April 23, 2017: "He's Back...Again!"
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
April 23, 2017: Easter 2
Psalm 16 & John 20:19-31
Each year on the Sunday after Easter I start my sermon with the same thing: a warning. This warning is about a phrase in the gospel lesson appointed for today: ‘for fear of the Jews.’ I start my sermon today in the same way I do every year because no matter how many times it is said, no matter how many times we acknowledge the problem, no matter how many books or articles or studies are written, there is still a prominent thread of antisemitism in the fabric of Christianity. The thread is present because throughout the entire narrative of Christ’s passion and death the Jews are primary characters—when Jesus is hunted down, when he is mocked at trial, as he stands before Pilate, and as he is condemned and later dies on the cross. To say it another, there are some in the Christian community that blame the trial and execution solely on the Jewish people, past and present. A prominent American rabbi wrote last year in the New York Times that Holy Week is one of the scariest times to be Jewish.
The gospel of John says that the disciples were gathered in a house on the night of Easter and the doors of the house were locked ‘for fear of the Jews.’ There are a few ways we can go about handling this text. We could just cut it out, literally, from the text of the Bible—we are already pretty good at doing this with other passages we don’t like. But that seriously demeans the scared nature of the Bible. We could retranslate the text. Some biblical scholars think that ‘Jews’ should be translated as ‘Judeans,’ which is a nationality and not a religion, or ‘Jewish leaders’ or simply ‘leaders.’ These alternative translations are technically accurate, but they strip the text of a Jewish presence; they purify the Christian bible of all Jewish heritage, and that is wicked. We could read this text as an allegory or try to wedge it into some historical context that makes more sense, but neither of these work because we will never really know the intent of the gospel writer or the community into which the gospel was written.
The best way to handle this text, and others that trouble us concerning the crucifixion or other biblical events, is to admit that we bring a lot to the text when we read it. When John and the other gospel writers penned their narratives of Jesus’ life, they could have never imagined the historically tragic relationship between Jews and Christians. We bring this history to the text when we read it: we bring antisemitism to the text, we bring our desire for a villain to the text, we bring our guilt and need for a scapegoat to the text. So the problem isn’t with the text, it is with us. John didn’t write his gospel as propaganda against the Jews; we, as in Christians throughout history, have taken it that way and have used it as an instrument of death. So as we do with all other sins and problems as people of faith, we admit them, we confess them, and open ourselves to God’s grace and forgiveness. We chose how to read the Bible. And our our choice, as forgiven followers of Jesus, must be guided by the one who lived and died, so that everyone—everyone: Jew, Gentile, male, female, slave, and free—may have eternal life. When we read the Bible in this way we see that it was not the Jews who killed Jesus, it was you and me, and Jesus willingly took up his cross so that we might have life. There is no place, no place, for antisemitism or anti-Jewish thought or rhetoric in Christian faith—it is anti-biblical and counter to everything Jesus taught and did in his life.
Now if this was our only takeaway from the Gospel text today, that would be enough. But there is more. John’s post-resurrection story makes something clear: Jesus will not be stopped by locked doors. On the evening of the first day of the week, the disciples locked themselves away out of fear; earlier that day Mary Magdalene had rushed to them with distressing news that Jesus was not where they had laid him. Suddenly, Jesus himself appears among them. Even though the door was locked, this did not stop Jesus. Instead of disciplining the disciples for their lack of faith, or for how they abandoned him at his lowest moment, Jesus offers them peace: “Peace be with you” he says. Then Jesus shows his disciples his hands and his side so that they can that it is he, the real, flesh-and-blood Jesus they knew and loved. The disciples rejoice in seeing the Lord, just as Jesus told them they would. Jesus, then, speaks a blessing of peace and tells them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then he disappears.
A full week later the disciples were again in the house, but this time Thomas was with them. The doors were locked again. But this did not stop Jesus and he came and stood among them. He’s back…again; Jesus will not be stopped by locked doors. Jesus speaks another blessing of peace over the disciples and invites Thomas to touch his hands and his side to verify that it is the Lord. Thomas makes the confession, “My Lord and my God!” and Jesus challenges the disciples, and you and me, to a faith not in things seen, but in things unseen. Then, just as before, Jesus disappears. This happens again and again in the final chapters of the gospel of John: the disciples gather, Jesus appears and speaks to them, then disappears. He’s back…again, and again, and again.
Jesus will not be stopped by locked doors, he keeps appearing over and over, and in this we learn something very profound about God: God shows up. Each time Jesus appeared to the disciples he was showing that Easter was not the end, but really the start of something new. If there was any doubt in the disciples mind about the nearness and intimacy of God, Easter blew that doubt out of the water. Christ’s death and resurrection took God into the very depths of human pain and suffering, then lifted that pain and suffering to a place where they no longer have the final word. The disciples were huddled in the room in fear, in pain, anxious and sad—have you ever been locked in a room like that?—and Jesus appears because God shows up. God shows up when we are afraid. God shows up when we are in pain. God shows up to calm our anxiety and mend our broken hearts. If death was not able to hold God down, then there is no lock or door that stands a chance. God shows up…Jesus comes back again, and again, and again.
I know this is true. I know that God shows up and that Jesus comes back to us again and again when we are afraid, when we are in pain, when anxiety threatens to break us apart. I know because I saw it happen recently.
A few weeks ago a tragedy beyond words and understanding touched our community: the body of a newborn baby boy was found discarded in a dumpster. In one way or another, this tragedy touched the heart of everyone who heard about it. It dug at the hearts of mothers and fathers unable to have children; it broke the hearts of parents who are expecting; it enraged every person who believes that all life is a gift from God. A group of pastors and community leaders, of which I am a part, decided that something had to be done—something had to happen to acknowledge this tragedy and nourish the soil where healing would grow. We gathered on Maundy Thursday in the afternoon and planned a candlelight vigil to take place the following night on Good Friday on the square downtown. Each pastor was to read Scripture and offer some thoughts and prayer. Musicians from the community were asked to offer their gifts, and someone was in charge of bringing the candles. It was pretty well-organized but I had my doubts.
You see, I’m used to everything being very orderly and this was anything but. Someone said they could probably get a sound system, but they weren’t sure. Another person said that a thousand people would be there along with new crews from all over the state. Someone even mentioned that there might be protesters, but we weren’t sure why. Regardless of my anxiety and uncertainty, I chose a passage of Scripture—Psalm 22 since it was Good Friday—and I put my thoughts together. Even in the hour before the vigil was to start, there was a part of me that didn’t want to go; there was a part of me that wanted to call in sick or with some other excuse.
Now when I pulled around the corner of the square that evening for the vigil, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a full half hour before the start of the vigil and the area around the gazebo was already teeming with people. The north side of the square on Randolph between Independence and Grand was parked two deep with motorcycles from the Downed Bikers Association. News crews were there, every major outlet from Oklahoma City, already set up to interview people who were gathering. People were spread out on picnic blankets and in camp chairs; some families had brought their dogs; there was even a large group of people in wheelchairs and on walkers who slowly made their way to the front of the group. Little groups of kids ran around the crowd passing out candles and little blue ribbons to wear, and the crowd—about 400 to 500 people—was a beautiful mix of every color and gender, social group and status.
When it was my turn to speak, I stepped to the microphone and it hit me like a ton of bricks: God showed up. Even in my doubt, even though I dragged my feet because I didn’t want to go, God showed up. God showed up that night in the hands and feet and on the faces of every person who gathered in the square. God showed up that night in every voice that was lifted in song. God showed up that night as each candle was lit, and as the vigil ended with each biker revving the engine on their bike in one big, loud roar. God showed up because people were afraid. God showed up because people were sad and angry and full of questions. God showed up because there was tangible pain in our community. God showed up to make it clear that even though it was Good Friday, Easter was just around the corner. My doubt and my hesitation had locked me in a nice little dark room, but locked doors aren’t a problem for Jesus. God showed up, and God will continue to show up.
My friends, in these days after Easter, its easy to question the whole thing, it is easy to wonder if it really happened, it is easy to doubt and be uncertain. In this, Thomas is our patron saint and our best friend. He had to see and touch Jesus to know that it was all real. Jesus allowed Thomas to touch and see. And in order to do that, Jesus had to show up…and he did, over and over again. There is nothing wrong with doubt or questions or uncertainty or some combination of all of it; somewhere along the line we were taught that doubt and questions are bad. But it is just not so. In those moments when it looks like the whole thing is a sham, look around for the ways that Jesus shows up. In those moments when you are riddled with doubt, open your eyes to see the scarred hands and wounded side of Jesus in people all around you. When you are uncertain, when you convinced that God has forgotten you or turned a blind eye to you, hold on, because God will show up. It may not be when you expect it, or how you expect it, or even how you want—but God will show up. And so too with Jesus—again, and again, and again.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, Jesus Christ is risen. And he is roaming around looking for doors and locks to break through. Christ is roaming around looking for ways to make it clear that you and I have been raised to new life. The rooms are cool and comfortable, dark and secluded; they are seductive. But Christ will appear among us and scatter our fear, our anxiety, and our pain. Christ will appear among us again and again and again until we know for certain, as Peter said, that we have not been abandoned in the depths of hell. Christ will appear among us again and again and again until we believe, as the Psalmist says, that God has laid our boundary lines in pleasant places. Jesus Christ is risen! He’s back…again. Thanks be to God! Amen.