Christ is Risen - So whats next?
A sermon on John 20:19-31 by Nathan Nettleton, 23 April 1995
Empowered by resurrection joy, we are sent to continue the mission of Christ.
It is rather easy for me as a minister of the church to stand up here and say that Christ is risen and that the world is a different place as a result, the world is a different place to what it was before. And you could all say Yes we believe that and we'd all go home feeling that we were Christians and we knew what we believed.
But at some point we have to figure out what that means in light of the real world. Because the real world is not looking transformed. It is a place where evil and death seem to reign supreme and unchallenged much of the time. People plant bombs under child-care centres. Politicians play fast and loose with other people's lives and reputations to win political points. Children are raped by their parents or sold into prostitution by men who have found a market in under-age flesh. People are forced of their ancestral lands to make way for mines or beef cattle stations. People are imprisoned and tortured for their beliefs. Schools and hospitals and park lands are replaced by casinos and race tracks.
So what do we mean when we say Christ is risen and life is triumphing over death? Many would accuse us of simply dreaming. Well maybe dreaming is not a bad place to start. Martin Luther King said I have a dream, and it changed the course of a nation. Perhaps we too need to start by allowing the risen Christ to reign in our dreams and then we can respond by allowing his reign to begin to work itself out in our hearts, our lives, our politics and our planet.
The message of Easter, and its public promotion is dangerous and disruptive for the same reason that Jesus himself was dangerous and disruptive. It is because it violates and exposes so many of the accepted patterns of our world and our society, and those patterns have become the basis of so many little empires and power bases.
There are theological seminaries that cannot tolerate a power that turns fishermen into successful preachers. There are medical empires that cannot tolerate a power that brings healing without at least bulk-billing. There are military establishments that cannot tolerate a message that says justice comes through the cross, not through superior firepower. There are business corporations and marketing agencies that cannot tolerate a message that says that quality of life is found in simplicity not in consumption. There are religious institutions that cannot tolerate those who show that God's blessings are not restricted to those who submit to the will of the official leadership.
Jesus got himself in a lot of trouble because he challenged and undermined the accepted world view on which so many had built their monopolies and empires. They were not going to give them up without a fight, and that fight went as far as having Jesus set up on false charges and sentenced to death by torture.
The good news that we celebrate at Easter is that Jesus' radical message of freedom and transformation didn't end there. Just as the prison couldn't hold Peter and John, the tomb couldn't hold Jesus. And as we attested last week, from our own experiences, Jesus Christ is alive, and continuing to set people free from all that would destroy them. Jesus Christ continues to be active in the world, undermining the strongholds of exploitation, degradation and injustice.
But as exciting as that news is, there is a scary side. The risen Christ stands among us now, as we read of him standing among his followers on the first Easter Sunday, and says, Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. If we are to rejoice in the resurrection, and experience the new life of freedom and love in Jesus Christ, then we are called to carry on the same mission that got him into so much trouble. Jesus breathes on us, and says, Receive Holy Spirit. He empowers us and equips us for the task he calls us to but he doesn't give us any escape clauses.
We are not permitted to stay in here for ever. Jesus found the disciples locked away in a room together, sheltering from the world outside, and in the encounter he renewed their confidence and commissioned them for action. And there is a pattern in there for us as a church. There is nothing wrong with us spending time in here. God does want us to spend time together in sheltered spaces, seeking to deepen our intimacy with Christ, and to be transformed and empowered by him. If we are to be Christ's followers we need that. And we will suffer if we neglect it. It will often be in those quiet times of worship and contemplation that we will hear the voice of God and understand the mission that Christ is leading us into. It is going to come more naturally for some than for others, and those with the greatest gifts in that area have the greatest responsibility in that area. The contemplatives among us have a mission to push and prod the rest of us in that area. Those who have discovered great depths in prayer and meditation and contemplation will frequently make the rest of us a little uneasy as they call us to discover and explore the mysterious depths of Christ's gracious presence among us. I hope every group that develops in this church to pursue some area of service in the world will have within it a few contemplative types who will act to keep the rest of the group focussed on why they do what they do and on how to tap themselves into the refreshing and empowering depths of God's Holy Spirit.
Some will take longer to respond than others. That's OK. We will have those who like Thomas need a more personal experience of Christ's presence before we can believe enough to respond in worship and committed service. But Jesus didn't condemn Thomas. And when Thomas felt what he needed to feel in that closed room, he too was filled with the Holy Spirit and worshipped God and committed himself to following the risen Christ.
But the risen Christ does not let us stay in this sheltered room the whole time. Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. And so out we are to go, to witness to the reality of new life, to witness to God's passion for justice and love, and to oppose everything that would destroy and degrade the beauty that God intended for the created world.
Out we go to make known the good news of God's all-inclusive love and freely offered forgiveness. And in a very real way in that, we are not just followers of the risen Christ, we are to be Christ to others. We are to be the ones who mediate God's acceptance and forgiveness to others. Jesus said in commissioning his followers, If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. It's not that God waits for our decision before forgiving anybody, it is just a basic psychological reality that people do not experience forgiveness until someone treats them as forgiven.
This is particularly true with so many areas of guilt that are socially conditioned rather than genuinely related to wrongdoing. People often feel guilty because they have been treated badly rather than because they have done anything wrong. A child is abused by an adult and then feels that they must be a bad person to have deserved such treatment. Someone else suffers a mental illness and feels guilty because other people are uncomfortable in their presence. Someone else feels guilty because for no known reason they are sexually attracted to people of the wrong sex and the loathing and hostility of society falls upon them.
This kind of false guilt is constructed by the mistreatment of people, and must be undone by the acceptance and love of people. The gospels contain story after story of Jesus encountering people who had been treated with fear and rejection throughout their lives and in every case Jesus responds in ways that assure people that they are loved and valued and accepted by God.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Jesus has breathed his Spirit into us and is sending us to all who need to be set free by the life-giving love of God; those who are trampled down in the power games, those who are crippled by guilt - be it real or socially constructed, those who are caught up in webs of image maintenance and consumption, those who are outcast and reviled in the world.
Jesus Christ is risen, and his mission of liberating love is continuing in the face of the corruption, the power lust, the degradation and the oppression that is so rife in our world. If we want to live up to our identity as God's children, and as followers of Jesus, then we must as a community take on his mantle and continue his mission.
That's why in our luncheon meetings I have been arguing that we need to organize our common life around our sense of mission. Jesus calls us to continue his mission of love in the world, and he calls us as the church to be a community on mission together. I am convinced that if we organize our life in any way that makes active involvement in that mission of love look like an optional extra, then we are deceiving ourselves and watering down our discipleship and our identity as Christ's ones. We need to find ways that will encourage us all to gather together behind closed doors to meet with Christ, and having been empowered and commissioned by him, to move out into the world, announcing and living out the message of life in the midst of death, hope in the midst of despair, and forgiveness and acceptance in the midst of judgmental rejection. And may God's spirit be with us as we seek those ways.