“It’s Easter—Look Forward”

May 2, 2011


I Peter 1:3-9

John 20:19-31


“Well, I guess you had to be there.”

Have you ever tried to explain an event of great importance, describe a scene of great beauty, or recount some hilarious experience to another person—only to be met with a blank, uncomprehending expression?

Giving up you just say, “Well, I guess you had to be there.”

You’d think that something as momentous as the resurrection of Jesus would have led to such a statement. How do you describe it?

John’s Gospel tells of the risen Jesus appearing to disciples locked away out of fear. They had heard from Mary of Magdala the impossibly good news that the crucified Jesus was alive once more.

Look as Jesus stands among his followers. I don’t know how—perhaps modern particle physics could give us an answer. I’ve always appreciated the suggestion of C. S. Lewis that the risen Jesus could walk through walls because he is more real than them—in the same way that an airplane can move through the clouds that look so solid. But there’s something not quite right with that idea either. I guess you had to be there.

Listen. Jesus is giving his peace to his followers. It is the peace he promised, a peace unlike the peace that the world gives. This gift reminds us that we can face threats not with fear and anxiety but with the calm assurance that Jesus gives.

To frightened hearts he speaks a word of peace. To those who are weary he speaks of shalom--wholeness, healing. This peace will be a central experience of those who chose to follow.

And then Jesus does the strangest thing.

He breathes on the disciples.

“Receive the Holy Spirit,” he says. Catch this breath. Catch your breath, what you really need to breathe.

Thomas, who wasn’t there when this happened, arrives on the scene. With excitement, the other disciples tell him: “We have seen the Lord!” They try to tell him about being locked away, their surprise when Jesus stood among them. They sputter out words about hands and sides.

Thomas stares back at them. It’s not doubt, I think, as much as it is incomprehension.

I guess you just had to be there. Maybe to appreciate the resurrection, you had to see the risen Jesus, hear his word of peace, feel his breath. Maybe the power of the resurrection was available only to a few in the now distant past.

A week later a similar event takes place.

Once again, Jesus appears, offering his peace. This time Jesus offers Thomas his hands and his side, encouraging him to believe.

Thomas responds to the invitation of Jesus with a confession of faith: “My Lord and my God.”

“Blessed are those,” the risen Christ responds, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

You didn’t have to be there. Since that Sunday a week after Easter, Christians have proclaimed, “Christ is risen—but, you didn’t have to be there.” The power of the resurrection is not limited to a small group of people who were in one place on one day; it is not limited to ancient people in ancient times.

The power of the resurrection comes to us.

So the author of the Gospel of John near the end of the first century would conclude this first section of resurrection stories by writing: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

These resurrection appearances are “signs.” When John calls an event a “sign” he is talking about an event that is important more for what it points to than for what it is. These signs point to God overcoming death and vindicating the way of love that Jesus showed. These signs point to God making all who follow in the way of Jesus Christ part of a new creation, part of something that God is doing through us and among us as we, too, receive the Spirit of God in our lives.

These particular signs remind us that

The risen Christ does not know the barricades of locked doors or locked hearts.

The risen Christ is not limited by closed windows or closed minds.

The risen Christ will not be constrained by our fears.

The “miraculous” is not for its own sake. The resurrected Jesus does not appear in order to dazzle, surprise or delight. Jesus comes to give God’s Spirit and God’s task to those who will follow.

These signs are given so that we who weren’t there, we who didn’t see, might believe and in believing have life in Christ’s name.

Now, for John, believing is never a matter of agreeing to a certain set of propositions about Jesus. Belief isn’t affirming that Jesus was both human and divine or being able to accept a specific explanation as to why Jesus was crucified.

Belief is commitment. Belief is following in the way of Jesus. I like to think that John was an early Congregationalist—in the Congregational UCC tradition it is covenant, not creed that is important. How we act in the world, how we live with each other, that we love one another as Christ has loved us—we would call these our commitments. For John, commitment is belief.

And commitment leads to life.

I Peter, also most likely written near the end of the first century, gives voice to this as well. As was the case with John’s Gospel, this letter was written to people who weren’t there when Jesus appeared to his disciples, to people who didn’t see his resurrected yet wounded hands and side. They are told that’s all right: “Although you have not seen the resurrected Christ, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

Talk of “the salvation of your souls,” sounds especially “religious” doesn’t it? That phrase, however, and John’s “life in his name,” are ways of expressing what we have experienced—a change in life, a change in ourselves.  Such transformation happens, not in the past, not to the few who were there then, but to us here and now.

Do you begin to see how our sight is always directed forward? The scripture lessons that we heard this morning don’t look back. They look ahead to a new time. What is important is neither the experience of the disciples a few hours before Thomas arrives, nor the experience of Thomas a week later, nor of the faithful of the past. What is important is our commitment, our belief in these days.

We go from “You had to be there” to “We need to be here.”

This is the Easter message for our congregation this year.

We’re going through a time of change here.

Next week we will mark the retirement of our choir director for forty years.

Our Director of Christian Education is retiring—for the second time.

As we look forward toward new staff members and the new gifts they will bring to this congregation, we also look forward to some major repairs and renovations to our property.

Our Trustees have been working recently to change all of our long fluorescent light tubes and ballasts to ones that are brighter and more energy efficient. There’s close to one hundred of these. And of course the question naturally arises: How many Congregationalists does it take to change a light bulb?

There are several answers, such as:

·        Three, one to change the bulb and two to sit around and talk about how good the old light bulb was

·        Or we can simply answer the question with a question: Change? What change?

We will be tempted , as other congregations have been, to look back in the midst of change and to find a golden age and seek to return to it.

We will be tempted, but the faith, the belief, the commitment of this congregation is strong. It is an Easter commitment that looks forward.

The roof of this church has become for me a wonderful image for our situation and our ministry and mission. The roof is not caving in—but it does need new shingles. It needs to be replaced so that it can continue to shelter and protect all that we do in this place. I’m thankful for those who first built this building on this corner and began the work of this congregation. I’m thankful for those who replaced that roof several times over the past 150 years so that our ministry here could continue.

But more than looking back with thanksgiving, I’m looking forward with hope to all that we can continue to do, and all of the new ministry and mission that we can begin to do with a newly repaired and renovated building.

As I said during the announcements this morning, everyone will have an opportunity to have a voice in the planning of the repairs and renovations. Even better yet, everyone will have an opportunity to participate in the funding of all that we decide to do. And, of course, the only thing better than raising money for God’s work in the world is spending money for God’s work in the world. We can look forward to all of that.

For today, however, let us give thanks that while we didn’t have to be present at the resurrection of Jesus to participate in the new life that God is bringing to us, we are here in this place, on this wonderful corner in these days. It is here that we live out our beliefs, our commitments. It is here that we love one another as Christ has loved us. It is here that we love our neighbor as ourselves.

It’s Easter—look forward!