This EasterTide, we’re in the twentieth chapter of John’s gospel,
and over the course of the next few weeks,
we’re going to look at five different stories
all within this one chapter.
We’re going to note how different people experience resurrection
but also how the different stories,
and the different people within those stories,
are all connected in both shared resurrection affirmation,
and in and through the relationships
of the followers of Jesus.
So our text today is linked to the preceding stories of this twentieth chapter.
It was the evening of that same day, we read—
that day that saw Mary at the tomb before daybreak
when it was still dark,
that day that saw Peter and the beloved disciple at the tomb,
that day on which Mary encountered Jesus
after which she went and told the disciples—
maybe coming to this very house—
knocking on the locked door,
“Hey! Let me in! It’s Mary, and do I have news for you!”
It was the evening of that very day
to which we’ve been witness from dark to dark
wondering whether to trust the light.
It was the first day of the week, we’re told—
which would have been Sunday—
what would come to be the Lord’s day—
the church’s day of worship—
as opposed to the Saturday’s sabbath of the Jewish tradition.
But it wasn’t that yet.
It was Sunday—
the day that would become the day
of liturgical affirmation and celebration
the day of the eucharist—
the ritual reenactment of Jesus’ presence with us—
of Jesus’ commitment to us and to God—
of our invitation to remember Jesus.
But it wasn’t that yet—none of it.
No, on this particular Sunday,
the disciples had met not for worship,
not for eucharist,
not for resurrection celebration—
met rather, presumably, in grief,
And Mary’s arrival and news,
“I saw him!”
hadn’t exactly clarified everything—
hadn’t made it all fine and alright.
Speaking of clarifying,
when we read about the disciples having gathered,
we shouldn’t necessarily be thinking of the twelve—or the eleven.
Later in this chapter, in fact,
the writer will refer specifically to the twelve (v.24)
“so that presumably he means something different
when he says ‘the disciples'”
(Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary,
and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible:
A Commentary in Twelve Volumes: Volume IX
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1995] 844).
The disciples “represent the faith community in general,
not the apostolic leadership”
Maybe the disciples included the apostles, maybe not.
The disciples had met in a house, we read.
And they had locked the doors.
It doesn’t say, but they had also closed all the curtains,
shut the blinds, pulled the shutters,
and still hadn’t lit any lamps
for fear of being seen from outside.
So they huddled inside
gradually all fading indistinguishable
into the darkness.
For fear of the Jews, we read,
which is just a touch ironic
given that they themselves were Jews!
It seems to me rather more likely
that maybe the locked doors say more about their fear
than about the legitimacy of that fear.
Seems to me it’s often easier to talk about who to be afraid of,
and all the good reasons for being afraid of them,
than to talk about being afraid.
That’s what manipulators of fear count on.
“Let’s get angry at them,
instead of figuring out what’s going on with us.
It’s easier .. and feels so much better!”
The disciples were scared.
They blamed the Jews—
the authority figures, let’s assume.
Now did they have reason to be afraid?
Well, it depends on what they were really afraid of.
What are the options?
Let’s consider that for a moment.
It could be, as stated, they were afraid of these authorities.
We don’t know.
I kind of doubt it.
I’m guessing the representatives
of the power structures of the day—
the defenders of the status quo
in empire and institutional religion
were feeling, I’m sure, pretty good—
like they had successfully dealt with the threat
to the status quo Jesus posed.
I don’t think they were worried about the disciples—
They were partying
kicking back in self-congratulatory mood.
“Whoa! Glad we finally got that dealt with!”
Maybe the disciples were scared of the authorities,
but that’s presuming a whole heck of a lot,
don’t you think?
That they would be considered the same kind of threat
that Jesus was?
Hadn’t they just spent the last few days proving they weren’t?
Still preoccupied with their own status—
invested in their own safety?
I’m not thinking that makes much sense—
though fear as an exaggerated sense of their own importance
isn’t completely out of the realm of the possible!
Certainly an important insight and lesson for us.
What else could they have been afraid of?
I’m thinking life without Jesus.
Life without that vibrant presence—
without that perspective—
without that love.
They were scared to go out into the world
and not see flowers and birds as parables—
scared they wouldn’t see others as sisters and brothers—
scared they wouldn’t sense the thinness of the world around them—
the closeness of God to them—
afraid it was over—
the last years—
just a dream—
passing like dreams do.
Easier to lock the door and not face the fear—
the loss—the grief—
and that terrible sneaky suspicion
that we were supposed to somehow carry on—
that everything wasn’t supposed to change.
Maybe they were afraid of the Jews!—
as in afraid of themselves—
that they had let themselves down—
let Jesus down.
And at some deep level, as part of that,
maybe they were afraid that no one was afraid of them.
Lock the door! No one cares.
And what a terrible realization that is.
And then, suddenly,
in the locked house, the fearful house,
the house maybe full of a sense of failure
Jesus was with them
saying literally, “Peace with you”—
no verb in the Greek.
No subjunctive “peace be with you”—
some kind of conditional wish.
No imperative “peace be with you”—
the command for things to be different.
But rather statement of fact, “peace with you”
(Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel
According to John XIII-XXI in The Anchor Bible
[New York: Doubleday, 1970] 1021).
I am here.
Calm down, folks—seriously!
And he showed them his hands and his side—
establishing his identity—
I’m who you knew—
establishing consistency and continuity
with what they had known and what they now missed.
And the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
And into the rejoicing, Jesus said again,
“Peace with you.”
The first time he spoke into their fear,
this time into their rejoicing.
So their circumstances had changed,
but the truth had not.
Interesting, isn’t it?
What do we make of that?
That sometimes we make too much of our circumstances?
We don’t lean into the peace that passes understanding?
Don’t believe in the love that casts out fear?
Don’t trust the presence of God with us?
And Jesus goes right on to commission them.
“As God sent me, so send I you.”
“You’re to do as I did.
You’re to be as I was.
You’re to love and grace as I did.”
In other words, right?—
you’re to do
precisely what you were just afraid
you couldn’t do.
When he had said this,
our text reads, he breathed on them.
In most manuscripts,
the Greek actually just reads he breathed—
a verb that occurs only here in the New Testament (O’Day, 846).
It’s another resurrection affirmation, isn’t it?
Who I was is who I am—still breathing,
and what I did, I still do.
But it also echoes one of the first stories of creation:
“then the Lord God formed man
from the dust of the ground,
and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life;
and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).
So something here about the presence of Jesus
is linked to creation—
to something about life—
about being alive.
Finally, Jesus says to the disciples
(remember, again, not the twelve or eleven):
“Receive the Holy Spirit.”
A quick digression here.
Notice the promises of Jesus being fulfilled.
He had earlier promised, “I am coming back to you” (John 14:18; 16:22).
“Peace I leave with you” (John 14:27).
“Then your hearts will rejoice” (16:23).
“As you have sent me, I have sent them” (17:18).
“If I go, I will send the Spirit to you” (16:7b).
So Jesus said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Was that his breath? Symbolized in his breath?
And so receiving the spirit has to do with creation
and life and being abundantly alive?
Jesus goes on,
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them;
if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
And this is most appropriately heard
as community language.
Remember, one last time,
not as leaders in and of the faith community.
This is about the community as a whole.
How do you remain one?
How do you remain a healthy community
when you’re all sitting there in the dark
unable to see each other—
totally isolated in your fears
and your sense of failure and inadequacy?
Receive the Holy Spirit,
and forgive each other,
and forgive yourselves.
Because if you don’t forgive your shortcomings,
if you retain them,
how can you possibly remain a community?
So now let me try and confuse you.
Oh, wait, no, that’s not what I’m supposed to say!
Uh, and now for a fun thought!
This was written of a time that would not have known worship,
but written in and for a time that would have.
Our text was written about that fearful Sunday
before resurrection was known and preached—
before the eucharist was celebrated,
but our text was written in the context of Sundays
after resurrection was known and had been preached—
after the eucharist was established and practiced.
So what if,
in what is being described here of then,
we’re supposed to hear now?
There are scholars
who point to the liturgical framework of this story:
the gathering together,
the liturgical exchange of peace,
the presence of Jesus with us—in the eucharist.
So we say Jesus comes to us in our worship—
is present to and with us in our liturgy,
and we experience him within our worship.
And I would say—
I would affirm
that the promises of Jesus
described as fulfilled on that day
are fulfilled in worship this day too,
And what were those promises, you remember?
The promises of Jesus fulfilled in our worship are
the presence of Jesus,
a sense of call or commissioning,
and the spirit’s presence
that in the gospel of John guides us into truth.
For we do legitimately speak, I believe,
of the resurrected Jesus—
the living presence
of the one who lived and loved and taught so long ago,
present with us in our worship—
still loving—still teaching—
still feeding our souls—
sustaining our living,
and opening our eyes to parables—
to our sisters and brothers—
to God’s so very present love,
and what loving means in a world like ours.
I took a break from church in college.
It was easy to do—
to sleep in—to go to the gym—
eat a nice, leisurely breakfast.
And I’ve said before it was a good break—
a good time to stop doing what I was raised doing
to see if it would be what I chose to keep doing.
And that’s true.
But it was also just easy—
not to go.
There’s a laziness
and a selfishness
to prioritizing what I just feel like doing—
what’s not challenging—
that doesn’t require anything of me.
You see, I still remember that one Lord’s day,
back in Charlottesville,
I slunk into the back of University Baptist Church,
sat by myself in one of the back pews—
hoping no one would come talk to me,
and looking up at the chancel,
I saw the communion table set.
And looking in the bulletin,
I saw the communion liturgy.
And I realized with glad anticipation that I was hungry,
and that this was what I was hungry for—
that there are things worth getting up for
that aren’t necessarily about what I feel like doing—
that aren’t necessarily easy—
that are hard,
And the discipline and experience of meeting Jesus here
prepares us to go find him elsewhere.
For worship is certainly not the only place to encounter Jesus.
He’s also among the least of these, isn’t he?
And we’re to seek him out—
or stop calling ourselves his followers.
We do a great job of being community here at Woodbrook.
And we do a great job of helping people.
But we do most of that programmatically—
And so we might be helping Jesus,
but missing out on the opportunity to encounter him.
Our service ministry is in conversation about exactly that.
For I also believe
that the presence of Jesus with us in worship
was and is to build followers of Jesus up—
into a viable threat to the status quo.
Live in the peace that passes understanding
that you might scare the world—
scare the hell right out of the world—
that you might then have reason—
to be afraid of the authorities
who will then have to themselves realize,
“Oh, so we didn’t deal with that.
That problem’s been resurrected—