Sunday, April 12, 2015

Peace be with You (Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter) John 20:19-31

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter
John 20:19-31
April 12, 2015
Calvary - St. George's Church

Today is the second Sunday of Easter. While you wouldn’t know it because the peeps and the chocolate bunnies are all now on the clearance rack, the Easter season has only just begun. There are forty-two more days to feast and celebrate... and, of course, brew beer. (Our first brewing club gathering was on this day.)

This morning’s Gospel reading gives us even more reason to celebrate, though, at first, it doesn’t appear that way. At the beginning of our reading the disciples are anything but rejoicing. We find them huddled back in the upper room hiding with the doors locked. The text says that they were hiding behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews.” The doors are bolted shut because they are afraid that what had happened to Jesus might happen to them.

Now a word must be said about what John means he writes that “they were hiding for fear of the Jews.” Remember, John is a Jew. The disciples are Jews. Jesus is a Jew. So the disciples are not afraid of Jews in general like those warm and lovely people who meet at The Brotherhood Synagogue just across the street, instead they are afraid of the religious elite of Israel who opposed, oppressed, and killed an innocent man--their Master. The disciples are hiding behind locked doors for the same reason that Peter denied Jesus so vehemently on Good Friday, they are absolutely terrified that they will receive the same fate.

But there is also another important reason why they might be afraid. Do you remember what happened in last Sunday’s Gospel reading? Think back with me for second to the last thing that happened. And if you weren’t here, have no fear, I’ll just tell you. Mary Magdalene, after having left the empty tomb and the person she originally thought was the gardener, goes to the disciples and tells them “I have seen the Lord.” Now the text does not give us their reaction. Neither are we told the disciples response to John, who despite all that he knows about the finality of death, is convinced--having seen the unwrapped linen in the tomb--that Jesus is alive. So we don’t know if the disciples believe Mary and John. What we do know from the beginning of this morning’s reading is that they are most definitely not celebrating and rejoicing. And not just because they’re afraid that Jesus’s fate might also await them. For the disciples have another thing to fear entirely...

Is the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus good news to those who were unfaithful to him? What does the Resurrection of Jesus mean for those who ran away? Remember these ten (nine) disciples (just where is Thomas) are the same friends who having shared his last meal with him, abandon him just hours later. Unlike them, Mary Magdalene had been faithful to the very end. And John was the one disciple who was there with Jesus to his final breath. Who even pledged to to take in his mother after his death. Of course Jesus wouldn’t be angry with them. Of course they would be blessed. But what about for the ten? What about for those who had been unfaithful and deserted him. If Jesus has indeed risen from the dead, they have something to be ashamed of. They have something to fear. They have reason to hide their faces behind locked doors...

And I wonder if you’ve ever had something to be truly ashamed of, something to fear, a reason to hide your face. A man I know, once told me that he lost his best friend thirty years ago and has regretted it every day since. He was out with his friend’s fiance one night, they had had a little too much, and they did something they shouldn’t have. They were both unfaithful. She to her fiance, he to his lifelong, best friend. Both felt awful, both felt ashamed, both were cut off forever.

The morning after… What this man must have felt all those years ago when he woke up the next morning beside his lifelong friend’s fiance. The horror. The shame. The self-loathing. Something like this must have been what the disciples felt after having betrayed their very best friend who “loved them to the end.”...

While I’m sure, on some level, they would have at least wanted the rumors of Jesus’s Resurrection to be true, they must have also feared, what does the resurrection mean for them? For those who did not have his back, who were not there until the end? What does the resurrection mean for those who were unfaithful?

But before they had too long to wonder and fear, suddenly and unexpectedly, the risen one appears. “Peace be with you,” he says. And then, as if to prove to them it’s really him, he shows them his hands and his side. Where the nails and the spear pierced him... Then he says it again, “Peace be with you.” This is no mere greeting. In typical Hebrew fashion he says it twice for effect. He’s purposely redundant so that they know he means it. “I forgive you” are the first words that Jesus says to his unfaithful best friends.

Do you remember the movie “The Passion of the Christ?” Well, whatever you thought about it, do you remember when, after vehemently denying him before his accusers for the third and final time, Peter’s eyes meet Christ’s through the crowd. He now knows that Jesus was there all along and had seen and heard everything he had done. He is confronted by Jesus’s gaze and there are no words. The look alone says it all. Peter is horrified and runs away in shame. He flees no longer in fear but in self-loathing.

But now, two days later, here is Jesus. Peter is no longer able to run, no longer able to hide his face in shame. Jesus’s eyes meet Peter’s again, but this time he is not silent. This time his gaze is accompanied with words. “Peace be with you,” is what he says. In other words, “I forgive you, Peter, and I love you still.”

On Maundy Thursday we read that Jesus had loved the disciples to the very end... This is the end. This is the forgiveness and absolution that the man I know who was unfaithful to his best friend knew he would and should never receive. This is the forgiveness and love that Christ bestows upon you and me. His well-meaning yet perpetually unfaithful friends who persistently pursue lovers less wild.

This is why, in our epistle reading, the author of I John, who is traditionally believed to be the same author as the Gospel of John, can write with clarity and confidence, “If anyone sins we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the perfect offering. Not only for our sins but for the sins of the whole world.”

Now if you haven’t been able to tell up to this point, I’ll just give it to you straight: I am profoundly moved by this moment in John’s Gospel. I don’t know about you, but it makes me think about times when I have have fallen short or been unfaithful in my own relationships with others and in my friendship with God. Our hearts are strangely warmed by this story when we are the ones who’ve been unfaithful or disloyal. The thought of someone we admire or care about after we’ve abandoned or betrayed them saying “It’s behind us now. It’s all been forgiven, and I still love you” is just too good to hope for.

But it’s much harder to see this kind of thing as beautiful when we’re the ones who’ve been betrayed. When someone has been unfaithful to us. When someone abandons me... Maybe you’ve experienced something like this. A lover who cheated on you and left you for somebody else, a friend who deserted you when the going got tough, a family member who profoundly let you down.

When I was in high school my lifelong best friend got too cool for me. At first I thought I didn’t see him as much anymore because football just kept him too busy. But then I got word from another friend. She told me that he had told her and others that he and I were not nearly as good of friends as I thought we were. After she told me this, I walked aimlessly around the school for the next three periods.

I remember telling my mother that weekend, “Ma, you’ve taught me a lot of things, but you never told me how much this would hurt.”

Maybe some of you have been profoundly hurt by someone that you loved or cared about. Maybe you’re thinking of that person right now. Someone who betrayed you. A family member who abandoned you. A lover who was unfaithful to you. Someone you haven’t yet learned to forgive because they don’t deserve it... Fair enough.

And I’ll admit, it’s easy to say that I’ve forgiven my old friend. I was a kid, it was 14 years ago, and, more importantly, I never see him anymore. It’s true, I haven’t given you any of my contemporary juicy hurts. But if we find our hearts so strangely warmed by those stories of radical forgiveness and love to the undeserving. And if we want those too-good-to-be-true unexpected intrusions of absolution and mercy for ourselves, maybe it’s about time we thought about doing to the hard work of dishing it out ourselves. Maybe we just might find that being strong is not in letting resentment fuel us, but that as Osckar Schindler made so clear in Schindler’s List, true power is manifested in absolution. True strength is shown forth in the words, “I pardon you.”

This is the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is the ministry of reconciliation that the disciples, having received this radical pardon, spend the rest of their lives proclaiming to the ends of the earth. This is the ministry that you and I, who have been forgiven for all our unfaithfulness to our neighbors and to our Lord, are called to too.  

I’m sure you’ve all heard of the Walter Scott story that’s all over the news. The story about a young black man who was shot at eight times and killed by a white police officer. It’s a horrible story. Something that should get us all angry. Something that I don’t want to forgive. But did you see the Anderson Cooper interview with Walter’s mother? If you haven’t I’d encourage you to. Here is the young man’s mother, Judy Scott, being interviewed only days after the tragic criminal loss of her son and she says these words, “I’m supposed to be really angry and upset and raging and all that, but I can’t. Because of the love of God in me, I can’t be like that… I feel forgiveness in my heart. I feel forgiveness in my heart even for the guy who shot and killed my son.”

This is a gift of the Holy Spirit. This kind of forgiveness gives me hope for humanity. Don’t get me wrong, I’m also offended by it. I worry that it’s too easy. That we shouldn’t be so ready to let go of our resentment. That it makes us weak... BUT In the midst of this woman’s terrible pain and grief, you can’t help but see that she has already begun healing. You can’t help but see a woman in power in the best sense of that very slippery word. You can’t help but be touched by this radical act of forgiveness of a woman for a man who may not even be sorry.

Maybe there’s a person in your life--who’s hurt who deeply, whom you still harbor resentment toward--that you're thinking about this morning. If you’re able to, I’m encouraging you to get in touch with this person this week and offer peace. Or maybe the person that you’re thinking of is here in this room this very morning only a few pews away. If they are, and if you’re willing, I’m inviting you to at the passing of the peace, before we come to break bread together at the altar, to offer your peace. To extend Jesus’s words to his unfaithful disciples to your fellow brother or sister, “Peace be with you.”

Brothers and sisters, we rejoice and celebrate on this the 8th day of Easter, not because we have been given the grace to forgive those unfaithful to us, but because our Lord Jesus Christ is radically loving and forgiving to people like us who don’t deserve it. To him, be all glory, laud and honor. Allelujah. Allelujah.

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