“Peace, Purpose, and Power”

April 27, 2014

 

I Peter 1:3-9

John 20:19-31

 

This Sunday after Easter is our little secret, isn’t it?

We get together—just the few of us. We can stretch out in the pews and enjoy a little more elbow room. We’re not quite as well dressed—although you all look pretty good to me. Our expectations are slightly lower—there’s neither the build-up nor the let-down. No one ever asks me, “So, did you make it through the Sunday after Easter?”

We get together—and then we talk about those who were here just last week but didn’t come back today!

Of course, in way, who can blame them? They show up: it’s crowded and brassy and everyone looks so fresh and crisp and they must wonder how we can stand it, Sunday after Sunday, packed in here like sardines! Once—or twice year a year, maybe. But every week?

Now, for me the problem with this Sunday after Easter is always, what to preach?  We can’t go back to the empty tomb again—we’ve been told that Christ is not there. What to preach? It’s such a problem that most clergy take the day off—as I have many times.

Actually, what to preach is a problem and an opportunity every week for ministers like me in our free, Congregational tradition. No scripture texts are assigned that must be used.

You might know that over 20 years ago the Revised Common Lectionary was published. It is an ecumenical table of readings that includes an Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel lesson along with a Psalm for each Sunday in a three year cycle. In the United Church of Christ no one is required to use these readings. We preachers have the freedom to choose whatever texts we want. Sometimes I follow the lectionary for several weeks or even months. Often I don’t. Deep within me I have that Congregational spirit that says: “No one is going tell me what scripture lessons to read and preach.”

A curious thing about the lectionary: it gives different texts for each Sunday. But for all three years, the Gospel lesson for this Second Sunday of Easter is the same—those words from the twentieth chapter of John that we heard this morning. This is, no doubt in a large part because this lesson is an account of what happened when the followers of Jesus got together a week after Easter. It fits well with this day.

And even in my fierce Congregational independence I sometimes think that if representatives of more than twenty denominations in the United States and Canada regard this text as important enough to be read every year on this day, well, something must be going on and maybe we should listen to it.

This morning’s lesson from John seems especially appropriate for those who weren’t here last week but who showed up this morning, wondering what they might find a week after all the hoopla and halleluias. So if you we’re here on Easter, I’m glad that you are here today.

This is a wonderful story, isn’t it?

In the evening of that first Easter day,

after Mary Magdalen had found the stone rolled away from the tomb,

after she told Peter and James and they raced each other there only to find grave clothes but no body,

after Mary Magdalene encountered Jesus, first mistaking him for a gardener—

in the evening the followers of Jesus gather in a house and lock the doors.

Jesus appears among them, saying: “Peace be with you.” He shows them the wounds of his crucifixion and again says: “Peace be with you.”

Unexpected actions and unexpected words. Yet the wounds of Jesus confirm both who he is and what he says. The One who was crucified can speak words of peace to those who follow him. There is an authority in his wounds.

Christians have always understood Jesus as both resurrected and wounded. He has always been portrayed as both risen from death and still bearing the marks of crucifixion. He comes to those who are afraid, he comes to those who sorrow and suffer. But he does not come as one who says, “Don’t worry. Look, it will all go away.” No. He comes and shows his wounds. Then he still says, “Peace be with you.”

And this is how he comes even to us, even today.

We Christians make very strange, very specific claims. We say that God vindicated Jesus in raising him from the dead. That is, the resurrection is God’s announcement that the way of Jesus Christ—the way of love, the way of peace, the way of healing, the way of confronting the powers of this world—the way of Jesus Christ is indeed the way of the universe. God vindicated Jesus. God raised Jesus.

But God did not restore Jesus to some pre-Good Friday wholeness. The risen Christ speaks to us in our suffering from out of his own. Only when this happens do the disciples recognize Jesus and rejoice. Only when we hear the crucified and risen Christ do we ourselves find reason to rejoice even in the midst of all that wears us down and threatens us.

John tells this story and the fifty days between Easter and Pentecost collapse: Jesus at that moment breathes the Spirit into the disciples in much the same way as God breathed the breath of life into the first human being. The similarity is not coincidental. John wants us to know that in the risen Christ God is beginning a new creation.

Then there’s Thomas. And most of us know where all of this is going when we hear that name. Doubting Thomas. The ancestor of all our neighbors to the south in the “Show-Me” State. The patron saint of all who wear their skepticism like a badge of honor.

Please don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with doubt. There is even some good in healthy, holy skepticism. But, you know, it’s not that Thomas doubted the power of God to bring life out of death. Thomas doubted, not the power of God, but the word of all those other followers of Jesus. And sometimes when we look around at those followers, well, who could blame him?

That was Easter.

Or that was how Easter ended—not with trumpets and joy and shouts of “Christ is risen,” but with doubt, with dissent, with those final words of incredulity, “I will not believe.” Things were not off to a good start.

John doesn’t tell us what happened over the intervening seven days—how the stunned disciples spent their days, whether they spoke any kind words to Thomas or spoke to him at all, what Mary Magdalene did as she replayed that encounter with Jesus.

The Bible often doesn’t tell us what we want to hear.

But it usually tells us what we need to hear and shows us what we need to see.

A week later in the same house, behind the same locked doors, we listen as Jesus once again speaks those Easter words: “Peace be with you.” A peace this side of crucifixion seems to be central to the risen Christ’s desire for his followers.

We look as he shows his wounded hands and side.

It is enough for Thomas, who confesses: “My Lord and my God!”

Then the narrator, who has been telling us this whole, wonderful story, stops, and turns to speak to us directly: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples,” John says.

And Jesus did do many other signs:

Water turned into wine

The sick healed

A blind man’s sight restored

The dead Lazarus brought back to life

And finally the appearances of Jesus on Easter and a week later

In the Gospel of John these are all called “signs.” They are not miracles—or if they are miracles that is only secondary.

They are signs—events that point to something beyond what happened; events that point to the ways of God in the world.

The empty tomb points to Jesus’ victory over death and the destructive powers of this world.

His appearance to Mary points to his continued presence with his followers.

His appearance on Easter evening points to the continuing gift of God’s Spirit.

So Thomas—even doubting Thomas—sees that the physical miracle he demanded has become a sign that points to Christ as the full revelation of God.

We can doubt a miracle.

To a sign we can only respond, “My Lord and my God!”

It was for this purpose that the entire Gospel of John was written—so that you and I, and countless others who did not see any of this might not just “believe,” but so that we might find life. We are fortunate indeed to count ourselves among those who believe even though we have not seen. But that is not the end of it.

Confessing with the Apostles’ Creed that “on the third day Jesus rose again from the dead,” confessing that “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting,” is not the end of this. You may be able to say these things. You may not. That is not the point.

The point—the desire of God—is that we should be fully alive, able to do in our day just the kind of things that Jesus did in his: to love one another, to bring peace into the world, to be agents of healing, even at times to do the frightening work of standing up to the powers in the world that would destroy. And it is just that we might live such lives that these signs of Jesus have been handed down to us today—that we might see in them the way that God continues to act in the world and in our lives.

So let me modify my original statement.

This Sunday after Easter should not be our little secret—for on this day we hear a message of life not only for us in our spacious and comfortable pews but for all people.

It is a message of peace. When we face the most difficult, the most trying, even the most brutal situations that life can throw at us, God is not far away, distant and removed. God is close at hand, knowing our sorrow and our fear, yes, but also sharing our wounds and even showing the same. This word of peace is not spoken lightly. God’s word of peace has been tempered with fire so that it can support us even when the foundations are shaking. This is a message of peace.

This is a message of purpose: “As the Father sent me, so I send you,” Jesus says.

What is the meaning of life?

What is the purpose of our days on earth?

Jesus tells us. It is to go into the world as he went into the world. We are to love one another in this community of faith as Jesus loved us—no small task—and in this way show the love of God to the world. We are to forgive as we have been forgiven—for who said that life after Easter would be easy? We are to confront the powers of greed and death around us. We are to bear witness to the God who is made known to us in Jesus Christ so that others may also find the life we have found. This is a message of purpose.

And this is a message of power. So that we might be those who love and forgive and bring peace Jesus gives the Spirit of God to us. This Spirit, the Gospel of John tells us, is the “Comforter.” Now this does not mean that the Spirit is the One who pats our hand and says, “There, there, everything will be all right.” No, the comfort of God is different from this—and far greater. Comfort, remember, comes from the Latin fortis, strong. To “com-fort” is to strengthen much. And would we dare attempt to be those who love, who reconcile, who speak truth to power if we did not have the strength of God? This is a message of power.

Peace.

Purpose.

Power.

All these were given to those dispirited, disappointed, and dejected people who gathered together after that first Easter morning.

This Sunday after Easter, as we find one another again, after all that has happened or hasn’t happened to us in the past week, as we bring our own sometimes dispirited, disappointed, and dejected selves to worship, there is good news.

It is the good news of Easter. Not the Easter long ago, but the Easter that continues to occur in our lives, in our congregation, and in our world. Peace, purpose, and power are still given to us this day.

Receive what is offered.

Take what is given.

That may be more than you were expecting on this Sunday after Easter. It may be more than you asked, more than you imagined, but then, that is the way of God in our world.

Use the gifts of God that you might have life and have it abundantly.