04/28/2019 Sermon


Paul Seebeck

Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church

April 28, 2019

Before we read this passage of scripture that describes Jesus showing up a week after the resurrection to those behind locked doors in fear, an acknowledgement of what happened yesterday in SD, the deadly shooting at the POW- way Synagogue in San Diego that killed one and injured three others.

The suspect is a 19-year-old.  A manifesto, he wrote on far-right message website message board, was filled racist rant and quotes from the Bible.  Praising suspects responsible for the New Zealand mosque and Pittsburgh synagogue shootings — adding they were inspiration for his planned shooting.

The temple was filled — members were observing the last day of the Passover. 

So here we are again, observing rituals and rhythm of our worship.  I wanted to mention now, before we read the scripture.  Perhaps because my father drilled it into our family that we should read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.  (pause).

God as we enter into your story in these words this morning, open our hearts and minds to hear you — in ways that will encourage us — and move us into the knowledge of your presence.  Continue to enter into the suffering in San Diego and into the suffering of the world that you so love.  And now use what is heard and said, for good, and quickly discard what is not useful, in your name, Amen.

John 20:19-31 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Jesus Appears to the Disciples 19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Jesus and Thomas 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin[a]), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

The Purpose of This Book 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe[b] that Jesus is the Messiah,[c] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 The first thing I want to say, in this second Sunday of Easter is, “I’ve never seen a person come out of a grave.” 

But I have seen plenty of dead men/dead women walking again.  Just talk to any person recovering from any struggle or addiction they might have — and tell me if you don’t see and then recognize the new life.

It’s a week after Easter, but the mystery of the what we have just celebrated, the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is alive, even today.   A week after the woman found the stone rolled away.  A week after Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, whom she saw, but didn’t recognize until he called her by name.

Now there is another Jesus sighting. Seven days after he first appeared, the evening darkness is settling in.   The disciples are meeting in a house.  The doors are locked because they are afraid of the religious leaders.

And then Jesus shows up!  He was a gardener a week ago — now he moves through locked doors at night.

Which begs the question, what are we afraid of? What are you afraid of?  So much so we lock our doors, shutting off the possibility of the recognition of new life that might appear?

No matter, how we or your or I are answering that question, here’s the good news.

The risen Christ, who knows no boundaries, shows up anyway.

I was at a Richard Rohr conference recently on the Universal Christ.  I  discovered in a new and deeper way that unlike the Western Church — which focused on individual resurrection — the Eastern church emphasized the communal or universal resurrection.

We saw image after image that confirmed this.

In western icons of the resurrection — we typically see Christ as a triumphant, singular figure.  If any other humans are present at all — it is often as guards lying sleep by the tomb.

The most common eastern icons show of the anastatis (the Greek word for rising up) shows Christ breaching the gates of hell, hades, the place of the dead. Typically, two long broken gates are show lying in the shape of the cross, with Satan lying underneath Christ’s feet.   The key in these icons is Christ firmly grasping the wrist of Adam in the pit, pulling him along as he ascends into heaven.  Eve is almost always represented as well — sometimes she is seen being pulled upward by the hand of Christ. Others like Solomon, John the Baptist and various others are sometimes in view.  These iconic images came out of the tradition of belief that this is what Christ was doing those three days in the tomb — what do we say in the creed, “he descended into …

It was remarkable seeing image after image — and then recognizing that this Christ, who now has no boundaries, was, has, and is conquering the place of death — and is even now rescuing those imprisoned by death.  

This reminded me of what I learned at Gonzaga University, where the Presbyterians and Jesuits helped me receive by degree to become an ordained Minister.  How the Western and Eastern church split. The west was most concerned in the belief that Jesus was God. The east was most interested in what it meant that Jesus came from God.

Leading to this emphasis on individual belief in Jesus as God, on one side, and emphasis what it meant for US (humanity), if Jesus came from God, on the other.

A confession, one of the things that has me most afraid today, are some of the religious leaders of our time that have aligned themselves with political and economic power, much like the religious leaders had done in Jesus time.

With those, as David Batchelder of West Plano Presbyterian Church in Texas says, “who side with the exercise of power, marginalize the weak, look at the needy as expendable, and protect privilege.”

“Jesus was not killed by atheism and anarchy,” adds, the Rev. Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor, “He was brought down by law and order allied with religion which is always a deadly mix.”

“Beware,” she warns of those who claim to know the will of God and are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform.  Beware of those who cannot tell God’s will from their own.”

Right before holy week began, I spoke with PC(USA) ordained minister, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis of Middle Collegiate Church in New York. I was trying to get at why Palm Sunday mattered to the world.  What she said, I thought was so profound, really getting at, what my dad was trying to get at, connecting scripture with the newspaper, with what was happening then to what is happening now. 

“What I want to talk about is,” she said, “is the connection between Jesus’ time and our time — the connection between the so called “Roman peace” (the empire controlled people through fear, by crucifying them) to our moment in time, (under another empire’s power), “the so-called” ‘make America great again” time — where increasingly those controlled by this power live under fear — afraid of anyone that is not like them.

But Jesus shows up in this fear and says, “Peace be with you.” Keeping with the mystery, the disciples don’t seem to know who it is.

So he shows his wounds of suffering (his hands and his side).

Now they rejoice, they see that it is the Lord — they recognize their God — our God who chose/chooses to suffer with them.

“Jesus as the people’s king choosing the road to the cross is the biggest surrendering and renaming of power,” says Lewis. “This willingness to go the distance, even to the place where someone will kill because of the love you stand up for, the solidarity with the crucified ones everywhere, where every they are.”

“Peace be with you,” Jesus says again.  God has sent me, so I send you.”  Remarkable, isn’t it?

What if when we pass the peace, we thought of each other as the ones sent by God — for the world to continue to have Jesus sightings, in the midst of their cry for justice, where love and peace meet.

And then after breathing on them, Jesus says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive sins they are forgiven, if you retain them, they are retained.”

I wish I knew what that phrase was triggering for you? 

When I first read these words, a couple weeks ago, I realized that I was locked up inside, because of what I was holding on, retaining.

I’ve had a complicated relationship with my father.  We’ve done so much work. It is as good as it will be on this side, that is bound by time and space. The turning point for us happened years ago, when I finally cried out, “I can no longer do your God of wrath,” and he blurted back, “Funny, I was just thinking I can’t do your God of grace.”

 He is hurting everywhere, now. Np cartilage left in his knees or shoulders. Recently nearing 99 years old, he could no longer get a driver’s license — that combined with other health issues (bowel surgery) has severely limited his freedom.

Years ago, I made one of the better decisions of my life, to call him weekly.  But lately he hasn’t been picking up. When he does. he starts yelling at me.

I was in a period where I was already exhausted — so I just stopped calling. Didn’t feel like being yelled at.  But’s here’s the thing, if you hear nothing else, because I was holding on, my compassion for his suffering lessened. 

This phrase, “if you retain sins, they will be retained,” woke me up again.  I could feel myself, more at peace again. Thinking about my dad again, in more compassionate ways. Calling him leaving messages, conveying love, breaking through the walls of isolation.

Which brings us to Jesus and Thomas, who wasn’t there with when Jesus came through the locked doors.   When the others tell him, they have seen the Lord, he refuses to believe, saying unless I see the mark of nails in his hands and put my finger in his side I will not believe.”

So, here’s another question, “What do we need?  What do you need to see or experience to believe in life more fully?

Notice, the richness and the layers of simple meaning, in this story.

The disciples are together again, a week later, in the same house. This time the doors are shut (not locked) — as if the text is inviting to see how the disciples recognizing that the suffering Christ is with them, makes them a little less afraid.

Now Jesus stands among them — despite what I heard in too many doubting Thomas sermons growing up — his refusal to believe, really wasn’t an issue for Christ. 

So, no matter how you answered that question of what we or you need to more fully believe in life —let go of the idea that this might be a barrier to our God of love.

Peace be with you.  Peace be with you. 

And then, to Thomas, put your finger here in my side, see my hands, again.

The image of God suffering, standing then and now with us, creating life out darkness and death.

“The Christian faith,” writes Nadia Bolz-Weber, “while wildly misrepresented in so much of American culture, is really about death and resurrection.  It is about how God continues to reach into the graves we dig for ourselves and pull us out, giving us new life, in ways both small and dramatic.”

John is clear of his purpose in writing the story this way, that we might believe and have life in his name.

Life that gives itself away to become healing of others, and for the world that God loves.

AMEN