Sermon for April 12, 2020
Text: John 20:19-23
That morning, Mary Magdalene had gone to the tomb of Jesus, found it empty, ran for reinforcements in Peter and John, and after they had come with her to confirm the strange sight and left, she witnessed Jesus in a form she did not immediately recognize, so blinded was she by her grief. Once her eyes were opened, she rushed off to tell all the disciples what she had seen.
And now it is evening of that same day, and the disciples are together. What do you imagine they might have been thinking, and feeling, and talking about?
What comes to my mind is the gathering called a “wake” in some cultures. When tragedy happens, friends and family come together. They come to share stories; they come to make decisions; they come to shed tears. The death of the loved one has not erased the relationships that have been forged, and it does not erase the memories that have been made together. The crucifixion had not erased all that for the disciples. But it had changed what the future would look like. So there was a need to gather and recall all those times. There was a need to reaffirm the relationships forged among them. There was a need to assess what all they had shared together meant. And there was a need to grieve. Even without the resurrection — and I’m not sure all of them believed that yet — there was a need to be together.
And the text tells us something else: “…the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid…”
This is the first phrase from the story that jumps out at me in the midst of our COVID-19 shelter-in-place digital Easter. We are not afraid of religious authorities, as the disciples were, but we are living with fear of matters beyond our control, not knowing what the future will hold for us personally, and not knowing how the world will ultimately be changed by what we are going through at present.
Like the disciples, we wanted something different of this Easter. We wanted to be able to worship together, to celebrate with friends and family. We wanted the freedom to go wherever we please without fear of contracting this virus and without fear of inadvertently making someone else sick. We wanted our familiar traditions and our comfortable church building and our community gathered. We don’t want the situation we are in.
Behind closed doors — doors closed because of fear — Jesus enters. He comes among his frightened, wondering friends, and he offers words of reassurance and transformation. The closed doors and the fear jump out at me in this text, but so do three more things:
- First, Jesus breathes on them. This is John telling the story, and with the recounting of this detail, John wants us to remember how he began his gospel, with his special version of the Creation story:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….What came into being through the Wod was Life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. (John 1:1, 3a-5)
We are to remember the story from Genesis, of how God created a human being by breathing life into the clay, and we are to remember the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of God breathing life into lifeless bones that represented the people in Exile who had lost their hope. Jesus breathes — the sign of life, of creation, of resurrection, and of newly kindled hope.
John’s prologue continues:
…those who believed in his name, he authorized to become God’s children, born not from blood…but born from God. (John 1:12b-13)
And we remember the third chapter of John, in which Jesus talks about being born again, born of the spirit. We are to remember that in both the Hebrew and the Greek language, the words for “breath” and “spirit” are the same
We are to remember, from where John started the story, that in Jesus we have our identity: we are children of God, and this changes everything.
- Jesus breathes on the disciples, and he says, “Peace.”
The Hebrew word is shalom, and it is used as a greeting and as a farewell among the Jewish people. It is usually translated “peace” but means more than that — something along the lines of wholeness.
Jesus breathes and says “peace,” and when we breathe, remembering the gift of life and the gift of our identity as children of God, we can regain our connection to peace and wholeness and to the present moment.
There is a spiritual practice called mindfulness that people are finding particularly helpful right now. It helps us to stay focused on the present moment without judgment. In that place of mindful peace, we can look on the past with gratitude for relationships and experiences, for skills learned and memories gained, but without the emotional attachment that stirs up grief. In that place of mindful peace, we can let go of anxiety about what the future might or might not bring.
- After this breathing and greeting of “peace,” then Jesus talks about forgiveness. What is that about? Does it seem like a nonsequitur, or do you see a connection?
When we are in this place of mindful peace, we neither judge ourselves, nor do we judge others. It’s the perfect place to be in to practice forgiveness — and that’s a transformational matter. Some would say that it’s the key to Christianity, the key to resurrection, the key to life.
Jesus had just gone through, and the disciples had just witnessed, the most brutal injustice. In the face of such trauma, they could have harbored not only fear, but hatred. Jesus had said, from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” but those words might have been lost in the terror of what they had witnessed — and in the fear they continued to feel for their own lives. The breath of peace was to bring them back to square one, restore them to the place of wholeness, so that they might have the generosity and courage to practice forgiveness, which changes the landscape entirely — for their relationships with one another, and for their relationships with enemies and strangers.
A gift of this COVID-19 shelter in place is the gift of time. We can spend that time feeding anxiety and grief, or we can spend it practicing our faith, becoming the people God created us to be — people of peace, people of forgiveness, people who work for the force of life abundant. We can use our time, and the gift of technology, to reach out, for starters, to those with whom we might have lost touch — out of busyness, out of inattention, or because of hurt. We can use our time to practice mindfulness, meditation, reading (and I don’t mean reading the endless stream of COVID-19 news or things that foment panic, or political stuff, or trivia that simply “numbs.” We can use our time to engage in journaling or other writing, and to nurture our creativity.
On this Easter Sunday 2020, morning or evening, in this strange season in which we find ourselves, with days and nights that stretch on and on, we must believe that Easter can happen, even behind closed doors. There are lessons to be learned in this season. I can’t say I know what all of them are; I don’t know that any one of us will learn them all. But I do trust that they are available for the learning. And I trust that transformation is possible, even now, because I believe that resurrection is the operating principle of the universe. My Easter prayer, for you, is that we might discover some of those lessons together, and come to receive this chapter as a gift. God is not through with us yet. God is with us. May God give us peace, and grace, and hope. Christ is risen. Alleluia. Amen.