Saturday, April 22, 2017

Year A, Easter 2, John 20:19-31, Faithful Courage

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Risen Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Earlier that day Jesus had appeared to Mary.
Her heart was so heavy with grief, and troubled because of the empty tomb, that she was unable to recognize him.
“Mary!”  Jesus had said.  “Mary!”
And at once her eyes were opened to see the Risen Christ, standing before her, and with that, to begin to perceive the magnitude of what had just happened.
Jesus calling us by name changes everything.
I shared with you during Holy Week that though it isn’t written here, I rather imagine that Jesus appearance to his disciples began in much the same way.
One by one, going around the room, he looked at them, his eyes filled with love and grace, and spoke to each of them, calling them by name.
Around the room, looking intently at each of them, calling them by name.
And in that simple act, there was forgiveness.
But most of all, it was the love that was evident between Jesus and these, his closest and dearest friends.
Then, “Peace be with you!”
Of all the things Jesus could have said, this was what was most needed for “peace” was so far removed from what the disciples were experiencing.
Peace be with you.
They were gathered together behind locked doors.
Fear is what they were experiencing.
At this point, they were terrified that they would share in the same fate as Jesus.  They anticipated that there would be crosses outside of Jerusalem with their names on them.  That they would suffer the same agonizing death that Jesus had.
And so the doors were locked.
“Peace be with you!”
And then, Jesus said, “As the Father sent  me, so I send you.”
What did he mean by that?
What was in store for them?
Were Jesus words to be words of comfort, or words that confirmed their deepest fears that they would all die as well?
Then, breathing on them, as though he were giving them back the breath that had been taken away from them, he said,
“Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven.  If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
How could he say this?
Who can forgive, but God alone?
And more to the point, how could they even conceive of forgiveness at a time like this?
They had seen Jesus die.  They had seen what the authorities had done to him.  They had witnessed the betrayal of Jesus by one of their own, their brother Judas.
How then could they forgive?
Thomas was not there.
And when he was told about what happened that evening, he simply couldn’t believe.
I doubt that you or I would have believed either.  It’s unfair to single Thomas out because of his doubts.  He merely states what all of us would have felt at that time. 
"Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
And then, a week later, they had again gathered in the house behind locked doors, still fearing for their lives.
On this night, Jesus again came to them.
Looking into Thomas’ eyes, I imagine that he called him by name.
“Thomas! Peace be with you!”
It is me.  Feel the wounds on my hands.  Put your hand on my side.  See with your own eyes that it is indeed, me.
And seeing, Thomas believed.
And he said what the other disciples had not, namely “My Lord and My God!”
"Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

One of the things we miss in this story because of our focus on Thomas’ doubts is the struggle to believe that all the other disciples were experiencing.
Jesus had sent them out to forgive sins.
Yet a week later, they were still huddled together behind closed doors, too afraid to even walk out onto the street below.
Perhaps Thomas had to overcome his doubts.
But they had yet to overcome their fears.
Nor, apparently, were they ready yet to forgive.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
With these words, we enter this story.
Jesus is talking about us.
We are not mere spectators, hearing about what once happened so many years ago.
We are part of the narrative.
Blessed are those who have come to believe.
“Yes, Lord, I believe!!”
Perhaps we feel proud that we have one up on Thomas.
We have believed in Jesus, even though we’ve only heard the story.  See what great faith we have.
And  yet.
And yet.
Are we not like the rest of the disciples, who though they believed, were still overcome by their fears and locked behind closed doors?
“As the Father sent me, so I send you.”
Only one problem.
The disciples didn’t go anywhere.
They were still behind locked doors for fear of the Jews.
This is the thing.
They may have come to believe, but they did not as yet have faith.
They were still captive to their fears.
They could not go anywhere, because they were afraid.
And they could not forgive, because of their fear.
This is where we find the other disciples, a week later.  Believing but still without the faith to go out into the world as witnesses to the forgiveness that Jesus proclaimed.
And is this not where we find ourselves, today?
Think about it.
Gathered together in this room.
Oh, the doors are not locked, but they could just as well be.
But here we are huddled together.  Set apart from the world.  And quite frankly afraid to go out from here and bear witness.
I’ll speak for myself.
One of my greatest fears is rejection.
Another one of my fears is failure.
Coupled with that is the fact that I am an introvert.  As an introvert I am most comfortable relating to a close group of intimate friends.  Talking to strangers produces a lot of anxiety and fear within me.
Put it all together and what do you have?
I’m uncomfortable talking with strangers, afraid that I’ll be rejected, and doubly afraid that I’ll fail.
Ah, but at least I’m comfortable standing up here amid this community of faith, behind closed doors, and talking about my beliefs in the Risen Christ.  Just don’t send me out into the world.
I’m not alone.
If it weren’t for our fears, there would be a whole lot more of us gathering together on this day.
Wouldn’t there?
Imagine if Jesus were standing here today, as he stood before his disciples.
As the Father sent me, so I send you.
“Now,” he says, “next week I want you to return, but not alone.  I want each of you to have faith, and trust in the Holy Spirit, and to go out this week and invite your friends and neighbors to be your guest next Sunday.”
Well, what do you say?
Can we all agree to bring with us, next week, one guest.
And the week after that, another?
Be honest, now.
Does such a thought still fear in your heart?
Fear of rejection, or failure.
Or perhaps you’re saying to yourselves, “Well, Pastor, that’s what we pay you to do.”
This is my point:
The biggest challenge for the Church today is not that we share Thomas’ doubts, it’s that we share the rest of the disciple’s fears.  We’d rather gather behind locked doors, hoping to find Jesus here, than to be sent out into the world as his witnesses.
What we need, is the type of faith that gives us courage.
Courage is not the lack of fear, but is rather the willingness to act in the face of our fears. 
Later this month some of us are going to a “transformational ministry” workshop.  We will be learning about ways to reach out into our community.  I just ask the question.   Might you have the courage to attend with us?  It’s a step.  A first step, for many of us. 
But it may be the most important step any of us will ever take. 

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