As He's Sent
Last week was a big week. Easter is one of my favorite Sundays in the whole year. Our Hallelujahs come rushing back after the restraint of Lent, the sanctuary's a little fuller. It's hard to avoid the excitement of the story: the running disciples; Mary's breathless announcement that she's seen the Lord (who was dead but wondrously isn't!); it's easy to get caught up in sorrow turned to joy, hopelessness shattered by our promise-keeping God who raises the dead! Jesus Christ is risen today, our triumphant, holy day! we sang last week, with maybe just a bit more gusto--a bit more lustily, as John Wesley said we should. Last week was a big week.
But I've long thought, and often said, that actually, this week might be more important. Important maybe isn't the right word. But this is the week when we begin to remember again, together, that Easter isn't back in the box for another year, that it's only just begun. This is the week when it's maybe not hard to imagine ourselves alongside the disciples who have heard Mary's witness--she's told us everything she's seen and heard: that she's met Jesus Alive; that his next stop is back to heaven's throne, to the intimate company of the One he calls Father--my Father and your Father, my God and your God. She's preached to us, borne witness to the miracle, drawn us into the wild promise that we are in cahoots with the God for whom all the death-dealing power of the world is no match--not because we made some profound decision, but because he chose us, called us, caught us up in the dragnet of grace.
This week, it's not hard to imagine ourselves, with the disciples, having heard that marvellous news, not exactly leaping for joy when it's all said and done. Instead, just a few hours after Mary and the good news burst through the door, we might find ourselves with the disciples hunkered down and waiting this thing out. They've got the doors barricaded, and whatever it was that Peter and the beloved disciple believed at the empty tomb, whatever bits of Mary's too-good-to-be-true story they could handle, safely inside with them. Far from singing and dancing, they're keeping as tight a lid on this thing as possible. It might be that for the first time since Jesus called them away from their fishing boats and tax booths, and whatever else they were doing when he showed up and turned their world upside down, the disciples understand just how much trouble Jesus can get them into. If any of it is true, then the whole world is new, and it might just be better, certainly safer, to just keep quiet about it; see how things play out. The prudent thing is to keep our mouths shut and wait.
Let's pray: Come, Holy Spirit, come. Open our hearts to you this morning. Ready us for your presence. Convict and comfort. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight, true to who you are. May we know you better, so that we can make you better known. Through Jesus, crucified and risen: Amen!
The prudent thing is to keep our mouths shut and wait: to lock the doors and let things simmer down a bit, and then probably try to get back to more or less normal. And fortunately Jesus is having none of it. The disciples' prudence and self-concern look ridiculous as Jesus pays exactly no attention to the careful measures they've taken to keep the good news safely indoors. While the doors are locked, against a perfectly reasonable fear, he shows up, beyond all reason, among them.
(Before we go any further I want to note how different the post-resurrection accounts are. John's is more different than his gospel colleagues', but the others aren't particularly alike, either. There's part of me that finds this deeply annoying. I, for one, would like a nice, tidy witness; I'd like a fair bit more clarity than the gospel writers team up to give us. Our task would be easier if we could at least get our details perfectly straight.
On the other hand, there's something absolutely right about the diversity of resurrection testimony. It's a marvellous and bold reminder that what we're dealing with, what we're called to give witness to, is not a straightforward argument, but a dazzling, even dizzying vision, something utterly unexpected, a whole new world in the light of Jesus Alive! As one thinker on these things has put it, if it were possible to synthesize the gospels into a nice tidy, logical good news package, then gnosis (knowledge) would have won out over agape (love). We're dealing with the God who so loves the world, whose ways and thoughts are wildly other than ours; not the God who explains the world to us, and does mostly what we would do with a little more flare.)
I think John's witness to the ways and means of our resurrected Lord is beautiful. Indifferent to our locked doors, indifferent to our deep desire for security and certainty, Jesus steps into our time and space and commands our attention. John shows us two kinds of barriers about which Jesus seems to give not a fig. He's quite prepared to step through these things, and call us again, remind us of who and whose we are, and bring the mystery of our faith to life within and among us, for the sake of the world.
The first are the kinds of practical barriers we set up in order to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the beautiful danger of Easter. It's excellent that John reminds us that the disciples had a perfectly good reason to lock the doors and keep quiet. They were scared: scared of the keepers of the way things are, scared that the same powers that tore Jesus apart on Friday are still prowling, scared that they'll be recognized as the ones who'd paraded Jesus into town and proclaimed him a new king. Scared because they know how that story ended. Perhaps they're scared that in the end they hadn't had anything like the courage they thought they would, when push came to shove. They must surely be scared about what it will cost them to believe anything that Mary has told them.
We disciples have perfectly reasonable reasons to keep our mouths shut and our doors locked. We have perfectly reasonable reasons to sing a little less lustily than we did last week, to keep our confused beliefs and impossible answers to ourselves. The keepers of "the way things are" are still on the prowl. The ways of violence and greed, of paranoid power and manic self-concern, still hold sway. We may have sung about resurrection and the destruction of sin and death last Sunday, but it's hard to kick the thoughts of Friday; harder still by the time Monday rolls around. We've seen what the world will do to the ways of love and peace, of justice and righteousness, of grace and mercy, of generosity and hope.
If the current order of things will be maintained, those dangerous ways must be destroyed, torn apart and buried. Or at least dismissed and ignored. Things like hope and peace and joy and love of God are much too unpredictable to be allowed to move freely. It's best for business if we keep those things to ourselves. Save them for occasional and ideal moments. And so we lock doors and put up barriers; we very responsibly shut ourselves off to the wild possibilities of God's power, God's world-inverting love, and we resign ourselves, perfectly reasonably, to the way things are. We might let that stuff out for an hour a week, but the rest of the time we have to live in what we've been assured is the real world.
And then he shows up. While the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them. And he's a beautiful Lord. He doesn't do what I would do, and demand to know why they're so unfaithful, why they thought Herod or Caiaphas or Pilate, or even Caesar, were any match for the God who made heaven and earth. He doesn't ask them why they're so fickle, where they ran to in his time of deepest need. Jesus, the will and way of God embodied, doesn't do any of that. He says peace be with you. In fact, he says it twice--I expect because often when we hear Jesus say that the first time it's a bit hard to digest.
He comes to them, the Prince of Peace, and he both confirms and heals their deepest fears in one fell swoop. He confirms their fears: he shows them his scars, the reminder of the cost of living God's will and way on earth as in heaven. And he says the words that are at once wondrous and devastating: As the Father sent me, so I send you. The marks on his body are an unnerving reminder of the trouble he's gotten us into, the reason we have the doors locked in the first place. He's got us mixed up in the dangers of hope and peace and joy and love; he's sending us as he was sent, not to condemn the world, or avoid it, but to love it into wholeness. He's sending us to stare down the sin and death that grasp at power and claim authority in our lives and in the world, with unflinching faith and hope in the God who raises the dead.
He's rendered our locked doors irrelevant, and he's sending us out as he was sent, which is more or less what we were afraid of.
And yet, (hear this) he's sending us out as he was sent. His presence alone is enough to have us second-guessing our perfectly reasonable fears. They rejoiced when they saw the Lord. But the joy, the peace that his presence brings is not just a pleasant, fleeting feeling; it's an animating reality. We're sent as he was sent: in the impossibly intimate presence and power of God: the presence that nothing in heaven, earth or hell, not even death, can take from us! The power that busts open tombs and runs death out of town! He breathes the Holy Spirit on them, on us. This is the reality that we're learning to live into, this week.
As Easter people, we are sent to live in the world not as rosy-eyed idealists, but as people filled with the hope of heaven, people who live and move and have our being in the power that raises the dead, in cahoots with the God who can and will and already has done more than we can ever ask or imagine. We are sent into the world to be the evidence that Easter isn't a nice idea if the conditions are right, but precisely that the conditions are not right and God's new thing is going to happen anyways. We're sent as he was sent, to cause holy mischief, to love the unlovable and forgive the unforgiveable. We're sent to bear witness to God's lavish generosity: that God has been utterly self-giving, in a world that is chronically stingy. We're sent to bring the flavours of grace and mercy and joy to a sin-bland world; to be beacons of resurrection light in a death-dull world. We're sent to bust down the locked doors and kick over the reasonable barriers that would keep the world-saving wonder of Easter locked tight and prudently quiet--and to do that come what may. We're sent to dance the dance of Jesus until they crucify us for it, knowing full-well we'll rise to dance again (Shane Claiborne)!
All of which is decidedly easier to preach than to do. I know that if I was on that side of the pulpit, there'd be a pesky part of me saying, "Yeah, but..." Probably, if I'm honest, even as I preach it, there's still a part of me saying, "Yeah, but..." I think Thomas walks into the room as those lingering objections, persistent fears, as our highly prized and hard wrought practicality. He represents those more personal, maybe spiritual, barriers. He's not afraid of the outside world--presumably that's where he was when Jesus showed up the first time. Thomas is not opposed to the ideals of Jesus, or their cost; he's just having a bit of trouble with the ultimate, death-defying truth of them. It's worth remembering that of all the disciples, Thomas was the one who was actually ready to die with Jesus, way back in chapter 11. He clearly thinks that Jesus was on to something, but his imagination is a bit stunted for the things of God. He hears the other disciples' testimony, he sees the wonder on their faces, and it must have sounded good, but somehow it's not enough.
We don't need to psychoanalyze Thomas to understand something of his resistance. His hesitation is familiar, whether we're as bold to voice it as he is or not. We all have places in our lives that are off-limits to Jesus Alive; or if not quite off-limits, we want more insurance before we surrender them. Thomas isn't so much doubtful, as practical and reasonable. Maybe, of all the disciples, Thomas really and truly understands what it's going to cost him, if it's true. If Jesus' will and way in the world is God's will and way in the world--if he has indeed been proven true by being raised from the dead--maybe Thomas gets that that's going to demand something of him. It's a fair bit more reasonable, when the numbers are crunched, just to carry on, as though nothing is out of the ordinary. At least that way we don't have to love our enemies and share our stuff and we can go back to a world that we have a pretty firm grasp on.
And Jesus shows up. It takes a week, which is maybe longer that Tom would have liked, but he shows up. And he says to his reasonable disciple, "Give me your 'Yeah buts.'" Come to me and see; come to me and touch the truth that not even death will stop God's kingdom, God's way of grace and love and life that is truly life. He says again, Peace be with you. He's a beautiful Lord. And in that moment, Thomas sees it--even more clearly than the rest: he's all wonder, love, and praise as he sees, beyond all reason, the kind of God he's mixed up with, the grace he's caught up in.
Perhaps part of the Easter task is to give Jesus our lingering doubts, our nagging reasons, our safe practicalities. Offer that stuff in prayer. Name it with Thomas' boldness. Sure, blessed are those who believe entirely without reservation, but I haven't met any of those folks, yet--I think we know that this resurrection business is too big: we're going to need more than our best will and efforts if we'll do this Easter thing. Name that stuff, the fears and barriers, trusting that, as John witnesses, Jesus shows up. He shows up and confirms our fears and relieves them in one fell swoop (T'was grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved). He shows up, close enough to breathe on us--a reminder of how far God will go to get all mixed up with us--and sends us as he's sent: mixed up in a holy conspiracy with the One who turns chaos into life, with the One who is even now making all things new, the One who really and truly is able to do abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine: my Lord and my God!
He shows up and offers to trade our "Yeah buts," our stagnant practicalities and clever reasons, our cultured avoidance, for his peace, for his Spirit, for his life: life in his name, life that is truly life, life that proclaims, fully and freely, all the wild hope, peace, joy and love of heaven here and now and forever, come what may. He sends us as he's sent, heaven help us. That's the promise.
May it be so. Amen.