Most of us, Christian or not, have heard the expression “doubting Thomas” and know the general outline of the story. It’s found in John 20: 19-29.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “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.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Did you notice Jesus’ statement? “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” What do you think he means?
A common understanding of this sentence is that the church has the authority to forgive (or not) sin. That reading puts the church and it’s leaders in a position of power over others. And that is contrary to how Jesus tells the disciples to relate to each other.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus tells the disciples to serve each other. To be humble and not lord over each other.
A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. Luke 22:24-27 NRSV
Jesus gives them and us a new commandment, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34) And again “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (John 15:12)
I wonder if Jesus meant this statement about forgiving and retaining sins as a reminder, a warning even. Forgive each other because otherwise sin remains among you. Lack of forgiveness, retaining sins is an unhealthy practice. Holding on to another’s sin damages relationships. It damages communities.
When Jesus appears to the disciples, they are in a precarious place. Their world has shifted from the joy of Palm Sunday, to the despair of Good Friday, to the confusion of the empty tomb, and the amazing and impossible presence of Jesus in the room with them. They must have been emotionally and spiritually off balance. In this turmoil, it would be easy to turn on each other. It would be easy to divide the world into friends and enemies. Jesus cautions them Forgive, don’t hold onto sin. Receive the Spirit. Go into the world with this good news of the resurrection. Peace be with you.