Friday, April 13, 2012

Easter Is Sometimes Hard to See

Suppose you were given an assignment this morning to write the After-Easter story. How would you write it? Since the Tomb was open and Christ was alive—this would be a time of glorious celebration. Why the word would spread from person to person and from country to country and all would believe. We’d have pictures in all the papers and stories on all the TV news. We’d rent the biggest hall in town and everybody would come and celebrate. The churches would be full and the world would lay down its weapons and be completely different. And all the divisions between Red and Blue states and liberals and conservatives would be over. Why Fox News and NBC might even merge. After all Easter has happened. 

            That’s not how the story is written in the New Testament. And if there was ever any evidence of the authenticity of the story, the accounts we have after Easter ought to underline that very point. There were no brass bands playing. There were not overcrowded house churches everywhere. This great good news did not spread like wildfire. What happened? Mary came to the Tomb and thought it was the gardener. Easter is sometimes hard to see. Simon Peter, after Easter, was so tired of just sitting around that he took all the others fishing. And they fished all night and nothing happened. If we had been writing the story why they would have had to call in four more boats to haul in the fish. Not here. They fished all night and the next morning, tired and weary, someone called from the seashore and told them to try fishing on the other side. It was after Easter and they did not know who it was giving them directions. Sometimes Easter is hard to see. On the road to Emmaus, remember sad, deflated disciples just ambled along. It was after Easter and they were down. And a stranger came and began walking with them. Remember? And they did not know who he was. Easter is sometimes hard to see. 

Which brings us to our text. The story is found at the end of John's gospel. This was another after-Easter story. The disciples were still trying to unpack what it really meant. But they were having a hard time. For, you see they had forgotten what he had told them.  So they just gathered together behind closed doors because they were still scared. Why, what had happened to Jesus could just happen to them. John wrote that Jesus came and whispered Peace to them, not once but twice. He showed them his hands and his side and John said they were filled with gladness. 

After Jesus left they told Thomas the good, good news. Thomas said: "Alive? You gotta be kidding. He died. I saw him die. You must be out of your minds." And they kept trying to convince him and it did no good. "Unless I see for myself," Thomas said, "I will not believe." Sometimes, Thomas, Easter is hard to see. 

And so eight days later when the disciples had gathered once more behind closed doors--still afraid the Lord appeared to them again. But this time Thomas was there. And I love the way John puts it in the King James Version: "...then Jesus came…and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.”(20. 26) Then he went to the old doubter, the one who had a hard time believing this Easter business and said:" See. See."  And he showed Thomas his nailed-scarred hands and he pointed to the place in his side. And Thomas stood there open-mouthed, not saying a word.  

If we really were to write the story the way it happened we would probably be very much like those first believers. Mary, who saw the gardener. Peter not sure who it was barking out fishing instructions early one morning. We’re like those on the road to Emmaus and Thomas too, I think. It’s after-Easter and like them we mostly have the blahs. We are a lot like Thomas too, I think. It’s after Easter for us too. And in some ways it seems a long time since last Sunday when we came and decorated the Cross with flowers, packed the house and sang the Resurrection hymns. In just the short space of a week we’ve gotten caught up in the thus- and so-ness of life. And here we are sending in Income tax form, worried about people we love. Wondering about the church. Wondering about health care and the Presidential election and the state of our economy—still. What in the world does this Resurrection we talked about last Sunday have to do with all the things we’ve been wading through this week? Thomas asked it and we ask it too.  

I have found a clue to how we handle the post-Easter blues. The Liturgical Church has designated the Sunday after Easter Low Sunday. After the big day—everything seems like a let-down. Where are all the people that were here despite the fact it were Spring break last week? Where are all the decorations? Why even the cross is missing. And here we are, if we are honest wondering, wondering about many things.

And Jesus Came

Our Scriptures gives me hope. “Jesus came and stood in the midst of them and said: ‘Peace’.” So here is our sermon—and here are some handles that may just help us as they helped Thomas. It was after Easter and so little seemed to have changed. Same old…same old. Mary crying her eyes out. Simon just furious because the fish would not bite. Disciples stumbling toward Emmaus. Depressed as if Easter had ever happened. And then, if that were not enough—even after Jesus came and showed himself, Thomas did not believe. And this is what I want us to talk about today. Two things we find here that I think are most important. Christ came and stood in their midst. So Christ is here with us all. And when he comes—he brings peace.

 John says that Jesus comes and stands in their midst. Do you remember that setting? Behind closed doors. Scared out of their wits. They had already seen him once eight days before—the Risen Lord. But still they double-locked the doors and they were afraid. Over and over they must have wrung their hands and said: What are we to do? And among them was Thomas. He could not believe. Unless I see, feel and touch—I won’t believe. We’ve said it too, like the poet: “God, if you’re really God, fling us a dipperful of stars”. And God never does that.

But what he does do is to slip quietly through closed doors. He comes even to those who were afraid and did not believe and had some serious doubts. He comes. Even with the locks of unfaith on the door we cannot keep him out. He cannot be stopped by any bad news the world can throw our way.

Could this also be a word for the church? He never did say that the hard, hard times would not come. Did he? He did say, over and over, when the hard times come, I will be with you.  Do you believe that about our church? That here, with our sagging budget and lots of empty spaces today--we are not alone. This is God’s thing. God’s church. God is here. God will be with us all the way. Remember his promise? Where two or three are gathered in my name I am there. And here among people as flawed as us sometimes we really do see the face of Jesus in some deed or somebody’s face. Like Thomas and the others we forget. So we come back here to remember that Christ is here and it matters terribly. 

Let us be clear. Outside those locked doors stood Rome with all its power. And there would be Judaizers that despised them and their new movement. There would be a harsh and brutal world they could not control. Rome was out there. Poverty was out there. Slavery was out there. Mean-spiritedness was out there. Unfairness walked down every street and knocked on many doors. And, like us, they tried many things. If we could just lose twenty pounds or make a little more money or start jogging or take a course somewhere. Or build a new sanctuary or change our worship—bring in some guitars and a screen and lock up the old organ.  Forgetting there are some things out there that just don’t seem to budge despite all our lists and all our work.

Will Willimon has pointed out to me that one of the most heretical things we have passed on is this "Christ has no hands but our hands" story. You've heard it. And I've preached it again and again. The story goes like this: In a little European village there was a church that had a statue of Christ with arms outstretched to the world. But during the Second World War the statue was damaged. Both of the hands of the Christ were broken off. The church decided not to repair the statue but to add a sign to the broken statue: "Christ has no hands but our hands." The sign implies that if we do not do the work of Christ with our hands it won't get done. It says the work of Christ depends on us and if we don’t do our parts the cause will fail.

We need to remember this Easter story of Jesus coming behind closed doors. We’ve all knocked on doors that just would not open. But Christ’s hands were not blown off. The forces of evil had tried to do that--and still he came. Christ came and stood in the midst of those earthy broken disciples. They didn't unlock the doors. Some of them, like Thomas did not believe. It hardly matters. God will not be defeated by the work of our hands or the lack of work we do. I get a little weary with all the people today moaning about God being driven out of the public school classroom or the government or whatever political party we do not like. We act as if our little agenda does not win God must surely be defeated. Christ is here. And even if the storm rages outside the locked doors--it does not matter. God comes and stands in the midst of his people.

Christ Always Brings Peace

            The next thing Jesus said was just one word. One simple word. Jesus came and he said: Peace. In fact, he says it twice here. It is a wonderful word. He had already said it when he was trying to prepare them for his death and they were so afraid of the future. "My peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give it to you." And then do you remember what he said, there with the shadows of the cross so evident: "Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid."(John 14. 27)

            He said the same thing before and after his death. Peace. They weren't peaceful in that upper room behind closed doors. They had anything but peace. The word peace comes from the Greek word, eirene. The Hebrew word is shalom. It does not mean the cessation of war or an absence of trouble. After those disciples left that room with the locked doors eleven of the twelve disciples would by martyred for their faith. Times would be hard and the little churches they established would limp along and sometimes break their hearts. Many would defect. This word peace meant wholeness, completeness, health. It means: "I will give you everything that makes for your highest good." Peace.

And when the Lord Jesus stands before us he always whispers Peace. This peace deals with internal affairs and external situations. It means to lay down the weapons we use against ourselves--because we are our own worst enemies. It means to lay down the weapons we use against those closest to us--for we maim and cripple them the most. And it means to lay down the weapons we use against one another in the Church and in the larger world. I have not known a time when the blood pressure of this country has been higher.

Remember what Jesus said in the Beatitudes? If you want to be children of God you will be peacemakers. Doesn't mean to stand around smiling when you are raging inside. It means to lay down our weapons. You cannot have a fight without two opposing sides. We learn to make peace. We are all peace-lovers but the hard thing is being a peacemaker.

Let me tell you a story about peace making. Years ago in another place the parents dragged in their seventeen-year-old daughter. She didn’t want to be there. She just sat there with arms folded looking out the window. She had done it all. Running with a very wild crowd—had a thirty four year old boyfriend that she lived who had been married about four times. Her grades were terrible. Doing alcohol and drugs. Her parents couldn’t do anything with her. Later she would wander into my office and cry and want to turn it around and just couldn’t. And just about the time we thought she was making progress she would just tear it all up. Sometimes when the parents would come in and tell me the terrible stories I would wonder if she would ever, ever be any better.

Several years later, I went back to preach and this tall gorgeous young woman came through the line and said: “Do you remember me?” Did I remember her? How could I forget?  She hugged me, and whispered: “When everybody leaves there’s something I want to tell you.” When most of the people left she came back and said, “Guess what? You won’t believe this.  I finished college and got my Master’s degree. Here’s my husband.” Tall, good looking young man. Even wore shoes. Didn’t even look like a criminal. And then she said: “I’m drug free. Still go to AA every week but I haven’t had a drink in ten years. Guess what I’m doing? I’m a counselor at the college—helping people get through what I had to get through.”            

What does this have to do with our text? Everything. Sometimes the doors are locked and it’s dark outside and we are scared out of our wits. Easter seems to be far away. And the strangest thing happens. Jesus comes and stands in the midst of the fear and all the worry.  And we see the marks where he suffered for us. And then he speaks. With a smile, he says to you and to me: “Peace, brother…peace sister. Peace Mary, John, Harry, Suzie and Wayne.” Peace. And it covers every hard place and every terrible thing. Sometimes Easter is hard to see. But remember the story. Christ comes even through our locked doors. And when he comes he always brings peace.


No comments:

Post a Comment