Though scholars presume the actual numbers of early converts to Christianity given in the Acts of the Apostles are somewhat exaggerated, there's no doubt the immediate followers of Jesus demonstrated their faith in such a way that many joined in their decision to become other Christs. What was so attractive about this new way of believing? What prompted such a steady flow of converts to reject their former beliefs and accept those of their Christian friends and family members? What were the "signs and wonders" followers of Jesus were experiencing?
Many Christians today follow Jesus simply because he provides them the best way to get into heaven. They usually don't expect lots of signs and wonders until after their physical deaths. Yet we know from the story of the rich young man in Mark 10 that Jesus' original disciples didn't follow him just because he provided them with a path into heaven. From Jesus' response to the man's question, "What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?" it's clear that keeping the commandments - without any input from Jesus - insures someone's quest to spend eternity with God.
The gospel Jesus offers his followers more than just heaven. He gives us, as he gave the young man, an opportunity to surface God working effectively in our daily lives long before we walk though heaven's gates. That's what he means when he proclaims the "Kingdom of God."
Though we presume, along with the author of Revelation, that the risen Jesus "holds the keys to death and the netherworld," the door into eternity which those keys unlock first opens into this life, long before death and the netherworld appear. Are there signs and wonders which make this life more than just a necessary preliminary to eternity? Is there a value in living our daily lives even if we never discovered the existence of heaven? Jesus' original followers replied to both questions with a resounding, "Yes!".
Jesus taught his disciples how to surface God's presence in everything they did and every person they met. They simply had to look at reality from a different perspective, the perspective from which he looked at it. Among other things, today's gospel pericope shows us that perspective.
Probably the part of this passage most of us will take home with us is the Thomas section. We all identify with his doubting personality. Yet the "forgiveness" words and actions of Jesus are even more significant in our quest to surface God's kingdom in our lives.
The early church wouldn't have regarded Jesus' statement, "Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retained are retained," as a proof text for the sacrament of reconciliation, assuring us that priests have the power (and authority) to forgive or not forgive our sins. Rather, the gospel's original readers would have understood that the Spirit the risen Jesus breathed into those in the upper room that Easter Sunday night empowered them and all his followers to forgive. (We presume he never wanted any of his disciples to withhold forgiveness. But, at the same time, he wanted to make certain they understood the consequences of their unforgiving actions.)
When Jesus makes "repentance" a prerequisite for discovering God's kingdom in our midst, he's taking for granted that unless we approach one another with a forgiving personality, we'll have to wait until we die to experience God's presence. What a waste of a lifetime.
John's Holy Spirit does more than help us pass school exams. That Spirit gives us the power and insight to live a worthwhile, forgiving life, the very thing Jesus' first followers offered to those first converts.