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April 19, 2020
2nd Sunday of Easter
Acts 1, Peter 1: 3-9; John 20:19-31
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones
The setting for our gospel reading is a small group of people who have isolated themselves in a house and locked the front door. Sound familiar? For many of us, this is our life today. We’ve lived like this, not for just a day, but for more than a month with no end in sight. Our epistle text for today from 1 Peter warns that trials and tribulations must be expected, but with patience and faith, the end of the struggle is assured. The author, I’ll call Peter since that is a logical assumption, looks to the crucifixion and resurrection as our model that God will one day deliver us into a brighter future – “new birth into a living hope.” But, we aren’t a patient people, so used to instant gratification with our technologically enhanced lifestyle. Patience amidst adverse conditions is a virtue few people master. Peter promised them their faith would see them through to a joyful life in God’s kingdom. In our gospel reading, the struggles of faith are highlighted with the well-known “Doubting Thomas” story. The disciples had an appearance from their Risen Lord to bring them to faith. The early church, and we, must walk by faith and not by sight as the old hymn goes.
Our scripture texts for the Easter season tell us about how Jesus’ disciples encountered him after the Resurrection and were stirred to action. Our readings from the book of Acts follow the birth and growth of the early Christian church. The disciples traveled far and wide to spread the Good News Christ had commissioned them to tell the world. We are not supposed to go further than the nearest grocery store. Unless we are deemed “essential workers,” what can we do? Maybe more than we realize.
The gospel of John gives us more appearances of the Risen Christ than any of the other three gospels. Today we read about the second and third appearances, both of which occur behind the locked doors of a house. The disciples had isolated themselves out of fear. The text says they were hiding for fear of the Jews. We know these disciples and most of Jesus’ followers at the time were Jews themselves, so their fear was not of all Jews, but the particular Jewish religious leaders, who had played a role in Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. They knew exactly who to fear, but in this time of global pandemic, we don’t. We don’t know who might be carrying the Covid-19 virus and so we all try to protect ourselves from physical contact with others. Or, it may be as the famous Pogo cartoon stated: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” We might release the virus that infects others, so we stay at home and as far from others outside our homes as possible.
In the first of the two locked room appearances, Jesus tells his disciples not to stay in their locked room, but to go out to minister to others as he had done. ‘Sorry, Jesus, but the Emperor, and his governors, tells us we have to stay home. And I noticed that those congregations, who defied the “shelter in place” order, got the virus and many of them died. You don’t want me to be a martyr, do you? I know you don’t want me to endanger anyone else.’ You know: ‘treat your neighbors as you want to be treated.’
According to John, the first to encounter the Risen Christ is Mary Magdalene who meets Jesus outside the empty tomb. Jesus then appears to disciples three times, twice behind the locked door of the upper room and a final time to a group of disciples, with whom he breaks bread and shares a fish breakfast on the lakeshore. It seems to me that John’s most important point in the post-resurrection accounts is that Jesus comes to meet us at the point of our need by means that we are most likely to recognize; and, keeps on trying until we get it or we give up trying to find him. As Christian disciples, this is where we can be witnesses for Christ during these difficult times.
The isolation of “sheltering in place” has pared down our understanding of our own needs. Social contact has moved up in our estimation of what we need to thrive. We have a better understanding of what is essential for our lives and how important “essential workers,” many of whom make low wages, are to our own health and well-being. The global pandemic has made glaringly obvious the inequalities in our world and in our own country. As “forced to be stay at home Christians,” one thing we can do is to take a good look at those who are helping and the invaluable service they continue to do, even at the risk of their own lives. We might also open our eyes to see those whose needs may have been ignored or judged with condemnation. Applying this to a social justice observation: ‘When the rich get a cold, the poor get pneumonia.’
Technology has brought us many new avenues of communication. Those who are of an age to have grown up without the Internet have the opportunity to learn something new, and instead of cursing technology’s intervention in your lives, you can use it to make social contact. I am glad I have been forced to learn new ways to communicate., and get us out of our locked rooms. I’ll give you an example of finding the blessing in technology.
The Saturday before Easter, an old friend from college had planned to be married in New York. I had not planned to attend the wedding… well… because it was the day before Easter. Leah was widowed two years ago. Her life since college was filled with travel and international relationships. While studying in England after college, she met and married an Englishman. He was transferred to Japan where they lived for 8 years. After her divorce she returned to the U.S. and took a job in Washington, D.C., where she met a Japanese economist and journalist. They were married for over twenty years before he lost a 5-year battle with cancer. At a gathering of friends in New York last year, she met a man from Germany, who had grown up in Japan and their common love for Japan and its culture brought them together. On the day of her wedding, her younger sister, Ann, arranged for a Zoom mock wedding for 4 pm EST. For non- U.S. residents it was late in the evening. For me it was 3 pm CST. The guests logged in from England, Sweden, Germany, Japan and New York City. At the end of their mock vows, including promising to sanitize the apartment and keep each other informed of the news, the “officiant” declared them “partners in quarantine.”
The guests spent an hour telling stories, performing songs with new lyrics for the occasion, and drinking to their health and happiness (not me, the sun was hours away from setting over the yard arm in Peoria). When I described the event to my son in a phone call the next day, I commented that I saw and talked to a friend from college, living in England, I had not seen for more than 35 years. His response was: You should get in contact with your friends more — we are all the same distance away now.” That is true, with technology, it is as easy for me to pick up the phone and call my cousin in Denmark as it is to call someone in Peoria … except for calculating the time differences. If you are lonely, get in touch with others. If someone who is lonely reaches out to you by phone or e-mail, take the time to be present with them.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, we have tended to keep our social circles very tight. This behavior creates the kind of boundaries Jesus was always breaking to expand our understanding and compassion for one another. Some of the ways we put ourselves in a locked room is with judgment, anger, and resentment. We also put ourselves in locked rooms when we lock out people who are different from ourselves, when we lock out new ideas or perspectives. These are the kind of locked rooms we can release ourselves from now, even when we are physically isolated and restricted from others. The Covid-19 virus has taught us how dependent we are on others, and how others are dependent on us. This can be a time in which we learn how to make room for one another.
In John’s gospel, Thomas is the last living disciple of the original twelve to see the risen Christ. But, he who was last was the first to deliver the most powerful line in the whole New Testament. Thomas says to Jesus: My Lord and my God!” John doesn’t tell us whether or not Thomas took Jesus up on his offer to touch his wounds. The gospels, in their brevity of details, speak to us in the silences too. My assumption, based on the writing styles of the gospels, is that Thomas did not. He didn’t need to anymore. I also believe that John is telling us that just as much as Thomas was shocked into faith by seeing the resurrected Jesus, he was amazed that Jesus would appear again, just for him — to bring that one lost sheep back into the fold. I have heard it said that Jesus touched Thomas’ heart so he didn’t need to touch Jesus’ wounds.
By offering to let Thomas touch his hands and his side, Jesus was just doing what he had always done for people — he came to them and did for them what they needed so that they might believe that God’s love is real and stronger than any afflictions the death-dealing world can hand us – even an invisible, but deadly virus. Jesus came back to give that first generation of witnesses the boldness of belief that would sustain and nurture the church that was struggling to establish itself.
Jesus came to his disciples in a time of fear, grief and loss of hope and showed them new life was possible. However, that new life wouldn’t let them stay safe and comfortable from the challenges of the world outside God’s kingdom. He appeared to those first disciples as he comes to us – to equip us for the journey through this life into the next. Jesus meets us to demonstrate that God’s promises can be trusted – God keeps covenant with us, even when we fail to keep covenant with God. Jesus spoke no words of judgment to the disciples, he spoke to them in words of relationship: “peace, receive, forgive, go to, bless.” That is what the church, the body of Christ, was commissioned to do – not to establish rules of admission into God’s kingdom, but to create, sustain, and nurture relationships with God and relationships with one another.
Jesus was always bringing people into relationship – with God and with one another, especially those that were the least welcome in society – the sick, the poor, foreigners. He even welcomed sinners, that all-inclusive group, which doesn’t leave anyone out. Jesus revealed God’s love for all.
The Risen Christ comes to us to assure us that accepting God’s forgiveness and forgiving others opens the locked door that separates us from God, blocks our view of Christ’s presence, and restricts the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit. Jesus comes to us to give us the peace that can withstand the trials and tribulations of the world. We can’t live alone in God’s kingdom.
Jesus did for Thomas what had to be done to resurrect his hope. In his time on earth Jesus gave people what they needed in order to believe. Often it was filling ordinary human needs like food, water, or health care. Sometimes it was intangible things like acceptance, forgiveness and compassion. That is what Jesus calls his disciples to do, that is what the church exists to do. This is what we can do, even isolated from others in our own homes. Our needs today are simpler than they were a month ago. How we fill our needs and the needs of others matters now and it matters for the future. Let us walk with Christ now, seeing ourselves and others through his eyes. We are all essential workers in God’s kingdom.
Amen. May it be so.
© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2020, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Avenue | Peoria, Illinois 61606
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“As a newcomer to Westminster (in September of 2014), I’ve found it to be a most welcoming fellowship. I look forward to going to services and events and find the warmth of the congregation to be most helpful to a newcomer to the entire area. I find sermons challenging … music beautiful and well prepared … and a dignity in the worship that is all too lacking in most Protestant congregations. Mix this with an open atmosphere where it is OK to question and still be seen as a good Christian, and I know I’ve found one important ‘home’ in Central Illinois.”