Easter 2 (NL4)
April 8, 2018
We last left off on Easter morning: a weeping Mary Magdalene had just encountered Jesus in the garden tomb. Jesus told her to go tell the disciples that he was ascending to his Father and our Father, to his God and our God. Mary does so, telling them, “I have seen the Lord!” Mary becomes the first apostle – the first one sent to tell the Good News of the living God.
John doesn’t tell us how the disciples react to the news in the moment, but whatever the case, now they are scared. The disciples have gathered in a locked room, afraid. Did they not believe Mary? Or are they scared because they did believe her?
Whatever the case, we will see that Jesus comes to them with some pretty important statements. Our reading today is actually two different resurrection appearances, both to the disciples, but one without Thomas there and one with. The first is known as John’s version of Pentecost, the day the Spirit infuses the Christian community, because Jesus will breathe his Holy Spirit into them. The second features the guy who has come to be known as “doubting Thomas.”
Let’s see what happens. Please rise for the Gospel!
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
This past week, several of my colleagues, including our synod and presiding bishops, John and Elizabeth, attended a rally in Washington DC called, “ACT Now to End Racism.” It was held in honor of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, April 4th. Speakers at the event recognized the continuing reality of racism in our country, though it looks different now than it did in the 60s. They addressed how racism is tied up with other issues such as poverty, mass incarceration, gun violence, etc., and what needs to be done to continue King’s legacy of working toward peace and justice for all.
Thinking of another giant in faith from a quarter century before that, today, April 8th, marks the 73rd anniversary of the last worship service Dietrich Bonhoeffer led while in prison, before being executed on April 9th. Bonhoeffer was a pastor, ethicist and theologian during World War II, and was a part of a plot to assassinate Hitler. Though the attempt was unsuccessful, he was arrested for his part in this. The life and work of this German Christian activist is often compared to that of Martin Luther King’s: both were compelled by their faith in God to resist a racist regime, both found their gospel commitments led them to work outside of the conventional church, and both ultimately gave their lives for their respective resistance movements.
These two anniversaries have made me hear some of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading a bit differently than I have before. First, his initial greeting. Three times in this reading, Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” I have usually heard this as a word of comfort to the fearful disciples. But thinking this week about the work of King and Bonhoeffer, I’ve thought about those words differently, because while the end goal of peace might in fact be something resembling calm and reassurance, getting there can be anything but calm. Just ask King and Bonhoeffer, who were both martyred at age 39 because of their working for peace! Ask those trying to raise their voices and make people aware of their various plights, whether that is as a victim of a racist system, or one that keeps people living in poverty, or someone speaking up about being harassed or abused or bullied, only to be told they are imagining it or lying. Ask anyone who spends every day working toward a more fair and just system how peaceful that work is (or isn’t!) while you’re doing it!
The irony of this exchange is that I suspect peace is exactly what the disciples were trying to find by locking themselves behind that door in the first place. We do that, don’t we – lock ourselves away from reality in an effort to get away from it all? If there is something out there that we don’t want to deal with, that we want to get away from, we just lock ourselves away behind the door where no one can reach us, and where we can pretend that everything out there is not really happening. Maybe it is an actual locked room that we turn to, or maybe to some other coping mechanism like shopping or alcohol or our technology of choice. Maybe it is adamant denial that a reality could exist that doesn’t fit with how we perceive the world to be, or how we wish it was. However it looks, we try to find peace by locking ourselves away from a reality that does not bring us peace.
And so I wonder if, when Jesus offers those words, “Peace be with you,” he might be saying, “You’re not going to find true peace locked in here. True peace comes from faith in me.” And I also wonder if in those words might be a charge to seek that peace themselves, to be agents of seeking peace for the world. Because look at the very next thing Jesus says: “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” If Jesus truly meant to offer calming words, that seems like a tough line to chase it with, no? “Hey guys, calm down, everything is going to be fine. Because I’m sending you out into the world that just had me killed. Good luck!” Yikes! That makes me feel the opposite of peaceful! But you see, the mission is not to feel peace now, but rather, to seek peace in the broken world – not the peace that comes from avoidance, but the peace that comes from confronting the brokenness of the world with the good news of the abundant life given to us by a God who so loves the world and loves each of us who are in it.
That brings to mind a question I’ve been thinking about lately. If you’re here today, I assume you are like me, in that you love to come to church on Sunday and hear about God’s love and be nourished and encouraged for the week. Yes? But when we leave here, do we leave that good news locked up safely where we can find it when we need it? Or do we take that news and put it up against the broken realities of the world and ask, “What does the Good New of Jesus Christ have to say to this?” In other words, what does the Gospel of Jesus Christ have to say to the economic, political and civic realities that occupy people’s minds most of their waking hours, to those struggles that we and other real people face every day?
What does the Gospel say to a woman being abused by her husband, but who feels she and her children are in even more danger if she leaves him?
What does the Gospel say to those protesting in Sacramento following Stephon Clark’s death?
What does the Gospel say to a young man who got caught up in a gang for his survival, and now wants out, but is being threatened if he leaves?
What does the Gospel say to people in Flint, MI who still don’t have clean water, or people in Puerto Rico who still don’t have electricity?
What does the Gospel say to young believers who identify as gay or transgender, who are considering suicide rather than coming out?
What does the Gospel say to undocumented families being torn apart? Or to refugees who flee for their lives, only to be sent back home?
What does the Gospel say to a planet whose temperatures and water levels are rising and whose oceans are full of plastic?
What doe the Gospel say to someone so deep in depression, they can conceive of no way out but to take their own life – and what does it say to that person’s loved ones?
Because if the Gospel doesn’t speak to those things, those life-or-death struggles millions of people face, then what really is the point of coming here week after week?
You see, that’s the mission Jesus is sending the disciples on. “As the Father sent me, so I send you,” he says, to speak this word of life into a hurting world. Not to keep it for yourself (though that, too), but to bring Christ’s life to those in need.
And that is not a charge that brings peace to the heart right away, because it is really hard. Martin Luther King lived every day in fear for his life, as he spoke the hope he found in the gospel to the oppressive reality of racism that plagued his community and the country he loved.
But it is a charge that ultimately brings peace to the world God loves. And that is the role Jesus is giving to these disciples, now apostles, being sent out: to speak a word of life, and work for peace in this broken world.
Finally, Jesus breathes into them and 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.” The word translated here as “retain” does not mean “withhold” forgiveness, but rather, like, “hold fast.” It’s like, holding to account. It is like Christ refusing to turn a blind eye to human suffering and wrong-doing, refusing to “just let it go,” and thus enable bad behavior. “Holding fast” to sin is Dietrich Bonhoeffer saying, “What Hitler is doing is wrong, and it needs to stop.” It is Martin Luther King proclaiming that God did not intend that human beings should be anything but free, that indeed all men and woman are created equal and must be treated as such.
In other words, “retaining” or “holding fast” to sin is not refusing to forgive it. It is refusing to tolerate sin that would keep the world from living in the peace Christ died to bring to this world. And so as a follow-up to, “Peace be with you,” Christ charges the disciples to hold to account and confront wrong-doing whenever they see it, to keep sin and abuse from having their way.
That’s a tall order, too, a very difficult call for Christ to extend to his followers. No wonder they were back in that same room the next week, with the doors still shut! In fact, I think many of Christ’s followers today are still in that same room with the door shut. Because being a disciple is hard, and it is even harder being an apostle, who goes out into the world and finds the places most in need of healing and speaks to those places a word of peace and life.
Of course, Jesus knows that. That’s why he also offers to his apostles that night – and to all believers since then – the gift of the Holy Spirit. Back before he died, he called this Spirit “another Advocate,” someone to go along with them and work with them and for them, helping them to do God’s work in the world. It’s that same Spirit that we celebrate coming on Pentecost at the end of the Easter season. It’s that same Spirit that we pray to come upon every child of God who is baptized (in fact, included in the baptismal promises are these words: “to work for justice and peace”). It’s that same Spirit that we pray to come into the bread and wine before we take communion. We are continually infused with this Spirit of peace, love and life, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and joy.
We are not alone in this call. God has given us all that we need to make those words, “Peace be with you,” truly come to be in this world. And even when we do lock ourselves away from the realities of the world that so desperately need a word of hope and life, Jesus comes to us – repeatedly! – to once again give us the strength to pursue his work. The question is, will we open the door, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and so many others, and go do it?
Let us pray… Risen Christ, you come into our locked rooms when we are scared and would rather avoid the pain of the world, and you breathe your Holy Spirit into us. Empower us by this Spirit, that we might bring your words, “Peace be with you,” into the parts of God’s beloved world that need to hear it the most. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.