Sermon, April 3, 2016

St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry V. Ort
Acts 5.27-32; Psalm 118.14-29; Revelation 1.4-8; John 20.19-31

Today’s Gospel reading picks up where we left off on Easter Sunday. As you may recall, early in the morning Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found the stone had been rolled away. She quickly ran to Peter and John and reported that Jesus’ body had been taken away. They raced to the tomb, found the linen wrappings, but no sign of Jesus so they returned to their homes. Mary remained and wept; as she wept, she looked into the tomb and saw two angels. When she turned away, she encountered Jesus but did not recognize him until he called her by name. She responded, “Rabbouni!” Jesus then told her to go to his brothers and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary returned to the disciples and announced, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20.1-18; NRSV).
Today’s reading informs us it is now evening on the same day. Jesus disciples have met, but the door is locked “for fear of the Jews.” Yes, their leader has been arrested, tried, and crucified – there may be some cause for fear. As you may recall, only John remained close to Jesus during the crucifixion. The rest of the disciples had scattered in fear.
Imagine that you are one of the disciples. What would you most likely have been thinking and feeling? At the conclusion of the Last Supper, Jesus and the disciples went to the Mount of Olives. There Jesus told them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (Mark 14.26-28; NRSV). Peter avows though all the others desert him, he will not do so. Jesus then told him before the cock crowed, he will have denied him three times.
So here we are, sitting around, a couple of oil lamps are burning, and we are all wrestling with our desertion. When things got rough, we couldn’t take it – we fled the scene. Maybe it is best to avoid Jesus for a while. Yes, I remember when Jesus called me to follow him. Oh, the things I have witnessed – turning water into wine, the multiplication of five loaves and two fish, the stilling of the storm, the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame and crippled walk – things that defy reason and explanation. And his teaching! It was wonderful to sit and learn at the Master’s feet. I have never heard another Rabbi quite like him. But I fled. I am filled with self-loathing and shame. I long to see him, yet I fear the encounter, for what will he say to me? Will he upbraid me for my weakness and lack of courage? It’s no wonder we are all so quiet. And there sits Peter; what must he be thinking after so boldly declaring that he would never desert Jesus and then denying he knew him three times. Yes, I feel bad, but I am glad I am not in his shoes. Judas betrayed Jesus, but aren’t we just as bad? Haven’t we all betrayed Jesus? Look at the food in our midst – it’s hardly been touched. Where do we go from here? I suppose we can resume fishing.
Then Jesus comes and stands in our midst. He tells us, “Peace be with you,” and shows us his hands and side. We rejoice, and Jesus once again says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus breathes upon us and says, “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” (John 20.21-23; NRSV).
When we tell Thomas, who was missing, he exclaims, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20.25; NRSV).
A week later we are once again gathered together; this time Thomas is with us. The door is shut, but not locked, and once again Jesus appears in our midst and says, “Peace be with you.” He invites Thomas to place his fingers in the wounds in his hands and to place his hand in his side. Thomas is thinking, “How did Jesus know I spoke those words?” and he declares, “My Lord and my God!”  Then Jesus asks Thomas if he believes because of what he has seen, and reminds us, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20.26-29; NRSV).
What a rich and revealing story! Are we really any different from the disciples? As baptized members of Christ’s Church, Jesus has called each and every one of us to new life in Christ. Jesus has welcomed us into God’s family; we are children of God; Jesus is our brother! Yet can any of us say we have never abandoned Jesus when things got tough? Can any of us say we have never betrayed Jesus? Just as with Adam and Eve in the Garden, and with the disciples, our abandonment and betrayal leads us to hide, to hope that Jesus will not find us. We experience remorse, and in the midst of our remorse, Jesus comes to us and says, “Peace be with you.” In a bit of a footnote, I share the following with you: In Arabic, “Peace be with you” is “Asalamu Alaikum” which is the traditional greeting and departure for Arabs and Muslims.
We experience Jesus Christ’s forgiveness. Christ forgives our sin; Christ does not retain our sins. And with Christ, we are called to forgive the sins of others as opposed to retaining them and using them against those who have wronged us. Jesus Christ tells us, “Yes, you have betrayed me; I have not retained your sins; you are forgiven; peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus also desires to breathe on us that we too might receive the Holy Spirit such that we are empowered the work he has sent us to do. When the Spirit is with us, we do not have to rely on our own power – limited power which leads to abandonment and betrayal.
With the Spirit, we can stand with Peter and the apostles and say, “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5.29; NRSV). And with the psalmist, we can proclaim, “The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation….I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord….The same stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes. On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it. Hosannah, Lord, Hosannah!’ (Psalm 118.14, 17, 22-25; NRSV).
When we have encountered God’s transforming peace, we too will exclaim, “Hallelujah!”


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