Sunday, April 15, 2007

(Easter 2) When Jesus Comes Looking for Us

Forgiveness is the Lord’s Doing
John 20:19-31

Here we are one short week after Easter Sunday.
We’ve hardly had time to catch our breath from all the “Alleluias!”
And what a glorious celebration it was!
Our last act of worship that day nearly raised the roof.
The organ pipes thundered, and we were at full voice, singing,
“The Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ!
And he shall reign for ever and ever!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”
The sense of victory was overwhelming.
There was an infusion of hope into this broken world,
and we let it be known!

It’s pretty easy to pull out all the stops, and celebrate,
when we see Easter from our vantage point.
That power and victory is found in that resurrection is obvious.
That sin and death are conquered is plain to see.
It’s not hard to embrace the joy of Easter day.

Not so for Peter and John and Thomas and company.
The Gospel stories we usually look at in the weeks after Easter
tell us a curious story.
Why don’t these disciples get what just happened?
Are they a little dim-witted, we wonder?
For more than two years
they followed Jesus everywhere he went,
and sat at his feet
while he taught them all about the kingdom,
and about his coming suffering, death, and resurrection.

The Gospel story this morning is a perfect example.
Let’s take a look again at John, chapter 20.
This story comes immediately after the story we heard last Sunday.
Peter, John, and Mary had all seen the empty tomb,
with Jesus’ graveclothes lying neatly inside.
Mary had the added benefit of having seen two angels,
and then seeing, and speaking to, Jesus himself.
And all three of them had reported back to the disciples.

But here they all are, in their designated meetinghouse,
cowering in fear behind locked doors,
unable to grasp the truth of what has been told to them.
Unable to trust. Unable to hope.
And Jesus came and stood among them—John 20:19.
His first words were, “Peace be with you.”
Those words were...appropriate, to say the least.
They were probably more than a little frightened
at this sudden appearance of Jesus.
Peace is what they needed right then,
A calming of their fears.
A release of their tension.

Then in v. 20 we read that Jesus showed them his hands and side,
supposedly to reassure them that this was no dream,
and that he was no ghost.
And the disciples’ response when they saw this?
They rejoiced!
Didn’t fully understand it, apparently,
but they were full of joy,
full of delighted astonishment,
full of hopeful anticipation.
And maybe in this rejoicing,
their fear and tension began to melt away.

So it’s a little curious, I think, that in the next verse, 21,
while they were rejoicing,
Jesus repeated himself,
“Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And he breathed on them, and 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.”

Now the Gospel story continues with a fascinating tale of Thomas,
who missed the first appearance,
but got a second chance, like the rest of them,
to see and believe.
And Jesus spoke the same words to Thomas:
“Peace be with you.”
Last year, I focused on Thomas on this same Sunday,
tried to restore his bad reputation as a doubter,
and emphasized his strong confession of faith,
“My Lord and my God!”

But this morning, I invite us to ponder on this first part of this story,
Jesus’ words about peace, the Holy Spirit, and forgiveness.
There is a powerful Gospel message in these few verses
that I think we sometimes miss
by moving right away to the drama
of Jesus’ encounter with Thomas.

Why was it that Jesus said, three times, “Peace be with you.”
The text tells us in v. 19 that the disciples were afraid.
They were afraid of the Jewish religious leaders,
and presumably the Roman authorities, too,
who together had conspired to crucify Jesus.
That was only a few days ago,
so their fear was well-founded.
They were not safe.
But I think there was something deeper behind Jesus’ words,
than simply calming their fears and anxieties.
Otherwise, Jesus would not have had to repeat himself,
and pronounce peace on them,
while they rejoiced in his presence.
I think Jesus knew that the peace they needed most at the moment,
was the peace that is set in motion by forgiveness.

Yes, forgiveness.
I have to believe that forgiveness
was the first and most profound truth about the resurrection
that the disciples needed to grasp.
Reflect for a moment,
what was likely going on in the disciples’ minds and spirits.
The disciples had all—everyone of them—
abandoned Jesus at the most critical moment.
They had failed to prevent their Lord and Master—
the one who they had come to believe was the Messiah—
from being crucified.
While their Messianic hopes were being crushed,
and Jesus was being tortured and mocked,
they all stood at a distance and watched,
or stood close and denied they knew him.
And then they all ran off and hid behind locked doors.
As disciples, they failed their master miserably.
And now they were standing face to face
before the one whom they failed.
I’m not saying I’d have done any better,
if I was in their sandals.
Their response was normal and understandable,
given their frame of reference.

But at this moment, immediately post-resurrection,
what they were just beginning to grasp,
was how miserably they had failed their master—
how little they had learned of the deeper truths
their rabbi and master had been trying to teach them.
John 20 says they rejoiced.
But I have to believe that their rejoicing was not
an open-throated, full-bodied, exultation
like we did with the “Hallelujah” chorus last Sunday.
If there was laughter, I’ll bet it was like...
the laughter of office workers caught playing cards
by the boss who gets back early from a meeting.
Nervous laughter.
I think the tension in that upper room was palpable,
the sense of shame, embarrassment, and failure,
just as powerful as the joy at seeing Jesus alive again.

And here is where we could imagine Jesus
giving his disciples a good tongue lashing, like they deserved.

We just got through the NCAA basketball season,
which ended with the Florida Gators’ well-deserved victory
over the Ohio State Buckeyes in the national championship,
which, contrary to Barbara’s comment last Sunday,
was, in fact, one of the stories of hope she was looking for.
(I just had to bring a little theological balance there.)

Both teams played a good game.
But imagine a basketball coach talking to a team at halftime,
who were playing a really sloppy game of barn ball.
With neck veins bulging, he’d probably yell at them,
for the most miserable, pathetic, lackluster, cowardly,
and downright despicable performance
he had ever seen on a basketball court—in his lifetime!
That could have been Jesus’ reaction to his disciples.
He could have chewed them out.
He could have fired them all on the spot.
They had talked big before the game.
They were full of bravado.
“I would die for you,” Peter said.
But it turned out they were afraid of the cross.
And they ran.
They got whupped.
And they didn’t deserve to play the second half.

But a good chewing out is not what they needed.
And that was not what Jesus would give them.
They needed the gift of forgiveness.

Craig Barnes, a professor at Pittsburgh Theol. Seminary,
writes in an article,
“At the center of the gospel is the proclamation
that Jesus Christ has come looking for us...
He walks right through the locked door to find us.
He shows us his wounds from the cross,
which are the marks of our forgiveness.
Then he says, ‘Peace be with you.’
You are forgiven, peace is restored to your troubled soul,
and you are free.”

The essence of the Gospel of Easter,
is that when we are at our very worst,
Jesus comes looking for us.
At the very time we are most wanting to hide the truth
about ourselves, from others, and even from ourselves,
when we are most crippled by shame,
Jesus comes looking for us, saying, “Peace be with you.”
The Gospel story is a freedom story.
It is freedom from sin,
freedom from our failure to trust,
freedom from spiritual humiliation.
It is Jesus coming and looking for us,
to pronounce peace and forgiveness.

And that is the story that is going on here in John 20.
Jesus is giving freedom to his disciples to come out of hiding.
But it didn’t stop there.
It wasn’t just freedom for the sake of the disciple’s freedom.

Jesus gave them the ministry of forgiveness.
He commissioned them to carry this Gospel of freedom
to every other person who was hiding from the truth,
in one way or another.
He breathed on them, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
And now go proclaim this same forgiveness I have given you.
Find other souls crippled by shame.
And be a priest for them.
Offer them the opportunity for repentance.
Proclaim their forgiveness.
That’s the role of a priest.
To act on behalf of God, inviting reconciliation.
And declaring forgiveness.
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them;
if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
That is the ministry of forgiveness which we have been offered,
and which we have now been called to offer others.

In our humanness, in our temptation to play God,
we sometimes put the wrong accent on these words.
It’s not that God is telling us,
“Now go out there, and you decide
who’s going to be judged by me for their sins,
and who will not be judged.”
I think rather, it’s a statement that,
if we don’t get out there and proclaim the gospel of forgiveness,
who else will?
If we, the ones who have experienced this forgiveness of sin,
as a result of the resurrection,
don’t go out and pass on this peace, who will?
When we proclaim forgiveness to others, they are forgiven.
They find freedom.
When we fail to proclaim forgiveness, people remain bound.
Their sins are retained.
That’s an awesome, and wonderful, responsibility.

We have been called to be disciples of Jesus
not because we are any better than the others.
On the contrary,
what it means to be a post-Easter disciple of Jesus,
is coming to terms with how wrong we were about Jesus,
and knowing how much we need to be forgiven.
It is facing up to our shame,
and then hearing Jesus’ words, “Peace be with you.”
Be free of shame.
Undo the locks. Throw open the doors.
You are loved.
You are restored.

There is no room for human pride, in this ministry of forgiveness
that we have been commissioned for.
Quoting Craig Barnes again,
“What this means is that we disciples are not called to produce forgiveness. We're called to be the priest pronouncing that which has been produced on the cross. We're called to open the locks and throw open the door, and walk back into the world as a priest who is unafraid. The only alternative is to live in shrinking prisons of hurt.”

I believe it would be well to use this occasion,
the first Sunday after Easter
to embrace in a new way
the forgiveness offered freely to us by Jesus,
who comes looking for us,
arms spread wide,
with a warm heart,
saying, “Peace be with you.”
and to embrace the ministry of forgiveness
that we were given to share, when Jesus said,
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.
If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
We have work to do. Priestly work.
The same work that Jesus did,
going and looking for those
who are huddled behind locked doors,
and proclaiming the peace of Christ to them,
proclaiming the forgiveness and freedom available
to all who will receive it.

I’m not saying, by any means, that forgiveness is as simple,
as opening our mouth and saying the words.
Forgiveness can sometimes be very complicated,
and painfully difficult,
and fraught with risk,
and can, in some cases, even take a lifetime.
Forgiveness is not to be taken lightly.

But what I am saying is, because of the resurrection,
forgiveness is not only possible,
it is a present reality in the living Lord, Jesus Christ.
And we are called to accept it,
and to pass it on,
in order to truly live.

I invite us into a time of prayers for forgiveness.
Throughout we will sing a short response,
“Healing balm, forgiving Lord, Kyrie eleison”

Let us begin to call on the merciful Lord,
and ask for the healing balm of forgiveness.

Healing balm, forgiving Lord, Kyrie eleison.

Risen Lord, who comes looking for us,
we are here this morning, some of us, behind locked doors.
There are doors we are afraid to open.
There are doors we have no idea how to open.
Despite that, right now, you have come to stand among us,
and pronounce peace.
Open our ears, Lord, to hear the words,
and open our heart to receive them with rejoicing.
For this we pray...
Healing balm, forgiving Lord, Kyrie eleison.

Risen Lord, who comes pronouncing peace,
there are many reasons we find ourselves
gripped by fear and shame.
Like the disciples, we have failed to grasp your Gospel fully.
We operate on half-truths about you,
or even on complete misrepresentations.
We are formed more by the dominant culture we live in,
than by your narrow way that leads to life.
We need your forgiveness and peace, so,
For this we pray...
Healing balm, forgiving Lord, Kyrie eleison.

Risen Lord, who comes with arms open wide,
meet us where we are at, in our state of fear, and shame.
We have failed to follow your way in good faith,
we have abandoned you, forsaken you,
sometimes even denied you.
We have lived with more attentiveness to
our own individual desires,
personal pleasures,
or immediate satisfaction,
and less attentiveness to the self-giving love
which you demonstrated so powerfully in your life,
death, and resurrection,
and to which you have called us.
Bring us out of this suffocating locked room,
free us from our small, self-absorbed, existence.
For this we pray...
Healing balm, forgiving Lord, Kyrie eleison.

Risen Lord, who has called us to a ministry of forgiveness,
lead us to share your words of peace and freedom
with others who are hiding in fear and shame,
hiding their truth even from themselves,
to the extent that they are unaware
of their need for freedom.
Give us the grace to live among these suffering children of yours,
in a way that allows them to hear the words,
“Peace be with you.”
Help us to be good ministers of your peace.
For this we pray...
Healing balm, forgiving Lord, Kyrie eleison.

Risen Lord, who has called us to love and forgive even our enemies,
help us learn to share your peace
even with those from whom we are alienated,
those who may hate us,
those for whom we may harbor hatred,
or at least, deep bitterness.
Help us discover the freedom we ourselves can have,
and the freedom we can offer others,
through the ministry of forgiveness.
Even when forgiveness is hard, painful, and risky.
Lead us on our journey toward that forgiveness.
We confess that we need it.
The world needs it.
For this we pray...
Healing balm, forgiving Lord, Kyrie eleison.

Lord, Jesus Christ, who comes looking for us.
We receive you with joy.
Have mercy on us.
Amen.
Healing balm, forgiving Lord, Kyrie eleison.

—Phil Kniss, April 15, 2007

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