Receiving the Spirit

This Holy Week, our church broke bread in a traditional Seder on Maundy Thursday. We walked with Jesus through the stations of the cross on Good Friday. As pastor, these services include many preparations in the hope of bringing the meaning of Easter more fully to our community. But as a regular dad, there are preparations as well. This year, it was my job to go into the attic, file past the Christmas decorations, move aside this and that, to find the boys’ Easter baskets. Once placed in the living room to await the generosity of the Easter Bunny my two year old, discovered these empty baskets. With great joy, he proceeded to dance around the room. Laughing, swinging one basket and using the other for a hat. In jubilee, he found his Easter in the emptiness of these baskets, as we find Easter in the emptiness of the tomb. Easter Sunday and the time that follows it always seems to come upon us when we need it the most. When the dreary days of winter have long overstayed their welcome, when the death of the Lenten season is on the edge of shrouding the whole world in inexorable and luminous darkness, when we are tempted to believe that God might not have as much power as we had previously imagined, the Easter season arrives with explosions of brilliant streams of light and love and reassurance that in the end, we are God’s and God will not let us fall, that we are God’s and are forever held in a web of love and grace, a love and grace that can even swallow death. Growing up, Easter Sunday was always filled with a magical and wonder. Magic and wonder that both stemmed from the mystery of a bunny moving from house to house bringing baskets of goodies and hiding eggs throughout my yard, magic and wonder at the vision of the one who just recently had been tortured and executed walking around in the peaceful setting of a garden before offering comfort to the grieving Mary. And still, Easter comes every year about this time to remind us that even though we have walked on the sea of tranquility and split the atom there is still much that we as a species do not know and cannot predict about the world and our lives within it. There is much that can still bring about consternation and struggle, that can cause us to cast our vision into the sky and scream out, “Why, God!” And yet, each year we encounter the Easter season as it demands that we give up the pretense that we are either all knowing or all powerful and cast ourselves into the mystery hoping and believing that God can and does still act in the world and will catch and hold even us. The resurrection of Christ becoming a singular moment in time that points to the ever changing, never ending cycle of reconciliation playing out over the whole of the cosmos, the brokenness of creation and humanity having careened into the love and grace of God and discovered that that love is indeed more boundless, more wild and untamed, more chaotic than the power of death over people. And when the powers and principalities of the world seek to draw all people together, harnessing us into a singular force, into a single lock-step, speaking the same, and seeing the world the same, we as people of the resurrection, as a post-Easter people, get to say, “no.” Because at the foundations of our faith is an unshakable commitment to the chaotic and unpredictable nature of a God who would bring someone back to life in order that we might know of God’s love not just for us but for all people. That is not always an easy place to be, in fact it rarely is. To constantly dwell in a place and a commitment that God’s love for the executioner is equally as strong as God’s love of the executed. God’s love for the criminals hanging on bother sides of Jesus is as strong as it is for God’s child dying in between them, God’s love for those who had power in the Empire is as strong as God’s love for the rag tag bunch of Jewish misfits who saw in Jesus a new way to live their lives, who saw the old Torah be brought to life in their midst through the one who would save the world. And that is an incredibly difficult place to live one’s life. It is difficult because at the base of each community of people is the hope that something of their symbolism, something of their ethic, something of their faith is universal in its scope. We each hope and pray and believe that something of the reality of God is found in this place and in our words and in our deed. We as a people hope and pray and believe that when cast against other communities of the faithful and not-so-faithful that we embody something of the nature of God that is not always found in other groups. And maybe that is just the reality of the human experience, perhaps we are wired to presume that our way is the way, that we and we alone embody something of the universal human experience that we alone are good and that those outside this place are not. There are any number of ways that we draw lines of separation between ourselves and the others in our midst. In an ever increasingly contentious political season in which often words of aspersion are cast against those who support other people, other parties. In a time in the history of the country in which immigrants, Muslims, are targets of derision and fear. In a time in which those qualities that divide appear considerably more prevalent than those that unite, it is easy to feel as if we are trapped in a world of walls in which we are constantly making our gatherings increasingly pure but also smaller and smaller. And because each community believes in their heart of hearts that whatever makes them unique is the same thing that ultimately connects them to God we each become awashed in the brokenness and fallenness of that world until we believe our security is derived from our community. And then Easter happens and the spirit of God takes the whole deck of cards and throws them up in the air to land wherever they land and says, “now, pick them up, and start over again.”   

 If the gospel of John is, as I have thought for some time, a long form dramatic telling of the gospel story, a play with scenes and acts and people moving on and off the stage at different times and long and moving soliloquies by the protagonist, then the story we have read for this morning is the scene that immediately follows the resurrection accounts within the text. Last week’s scene focused primarily on the moment shared between Mary of Magdala and the risen Jesus, the dramatic nature of the simple exchange of her name and his title. But immediately proceeding that moment is the episode of the two disciples racing to the tomb and finding it empty and returning to tell the others. So today we get this next scene in the play with the disciples huddled up together in a locked room fearing for their lives at the hands of the ones who had just had Jesus executed when Jesus appears to them and offers them peace. And at his appearance, at his words, we are told that the disciples rejoiced at seeing him in their midst. But Jesus is not done. “Peace be with you,” Jesus says, “As God has sent me, so I know send you as well.” That is, you are now my hands and feet in the world, to do and act as I have and would do in the future. To seek to change the world one act of kindness, one act of grace, one act of love at a time. To seek to put this splintered, fractured, broken creation back together again. As I have started, you must now continue. And maybe the enormity of that sort of a directive washed over the disciples and their countenance because Jesus immediately seeks to reassure them that everything is going to be ok. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he says to them, “and get to work.” Of course, we soon learn that one of the Twelve, Thomas, Didymus, twin, is missing from their number. And when he does return, he cannot fathom that what the rest of the disciples are saying to him could possibly be true. And perhaps it is my own skepticism and doubt but I have never felt like Thomas was wholly out of line in the manner that he responds following the other disciples insistence that Jesus has appeared to them in the flesh, that he had walked around and shown his hands, his feet, his side, that he had breathed on them and they had all experienced a deep and abiding peace that seemingly surpassed all understanding. I get that he would have walked in that room and been doubtful of the validity of their story. But more than that, maybe it is the tug of war that all the time goes on between the old order of the world and the new order, of the first age and the second, in which the old order still locates the center of importance within the individual person, within the individual community. Still says that it doesn’t matter what all these other folks have seen and heard, unless I hear it for myself, unless I see it, unless I touch it, I’m not going to be moved. The old order of the world says that the time following Good Friday is a time to cower away in a locked room, with the disciples unsure if they will see another day. The new order says that there is too much work to be done to shut yourselves off in any single room. The old order says that here in this place, at this time, are the beloved of God, and out there are the sinful and depraved. The new order screams out across the light years that God’s love will not ever be limited to the scope of peoples imaginations, it is so much bigger than that. The old order says that tombs are places to lay dead people. The new order says that Jesus gives us life and life in abundance. That life emerges from death. That light can never be truly overcome by darkness. That love abides now and forever. 

 So its good that Jesus returns a second time to the room. That Thomas can touch the holes in Jesus’s hands and feet, pass his hand into Jesus side. It’s good because even those who are by nature skeptical, doubtful, maybe a little cynical still have a place in God’s plan, still can experience the love and presence and resurrection of Jesus in their midst. Jesus still returns for them, returns for us, comes again and again into our midst until we get it. Until we see it. Until we can declare with Thomas, “My savior and my God.” Because in the end, even the most hardened, even the most cynical, even the most walled off person cannot escape the boundary breaking, grace infusing, love offering movement of the spirit of God across the cosmos. 

 We can’t, in this place, touch the wounds of Jesus. We can’t press our hands into his side. Can’t pass our fingers through the holes in his arms and legs. That is for another time and another place. That is for those who dwelt with Jesus in the physical, in the temporal. We encounter Jesus in the here and now, in the ethereal connection between Christ and creation. We encounter Jesus in the present when we cast our vision across the expanse of a world that is hurting and struggling. When we, with eyes to see and ears to hear, notice the plight of the ones who are not us and yet need us. The poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed, the sad and lonely. It is then that we encounter the face of the risen Christ in our midst. We cannot touch his hands and feet, we cannot see his side. But we can gather around this holy table and touch his body. We can see the sacrifice of his blood. We can take both those into ourselves and as a single people, the children of God, be transformed into those hands and into those feet, wounded and yet still called to work for the reconciliation of the world. Blessed are we who not being able to touch Christ’s hands and feet are called to be the hands and feet of Christ in a broken world. Blessed are we who, while not in the room with the disciples, have been called to take our place in the long line of the faithful that emerged from that room in Jerusalem, a line that emerged from a timid and scared bunch of Galilean fishermen, to become a singular force in the course of human events, to stand with the oppressed and the downtrodden of every time and place against the powers of the Caesar, against the powers of the powerful, against the violent and bloodthirsty throughout the world, blessed are we, the hopeful, the grace-filled, the loving, the peacemakers, the faithful everywhere. We are the ones that we have been waiting for, the ones that called by God to a new mission, to bind the broken and call out to the lost, we are the ones. Now let’s get to work. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, amen. 

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