Easter 2B John 20:19-31
“…the doors of the house where [they] met were locked for fear…” This is the opening scene of our Gospel text for today and a description of Jesus’ disciples on that first Easter evening. They were behind locked doors, afraid. It is a feeling we might find very familiar because at some point or another, we find ourselves afraid of what’s out there. Behind locked doors afraid is a place many people in our world can find themselves, both physically and symbolically. Sometimes, our fears can isolate us from others leaving us somehow locked up even though we appear to be walking around with others.
These days, we are terrified of violence, of strangers, of terrorism and crime. Or, more accurately, we are afraid of being vulnerable to these things. When I used to visit my mother in Charlotte, I would listen to her talk about all the frightful things that occurred in her little suburban neighborhood. I remember one particular day when she recounted with great suspicion and apprehension the strange man who had knocked on her door trying to get her to hire him to repair her roof and another strange person who had wondered into her back yard while flying a kite. She was certain they were there to “case the place”; to check out things and see if she would be a good target for robbery. Maybe they were just trying to make a living or flying a kite. Or maybe not.
We are worried about the future, the economy, our healthy, global weather disturbances and changes. Yesterday I saw a report on weather.com about this year’s upcoming hurricane season which was quite frightening! We are worried about those we love. We worry about what is happening in other countries, whether they have nuclear capability and the foolishness to use it if they do. We fear war, illness and, of course death.
I wonder how many of us lie awake at night fearful that in the morning someone might accuse us of being followers of Jesus. That is what kept Jesus’ disciples fearfully behind closed doors on that first Easter evening. If they went out into the streets, someone might say, “We know that guy! He is a follower of Jesus. Bring him to trial and crucify him, too!”
And yet in the midst of these fearful disciples behind locked doors stands the risen Jesus Christ. What does he say to his frightened, worried friends? “Peace be with you.” Such an ordinary greeting and yet such an extraordinary gift. What is this peace that Christ offers as they wrestle together with their deep anxiety and fear? What is this peace that Jesus offers us as we, too, struggle with deep fear and anxiety for the many things in our world today? What is the peace Jesus brings into our broken world? It is not necessarily the kind of peace we might think about: merely the absence of fear and violence. Instead, it is a peace that is about both rest from these frightful things and about action in the world. An unusual combination but one that only Jesus can bring.
The peace of God as rest, as the relieving and releasing of anxiety and fear, is also the peace of God in action and at work in the world. The peace of God, resting from fear and anxiety, is in God’s freely given grace to us and it is not something the world can ever give us. It is not the ‘self help’ kind of peace nor is it the ‘deep meditation’ kind of peace. Both of those are fine and helpful things, but Jesus is bringing about something more than these comparatively small things. It is a peace that turns us not inward toward a calm centered self but moves us beyond this, turning us outward. In our peaceless world, it is precisely the thing we need the most.
Before the crucified and risen Jesus sends his terrified disciples, and for that matter, you and me, out into the world, he gives us gifts. He gives the gift of himself. “Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hand and his side.” These disciples may not have spoken the same words that Thomas will later speak (I must see it to believe it) but they needed this gift of his presence all the same. Funny how we always sort of look down on Thomas, but he misses this particular visit of Jesus’ where he shows the rest of the fright filled disciples evidence of who he is and his being truly alive.
How often, when burdened down or paralyzed by fear, do we cry out, “Where are you, God?” Where are you in this broken world filled to the brim with glaring injustice and unfair systems; our world so torn by violence? Where are you in the suffering of my life and in the lives of those I love? The wounds of Jesus’ crucified body, now risen to new life, give us the answer. God is not absent from our agony, not missing from our times of fear, loneliness and lostness. Instead, Jesus is present right in the middle of it. That is the deepest truth of the cross. God is present for us and for the whole creation in all the suffering we encounter in life right there suffering and dying on the cross. 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 and encouraging them as THEY struggled, but right smack dab in the middle of the room, God is with us all right now, too. Jesus is right in the middle of the fear and doubt both then and now. Through Jesus’ life, suffering, death, and resurrection, God is isn’t just doing something from the sidelines or showing us how we can nobly bear our difficulties in life as Jesus did, but rather Jesus is taking part within in our very being, bringing healing and peace in ways we cannot even fully understand.
When the crucified and risen Jesus Christ comes into our broken, fearful and sinful lives he not only gives us the gift of himself, but he also sends us into the world. “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so send I you.” Just think: into the violent world that had plotted against, betrayed and executed Jesus, he now sends his followers. Notably, Jesus does not say: peace be with you and enjoy your retirement from discipleship. Nor does he say: peace be with you because the rest of your life is going to be a cake walk. Actually, quite the opposite. Peace be with you and now I send you out into the world just as I was sent. The very same world. Peace is certainly rest, assurance, removal of anxiety and fear. But the peace of Jesus isn’t a divorce from the world. It is also action and a reconnection with our troubled world around us.
So how does this affect how we view our church? Do we see the church’s job as being responsible for giving us a refuge from the rough spots of life and stopping with that? Is it only a place we can feel safe? Or can we also see the church as a community of faith in which God comforts, heals, supports AND sends out into the world; goes back into the world with us? Into the very hurtful world we came from.
Thankfully, we are not sent into the fearful, broken world all on our own. The risen Jesus Christ sends us, just as he sent the disciples and just as God sent him, into the world 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 of Jesus’ gifts. It is also the first step of Jesus’ fulfillment of a promise he made to his followers—the promise that he does not leave us alone and orphaned but will give us the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to comfort, guide, and strengthen with us. This promise will be completed at Pentecost with the creation of the church, but it begins here, with these living breaths of Jesus; living breath of the crucified Jesus who ought to be dead but is instead alive!
There are times when it seems like we are all on our own and it is up to us to find a way to bring peace into the world. We can understandably feel overwhelmed and discouraged. We can feel burned out, incompetent, and decide to throw our hands in the air and give up on making a change in the world for the better. We might even decide to just withdraw from the world, tend to our personal issues, turn our back on the rest of those who need us and forget about it all.
Can’t feed everyone! There will always be violence or crime and I can’t really do anything about it. Poverty, loss, disease, war; it’s all a real shame but it’s not like I can do anything about it. Sometimes all the need, the never ending deep and abiding need that the world seems to have, can make our efforts 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 Has 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, all too well, that endless are the crowds of those who suffer and need the help of others. But he also knows the endless power of the Holy Spirit. It is the same spirit he gives us; the Holy Spirit he breathes upon us, both as individuals and as a whole community of faith.
As many a wise person has said, peace is not simply the absence of conflict. Peace is the presence of justice. We may not always agree on the way to peace, in fact it is almost certain that we will each have different visions of what peace should look like, yet in the power of the Holy Spirit, we are all sent into the violent and fearful world to be peacemakers. The crucified and risen Jesus gives us the gift of himself, sends us the power of the Holy Spirit, and with these, 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 be acceptable, to be ashamed of any flaw we might have, to seek revenge for any slight given! And yet, these small words are what God speaks to us. These small words are more powerful than all of that fear and shame and vengefulness. 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 is 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, stopped pondering all the ways we have been insulted or slighted, 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.