Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
I will be playing the hireling minister at our local United Church this morning. So for those who object to prepared sermons I apologize now. I'm posting the text in part because I think it speaks to the character of our religious experiences somewhat and so may be of interest to some.
Now our Bibles are whole libraries of stories stretching across thousands of years of storytelling and seasoned liberally with poems, and laws, regulations and promises. But in case you never noticed our morning scripture readings, they come prepackaged by a committee and presented to us as if they were self-contained stand-alone vignettes. Now that works fairly well most of the time because most of those stories can be read on their own. Except at Easter. At Easter all the bits and pieces connect to one another and you can't tell one part of the story without connecting it up with all the rest.
Look at our Gospel reading this morning. It begins: "When it was evening on that day…" On what day? Why, on Sunday "the first day of the week". The story we've come to know so well — or think we've come to know so well — about good old doubting Thomas, opens, “on Sunday night.” Now this is the Sunday Mary Magdalene became the first witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In other words, according to our Gospel reading this morning, today is still Easter Sunday.
Mary Magdalene was the first of Jesus's disciples to see him after he rose from the dead Easter morning. That's not mentioned here in this morning’s reading and she gets excluded this morning because she belongs to last week somehow even though as I said this is still Easter Sunday.
Remember what happened. She goes to the tomb to pray near the body of her crucified teacher. But the door of the tomb stands open and the tomb is empty. When Jesus stands before her she is so overwrought she does not even recognize him. Until he calls her by name. After the encounter she runs back to share what had happened with the Twelve disciples.
John doesn't tell us how the disciples responded. In fact of the four Gospels only two, Mark and Luke, are honest enough to tell us that the Twelve disciples did not believe Mary Magdalene. After all she was only a woman, right? Full of "idle talk". But even though John tries to hide it, we can see it in how they reacted. You see, that Easter Sunday evening some of these disciples locked themselves into the house out of fear of the Jews. And if Mary is there, she is invisible and she is not mentioned.
And the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews. But they weren’t really afraid of all of the Jews. After all everybody locked behind those closed doors were Jewish too. The disciples were Jews from Galilee. Galilee was a rural backwater part of Israel. Everybody down that way was either a farmer or a fisherman.
The folks they were afraid of were these big-city types from Jerusalem. These guys all read their scriptures in the original Hebrew and look down their noses at anybody who weren't their kind of people. And they had an agenda to protect their own power and their privilege at the expense of anybody who stood in their way. The disciples had good cause to be afraid.
We each know this kind of fear. The fear of being pushed out, abandoned, rejected. It's that niggle in the back of our heads when we say to ourselves, "Yes, but what will the neighbour say?" or "Don't do that, you'll only embarrass yourself!" It's the sort of thing we can get over.
When we think of people at risk for anxiety or depression or even suicide because they just don't fit in, we tend to think of children being bullied on the playground. But did you know, the largest number of suicides in Canada is actually among men aged 50 to 64? For such people, much of their influence and income and social supports are invested in the workplace, with many facing late-career layoffs and early retirements.
In some ways this is what our disciples went through. They lived in small villages. They had families. They were fishermen and farmers — they had work to do. And they left everything to follow this itinerant preacher wandering the roads leading them up to the great city of Jerusalem. They thought they were following the Messiah. And then in the dark of night men with clubs and swords seized him dragged him off to be humiliated and tortured and killed. In the course of a few days they lost everything they had and everything they believed in.
But more than the fear of shame and humiliation they also feared for their lives. Jesus' tomb stood empty. Under Roman law to disturb a tomb is to desecrate a holy space and the punishment for this blasphemy — was death.
Perhaps you've been in a place where you feared for your life. You felt that fear in your body when your breathing shortened and your heart raced; perhaps you broke out in a sweat. Hormones rushed through your body. And your blood suddenly became filled with sugar. We call this the fight or flight reflex. Your body is getting ready to either run away or fight for your life! Only these disciples weren't running away. And they weren't fighting. They were huddled behind locked doors. And instead of turning to one another for support all they saw was the fear in each other's faces. And when you're afraid and not doing anything productive with that fear your mind replays the horrible reasons why you're afraid over and over and over.
They had been terrified for three long days. And when you have that fear constantly living inside your body for that long it's normal for that fear to turn into hate. And into this mess hidden behind closed doors suddenly appears Jesus. He throws his arms wide with a great smile and says, "Peace be with you!"
As I mentioned during the Children's Time throughout the war-torn Middle East and for thousands of years the way people greeted each other and continue to greet each other is with a blessing for peace. So when Jesus suddenly stands among them and says "Peace be with you" all he really is doing here is saying, "Hi, how ya doin’?" But in this short passage John emphasizes those words three times so I think more than just a friendly greeting is going on here.
"Peace Be with You." At first the apostles don't recognize him. So this, "Peace Be with You" is sort of like the 'hello' you might shout to someone across a crowded room and to get their attention. They do not recognize him until he shows them the wounds in his hands and in his side. And then they rejoice!
You may notice that when Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene she didn't recognize him either. This would seem to be a theme in our scriptures. We are so caught up in our own reaction, our own confused emotions that when Jesus appears before us we don't even know it's him! The two disciples on the road to Emmaus walked with him for several hours while he explained Bible passages to them. Mary Magdalene thought he was the gardener!
It is also interesting that each of these people, when they finally recognized Jesus recognized him in a different way. The disciples on the road to Emmaus recognized him in the breaking of the bread — in other words through the Eucharist, our communion service. Mary recognized him when he called her by name. And these disciples, hiding behind locked doors, recognized him from his death-wounds.
Here's why I think this is important. There are moments in our lives when we suddenly realize God is working. Christ, the Word of God, comes to us hidden, disguised in the ordinary events of our lives. But suddenly, by the power of God's Holy Spirit working in and through us and those around us, we find ourselves saying, "Surely God was in this place — and I did not know it!" And when we look back from that moment we realize that God was there all along working invisibly through the ordinary people in our lives.
This is also important because different people come to Christ from different paths. The disciples on the road said their hearts burned in them as Jesus opened the scriptures but they recognized him in the communion. For some of us the worship life of the church brings us to God. Mary recognized him when he called her by name. For some of us it is our private devotional lives which strengthens our faith and helps us to see God working in this world. But for the disciples in this locked room it was the wounds on his body that sparked the recognition. There is injustice in this world, and that injustice can be a call to us from God to live changed lives and to witness to the possibility of a changed world — something Jesus calls the Kingdom of God.
Once his disciples recognized him Jesus said again, "Peace be with you". If the first "Peace be with you" was a big hello from across the room, this one wrapped his good friends in a great big bear hug. To greet someone in this way is to lay claim to the authority of God by blessing another person. We never think about it that way. We say, "Hello" or "Goodbye" or "Farewell" as a matter of course without thinking too much about it. But when we say these things like, "Peace Be with You" we are performing the prayer of blessing. We become ministers of God’s grace in this mixed up world. We summon the good things we wish for the other person and send them forth. To say, "Peace Be with You" is to ask that God's peace rest in that other person and that they carry that peace around with them wherever they go.
After this greeting gives them work to do. "As the father has sent me, so I send you." The disciples, huddled in their fear behind locked doors are going to have to unlock those doors. Because just as God sent Jesus into this world with work to do, so anyone who seeks to be one of his followers is sent into this world to continue the work he started. We are each of us here as God's agents. We are here to witness to God's love, and to be a blessing to others.
Then Jesus did something strange: he breathed on them. Blowing air through his lips he let his breath touch each one of them. And he said to them, "Receive Now the Holy Spirit!" The Holy Spirit is the breath of God. The Holy Spirit hovered over the waters of creation like a wind blows ripples on the water. It was the Holy Spirit that God breathed into Adam. And it was the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that made the sound of the rushing wind. Our breath is our life. And to have the Holy Spirit breathed into you is to have the life of God in you.
This life empowers the disciples to go out into the world as the face of Jesus just as Jesus went out into the world as the face of God. The disciples would no longer be just disciples. They are now apostles: the ones sent into the world. And in order to enable them to do the work God was calling them to do they needed the life of God within them.
Have you ever been given a job to do but not been given the time or the resources to do it? It happens a lot in business. It happens a lot in life. In the great story of the Exodus from Egypt, the Pharaoh became upset with the Israelites and he forced them to make bricks without straw — but without reducing the number of bricks they had to make. This is the way the world gives to us. And Jesus promised that the peace that he gives is not as the world gives. That's because the peace that he gives comes accompanied by the Holy Spirit, by the very life of God empowering you and me to be God's face, God’s Presence in the world.
We now come to the difficult part. Jesus tells them, "if you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." Forgiving others seems hard at times. Most of the time it's hard because we don't really want to do it. The anger that we feel is a rage for fairness and justice and truth. And so when we don't want to forgive, it is often because we feel the other person doesn't deserve it, or that it would be dishonest for us to forgive.
But most of the time I think, lurking behind the anger is fear. We are afraid that by forgiving we are admitting that we actually deserved that bad thing that was done to us. And we are afraid that we are being vulnerable — that we are opening ourselves to be hurt the same way all over again.
Do you know what? That fear is right. Whenever we open ourselves to another person we take the risk of being hurt all over again. And sometimes that risk just isn't worth it to us. But then again, what is our alternative? When we don't let go of the hurt, then the hurting is all that's left. "If you retain the sin of any, they are retained."
Then along comes Thomas. I think for 2000 years poor old Thomas — doubting Thomas — has gotten a bit of a bad rap. He's the guy who wouldn't believe unless he actually got to stick his fingers inside of the gaping wound in Jesus body. I'm going to suggest to you another way of looking at poor Thomas.
I don't think he doubted but I think he felt left out. He wasn't there when Jesus appeared to the others. When he said I won't believe until I see for myself, and "put my finger in the mark of the nails" he wasn't saying he needed proof so much as he was asking for the same thing that Jesus gave the other disciples. Like the other disciples he had given up his entire life for Jesus and he had followed him to Jerusalem, and like them seen the most important thing in his life killed on a cross. And in his world being a part of the right kind of family being a member of the right group being on the right side, on the right team, decided what your worth was as a human being. And unfortunately, that can be true for us today as well.
When Jesus appeared to Thomas, he greeted him with the same blessing that he gave to the others, "Peace Be with You". And when Jesus confronted him, he showed Thomas the wounds in his hands and the wound in his side just like he had done for the others. He included Thomas. And in response Thomas, fell to his knees and declared, "My Lord and my God!" Thomas recognized Jesus as the one he always hoped Jesus was. And he knew that from that moment on his life, indeed the whole world would be changed forever.
And Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me?" That is not a judgment just on poor Thomas. The other disciples only believed when they saw him too. None of them believed the witness of Mary. "Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe."
Now can you believe something as strange and something as amazing as the resurrection if you have not seen it? This last line of Jesus was spoken not for Thomas and not for the other disciples, it was spoken for us. Because this morning we heard the story. It is through hearing this story that people come to believe. And in coming to believe, we receive the very life of God — the Holy Spirit. So that we too may go out into this world showing the face of God to this world through witness and through being a blessing to one another.