A couple of days ago I presided at a memorial service for a man I did not know. This man had been active in a church as a child and young man, but he hadn’t been connected to a congregation of any kind in years. It is an awkward thing to do a funeral for someone you’ve never met. At the same time, it is an amazing privilege to speak words of comfort and hope to people who have experienced the loss of someone close to them. To speak God’s words of comfort and hope to people who might not hear them on a regular basis.
It reminded me of what I was doing around the same time three years ago.
In the very early morning hours of the Friday after Easter I was sitting in the living room of some friends watching the wedding of a young woman named Kate and a young man named William. The Royal Wedding. It might seem strange that presiding at a simple memorial service would remind me of this extravagant event, but it did. A wise pastor once told me that you make contact with more unchurch, underchurched and Christians who have lost a connection with their faith at weddings and funerals than any other church activity. If he is correct, and I think he is, then both the memorial service and the royal wedding were, regardless of their smallness or grandness, marvelous and amazing examples of the church in action.
With that extravagant wedding three years ago, people all around the world watched a worship service in person, in public squares, on television. They watched it in one another’s homes, in massive groups, alone on their couches. Tons of us sang along with beautiful hymns, one of which I particularly remember was ‘Love Divine, All Loves Excelling’. I remember that the reporters in the UK said that large groups gathered in public areas belted out the verses along with the music coming from enormous screens. That must have been quite a sight to see! Literally countless numbers of people recited together the Lord’s Prayer.
Now, I am not naïve enough to think that everyone who witnessed this event thought of it as a religious moment. It is quite likely that many might not have even really realized they were watching a worship service so much as a moment of entertainment. They were probably more interested in the hats and the bride’s dress and David Beckam. But the really amazing thing about God is that sometimes God manages to slip in on us when we don’t expect it. God manages to do things to get to us even when it seems highly unlikely he’d be able to reach us or be spotted at ‘an event like that.’ All who watched heard the proclamation of scripture, and it was read with great reverence and perfect British diction. ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…’. All bore witness to some of the world’s richest and most powerful in a church. All heard the words: Almighty God, Father, Jesus, Holy Ghost, Lord, Blessing and Amen many times over. I would venture to guess that a staggering number of the people watching do not hear those words on a regular basis, do not hear scripture on a regular basis, do not hear or recite the Lord’s Prayer on a regular basis and surely don’t sing ‘Joy of Heaven to earth come down!’
But they did that day.
In contrast was the little memorial service for an elderly man with lots of friends. Granted, there was a lot less pomp and circumstance and it had fabulous southern American diction rather than British. Not as many hats either, though there were a couple of cowboy hats. But God showed up. God showed up for ordinary people in need of comfort, some of whom may not have been in a church in years, if ever, and some who are in their churches right now but were deeply in need of hearing God’s amazing grace.
God shows up at the most unexpected places; at grand spectacles and tiny gatherings. Even when we are not looking for him. The most ordinary times and places and the most extra ordinary, in our everyday lives, when we are celebrating and when we are mourning. Even when we are afraid God is nowhere to be found.
‘Behind locked doors afraid.’ This is how the night of that first Easter was spent for Jesus’ disciples. Can we connect with that fear and anxiety in our own lives? More and more, we live isolated by our fears and doubts about the world. We are afraid of violence, afraid of strangers. We worry about the future, the economy, our healthy, those we love. We often assume something dangerous or harmful is just around the corner or coming tomorrow. We fear terrorism, war, violence, illness and, of course, death. Some of us might be jaded enough to doubt that God will show up at things like opulent and ostentatious weddings for wealthy celebrities or tiny little memorials for people who don’t go to church. Perhaps that is a kind of fear as well, only disguised as doubt.
What kept Jesus’ disciples barricaded behind their locked doors that first Easter night was a very real fear for their lives. If they went out in public, someone might say, ‘There he is! He is a follower of Jesus, a friend of Jesus, crucify him too!’ They had seen what had happened to Jesus and they had every reason to fear the same kind of fate. And yet, in an unexpected place, perhaps one of the most unexpected places in the world, Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, stands behind the locked doors with them. He tells them: ‘Peace be with you.’ Such an ordinary greeting. We say it every week here, and yet it is an extraordinary gift. What is this peace that Christ offers as they dealt with a world of fear and doubt? What is the peace Christ brings into our world now that is often in such turmoil? It is a peace that is both a respite from anxiety and fear, and a catalyst for action in the world. The peace of God is rest, the gift of no anxiety or fear or doubt, and it is also something that motivates and calls us to action. The peace of God as rest and relief from anxiety is not something the world can deliver. It is not the ‘self help’ kind of peace nor is it the ‘deep meditation’ kind of peace. Those are just fine, but the kind of peace Jesus is speaking to his disciples and to us is something more than this. It is a peace that turns us not inward to an internal and self-focused place, but outward. In our peaceless world, it is the very thing we need the most. Before the crucified and risen Christ sends his terrified disciples, and for that matter, you and me, out into the world, he gives us something. First, Jesus gives us the gift of himself. ‘Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hand and his side.’ These first disciples Jesus speaks with may not have spoken Thomas’ words of doubt—I’m going to have to see it to believe it—they still needed this gift of his actual flesh and blood presence.
There are times in life when we want to say, ‘Where are you, God? Where are you when it hurts?’ The wounds of Jesus’ crucified and now very much alive body give us the answer. God is not missing in our pain and fear and loneliness any more than he is locked out of the places we do not expect him to be. Instead, Jesus is right in the middle of it all. One of the great truths of the cross is that Jesus is with us right in the middle of our suffering. As surely as he was present in the room with the disciples, not knocking on the door waiting to be let in, not on the edges supporting them, encouraging them, cheering them on as THEY struggled, but right smack in the middle of the room, right in the middle of the fear and doubt. Through Jesus’ life, suffering, death, and resurrection, God is united with us and present with us in all the pain and suffering we experience.
When Jesus comes into our fearful and broken lives, he not only gives us the gift of himself, but he also sends us out into the world. ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so send I you.’ I send you, Jesus was saying to the disciples, into the violent world that plotted against, betrayed and executed me. Peace is rest, respite and removal of anxiety and fear, but for Jesus peace is also a call to action.
So, how does this affect the way in which we see ourselves and even see the church? Do we see the church as a place of refuge in a frightful and dangerous world? Do we see it as only this? Or can we see the church as a community of faith God sends out into the world. We are both comforted and sent. But, thankfully, we are not sent into the fearful, sinful, violent world on our own. We are sent with the power of the Holy Spirit. ‘When Jesus had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’‘ This is another gift of Jesus’. There are times when it may seem like we are all on our own in this world and that it is up to us to find a way to bring peace and healing to the world. Then feeling overwhelmed and discouraged, we can easily give up. We will always have the poor, you can’t help them all, it doesn’t make any real difference, it’s not like anyone is really listening anyway. Sometimes, all the never ending, deep and abiding need can make any effort seem useless. And yet, we hear the words of Jesus: As the father has sent me, even so, send I you. Jesus’ words are very specific here—as the father sent me—in the same way I was sent, he says, I’m sending you. He is not unaware of the worlds’ deep and unending need. He knows how hopeless it looks when there are 5000 people and only a couple of loaves of bread and fish. He knows how endless are the crowds of those who suffer and need the help of others. But he also knows the power of the Holy Spirit..
Jesus gives us the gift of himself, sends us the power of the Holy Spirit, and he also gives us the promise of the Gospel. But, what is this ‘Gospel’? The word itself means good news, so what is that Good News? In many ways it comes down to this: God forgives us! Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Or is it? When he sent his terrified disciples into the world Jesus 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.” Is it possible that Jesus might actually mean that it truly matters whether or not I tell and show my neighbor, my colleague, my brother, sister, son, daughter, parent, the genuinely Good News that God forgives them? For gives us both? When we are heavily weighed down with guilt, the hardest words to really believe are these: “you are forgiven”. Perhaps even more so: “God forgives you.” Yet that is the very good news we receive and are asked to take out into the world. Mercy. Forgiveness. Grace.
The simplicity of those words seems so small and powerless in a world that seems to constantly shout about all that we must do to achieve, to earn what we get, to show no mercy and win at any cost. And yet, that is what God speaks to us. The mercy of God as it was pronounced even this day: As a called and ordained minister in the church of Christ and BY HIS AUTHORITY I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins. I remember the first time I said those words. That moment will be engraved on my heart forever. I stood right in the front of this sanctuary on the morning of the first Sunday in January, 2009. To me, there is no greater privilege in all the world than to declare the grace of God. You are forgiven. There is nothing in your past for which you need to atone, make up for or pay for, and there is nothing in the future you need to fear. By the power of the Holy Spirit given to us by Jesus himself we are free to trust our whole lives to God. That is good news…a truth so powerful that it frees us to go into the world to bear witness to that love, that grace, that mercy we’ve just experienced, by forgiving others in the same way, by serving our neighbor and by working for justice and peace.
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” What if we took that seriously? What if we really put that amazing gift of mercy and grace to use? What if we call up that family member, that friend, from whom we have felt alienated, with whom we last spoke harsh words, and share the good news, “God forgives you, I forgive you, and now I ask you to forgive me.” What if we let go of resentments, looked for reconciliation and ways to forgive, unlocked those doors we hide behind like frightened disciples, and stepped out in God’s grace into a world of turmoil and spoke and acted out God’s peace everywhere we went?
Jesus said, Peace be with you. As the father has sent me, even so send I you.