St. Paul’s – Easter 2 – 4/11/21
The doors were shut, tight (John 20:19). Shut tight on Easter evening, because Easter was not joyous but ominous, because Easter was not obvious celebration but weird threat. The doors were shut for safety, shut in fear, shut in order to hide. It is almost a ludicrous picture, the people of Jesus shut behind closed doors, hoping no one would notice or disturb or harm.
This story, however, is not about shut doors. That is only stage setting. The very next phrase gets to the action: Jesus came and stood among them and said to them. It took three quick verbs: he came, he stood, he said. We do not know how he got there, how he penetrated behind shut doors. The doors were intended to keep people out, but Jesus came and disrupted their safe hiding. As soon as he arrives, Jesus takes over the meeting. He dominates the room. Nobody else gets to talk, not to speak a word. Jesus speaks a magisterial speech. Jesus has come here, because these are his people. He has just come to his new life. What he does first with his new life is to seek out his people who are hiding, because he has four things to say to them they need to hear. They are four things only Jesus can say. They are things that once said to us, can never be unsaid. We cannot pretend they were not said or that we did not hear. They are four assertions that have decisively changed the life of the church. On this Second Sunday of Easter, here are four words for you. When you hear them, you need never be the same again.
First, Jesus comes to the cowering church and says, Peace be with you. They check him out, touch his hands and side. He is the real guy. And he says again, Peace be with you. That is the first word of the powerful Christ to the fearful church.
To be sure, the phrase is only a Jewish greeting. If Jesus had been a Southerner, he would have said, Hey. But he didn’t. He said Peace. The word on the lips of Jesus is a powerful word, claiming the space, setting the agenda, redefining reality. The Jesus who says the word brings the reality of what he says. He is like the person you trust the most. When that person enters the room, that person’s very presence reshapes the room and makes it different.
Peace is a lordly word spoken to us, against our circumstances. It is a word of assurance, announcing a new order that comes along with the power of Jesus. It is also,however, a word of assault that puts to flight all the elements of counter-peace in your life. What would you say is the counter-peace in your life? Covid, hostility, war, fearfulness, anxiety, restlessness, greed, alienation, racism, homophobia? No longer operative, no longer true! True without Jesus, not true with the one who has stood against death and now governs. You can touch his side and see the battle scar. He has prevailed, and the new word is peace. Easter season culminating in Pentecost begins this magisterial announcement that nullifies all the would-be threats with this world. Life begins again, at a different place. It begins in a new, magisterial healing.
Second, Jesus says, As the Father has sent me, so I send you. The resurrection of Jesus is not just a nice presence; it is a mission. The entry of Jesus explodes the church in mission, creating energy and vitality, resolve and courage, passion that the world should know a new alternative is now given in Jesus’ new life. The sent church is busy turning the world right side up (Acts 17:6).
The problem with the fearful church is that it thinks it is not any longer sent. It has become an end in itself, a resting place, an achievement. So here we all are, safe, well-fed, affluent, complacent; all of that, however, is countered by the single word of the risen Jesus, I send you.
I cannot say where each of you is being sent. But I give you this word from Jesus on this Second Sunday of Easter:You are sent. And if you want the peace of Jesus, then you must accept the sending of Jesus. If you are liberal,
Jesus may be sending you to policy questions and street actions. If you are conservative, Jesus may be sharing you to sharing, and generosity, and caring. Jesus is sending all of his disciples, all those baptized in his name….including our four friends baptized last Sunday, all who share his life, all to the same place, all to the neighbor whom God loves (which is everyone), all to the neighbor in need. This is of course, an odd notion in our affluent consumerism, where we imagine we are an end in ourselves. In the presence of Jesus, however, we become aware. We are a means to God’s longer end. Before the sun sets today, each of us much rethink this sending, and how we will go, and where. If, however, we do not go, we can forget about this offer of peace.
Third, Jesus said, Receive the Holy Spirit. The statement is a promise from from the risen Jesus to the fearful church. Holy Spirit talk among us is tricky, because there are so many freakish suggestions. Taken most simply, Holy Spirit refers to the intruding, invasive, energizing power from God that comes like the wind to blow us beyond ourselves to take actions, to dream dreams, to run risks that our accustomed powerlessness are well beyond us. The assurance of Jesus is that the wind of Good will blow us to freedom and courage, in spite of our tired fearfulness.
It is a good thing Jesus gave that promise, right after he said, I send you because our answer to the sending might be I cannot go or I will not go. I do not have any passion, any energy, even any will. Jesus knows that about us. On our own terms, given our own resources, we are not going anywhere that matters. The church has never gone anywhere important under its own steam. So we ponder today and will ponder on our retreat on the 17th, that we are subject to the wind of God. We, St. Paul’s are subject to the power of God that will move us beyond ourselves to go where Jesus sends us, to do what God intends for each of our lives and this faith community. Whenever one acts on the basis of God’s power, the world calls it a miracle. Of course it is a miracle. You and I are candidates for the power to do miracles, to go beyond ourselves and our intents, beyond our habits in God’s work of healing the world. The wind is blowing. Certainly here in far West Texas, it is blowing in Nigeria, Great Britain, in Minneapolis and Camp David. It is blowing in Congress where immigration, gun control and infrastructure looms, and Minneapolis and along our border, blowing in families and in communities and in churches that are coming out of hiding from Covid-19 and want to start again with new life. The wind of God is promised to us by the risen one who will never accept our fearful lethargy. It is this one who says to us, expect to be visited, and summoned, and authorized, and surprised–beyond your usual self. This is why they end of the season of Easter is Pentecost.
Fourth, Jesus says finally, If you forgive sins, they are forgiven. If you refuse to forgive, they are retained. Sent in power with the business, the single primal business of forgiveness. Forgiveness is what the world both craves and fears. The world cannot commit forgiveness for itself, cannot forgive itself. Forgiveness must come from the large heart of God, enacted in the world.
So this morning, Jesus gives the church fresh work. To forgive is to break the vicious cycles of death by a fresh act of generosity. Forgiveness is not playacting, not romantic religion, not casual hugs. It is a decision to begin at a different place. Without forgiveness, the world works its way to death and destructiveness, generation after generation. The curse of unforgiveness leads to abuse and dehumanization, to despair and brutality. It makes some rich and powerful, while others are exploited and end finally in crime and in poverty. Families play the same game of unforgiveness, generation after generation.
Families end in abuse, and communities end in hostility. Nations play the game of unforgiveness, and it leads to repression and in-equalty and war and terror. Unforgiveness leads to death, both for the victim and the perpetrator.
The news is not just that God forgives, but that God has created a people to have as its main single business in the world the forgiveness of sins, the cancellation of debts, the breaking of the power of fear and hate and death, in order to start again.Imagine being behind closed doors, and then to have this lordly one come among us. This is what he said:
Peace, a new shape of life;
I send you, you cannot just sit around;
You will get power, to go beyond yourself;
To forgive, to break the cycles of death and give life a new chance.
Jesus is a gate-crasher. You may have the doors locked for safety and in fear. These four words are for you and the church, because the doors of safety and fear cannot withstand God’s power for new life. The gates of hell cannot resist, nor the gates of fear. No wonder that when Jesus said these four things, the church became, a new people were alive in the world. And when you hear them, you will not be the same, not ever, because Jesus has taken over the shape of your life. And we have a name for that process and its cosmic significance – a name for the transformation of our lives and the church. We call it resurrection.