Seeing Jesus 2017:
Breaking In Through Our Locked Doors

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2nd Sunday of Easter ● April 23, 2017
Reading: John 20:19-31
Pastor Jeff Wells

     Hallelujah! Hallelujah, indeed!

     The encounters with Jesus in the Gospel stories and, even more so, our own encounters with Jesus, ought to elicit “hallelujahs” from our mouths. That’s not because the spiritual presence of Jesus somehow miraculously fixes all of our troubles or takes away all of our pain, but the grace-filled, loving, justice-inspiring, and healing presence of Jesus can help us deal with our pain and move ahead in spite of our fears. Jesus can help us to perceive our circumstances in a different way and to take positive action even when the odds are against us.  

     This morning, we enter into a season of exploring encounters with the risen Jesus. Today and for the next five Sundays, we will reflect on some of the post-resurrection encounters with Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and how those stories inform the ways that Jesus lives today in and through us. The overall title for this worship and sermon series is “Seeing Jesus 2017.” This will be an exciting series, with Pastor Elyse and I preaching along with guest preachers Rev. Dr. Gerald Liu and Rev. Dr. Althea Spencer Miller, who are Affiliate Pastors at The Church of the Village. I hope you can make all six Sundays but, if you cannot, watch for the sermons to be posted on our website and links provided in the weekly newsletter and on our Facebook page.  

     So, let’s go back to this morning’s narrative. I need to set the context for you so you will fully grasp what John’s Gospel is trying to get across. Right before the passage that _________ read for us, Mary Magdalene found the empty tomb and asked the gardener where he put Jesus’ body, only to realize that this gardener was Jesus, risen from the dead. Mary, of course, was overjoyed to talk with her teacher and messiah. Jesus instructed her to go and tell the other followers that he was risen and was ascending to God. She went to the disciples and told them. That was in the morning.

     Now, in today’s passage, in the very next scene, on the evening of the same day and we find the disciples cowering in fear in a locked room. Well, clearly, they didn’t believe what Mary told them. If they did, why would they be hiding out? If you knew that Jesus was alive, in some mysterious way, and was on his way to see you (as he promised earlier in John’s account), why would you not be rejoicing and singing a Hallelujah?

     But wait a minute. Don’t we do that sometimes? As individuals and even as communities, don’t we sometimes put up barriers out of fear, hurt, anger, and alienation? Don’t we sometimes lock the virtual doors to our spirits and hide out because we think that will keep us from danger or pain or from being too challenged? And, honestly, it’s not as though these feelings are illegitimate. Often, our fear is justified. The world is dangerous. Our hurt is real. Our anger is sometimes righteous. Our alienation has a genuine source. But God invites us to continue on in the face of our fear, hurt, anger, alienation, and many other feelings that can keep us in hiding. God invites us to experience the Holy One in and among us. God makes it possible for us, individually and communally, to feel Jesus’ presence through the Holy Spirit.

     In the Gospel story this morning, when the disciples locked themselves away in fear, Jesus appeared among them among and offered them his peace. This was not just a casual greeting: “Hey, peace, my sisters, my brother.” He offered them the gift of peace to calm their anxiety and face their fears of persecution and other dangers. Before Jesus was crucified, during his farewell to his followers, he had told them, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27). Now, after he is raised, Jesus offers them his peace again and, immediately, the text says, they “were filled with joy.” This experience of joy, according to John, is also a gift connected to Jesus’ presence. Earlier, when Jesus instructed his followers to live the commandments and abide in his love, he said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). And later he said, “Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn… you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy…. I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:20, 22).

     Having offered them his peace and turned their pain into joy, Jesus made good on his third and final promise: he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This, too, he had promised them as he was saying goodbye and give them final instructions. Listen to what he told them:

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask Abba, and Abba will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth…. You know the Spirit, because it abides with you, and will be in you….

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom Abba will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”

     If we open ourselves to experience the presence of the Holy One among us – to know the presence of Jesus among us – can’t we, too, receive these gifts of peace, joy, and the Spirit, even in the face of fear, pain, and persecution? The way that John describes it, doesn’t that ring true to you? In the midst of a community of imperfect disciples, Jesus is found, felt, and breathed in. Isn’t that, at least in part, a description of the experience of beloved community? We are the body in which and through which Jesus lives.

     Our historical context is not really so different from the followers of Jesus in the locked room, is it? We face a dangerous imperial power, lead by an erratic and unpredictable president and a party that wants to reverse or severely attenuate most of the social, political, and environmental gains of the last 100 years. It has prompted many people to hide out, with some saying explicitly, “We just have to wait out the next four years.”

     In the United Methodist Church, we face persecution from a religious leadership intent on bolstering exclusion and injustice. Our Queer clergy may not face a literal crucifixion, but many in the denomination want to tear them out of their positions of pastoral leadership and remove them from their churches. So, we, too, are afraid. And the presence of Jesus and the gifts he offers do not make the fear or persecution go away, but they do give us courage and strength and a love and joy that provide a foundation on which to stand for whatever we must face.

     Jesus showed himself and invited the disciples to believe. But we know and Jesus taught that simply believing is not enough. The Holy One calls us to act on our belief. In the scene we heard today, Jesus commissioned the disciples to continue the work of love and justice he had proclaimed and practiced: “As God sent me, so I am sending you.” He calls us to go out into the world and to love and teach and minister as he did – and to do all with a sense of peace and joy in the face of our fears and with the power of the Holy Spirit guiding our steps. Friends, do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid – or, at least, do not allow fear to paralyze you, but unlock the doors to your minds, hearts, and spirit and allow Jesus to enter and the Holy Spirit to reside.

     Jesus commissions us and and send us forth. And Jesus knows that the journey is long and sometimes the road we trod is stony and treacherous. So come and prepare for whatever comes. Come and receive peace, find courage and strength, and experience the healing power of God’s love.

     I invite our ministers of care and all clergy and seminarians present to come forward to assist with our healing prayer this morning. We will have prayer teams at points around the sanctuary and I invite you, as you feel moved, to go to one of these teams to lift prayers for yourself, for someone else, or for a circumstance in the world. During this time, I invite everyone to pray where you are in the pews or at the altar railing. Please join me in a spirit of prayer.