Jesus alive today?
A sermon on John 20:19-29 by Jill Friebel 30 March 2008
Last week we celebrated Easter and the next couples of weeks the lectionary calendar will use the time line of events that happened post Easter from the Luke/Act’s account. Which means we are now in the period of 40 days following the resurrection before the Ascension of Jesus, followed by Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit and beginning of the church. Our colours will change in that order with yellow for 6 weeks and then red for Pentecost for 1 week officially but we extend it to 4.
But just to confuse you, tonight’s reading comes from John’s perspective and understanding and has a different time line. He sees that birth of the new community - the church and the gift of the Spirit are intimately and inseparably tied to the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. They can’t be separated. The church’s mission and gift of spirit all happens at Easter with the resurrection and ascension of Jesus.
John has that beautiful and moving story of Mary meeting of Jesus in the garden in the verses preceding our story tonight and has it happening on the same day. He tells her she is told not to touch to him for he has to ascend to his father. So when he appears to the frightened group and core of Jesus followers that night John has Jesus as the ascended Christ. And then and there he breathes the Spirit upon them. The next week he returns to show himself to Thomas and Thomas makes that wonderful spontaneous declaration of faith. “My Lord and my God.” Now Thomas is not judged by Jesus, which we are more prone to do. Jesus just states that he believes because he has seen – which is no different than the other disciples. Mary had undoubtedly run back to them all – and one could only imagine her story - that she had seen him and spoken to him and he told her to go and tell her “brothers”. But it wasn’t until they saw him themselves behind the locked doors that they really believed.
And then Jesus says something that is directed to you and me and not to them. He blesses us – you and me and every other believer since then. He blesses us because we have not seen the risen Christ and yet we have believed.
I can only guess that God blesses us because he knows how hard it is for us humans to believe without seeing. And I wonder if we aren’t extra blessed now because it seems to have gotten harder in the last 150 years. The development of the enlightenment and scientific and rational knowledge has fundamentally changed our way of thinking. We now see the world through the premise of Descarte “I think therefore I am” or “show it to me, prove it and I will believe” more than any other time before us. We trust so heavily on our “knowing” about things. We can even know a lot of theology and about the resurrection and the Spirit but still not experience it so that it pulls the mat from under you and completely blows you over. You can pick the difference between knowing and “really knowing” very easily but it can be hard to trust your “knowing”. Again because we rely heavily on what we hear said instead of what is really happening. The disciple’s story is the clue and the core of how we know what to look for and you will know yourself when it happens to you or someone close.
They went from being fearful to being fearless -from knowing a lot of stuff to living it from having good information to becoming truly good people. From hiding in their locked upper room to standing in the open places publicly declaring the resurrection of Jesus. The things that kept them locked up and paralyzed in fear hadn’t changed. There was still real risk and good reason to hide from the authorities. But it didn’t have the same paralysing effect on them anymore. Jesus said “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven: if you do not forgive them, they are forgiven.”
This is our calling, we are being commissioned by the risen Jesus to continue what he began, we are the presence of Jesus being carried on in the world. This is not an individual believers calling – it is the new community, the church’s calling. The Spirit is given to all, equally, no person has more of God’s spirit than another. It’s power is in the community. We all have the same Spirit. And it’s all gift and if we forgive anyone of their sins, they are forgiven, if we don’t then they won’t be forgiven. That’s not just the pastors, that is all of us. I will return to this in a minute.
Jesus spoke these words not just to the 11 disciples (that being 12 minus Judas) because John rarely speaks of the 12 anywhere in his gospel. This was much the same group that were gathered for the farewell meal one week before, the core believers of the faith community both male and female. “Peace be with you” was just a conventional greeting used but here is invested with more. He then gives them the gift of his peace, which he promised them before he died. His very presence was the gift – they would have been flawed and moved to the very core. Elation and joy mixed with relief and being forgiven. Every one of the 12 had betrayed him, so being with him and being offered peace was more than they could ever have imagined or hoped for. When he breathed on them he was imparting the “breath” that had been saved for this time of post resurrection. The word used here for “breathed” is the one and only time it is used in the New Testament. It clearly evokes the description of God’s breathing the breath of life into the first human in Gen 2:7. It also recalls the breath of life in Ezekiel and valley of dry bones. This breath brings new bodies to dead people, new hope to those with no hope.
Let me quote our reading this morning for Rohr.
“When you no longer expect something more from life, you are for all practical purposes an atheist. When you are no longer open to do something new, to see and feel in new ways about old things, you might as well hang it up. There is always more of the Spirit for you to receive, or you would not be sustained another moment.
The experience of the Spirit is an undeserved, unmerited becoming, a new whole greater than the sum of all the parts. It draws us out and beyond ourselves in spite of ourselves. It is radical grace. To walk in the Spirit is to allow yourself to be grabbed by God and taken into a much larger world of meaning.”1
It doesn’t bear thinking what this could mean if we just were open to receiving it. I said it was’t given to individuals but to the community, but individuals have to receive it to make the community. The spirit takes your fears, your individual fears and gives you freedom to live like Jesus. What could that mean for you? Oh I know I would stop worrying about “What would people think of me if….?” “Or just take the risk, be bold, listen to your inner voice and trust it much more.” I have more fears and you will have yours.
Like Archbishop Phillip Frier quoted the 13th Century St Gregory of Sinai to those being baptised or confirmed at the Easter, “Become what you already are, find him who is already yours, listen to him who never ceases speaking to you, own him who already owns you.”
The gift of the Spirit has to affect your every waking and sleeping moment, because it is your fears that keep you from receiving at every given moment. Your fears keep you locked behind closed doors and blind to Jesus who has burst through into the room, he is living and waiting right now to heal you of all that hurts and harms you. That might be physical, spiritual, psychological, it could be healing of your bitterness, your past memories, your deep sadness and disappointment which sours the present for you. I know when I am working from fear, I have to keep explaining myself. I have to keep talking about something I am struggling with. I hang onto stuff, and it goes round and round in my head. I bore others. It stops me from receiving more of the spirit. I am self-focussed, I feel stuck, little and powerless in the bad sense.
Those words of Jesus about us forgiving sins and withholding sins have not been easy to understand and have had a controversial role in the history of the church. But they must be heard in this context of John and they are addressed to the entire faith community, not to the apostolic leaders. This is an abbreviated try but here goes:
Forgiving sins is the work of the entire community and doing this depends on being sent by Jesus and receiving the gift of the Spirit. The forgiveness of sins is the spirit-empowered mission of continuing Jesus’ work in the world because the community’s work is an extension of Jesus’ work. What does this mean in John? In John sin is not a moral or behaviour transgression. Instead to have sin for John is to be blind to the revelation of God in Jesus. We all warm to others who have a natural warmth and open heart. Jesus was like honey to bears or water to the thirsty, or bread to the starving. Folk were drawn because they felt accepted and loved and cared for. We can tell when we too are with someone who is just like that. We feel different and safer and game enough to share our fears and hopes. Jesus invites us to come to him with our doubts and fears and guilt. If we can stay on this journey, there will be times when he will break through the fear and you will become fearless too. You can’t make it happen or force it or pretend. If you do you will end up being cynical and cheesed off. The disciples had to experience Jesus before it had any impact and affect on them. You just have to wait it out. You put yourself in places and do things that will keep you awake for when he appears. Regular attendance at church, praying, reading good things, talking with someone, will all be part of the way. One day you will be blown over. It won’t just happen once because we need lots along the way.
In a moment we will have a ritual where we enact passing on the faith of the apostles to our 2 catechumens Garry and Mel. This is good and beautiful to do and it one of those disciplines to commit to in waiting and wanting to experience Jesus. I encourage us all to hear the words we say and stay with them and let them bring our responses out, good and bad. Our reactions tell us what is happening for us, as that is part of the journey also. You will know and others will know when your eyes become opened to Jesus and you become fearless and free.