Sermon for 4/11/21. Easter Is for Risk-Takers: Fear vs. Risk

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2 Easter  

Psalm 133; Acts 4:32 – 35; I John 1: 1 – 2:2; John 20:19 – 31 

Late that same day, the first day of the week, when the disciples were together behind locked doors for fear…John 20:19 

In our joy to get to the good part of the Resurrection Story, namely of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Jesus, it probably slipped right passed us a very important line of the narrative. After Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved had made their inspection and were convinced that Mary of Magdala was indeed telling the truth, that Jesus was not in the tomb, what did they do? According to the record of John, “,,, the disciples went home again..” (John 20:10) To go home: Does this not conjure up in our minds a peaceful transition, an everyday occurrence after a busy day or excursion?  

Even many years ago, when I would hear this line, read either by the deacon or celebrant at Mass, I would ask myself “how can this be? Why did Peter and the disciples whom Jesus loved not inquire further? How could they simply stroll back home? Were they not still in hiding? Did they come to the tomb in disguise or wearing a mask? After all, only a mere three days
had passed since the crucifixion, when Peter, at least, had been interrogated by folks in the courtyard and, out of fear for his life, had denied Jesus? And now, he and the disciple whom Jesus loved saunter back home?” There is an incongruence here. 

When John’s narrative continues, we are brought back to reality, and it is a stark reality. The disciples were indeed still in hiding, and to be sure, hiding behind closed and locked doors, out of fear of being captured and possibly hanged as accomplices. This makes sense to me. However, that raises a different problem. If I had not been brought up in the Christian tradition, and if I were confronted with today’s reading from the Gospel according to John as a historical point of reference, as I sought to understand the origins of Christianity and what drives individuals to commit themselves to God through a Christian lens, my first reaction would be to step back and say Christianity has a foundation that is resting on fear and uncertainty. That is, if the behavior of the first apostles is to be taken seriously. 

And so, I declare that it is time that we Christians have “an honest conversation,” to use a buzz word of our times, about the very essence of our faith, particularly as illustrated by Thomas and the other apostles. Therefore, I have a question for you (and me) this morning. When you hear the gospel lesson about “doubting” Thomas—and we hear it always on the Second Sunday in Easter—where do you place yourselves? I am sure that many of us locate ourselves in that locked room with the disciples, tasked with convincing Thomas that Jesus had indeed been raised from the dead. However, if we reflect for a moment, we might ask ourselves, “Or am I more like Thomas, doubting, wondering, outside of the group, not sequestered behind locked doors? 

If truth be told, I suspect that we’re probably like the individuals on both sides of sides of that door. As in our socio-political arena, the resolution to those questions is not so cleanly produced. Rather, reality teaches us that more often than not, we are dealing with or moving around in shades of gray. Even as we worship via live-stream, we imagine that we were in our awe-inspiring sanctuary in Teele Square on Clarendon Hill, where we gather to proclaim and live that new life in Christ. But no matter where or how we gather, we wonder sometimes, we doubt sometimes, and we are uncertain sometimes. And regardless of where the anxious and fear-filled disciples were, within or without, Jesus stood before the other disciples and Thomas with one simple phrase, “Peace be with you.” 

Was that merely a simple greeting to those gathered in that upper room, with doors locked for fear of outsiders, the religious establishment? Perhaps. It was, though, a standard greeting to wish someone peace. But more than that, Jesus was addressing the other disciples and Thomas, the ones rejoicing in the resurrection, as well as the doubter. That greeting, “Peace be with you,” are words that connotes a relationship, a sense of wholeness and of community and of life for all who hear and take to heart these words from Christ. It is about a relationship between Christ and those gathered there on that first day of the week, and then on that eighth day, and, even, on every day thereafter as we gather online in the year 2021 to celebrate the resurrection, or watch a live-streamed liturgy. 

As we gather remotely in this holy season of Easter to reaffirm that belief in God, through God’s son Jesus Christ, Holy Writ reminds us that ultimately our celebration is not solely or primarily about our individual selves, but about others and how we interact with others. The psalmist (133) is clear about that, as is the Letter of John. We come to hear again and again in order to be reminded of what we know, namely that the nature of the church is not about doing our own thing, whether as a community or as individuals. The central nature of the church is not about doing something to make us feel good personally. That may be a by-product of our ministry. And what may appear to outsiders about us Christians—namely, that we are a social club or support group, as we live out our faith in our gathered groups, meetings, or civic and community service—misses the mark. 

The central and true nature of the church is that we gather beneath the aura of Christ’s peace in order to prepare ourselves for mission beyond our sanctuary. Guided by the communal greeting of peace, we gather around baptism and around the shared meal, which we call the mass, the Last Supper, the Eucharist. Everything else flows out of this. It is because of the communal relationship that Christ calls us to form that we are able to go Forth. 

That said, though, we find ourselves still wrestling with those two sides of our human selves: fear and uncertainty on the one hand, and, on the other hand, motivated and supported by joy and declaration of innate truth. As rational beings, we are torn between asking for empirical proof of the resurrection, and hiding out in our imaginary upper room, speaking encouraging words to each other and hoping that what we believe is true. 

In either case, the thought crossed my mind this week that Christianity, living under the banner of Christ, is not for the faint-hearted or for those who cannot live with ambiguity. Christianity is all about taking risks. Let me explain. To Thomas, Jesus said, “Put your finger here, and see my hands, and put out your hand and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believe.” Then, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” 

Here is how it is for the likes of us on the other side of Easter. We lack the advantage of Thomas. We lack the advantage, even, of the frightened disciples. We wager our lives on this Jesus Christ who, within time, was seen, felt, and touched, who has returned to the God who sent him and who now sends us to carry out God’s risky business in a world desperate to be touched by God’s love and powers if we are to dare the future. 

On the side of the Easter event that you and I live on and which the Gospel of John describes as resurrection/ascension/Pentecost all in one, how shall we, without tangible proof of God still with us in love and power, unlock the door of fear? We could be like Thomas, who was not there with the others when Jesus came into the room where the disciples cowered in fear. The cross had so confirmed Thomas’ pessimistic bent that he did not hang around to see how, on the other side of death, Jesus had opened the door to the place he had promised to prepare. Or we can be among the blessed ones who, without seeing, leap into the dark, launching our lives into faith that we can only find true as we live it. That is the gamble. And so, you see, it is not easy being Christians. 

Let me rephrase. Declaring ourselves Christian in name is very easy. That is what the Sacrament of Baptism does. We can wear ornamental Crosses, a symbol of being Christian. And because we Americans, by and large, live in a country where being a Christian brings no great physical threat—oh, yes, we call each other names, excommunicate each other, maintain that one “brand” of Christianity is better than another, even occasionally torch each others’ places of worship—we, by and large, live without threats. 

The risk comes when Jesus stands in the company of the frightened disciples and the doubting Thomas, and reminds them all that the peace that he sought, and still seeks, to bring is not finished. Christ comes into our midst and says to us, “Peace be with you.” Peace be with you who may doubt; peace be with you who are confident in your faith; peace be with all of you gathered in my name. Peace is elusive and offends us because, says Christ, it is far easier to hold onto pass grievances, to positions of rank and power, to ancient animosities that continue to this day to be passed on to the next generations because we know the past and the present, but are afraid of the future. Christ, knowing what he does about God and what a covenantal  relationship with God could be, has asked us to gamble with him, to accept his peace. When we baptize a person, whether child or teenager or adult, we Christians, uncertain in our own position, are asking that person to join us in an adventure, to step forward into the unknown, the yet unproven, into the Future! 

That is why Thomas is so important to your and my faith. That is why the anxious disciples, hiding behind locked doors, are so important to your and my faith. Christ is able to address both sides of who we are, and to challenge us to step forward in our baptismal covenant, to risk forming that community of reconciliation and love. 

It may sound formulaic, but, as I said on Easter Day, I say again today:  Without Easter, Christmas is incomplete. Easter is the bigger challenge. Recognizing this is to acknowledge that God takes the initiative and comes into our midst through his risen Son and proclaims, “Peace be with you.” This seemingly “formulaic” greeting encapsulates for me [is from] our Creator God. When we are imbued with God’s peace, fear is diminished, and we are able to step outside our locked doors. God comes into our lives through that simple greeting of the risen Christ: Peace be with you, a greeting addressed [to] both the confident believers and to the doubters: all who turn to peace, and who under that banner of peace reach out to the remainder of humankind in order to share that peace. 

Eastertide is filled with songs of great joy, and may we ever sing them when next we are able after restrictions of Covid-19. In the meantime, however, I appeal to you to join with me in a quieter hymn (The Hymnal #700) of praise, adoration, and supplication, as we navigate our way this Eastertide. 

O love that casts out fear, 
O love that casts out sin, 
Tarry no more without 
But come and dwell within.   

True sunlight of the soul, 
Surround us as we go; 
So shall our way be safe, 
Our feet no straying know. 

Great love of God, come in! 
Wellspring of heavenly peace; 
Thou Living Water, come! 
Spring up, and never cease. 

Love of the living God, 
Of Father and of Son 
Love of the Holy Ghost, 
Fill thou each needy one.