April 11, 2021 - 2nd Sunday of Easter
Last week, we celebrated Easter Sunday with triumphant rejoicing, including the Easter hymn “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.” But Easter is not a day. Easter is a season. It lasts from Easter Sunday until the day of Pentecost, which takes place 50 days after Easter. The season was originally developed as a time for teaching the mysteries of the faith to the newly baptized, and to help newly initiated Christians to begin discerning their spiritual gifts and offering them through ministries. During Easter season, we will hear several stories of how the resurrected Christ appeared to different people and how those people responded. Today, for example, we hear about how Jesus appeared to his disciples on the evening that the empty tomb was discovered.
Christians believe that Jesus came to this earth to deliver a message from God that is so true that it applies for all time and is relevant to all people. It is, for us, an eternal message. And what is this message from God that Jesus Christ came to share? Put simply, GOD LOVES US.
- God does not want to punish people, but to be reconciled with them.
- God does not want to hurt people, but to heal them.
- God does not want to pass judgment upon people, but to give them grace.
I want you to think back to the early Christian community. We imagine them as of one heart, one mind, one community in which no one claimed anything as his or her own. There were no needy in their midst. Each was provided for according to need. Perhaps they felt, as we hear in the first letter of John today, that, as believers in Jesus, they could take on the world.
However, in today’s Gospel reading, we hear a different account of the earliest community. It was hidden behind locked doors. The community hid in fear, whispering among themselves. They gathered, huddled and hiding, trembling and terrified, lonely and loveless. And this account reveals that perhaps not all was unexpected pleasantries. The Episcopal Church welcomes all -- well this was certainly not the church of today!
It is noteworthy that the risen Lord’s first documented word in the Gospel of John is “peace.” The Gospel of John goes to great lengths to communicate to us that Jesus came back from the grave to deliver the message that he found all of the disciples to be acceptable. This is important for us, because the disciples themselves were not feeling very acceptable after the crucifixion. Remember that after the trial and conviction, death upon the cross, and entombment of the body of Jesus, the women who had gone to anoint the body in preparation for its final burial discovered that Jesus’ body was missing and they reported this news to the disciples, who had then gone into hiding behind locked doors.
The disciples of Jesus had no idea what was going on. The women had said all of this crazy stuff, but none of the men had actually seen Jesus. In their minds, not only had the Lord been killed, but someone must have desecrated his tomb and stolen his body. All of them, especially Peter, must have felt just about as low down and rotten as a person could feel. Think about it… While their beloved teacher was being captured and killed, they had all stood by and let it happen. Now he was dead, their dream was over, and there was nothing for any of them to live for anymore. And yet, every single one of them was focused on saving himself, scared that he was going to be next in line to be found guilty by association and to suffer the same fate as Jesus.
This was the mood in the Upper Room on Easter evening. But then suddenly, somehow, Jesus appeared in that room filled with despair and hopelessness, and stood among them. They could hardly believe what they were seeing, so Jesus showed them the wounds in his hands and his side.
And then, he showed them something even more incredible. He showed them God’s amazing grace. In the midst of these terrible circumstances, Jesus continued to love them without judgment.
- He didn’t seem disappointed with them.
- He didn’t condemn them for their weakness and inability to stand up for him.
- He didn’t shame them for being cowards.
- He didn’t ask them why they were hiding behind locked doors.
- He didn’t say anything at all about their fear.
All he said was, “Peace be with you.” “Peace be with you!” he said again.
And then he breathed reconciliation and hope into their troubled, broken hearts. “Receive the Holy Spirit. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
There is much more to Easter than Easter Day. There is much more to Easter than the renewal of life and hope. There is much more to Easter than the fifty days of the message that life goes on. Because Easter is fundamentally about our understanding and proclamation that Jesus is God -- not only for those frightened disciples locked behind closed doors more than two thousand years ago, but also for us today -- for you, for me, and for every person sitting in every church today.
The amazing news is that God is STILL sending Jesus to show us we are forgiven people who are acceptable to God. The Good News is that because of the grace shown in Jesus Christ, we are acceptable to God beyond our wildest imagination. We are acceptable with all our failures, our mistakes, and even our intentional acts of harm that we inflict upon others. The key is not to be without sin, but rather to confess our sins and to ask forgiveness when we have hurt someone or done wrong. The key is to be willing to forgive those who have sinned against us.
Nothing that we do will ever separate us from God’s love shown in Jesus Christ. As Paul writes in Romans (8:38-39), “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If we hold on to our hatred and our grudges, and refuse to forgive and find ways to be healed with those who have sinned against us, the light and truth of Christ’s love can never be revealed through us, and our joy can never be complete.
Jesus confirms how acceptable we are when he says we have been given the authority of God’s Holy Spirit to be sent out as emissaries of Jesus. He makes us his disciples, his representatives on this earth. This means that we are all under the authority of Jesus Christ for one specific purpose: to forgive others in the name of God.
In Christ, through Christ, with Christ, we are made acceptable to God and empowered by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Good News to others by our words and by our actions. The ongoing message of Easter is that we are forgiven by Jesus and acceptable to God. The message of Easter is that because of this we are sent by God to proclaim and to show this Good News to others by our acts of grace and mercy. God loves us and forgives us, so we must love and forgive one another. If we forgive others’ sins, they are, in the name of God, forgiven. This is the way to life.
I bet each of us has people with whom we are at odds, people who have hurt us, or betrayed us, or who otherwise need our forgiveness. And the risen Christ shows up, when we’re hiding behind locked doors and tells us we are being sent out into the world. We are to forgive. We are called out of our locked rooms to be sent into the world as visible signs of God’s love, just as Jesus showed us.
What a gift this is! Yes, forgiveness is HARD work, and never an easy task. But it is a gift. I don’t want to retain the sins of anyone. I can barely handle the weight of my own mistakes. I want to let theirs go, just as I hope people I have hurt can let go of my mistakes and sins.
I invite each of us to consider what it means for Jesus to give us His Spirit and send us out into the world as agents of forgiveness and witnesses of love. There is too much for us to do and too much love to share for us to hide in an upper room. Let’s go change the world together. Peace be with you!