Sunday, April 19, 2020

A Week Later: The Social Distancing Resurrection Account

This sermon was preached April 19, 2020 at the combined worship service (via Zoom) for Saint Margaret's Anglican Church in Budapest, Hungary  and The Anglican/Episcopal Church in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

New Life Appears
Focus Text: John 20:19-31

Last Sunday we celebrated the day that our Savior Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Today, we read the Gospel of John’s account of what happened next. 

But first, to put today’s reading in context, I invite us to back up a bit in story to the start of chapter 20, where we find Mary Magdalene arriving at the tomb before sunrise on the first day of the week. She finds the stone rolled away, and so she runs to Simon Peter and the disciple Jesus loved with word that the Lord’s body has been moved. Those two rush to the tomb, also find it empty, and then go home. Mary, though, remains and is still weeping when two angels and then Jesus appear and speak to her. Jesus calls Mary by her name and instructs her to go tell the others that he is ascending to his God and their God. “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.”

This is the point in John’s story where today’s reading begins, except now it is evening on the first day. Mary had spoken with Jesus early in the morning. What happened in between the morning and the evening? John doesn’t tell us, but Luke says Jesus then walks to Emmaus with Cleopas and an unnamed disciple—perhaps Cleopas’ wife. They discuss with Jesus the testimony of the women, have a long conversation, and invite him for a meal; He breaks bread with them and vanishes the moment they realize who he is. Then the two rush back to Jerusalem where they find the group has gathered. They swap testimonies, including an appearance of Jesus to Simon. Then Jesus appears and speaks to them.

Now trying to weave the four gospels’ resurrection accounts together creates quite a bit of chronological and geographical confusion. They all agree that Mary Magdalene was at the tomb early in the morning and that there was a lot of fear and confusion and doubts among Jesus’ followers that day. Luke’s account next has Jesus leading the disciples to Bethany, where they watch him ascend. John, however, has an entire week passing where the terrified and confused disciples don’t appear to do much of anything—not even leave the house except for perhaps the most essential of tasks.    

I find it quite fitting that the lectionary has us reading John’s account this year. I’ve started calling it the Social Distancing Resurrection Story. Where do we find the disciples three days after Jesus’ crucifixion? Except for Mary who slips to the tomb so early in the morning that it is still dark outside, the rest are on lockdown. Traumatized by what happened just three days earlier, they are hiding in an undisclosed secured house for fear of what could happen if they were to go out in public. I can only imagine the sort of conversations happening in that house that weekend. The various manifestations of shock and grief – angry outbursts and accusations, paralysis, binge eating, too stressed out to eat, anxiety attacks, bargaining with God, arguing over what to do next and whether going the market was worth the risk of death.

Reports that morning of the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection now added to the mix. The proclamation that Jesus is alive wasn’t enough to get them to unlock the door and shout the good news, so instead, after they’d had several hours to process all this, Jesus comes and meets them where they are. He does not lecture them for their cowardliness or lack of faith or understanding. Instead, not once but twice he says “Peace be with you.” He says that as he is being sent, so is he sending them. Then, he breathes the Holy Spirit onto them—the breath of Life—and tells them that they have the power to forgive sin and the power to withhold forgiveness.

Peace, the Holy Spirit, and the power of forgiveness. Wow. Jesus Christ the King appears to his followers just three days after having been unjustly tortured, humiliated, and killed and his first order of business is to say Peace [shows wounds], Peace, I am sending you [exhales] Receive the Holy Spirit, You are able to forgive all sins. And then he leaves.

One. Week. Later. the disciples are still in lockdown mode in that house when Jesus appears again. Does he lecture them on their lack of productivity or good deeds? Does he scold them for still being too afraid to step back outside into the world and use the spiritual gifts he has given them? No, for a third time he says "Peace be with you," and since Thomas had missed his previous appearance, Jesus gave him too a chance to inspect his wounds. 

The final appearance of Jesus that John shares with us happens back in Galilee, a three to five day walk from Jerusalem depending on if you take the direct route through the lands of the Samaritans. There Jesus finds a group of the disciples have joined Simon Peter in returning to the apolitical life of village fishermen. Is this the time that the risen Christ finally explodes at them for fearfully playing it safe and keeping their heads down? Does he ream them out for avoiding crowds and putting their physical safety first?  Nope. He helps them catch a net-full of fish and makes them a hot breakfast there on the beach. Then Jesus turns to Simon Peter and asks him to show his love in three ways: tend his sheep, feed his sheep, and follow him.    

Here where I live in Ljubljana, Slovenia, it has been nearly 40 days since the schools shut down and the movement restrictions began. For our family, this has meant 40 days of staying home—40 days living under the same roof with visitors who suddenly became our indefinite housemates. Needless to say, it has been a period of messy emotions, tense conversations about how best to stay safe, fear, frustrations, grief, and even feelings of guilt that many people don’t have enough food and a safe place to stay. Perhaps you have had this nagging feeling that you aren’t doing enough to help others right now. Perhaps you’ve been a bit hard on yourself for not being more productive. You want to do something.

One thing I’ve been doing for five weeks is helping our daughter with assignments her 2nd grade teacher sends us. The science unit all month has been on insects. We've learned together in more detail than I remember being taught about how ants are born, how exactly some camouflage insects change their color each season, and, of course, how a caterpillar enters into its cocoon to become a butterfly. I was reminded of how often in nature it looks like nothing is happening when in actuality tremendous transformation is gradually occurring. Some things simply can't be rushed.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Siblings in Christ, these are confusing and scary days. Like the disciples, we are locked in our homes and holding in tension the Good News of the risen Christ with the knowledge that Christ doesn’t promise that following him protects us from the problems of this world. We are, in a sense, in a cocoon as well. It may appear that we are doing nothing but staying alive, and we wonder why nevertheless we have so little energy.

I invite you to consider the possibility that, like the disciples who even after seeing the risen Christ continued for weeks to avoid public spaces, perhaps internally much more is happening than you think. Perhaps the Lord is patiently waiting for the work that the Holy Spirit is doing on our hearts to be revealed when it is time for us to leave our cocoons.           

My sisters and brothers in Christ.  The world is changing, and so are we. Let us go forth this week with the hope that we will emerge on the other side of this a more loving people.