How Can I be Sure?
Do you remember the 1960s rock band The Young Rascals? Some of their hit songs were “It’s a Beautiful Morning,” “Groovin’,” “People Got to be Free,” and “How Can I be Sure?” My brother, Jimmy, who was eight years older than I, liked The Young Rascals. I can still see him playing their records in his bedroom when he was a teenager. I was only six or seven years old at the time. I think it was my first introduction to Rock and Roll music. My parents always listened to Classical or Big Band music. Rock and Roll was a whole new sound for me.
As I mentioned before, one the Rascals' hits songs was “How Can I be Sure?” The words of the chorus are, “How can I be sure in a world that’s constantly changing? How can I be sure where I stand with you?” The Rascals were crooning about the complexities of romantic relationships, the challenges of falling and staying in love.
The song returned to my consciousness as I was preparing my sermon. Perhaps it reemerged because we are living in a world that is constantly changing. Think of all the changes that are happening in our country. It is estimated that if Title 42, a public health regulation that enables border authorities to deport illegal migrants because of the pandemic, is discontinued, some eighteen thousand people a day will begin crossing our southern border. About seven thousand are crossing currently. Eighteen thousand a day translates into six and half million people a year! Or think of inflation. The cost of everything is going up significantly. We see it every week at the grocery store and at the gas pump. Or think of violent crime in our cities. It is rising to alarming levels. Or think of the war raging in Ukraine and Russia’s threats of using nuclear weapons against the West.
If we think in even more personal terms, we have the uncomfortable realization that everything can change in an instant. An accident, a health crisis, or even sudden and unexpected death can befall us. How can we be sure what the future holds in a world that is constantly changing? Even more poignantly, since everything is so uncertain, where do we stand with God? To quote the Rascals again, “I really, really, really want to know.”
This is precisely the same situation the apostles found themselves in before Easter Sunday. Their entire world was turned upside down. They had walked with Jesus every day for three years. They had heard his teaching and witnessed his miracles. Now Jesus was dead and buried, crucified by the Romans, and entombed by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. On Easter Sunday, they discovered Jesus’ body was missing from the tomb, and Mary Magdalen came from the graveyard claiming she had seen the Lord. The apostles had not seen the risen Christ yet. They were hiding behind locked doors in the upper room for fear of the Jewish authorities.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, Jesus came and stood among them. Jesus spoke a word of peace to them and showed them his nail- pierced hands and wounded side (vs. 19-20a). John tells us that “the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord” (vs. 20b).
The Apostle Thomas, unfortunately, was absent from Jesus’ first resurrection appearance. We do not know where Thomas was or what he was doing. We do know a bit about Thomas from John’s gospel. In Chapter 11, Jesus decided to travel to Bethany to see Mary and Martha, and Lazarus, who was sick unto death. You will recall that the disciples tried to dissuade Jesus from going because of the murderous intentions of the Jewish authorities. Bethany was just two miles from Jerusalem, within easy striking distance, but Jesus was determined to go anyway. In response, Thomas said, “Let us also go that we may die with him” (Jn. 11:16). Thomas was a brave man.
In John Chapter 14, when Jesus announced that he was going to the Father, he told the disciples, “You know the way to the place I am going” (Jn. 14:4). Thomas responded, “Lord we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (vs. 5). It is not that Thomas did not want to go to join Jesus; he just wasn’t clear how to get there. Thomas was an intrepid person.
One commentator makes this observation about Thomas’ statements, “Together these two statements reflect a disciple who is committed to following Jesus, first to death, and then to places unknown. Do you remember the declaration of Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear ‘To infinity and beyond’? Thomas will follow Jesus wherever he goes – to death and beyond death to places unknown.” Perhaps while the other disciples were cowering behind locked doors, Thomas was out and about still seeking to follow Jesus.
It is unfortunate that Thomas has been given the label “Doubting Thomas.” It is not so much that Thomas doubted but that he craved certainty. Thomas wanted to know. “How can I be sure in a world that’s constantly changing?”
Remarkably, Jesus accommodates Thomas’ need for certainty. A week later, the disciples were still hold up in the upper room. This time Thomas was with them. Jesus came again and stood among them. Again, Jesus pronounced a word of peace to them. “Peace be with you.” Then Jesus addressed Thomas directly. He invited Thomas to probe his wounds. Jesus said to Thomas, “Do not be faithless but believing.” Thomas had no need to touch Jesus’ stigmata. He answered immediately, “My Lord and my God.” That is the first time anyone calls Jesus God in John’s gospel. Thomas had the certainty he needed.
With the eleven apostles and the other disciples, like Mary Magdalene, assembled, they could begin the work Jesus had for them to do. Jesus equipped them for the work by bestowing his peace upon them. Three times in our text Jesus says, “Peace be with you” (vs. 19, 20, and 26). Jesus had promised the disciples peace previously. “Peace, I leave you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid” (Jn. 14:27). The world’s peace is circumstantial. It is fleeting and transitory, but Jesus’ peace endures, come what may. Like the apostles and disciples, if we are to follow Jesus to death or to places unknown, we will require the same peace, and we too have the promise that Jesus’ peace with be our portion always.
With Christ’s peace comes work for us to do. Jesus said at his first resurrection appearance to the disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you” (vs. 21). We are to be the risen Christ’s emissaries in this world. We cannot do the work from our own strength, but with the gift of Christ’s peace and the breath of Christ indwelling us, we can do all things, for Christ strengthens us.
John tells us, “When he had said this (that is, ‘As the Father has sent me, so send I you.’), he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (vs. 22). This is the second gift that equips us to bear fruit that lasts to eternal life. Christ’s peace and the Holy Spirit indwell us now, giving us the power to be as Christ to the world.
Jesus specifies more particularly the work he has for us to do. Jesus said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” Remember when Jesus healed the man paralyzed from birth? Jesus said to him, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” The Pharisees who overheard Jesus were outraged. They said, “Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5:20-21). Jesus healed the man’s paralysis to prove that the Son of Man had the authority to forgive sins on earth.
Amazingly, we have been given the same authority. When people are broken, we can tell them, “Your sins are forgiven. Your past and present do not define your future with God. Jesus the Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world. Jesus has taken your sins away. Do not be faithless but believing. Be at peace and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
How do you feel about that? Are you up for the job? Of course not. What Jesus is saying is that God will forgive the sins of others through us. We have no power of our own. Our authority is always derivative.
It gets worse! Jesus also said, “If you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.” What Jesus is saying is that if we fail to offer the forgiveness that is available through him, the person is left in their sins. This places a great responsibility on our shoulders.
We may not feel up for the task, but Jesus thinks we can do it. N. T. Wright observes that, “Indeed, he is not asking if they would like to do it; he is giving them a commandment. They are to go and do it.”
How can we be sure in a world that is constantly changing? Certainty about the future is unattainable, but we do have certainty about where we stand with God. We are numbered among those who have not seen and yet believed. Like the apostles and disciples, we have peace, the peace of Christ, peace that passes understanding. We have the Holy Spirit, the breath of Jesus indwelling us.
We have a mission. As the Father sent Jesus, so He sends us. As Jesus is, so are we in this world (I Jn. 4:17). We are to proclaim the forgiveness of sins to everyone. We are not to hold back, to retain anyone’s sins. The power of the risen Christ can accomplish all of this and more through us.
Are you up to the job? Indeed, we are, for we can do all things through Christ who strengthen us. All glory be to God. Alleluia! Amen.