The Congregational Church at Bristol UCC Pulpit Swap April 11, 2010
Acts 5: 27-32
John 20: 19-31
In the Afterglow of Resurrection
Twice in this morning’s gospel Jesus says to the disciples, “Peace be with you.” When he appeared among them in spite of the door being locked for fear of reprisal against them by other Jews, the first thing he said was “Peace be with you!” With its exclamation point in the text, and set apart as it is, that quotation was not a nicey-nice comment as we may experience it in our time. No. It was an order from the Lord Jesus: “Peace be with you.” In one sense he could have been saying, “Settle down. Put a lid on it!” considering the excitement and exclamations his appearing would have generated. We have to try to imagine ourselves beyond years of hearing this story to think what it would have been like when it was happening right then and there for the very first time. Anyway, peace was with them, along with a big complement of joy.
As the gospel relates, Jesus then showed him his hands and side, the way we might have shown our friends––especially as kids––the scars we carried from traumatic injuries from which we had recovered, as in, “Look at this. Do you believe that?” with appreciative oohs and aahs all around. I don’t know about the neighborhood where you grew up, but in my neighborhood, the bigger the scar, the worse the injury, the higher the status. Jesus would have been a total star in my neighborhood.
After showing them his wounds, Jesus focused them again with another “Peace be with you!” He had something to say and he wanted them to hear it. Peace is a discipline we need in ourselves to calm the agitation, anxieties, and general all-around hullaballoo that is always going on in our minds. We need the discipline of peace to hear what God is saying, which is why centering is part of the discipline of meditative prayer. We need to call peace into ourselves before we can most easily hear God.
In today’s gospel, here is Jesus ordering peace for the disciples who are beside themselves with his appearing to them, and we, as readers and listeners to that gospel can hear it as an invitation to receive Christ’s peace into ourselves. Part of how we can recognize something as coming from God and not from our own inner monologue and turmoil is the advent of this peace. Occasionally we have such a moment of peace come all unexpectedly, and our inner ear and eye become alert for what will follow. This can happen in prayer, between the cantaloupes and pears in the supermarket, when gathered with like-minded people in a church service, at the copy machine in the workplace, in the evening quiet, in the middle of the night. Anywhere at anytime we may know the announcement of the approaching Christ by his words, or more likely, the sense of the words, “Peace be with you!” Then would we be wise to remain, like a pointer on point––all alert––listening to what he has to teach or show us.
So, now that Jesus has the disciples’ and our attention, what does he have to teach or show them and us? What he said to them and says to us, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins they are forgiven, if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Wait a minute, Jesus, we have questions. Okay, sending us where? And who or what is this Holy Spirit? No less than Jesus was sending his disciples into the world are we sent into the world. That answers the question, where. The world is everywhere. As soon as we awaken in the morning to consciousness, to ourselves as conscious beings, the world is the arena for that focused consciousness, especially how we choose to think about people, about material things, about time. The world into which God as Father as Jesus as Spirit sends us is waiting in the kitchen with our first encounter of the day, whether that’s with a spouse, a friend, a child, an infirm parent, a dog or cat or birds waiting to be fed. Do we approach that encounter with the love of God chosen by an act of our free will?
Let me step aside from this text for a moment to tell a story. When I was much younger, the question used to arise for me about willed love. If it wasn’t spontaneous, was it not somehow of less value? A romantic notion. That was answered for me when I went to my first AA meeting in Worcester, Mass., with a friend of mine who was taking his father to the meeting to keep his mother happy. I don’t know how familiar you are with AA meetings, but they sometimes have a contingent from another city and meeting come and tell their stories. That was the case that night. A contingent was there from Providence, RI, and the first man got up and said, “I’m So-and-So, and I’m an alcoholic,” and the people greeted him.
He then began to tell the story of years and years of alcohol abuse and his bad treatment of his family during that time. At the very first glimmers of his recovery, his wife was pregnant again, and when the baby was born with a severe deformity, the storyteller from Providence loathed the child. Loathed: that was his word, and he loathed him from the first moment. But then God through circumstance began to deal with the man. The time for telling himself the truth had come––by grace––and he wanted to give up the alcohol, over which he admitted he no longer had any power. On the contrary, alcohol had all power over his life. He did follow through and part of his commitment to the new life was his decision to love the baby he in fact loathed. So, each time he passed the infant’s crib, he would lay his hand on the baby’s head and say, “I love you.”
Although the first time he laid his hand on the baby’s head he had no love for the child in his heart, as the days turned into weeks turned into months, with countless passings by the baby’s crib and consequently countless layings of his hand on the baby’s head with his profession of chosen love, the man did come to love that child with a love deeper than he had ever experienced. We can make that same type of decision in our lives both to forgive and to love. To forgive ourselves and others, to love ourselves and others. I think part of the importance of vowing love in a marriage ceremony is the commitment to a decision to stay with it when the initial glow of first love and romance and wedding planning are gone, and we find ourselves in the nitty-gritty of everyday marriage to another faulted human being. That reality is much more deeply satisfying in the long run through life, but in the short run it would sometimes try the patience, even of Job.
I have to get back on track here. So, Jesus has given peace to his disciples and is sending them into the world even as he himself was sent. And we, as I noted, are sent no less than those disciples to heal and teach, to preach and raise up, to serve, to bring the life of Christ to life in a world that longs for that life, even if it doesn’t know its name, which is Love. And that love is embodied perfectly in Jesus, who teaches us how to do it.
But how does he teach us how to do it at this point in time two millennia hence? In the same way he taught the disciples: by his Spirit, who makes all things possible. I was well on in life before I finally got this particular idea about the Spirit. Remember when Jesus said to the apostles in John’s gospel shortly before he died, “It is for your good that I’m going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor––viz., the Paraclete, the Spirit, the Comforter––will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” What I hadn’t understood up to that point is that it was necessary for Jesus to die before he could send his Spirit back to sanctify and enable the efforts of those who sought to continue his work, to teach his way of life. God, Jesus, the Spirit are One. Three persons, one God, not so difficult, really.
In today’s gospel we have this first appearance to all of the disciples in the Upper Room and Jesus breathes on them that they might receive the Spirit. They would need the peace of Christ in them in order to receive the understanding of the earlier teaching Jesus gave them before he died, and just to accept that he was alive and standing there in the same room with them. That was a lot to swallow. And as we know, also from today’s gospel, one man was missing at that first appearance, Thomas, and by golly he wasn’t going to swallow that story, no matter that they all swore to the truth of it when they told him about it. Thomas’ legendary, “I won’t believe it until I put my finger in the nail prints and my hand into his side,” resonates with all of us. Who would not be skeptical of such a story. Skepticism is a reasonable response to anyone who tells a story of having seen a ghost, and that’s what Thomas must have thought he was hearing: a ghost story.
But has there ever been such a ghost? And in fact we know when Jesus tells Thomas to “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe, “ we know that this is a flesh-and-blood man. Jesus is there bodily and not as an ethereal, ectoplasmic substance. They saw him as he had been on earth, but with the tell-tale addition of nail prints in his hands, and a spear wound in his side.
When he came that second time to the Upper Room, when Thomas was with them, Jesus once again said, “Peace be with you!” thereby calling them again to a spiritual place of centered peace, beyond their excitement, agitation, nervousness, all of it. He needed their full attention to once again teach them something, therefore, “Peace be with you.”
In the first appearance Jesus gave notice about sending them forth as he himself had been sent, and also about the importance of the forgiveness of sins––deciding to love and to forgive. At this appearance he disempowers skepticism in the person of Thomas with his “Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas believed because he saw, whereas Jesus called across the centuries to us when he said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”
While it is true that we have not seen the visible wounds of Christ, we do see and experience the wounded Body of Christ every day. We have the opportunity to stop doubting and believe that how Christ reveals his wounds in our time and place, removed as we are from those post-resurrection appearances in the Upper Room, is each time we encounter another human being who is hurting, whether it is in the spirit or the body. In spirit, some feel ostracized, ignored, left out, alone because of appearance, age, beliefs whether political or religious, sickness or incapacity of some sort, sexual preference, race or ethnic background, poverty. These are just some of the categories of ostracization we human beings utilize and often elaborately in our own minds justify.
Something as simple as a smile, a nod, a touch on the arm––some expression of inclusion in the rest of the human race––can make an immeasurable difference to someone who is feeling profoundly alone. One moment can change a life, for good or ill. Follow your instinct to act in such cases. Take the chance that it is most likely the Spirit of God whom Jesus has sent us who profess to be his followers, that it is that Spirit who motivates us toward love. I remind you that taking the chance on being a fool for God in such a situation is a better choice than being one whom the world considers wise or cool in our ‘60s parlance.
If we encounter the Body of Christ wounded in spirit, we also encounter that Body in the physical as well, when we know of someone who is literally hungry, whom we may have the opportunity to feed; when we hear of someone who is living in a house that doesn’t keep out the elements, whose discomfort we may have the opportunity to relieve. We have an organization in our area called CHIP, founded by Ruth Ives, also from this area, which provides opportunities to volunteer to work or to contribute to keep that organization afloat and serving the wounded Body of Christ. Literacy Volunteers, People to People, Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts, Habitat for Humanity, The Pemaquid Watershed, Sheepscot Valley Conservation Association, pastoral visiting at Miles Complex, this church itself. I think you get the point: the opportunities for serving the wounded Body of Christ are limited only by our willingness to share our time, and the health we need to do that. For those of you who for whatever reason can’t get out to serve in a way you might like to, I ask you to consider being an intercessor for those who are out in the marketplace. That means simply a ministry of prayer, interceding for others that the Spirit of God may find its way more fully into the world through those who have Jesus’ heart of love for the world and its peoples.
I invite you to think about Jesus breathing his Spirit on us in this afterglow of the resurrection, enabling us to forgive and love others as we ourselves have been forgiven and are loved, and then sending us forth as God sent Jesus. As members of this raised Body of Christ, who believe the best we can, we are no less beloved of God than John, Thomas, Peter, James, all of them who were gathered in that Upper Room. Because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit of God will minister through us to the wounded Body of Christ, with our permission. There is no higher call in life than the decision to love as God loves and then to trust God for the best employment of that love in the world. Amen.