Three Steps, Then GO!
Apr 11, 2021
Second Sunday of Easter
Text: John 20:19-31
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
I say: “He is risen,” and you say, “He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!” Let’s do it again, “He is risen! He is risen, indeed. Alleluia!”
We are still celebrating Easter! The Easter season continues until May 23, the Day of Pentecost, but the reality is that we celebrate Easter – the good news of Jesus’ resurrection – every Sunday. Yet, at the beginning of today’s Gospel lesson, which takes place on Easter evening and then one week later, no celebrating is taking place.
Remember, the Gospel of Mark, which we read on Easter Sunday, ended with anxiety, not celebration. The women disciples, who found Jesus’ tomb empty and encountered a heavenly being who told them to tell the others that Jesus had risen, instead, “said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” That anxiety – fear – continues in today’s account from John’s Gospel.
The empty tomb is not a sign of hope but a source of fear which led to Jesus’ followers remaining in a locked room. They are hiding because they are afraid, but of what? Certainly, they are afraid of the religious leaders of the Jews who had orchestrated Jesus’ crucifixion by the Romans. If, as it is rumored, Jesus’ body is missing, the first place their enemies will look is among Jesus’ followers. They are probably afraid of the Romans, who may have had enough of the upheaval caused by these Jewish factions and could decide to crush them all. Possibly, they are afraid that the unbelievable reports from some of the women in their group could be true. Jesus is raised from death to life. If that is the case, would Jesus rebuke them for abandoning him, for their failure to fight back, and their lack of faith?
Their fear, their anxiety prevented them from celebrating. And then, locked door ignored, Jesus stands among them. He speaks a word of peace, not rebuke. He offers what they need to believe, showing them his hands and his side. Then, only then, do they rejoice! Finally, it is time to celebrate!
In the midst of their joy, Jesus offers peace to them again, announcing that as he has done, they will do – they will be sent out to proclaim God’s love in Jesus, to forgive, to offer hope, to challenge injustice. Then, Jesus breathes on them with the breath of the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes we get stuck on the phrase: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” There are many complicated explanations of that verse, based on how it is translated. However, this one by commentator Elisabeth Johnson made sense to me. I’ll quote her: “Jesus is not giving his disciples some special power to decide whose sins will be forgiven and whose will not. Rather, he is further specifying what it means to be sent, to make known the love of God that Jesus himself has made known. As people come to know and abide in Jesus, they will be “released” from their sins. If, however, those sent by Jesus fail to bear witness, people will remain stuck in their unbelief; their sins will be “retained” or “held onto.” (Even though forgiveness is theirs’, they are unaware of that freeing reality.) The stakes of this mission are very high indeed.” (1)
As the story of that first Easter evening continues, we learn that, unfortunately, the disciple Thomas was not present. He, as his fellow disciples would have been, is skeptical about their proclamation, “We have seen the Lord!” He speculates out loud what it might take for him to believe, “Unless I see the mark of the nail in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” When Jesus shows up a week later, Thomas too receives peace and proof; he joins the rejoicing, albeit still behind closed (locked?) doors.
But the Holy Spirit infused peace will soon move them out with the Good News. That is the focus for the weeks of the Easter season. They will continue Jesus’ work of forgiving and peace-making through the power of the Holy Spirit. There will be rejoicing but also fear and anxiety during difficult, doubt-producing times.
All of which is true for us too. That is why we all must repeat what happened in that locked room again and again. First, experience Jesus’ presence with us. Second, receive (breathe in) the Holy Spirit. Or, as one commentator said, “reinflate the soul so that we can function with hope.” (2) Third, rejoice! Then, we will be ready to GO!
Pastor Peter Marty, who I quoted last Sunday, had some interesting things to say about this Sunday’s text too. He commented in Christian Century on the concept of breathing in the Holy Spirit from the point-of-view of not having enough oxygen.
It seems that during the Pandemic, he took a nurse’s advice and bought a pulse oximeter which allowed him to measure his blood oxygen level. That way, if he contracted Covid-19, low oxygen readings would be a signal to get to the hospital fast. In the instructions for this device, he read that a low oxygen level would lead to restlessness, confusion, and shortness of breath.
Now I’ll quote him: “There’s no indication the disciples suffer from shortness of breath on the first Easter evening. But they most certainly are restless and confused. Hypoxemia (low oxygen level) may not be their issue. But oxygenation of another kind is critical: they desperately need Christ’s Spirit. And notice what happens once they inhale this hoping variety of oxygen. Everything takes off for them.” (2)
That is true for us, too, as we take those three steps I just mentioned. First, we experience Jesus’ presence, which can happen through interaction with other believers, in worship, and as we serve others. To experience Jesus requires us to pay attention, placing our focus beyond ourselves. Second, we breathe in the Holy Spirit, which we make more complicated than it is. The Holy Spirit comes to us in Holy Communion, via scripture, and is a continuing gift of baptism, giving us the gift of faith that we or others nurture. Third, we rejoice. We express our gratitude that Jesus is alive, accompanying us. He also goes ahead into our future so that we will be able to face whatever joys and challenges that are yet to come.
Then, as was true of the first disciples, we GO to proclaim God’s love in Jesus. We announce forgiveness, offer peace and hope, and challenge injustice. Is that an easy proposition? Continuously conveying forgiveness, hope, peace in our words and actions, whether it be to the clerk in the grocery store, a neighbor, or the person who cuts us off in traffic? What about standing against injustice? Do we always have the courage to speak out? It is not easy, but it is possible. As we look for ways to experience Jesus, breathe in the Holy Spirit – reinflating our souls so that we can function with hope - and express gratitude from God’s power and presence among us. We are part of an always transforming but a never-ending story.
So, we proclaim: “He is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!” AMEN
(1) “Without a Doubt – Sermon on John 20:19-31” by JoAnne Taylor, April 27, 2014, www.pastorsings.com
(2) “Reflections on the Lectionary” by Peter W. Marty, April 11, 2021, John 20:19-31, Christian Century, March 24, 2021, pg. 23
(3) Same as #2.