Monday, April 12, 2010

Now What?

Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Easter (4.11.10)
Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From this morning’s New Testament reading: But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

In the Children’s Time, I encouraged us all to whoop it up. Meanwhile, in the Gospel passage, the disciples are hiding. In Acts, Peter and the other apostles are in deep trouble with the Sanhedrin, the central religious council in Jerusalem. And in Revelation, seven churches are under attack. There are big mood shifts here. As we begin our post-Easter life this morning, what are we meant to take away as gifts and responsibilities or challenge?

For us, Easter evening may mean cleaning up the kitchen. In the Gospel on this night, no matter what Mary may have told them earlier, the disciples are behind locked doors. Suddenly Jesus appears among them. Although he greets them traditionally, “Peace be with you,” these words should remind the faithful of his promise at their last meal together, when he urged them not to be troubled or frightened because he is leaving his peace with them and that this is the peace of God. He then shows them the evidence of his crucifixion.

As they rejoice, he moves quickly and, with his action, this day takes on a new meaning. The peace that he immediately offers them this time begins a commissioning: They are to do God’s work in the world, empowered by the Holy Spirit that he breathes upon them. It is an investiture that carries its own power. The seminary term for this is “epiclesis” and I speak it every time we celebrate Holy Community: After the affirmation of our faith—Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again,” the Service of Word and Table directs me to pray, “Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine.”

The ones to whom Jesus speaks on this evening are now his apostles, literally “his sent ones,” with the power not only to forgive but to judge the broken, flawed humanity of which he has clearly himself been a part. Forgiving and judging—it doesn’t get much tougher than this. But, for us, rather than thinking of all those others in Christian history who have used such authority to excommunicate or deprive or shun, perhaps we should link them, as Jesus does, to the authority of the peacemaker who brings comfort to the afflicted and shows affliction to the comfortable.

So maybe this is what we—ordained or not—are being given for Easter: the challenge of bearing Christ’s life-breath to the world, the holy responsibility of speaking words of peace, of saying what God wants to hear spoken so that humankind and the creation of which it is a part do not perish. If any of you are puzzled here, you should be. According to John, the Holy Spirit is being given on Easter, rather than on Pentecost as in the Book of Acts. Pentecost is a wonderful moment in the history of the church—and I’ll get all excited about it when the time comes, but I love the way John ties the breath of Resurrection as the particular Eastertide gift to us. Surely each of us can embody some part of the new breath, the new life that comes with Christ’s Resurrection.

And we’re only getting started: Thomas was not in the room that Sunday evening and when his friends told him that Jesus had been with them, his response is basically “No way, unless I see for myself.” And so the scene repeats itself a week later—this evening, in fact. This time Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds. Interesting when we remember that Jesus asked Mary not to touch him, not to reduce him to the human being she had cherished. Thomas, on the other hand, must be given permission to touch so that he can know that Jesus is not simply an apparition. We will never know whether Thomas really accessed that proof; instead we are given Thomas’s powerful affirmation: “My Lord and my God!” (These were the words that, years ago during Confirmation, I was taught to say during the consecration.)

I think that we get sidetracked by making a big fuss over Doubting Thomas. Thomas simply hadn’t seen Jesus yet. The others, including Mary, had. Perhaps only the Beloved Disciple deserves special credit, since John (who was writing for the Beloved Disciple of course) says that after seeing the linen wrappings in the tomb he believed, though as yet even he didn’t understand the Scripture. The point is that up to this moment, belief depended on physical evidence of some kind directly connected to the person of Jesus. Jesus is now preparing his disciples and all who follow them to this very day to believe based on hearing. I am not discounting visions or gifts of pure grace received through the most ordinary event or the most profound moment of sacramental worship. But right here, still well within the Easter moment, Jesus is birthing a church’s ongoing life as a community of faith that sustains itself by comparing testimony and witness: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This is what we do in church or when we learn our prayers at our parents’ knees.

Loving and understanding Thomas’ stubbornness, which surely we also share, and then his complete and immediate capitulation, of which we are also capable, we might only wish that Thomas had been willing to believe the friends with whom he had lived and worked during their time with Jesus. At least for ourselves in our own worshipping communities, it is probably important to believe in the goodness and the witness of one another, without receiving a direct tap on the shoulder from on high. How much we have to learn from one another’s spiritual journeys and derailments. At least, we can check our tendency to discard opinions or dedications or motives that differ from our own.

And so my question: Now what? In our short passage from Acts, we see the immediate and inevitable response of some who were in that locked room. Summoned before the Sanhedrin, Peter and the other apostles get a taste of the hostility that will shortly lead to the martyrdom of Stephen by stoning. But Peter’s answer is clear: Because of what he has witnessed and because of the power of the Holy Spirit, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

Easier said than done. Peter is asserting that his membership in the newly emerging church requires that he follow the life of Christ and in so doing become a part of the body of Christ in this world. Peter is not defying the authorities, he is simply faithful to his witness. Christ and Christ’s body in this world will always suffer the same fate. But to be a witness is to take an active stance. Not aggressive but not passive either. It is to act on principle, to seize the opportunity to make known—in ways that prayer and the strength of community must reveal—the truth of God’s Word and God’s Word made Flesh. So here is another Easter gift—maybe not so much the gift of gumption (although a lot of us are good at that) as the desire for discernment, for fuller faithfulness and more faithful choices, for the energy of witness.

Such choices were being demanded of the seven churches to whom another John was writing in the letter that we call the Book of Revelation. We’re not sure which of two different and horrible persecutions they were enduring, but it’s clear that for them, as for us now, times were hard and full of fear. Once again, peace is offered from the faithful witness, Jesus Christ, who is here clearly empowering them to “be a kingdom,” a community of “priests serving” God. John wants to inspire his readers, fill them with hope that God controls human destiny, and that Christ will come again. John doesn’t know when, but he writes boldly since for him all times are held in the hand of the Lord God who is the first and the last, the one who is and who was and who is to come.

We can bask in Easter resurrection and victory over death, but we are absolutely right in feeling that much remains to be done. There is sometimes a flatness to Easter. We inwardly ask why there is so much joy when so much suffering remains. Our Easter celebration must not discount the pain around us. The point, I think—and this is surely another Easter gift—is the knowledge that God’s triumph is not finished.

The promise of Easter is waiting to be embodied by each of us. Easter challenges us to consider what relationships look like for Easter people. What our own behavior looks like. What issues, locally and globally, can begin to usher in the Kingdom. Being faithful as Easter people means remembering the God who is and who is to come.
Let us pray: Dear Lord, give us the grace and the will to inwardly digest the gifts of Easter so that we may be even more faithful witnesses and so that we and the creation of which we are a part may be transformed by your life-giving spirit and filled with the joy of Resurrection. Amen.

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