Sunday, April 11, 2010

(Easter 2) Jesus at half-time

John 20:19-31

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We’ve finished the first week of Easter.
Last Sunday was the big day, of course,
but it’s still Easter season—
the period of fifty days
between Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday.

This high season in the church year—
often called “The Great Fifty Days”—
celebrates the time between
Jesus’ glorious resurrection, and
the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the disciples.

And this is an absolutely crucial fifty days in the larger Christian story,
even though—as far as we know—
during these 50 days neither Jesus nor his disciples
did any public ministry . . . at all.
There are no lepers healed,
no crippled made to walk,
no blind given sight,
no demon-possessed liberated,
no sermons preached, no parables told . . .
no children put on the knee, no Pharisees put in their place.

And throughout these “Great Fifty Days” it seems,
the disciples mostly hung out in a secret room,
away from prying eyes,
with doors locked.
The disciples intentionally went to a place that was
out of the limelight,
away from the crowds,
removed from the action.
They were regrouping.
Trying to figure out what went wrong,
what’s going on now,
and what to do next.

When you stop and think about it,
it was sort of like half-time,
at, say, a football or basketball game.

They’re in the locker room.
Taking a break from the crowds and the action.
And in the first half they’ve been . . . well . . . whupped!
They’ve had their hind ends kicked. Hard.

Just about everything they expected to happen
in the first half . . . didn’t.
It turned out exactly the opposite.
The tide turned.
Once, throngs of people followed them, praising God.
Now, they were the hunted.
And just about everything they expected themselves to do,
they had failed to do, and failed miserably.
Remember the pre-game bravado? the smack-talk?
When Jesus warned them things would get tough,
Peter had said he would be on Jesus’ side... till the end.
“Even if I must die with you.”
And every other disciple said, “Yeah. Me too. We’re a team!”
So when the going got tough?
The tough got going . . . in the opposite direction,
running away for their lives.

So if you were coach Jesus . . . at half-time,
what kind of talk would you give these miserable players?
I can think of some coaches who would relish the chance
to just lay into them, red-in-the-face, eyes bulging,
yelling at them for the most despicable, cowardly, clumsy,
and downright pathetic performance
ever witnessed in a lifetime of coaching.
None of them deserved to play the second half.
They had all deserted.

But when Jesus showed up, in that upper room locker room . . .
instead of screaming and throwing things around the room,
he held out his arms and said, “Peace be with you.”
He breathed on them, giving them the Holy Spirit,
and said again, “Peace be with you.”
And when he returned a second time to meet Thomas,
he said the third time, “Peace be with you.”

Obviously, Jesus does not have a future in the NFL.

But this was a different kind of half-time.
It required a different approach.
The disciples did not need to have their failure pointed out.
They knew it all too well.
No, they had to be reassured God still wanted them on the team.
They needed redemption.
They needed forgiveness.
They needed peace.
They needed the kind of peace that comes from being reconciled . . .
to each other,
and to the one they deserted.
They needed to come to believe
that they even had the capacity to be trustworthy,
after they had broken trust in such a huge way.

Jesus knew that the peace they needed most at the moment,
was peace set in motion by forgiveness.
Forgiveness was the first and
most profound truth about the resurrection
the disciples needed to grasp.

Craig Barnes is a Presbyterian pastor, seminary prof, and author.
He wrote, and I quote,
“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.”

This is just beautiful.
The Gospel story is a freedom story.
When we are at our very worst,
Jesus comes to us.
When we are most wanting to hide . . .
to isolate ourselves behind locked doors . . .
and hide the truth about ourselves, even from ourselves,
when shame and regret has paralyzed us,
Jesus comes to the place where we hide, and says,
“Peace be with you.”
At the heart of the Easter event is liberation.
It is about being freed from the bondage of sin,
freed from our failure to trust God,
freed from our spiritual humiliation.
The risen Christ comes to us,
announcing peace and forgiveness.

We have a lot to be freed from, believe it.
As individuals, and as a church.
We have botched things terribly in the first half.

Like the disciples,
we, the church, have often misunderstood the Gospel.
We’ve made wrong assumptions
about what God expects of the church.
We act as if God called the church into being
for the express purpose of growing itself into a strong center—
a center of social influence and political power
and abundant material resources.
We think if the church builds an impressive base of operations—
has people flocking to its many and varied services,
has charismatic preachers, and attractive well-kept buildings,
then it must be doing what God called it to do.

We’re no different that the disciples.
They assumed Jesus was going into Jerusalem to establish himself,
to overthrow King Herod, retake the throne,
and let them sit at his right and left hand.
The disciples didn’t want to hear about suffering, and sacrifice,
and carrying their cross.
Any more than the church today wants to hear about being called
to a life of ministry at the margins of society,
among the least of these,
enduring ridicule, rejection, and even persecution if it comes.

As individuals,
we have often misunderstood the nature of faith in Jesus.
We have drunk so long from the wells of our dominant culture,
and its out-of-control affluence, and love of power and pleasure,
independence and autonomy,
that we aren’t ready for Jesus’ clear invitation
to a life of self-giving love for others.
We’d rather not hear about
walking through a narrow gate and down a hard road,
even if it supposedly “leads to life.”

In our valiant attempts to be faithful to God,
we have (if we are honest with ourselves)
often, and repeatedly, come up short.
We fail as a church, and we fail as individuals.
We fail to understand the radical Gospel call,
and fail to trust God enough to follow that call.

And sometimes, we are struck with the shame of this failure.
We want to hide.
To deny.
To distance ourselves.
But the Gospel message is this:
When we are at our very worst,
Jesus comes to us,
speaking words of healing and forgiveness,
“Peace be with you.”
Be freed from your self-imprisonment.
Be freed from your shame and humiliation.
Be freed from your sin.

That was the gospel message to the disciples in John 20.
Jesus bestowed freedom on his disciples,
freedom to come out of hiding,
to have their peace restored.

But here’s the thing.
It didn’t stop there.
Jesus did not bestow peace on the disciples
just so they personally would have peace and freedom.
What he said was, “Peace be with you . . . pass it on.”
Literally. See v. 21.
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

I grant you forgiveness. Now go and do the same for others.
Vv. 22-23:
“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.”

In this room where they were hiding,
Jesus commissioned them to carry the Gospel of forgiveness
to every other person who was hiding from the truth,
in one way or another.
After he breathed on them, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit,”
he then said, in effect,
“Now go . . . find other souls crippled by shame.
Seek out other children of mine
who are hiding for fear behind locked doors.
And speak my peace to them.
With deep love, speak those words that
give them courage to turn and repent.
Speak the language of forgiveness.
Jesus gave his disciples, and gave us, the job of priest.
To act on behalf of God, announcing reconciliation,
declaring forgiveness.
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them;
if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

What does that mean, really?
In our temptation to play God,
I think we sometimes put the wrong accent on these words.
I don’t think Jesus meant,
“Now go out there, and you be the judge.
You decide who’s condemned for their sins,
and who is not condemned.”
We might like to have that authority, but we don’t.
I think rather, Jesus was saying,
if you don’t get out there and proclaim the gospel of forgiveness,
who . . . else . . . will?
If you, the ones who have experienced this forgiveness of sin,
because of my resurrection,
don’t go out and pass on this peace, who will?
When you proclaim forgiveness to others, they are forgiven.
They find freedom.
When you fail to proclaim my forgiveness, people stay 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 better than those around us.
No, being a disciple of Jesus means
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.

And then, in gratitude,
passing the peace of Christ on to others who need to hear it.

Don’t we all know
there is so much judgement being thrown around these days,
even in the church.
Maybe . . . especially in the church.
And there is so little proclaiming God’s peace to each other.
How can that be?
We . . . who can’t help but be painfully aware,
of how far we fall short of God’s call.
We . . . who, when we came face to face with our failures,
and began to withdraw in shame,
heard the words of the Risen Christ spoken to us,
“Peace be with you.
Be restored.
I love you.”
How can it be that we Christians are so slow
to pass the peace to the rest of God’s children?
How can it be that we are often the first
to pass angry judgement on what we see
as the failures of others?
or choose words that divide and
condemn those we don’t understand,
or don’t agree with?
How can we not extend to others
the same grace and peace that God extends to us?

Sojourners, in Washington, DC, initiated a “Covenant of Civility”
that they invited church leaders to sign,
from across the political and theological spectrum.
And many have.
There are seven points in the covenant.
Such basic things as,
• we commit that our dialogue with each other will reflect the spirit of the Scriptures . . .‘quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry’
• [acknowledging that we are] created in the image of God, [so] the respect we owe to God should be reflected in the honor and respect we show to each other
• [that] when we disagree, we will do so respectfully, without falsely impugning the other’s motives, attacking the other’s character, or questioning the other’s faith
• [that we] commit to pray for our political leaders—those with whom we may agree, as well as those with whom we may disagree

One would hope this kind of covenant would not be necessary,
but apparently it is.
One would hope that among Christians,
speaking peace to one another,
extending forbearance to our sisters and brothers,
would be second nature,
but apparently it is not.
So I signed the covenant.
I commit myself to speak the peace of Christ . . . at all times.

All of us here today have fallen.
Some have fallen far . . . and hard.
But all of us have failed, in one way or another,
to understand, and live out, the call of the Gospel.
Some are hiding our failures, out of shame or embarrassment.
Some are living in denial of our failures.
But all have fallen.

So all of us here today, and whenever we gather in worship,
gather as fallen human beings
in need of a word of peace and forgiveness.

In many Christian traditions
it is customary in every worship service
to include a “passing the peace.”
We sometimes do it, too.
And when we do,
we often turn it into a time for a little social chit-chat.
“Good morning, good to see you. How’s it going?”
Chit-chat has its place, of course.
But not in the theologically profound ritual of passing the peace.
When we pass the peace,
we are following Jesus’ example, using Jesus’ own words,
found in the Gospel of John and elsewhere:
“Peace be with you.”
When we turn and face another member of the body of Christ,
or even a stranger in our midst,
and say the words,
“The peace of Christ be with you,”
we’re not saying hi-how-are-you-doing.
We are speaking holy words,
we are pronouncing a divine blessing,
we are making a proclamation,
that no matter what brokenness lies within you,
no matter what dis-ease,
what secret sin or shame,
what fractured relationship,
the peace, the Shalom, the wholeness
of the Risen Lord Jesus
be in and upon and through you.
“The peace of Christ be with you.”
And then the other responds,
“And also with you.”

Can we do that much for each other whenever we gather in worship
this Easter season?

Each Sunday, there will be a time in our worship,
when we turn to others around us—
next to us, behind or in front us, across the aisle,
whether we know these persons or not—
and speak these profound and holy words to each other:
“The peace of Christ be with you.”
“And also with you.”

For some,
those may be the only words of peace
they have spoken to them that week.
So let’s speak them and mean them.
Let’s imbue them with their full and rich meaning.
“The peace of Christ be with you.”
“And also with you.”

We will conclude the passing of the peace
by singing an Affirmation of our Easter faith,
STS #89, Christ is alive.

This song may be new to some of us,
but it’s a beautiful proclamation of the good news of Easter.
“Christ is alive, and goes before us,
to show and share what love can do.
This is a day of new beginnings;
our God is making all things new.”

It will be introduced by an ensemble.
And we will sing the refrain.

Now, let us pass the peace.
“The peace of Christ be with you.”
“And also with you.”

—Phil Kniss, April 11, 2010

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