, no matter what the women said, no matter that the tomb was empty. Besides there had been an earthquake on Preparation Day and another aftershock that morning. It was all too obvious that Caiaphas had taken the body from the tomb and dumped it somewhere. It was just one more insult from the man of iniquity.
Everyone looked at Peter. Peter looked at no one. John touched his arm. “Simon,” he whispered. No one called him that, but his wife, and Jesus, in his more serious moments. Peter's shoulders heaved in great jerks, as he sobbed, his face in his hands. John felt a strange mixture of anger and pity.
“Has anyone seen Judas?” Someone asked finally, to break the awkwardness of the moment.
“He's dead,” answered another, and related the tale he had heard in the market.
“I just don't understand. What was he thinking?”
“He was a thief. Don't you remember how he used to carry the money pouch? How do you think he afforded those nice sandals and those trinkets he was always buying from the traders?' The others nodded.
“Well,” said Simon the Zealot. “it's a good thing he took his own life. That saves me from running him through with my sword. The filthy traitor.” The others agreed. “I hope he rots in hell.”
“Wait,” said one, “Where's Thomas?”
“Who knows? I saw him for a moment, this afternoon, and he wouldn't even look at me. He's probably gone back to Galilee.”
“Another traitor.” They all stared at Peter, accusation heavy in the air. Peter just moaned in anguish.
The cool night air stirred around them and the shutters flew open. The flames on the candles bent as if the night itself was trying to blow them out. The perfume of ten thousand roses filled the room and their knees went weak at the sweetness of it. From behind them, in the shadows, came an old, familiar voice.
“Peace be with you.” They turned, and stared. Even Peter stood, before falling prostrate to the floor.
“Peace be with you,” said Jesus. “As the Father has sent me to you, I am sending you to all the others.”
They crowded around him, shouting, forgetting their fear, their tears, their accusations, their hatred.
“Is it really you? Are you really alive? But how?” They touched him, tentatively at first, then hugged him, kissed him. He pulled back his tunic, so that they could see his wounds. He was laughing in that way he always did when he had told some silly joke, or bested some adversary in a theological jousting match.
“I'm alive.” He smiled. “I told you, for three long years, but you weren't listening. So, now, for once, hear me out. Come close.” They gathered around him. He blew on them.
“Now, breathe, deeply, my friends. Take the Holy Spirit deep within. Learn now that you can forgive, for there is much forgiveness needed, and it needs to start here. Whatever you forgive, will be forgiven, and whatever you don't forgive will just lie there, festering forever.”
A week later, they would gather again in that room, with Thomas, who hadn't gone away at all, but whose heart was still filled with anger and doubt about it all. And Thomas too, would learn the power of Resurrection to undo sin, to create a fresh new world, to bring forgiveness.
Thomas, the great evangelizer, who would later take Christianity far into Asia, has been unfairly dubbed “Doubting Thomas.” But he was not different than the other apostles, he was just a little late to the party. They had all doubted Magdelene's story, they had all doubted, even John and Peter who had seen the empty tomb for themselves.
John's story of these two appearances of the Risen Jesus in the week after Easter is not about the banishment of Thomas' doubt, but the enthronement of forgiveness as the centerpiece of the story of Jesus and his followers. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams put it like this: "There is no hope of understanding the Resurrection outside the process of renewing humanity in forgiveness. We are all agreed that the empty tomb proves nothing. We need to add that no amount of apparitions, however well authenticated, would mean anything either, apart from the testimony of forgiven lives communicating forgiveness."
The Resurrection of Jesus was not a final act of victory over the paper lion of Rome or the corrupt religious leadership of Palestine. That had been taken care of two days before, when the anointed King led his followers, not to an armed uprising, but to a willing death upon a Cross. The mightiest army in history could not crush the Spirit of freedom which revealed the stark illegitimacy of military might. The holiest of religious practice could not condemn the Holy One of Israel by simply calling him a blasphemer. He had received their blows and their indictments, bowed his head and forgiven them. The victory over Empire and Religion was complete by three o'clock in the afternoon on that Good Friday when all the sinfulness of the world was swallowed up in the broken body of a dead prophet.
Easter was for the disciples. They could not be sent forth into all the world, bearing the Gospel of forgiveness, until they themselves had experienced Jesus' forgiveness. They had all run away into the shadows. They were all complicit in his murder. None of them had testified at his trial. They had all allowed their doubts to triumph over faith in God's promises. None of them had believed that this was part of the plan of God all along. Even Judas, who had engineered the betrayal, when faced with the reality of it, walked into darkness rather than accepting the light.
So there could be no future for the Gospel of God's Reign without its vanguard grasping that Jesus had, of his own volition, chosen death, and they were forgiven for their unfaithfulness. In fact, there could be no Pentecost, no outpouring of the Spirit, until they themselves breathed the perfume of forgiveness and stood ready to forgive the world.
The Empty Tomb, and all the appearances of Jesus for the next forty days, were not primarily about how seeing the Risen Jesus brings faith, for Jesus tells Thomas, “"Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." Faith can only come when we realize our own complicity in the evil which stalks the world and accept the fact that God has forgiven us for what we have done and what we have left undone.
When Jesus says: "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" he is not setting the Church up as some grand office of Who's In and Who's Out, the merchants of who was saved and who was lost, but as the bearers of forgiveness for all the world. Their sole job was to paint the world in bright Easter colors. As Eugene Peterson puts it in his paraphrase of Jesus' words, The Message: "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive someone's sins, they're gone for good. If you don't forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?"
Indeed, what will we do with the sins we have not forgiven? We can bundle them all up and carry them around, but we will only find ourselves dangling from a noose, like Judas. If only he had stuck around for another day, and had slipped furtively through the night with the others, perhaps we would be taking communion this morning in the parish church of St. Judas Iscariot. Instead, we can only weep for the one who willing chose to die, rather than live in forgiveness. It was in his failure to accept that he was forgiven, for he knew not what he had done, that Judas died alone, strangled by the sin tethered around his neck.
Our very own Easter story is completed when we rise again, shining bright with the knowledge of forgiveness for every sinful act, for every sin that could ever be conceived and tell all the world that it, too, is forgiven, that the Empty Tomb stands eternally as the reminder that in Peter's words: “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
That salvation is not ours alone, but belongs to everyone. As the Father has sent Jesus, he now sends us. Amen.