Sunday, May 31, 2020

Day of Pentecost

John 20:19-23
Grace and peace to you.
Today’s Johannine Pentecost is a familiar text, if only because we heard it on the Second Sunday of Easter in a longer passage that included the story of Jesus and Thomas. The Acts passage with its imagery of fiery tongues appearing and everyone hearing God speak in their own languages is always part of our readings on the Day of Pentecost but the gospel varies, sharing different parts of the Farewell Discourse and the earlier promises that Jesus makes to send a paraclete to the disciples and to give them his peace.
On Pentecost we particularly remember that Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into his disciples and commissions all of us to continue his work of making God known in the world. Particularly this year, when we are being careful to not breathe on one another or be breathed on, we can appreciate the intimacy of that moment, receiving the very breath of God from Jesus.
And then, in verse 23, Jesus tells us what that work looks like, saying
If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.
In John’s gospel sin is isn’t about morality; it isn’t about being a good or bad person or knowing right from wrong. Sin is not recognizing and embracing the revelation of God in Jesus.
Luther teaches in his Small Catechism that the Holy Spirit “abundantly forgives all sins – mine, [yours] and those of all believers.”[i] It is this same Holy Spirit that sanctifies us – or makes us holy – that we may bear witness to God’s love and mercy.
And it is through the Holy Spirit, that we, as Matt Skinner writes, “can set people free from their inability to see or refusal to recognize God in the world.”[ii]
Of course, the other side of this charge is that when we fail to point to Jesus, 
when we fail to bear witness to God’s love and mercy,
we fail our neighbors and community. The world retains its sin of not recognizing God in its midst, or “grasping the knowledge of God.”
Pentecost reminds us that Jesus did not breathe the Holy Spirit on the disciples for their own sake, but for the sake of the world. As God’s people animated by God’s breath and clothed with God’s power, our freedom as Christians is always for the sake of the world.
The Resurrected Christ commissions us and sends us into the world to tend to those who do not believe, not to condemn them but that they may be saved. (Jn. 3:17)
Wherever you are gathered today as the Church, celebrating Pentecost means moving out into the world so that our neighbors will know the God who loves them. While the ways we can physically be present in each other’s lives and in the community remain limited because of COVID-19, we have not stopped being an extension of Christ’s presence in Shelby and Cleveland County.
Sometimes, we use words; we’ve installed a new banner outside the church on Lafayette Street that proclaims to anyone who passes by, “Jesus is always with you.” Other times, we share out of the abundance we’ve been given; this past week outreach volunteers voted to send $500 to the Cleveland County Potato Project which continues its mission to feed hungry neighbors here; CCPP had an opportunity to buy a surplus harvest of potatoes in Washington State and let us know that they needed partners to help fund the project.
Maybe pointing to Jesus, living the life of Jesus today, looks like sewing masks for those who need them, providing transportation for a friend or delivering groceries for a neighbor who is at risk. Maybe it sounds like a phone call to someone you haven’t seen in a long while or inviting someone to evening prayer online. I’m confident it looks like wearing a mask, standing six feet away from other people and washing our hands.
And this week after the death of George Floyd, I believe that living the life of Jesus also means naming the places where I am complicit with the ways that being white means I can run through my neighborhood, drive my car, wear a mask or a hoodie, and never fear for my life because of the color of my skin.
I confess when 17-year old Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida in 2012, I didn’t understand what it had to do with me. That happened in Florida and I was here in North Carolina. What I forgot, or could not yet see, was that we are all God’s beloved children and it doesn’t matter if the deaths happen in Florida or Georgia or Minneapolis. What wounds and kills one of us is lethal to us all. The sin of systemic racism doesn’t only shorten the lives of our black and brown siblings. It diminishes your life and mine, too.  
My prayer this Pentecost is that just as we listen for the rush of wind of the Holy Spirit we will listen to black and brown voices. Not debate, not argue, not analyze, but listen. Tonight at 8 o’clock on Facebook Live, local black pastors Donnie Thurman, Jerret Fite, Chris Gash, Billy Houze, Lamont Littlejohn, Ricky Mcluney and James Smith will be speaking and I invite you to listen with me.
Let us pray…
Come, loving and merciful God, into our lives.
Come, Jesus Christ, breathe on us and send us into the world as your witnesses.
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love.

[i] Martin Luther. Luther’s Small Catechism. Augsburg Fortress. 31.
[ii] Commentary on John, accessed 5/29/2020.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Day of Ascension

Luke 24:44-53

Grace and peace to you.

Recently a memory flew across Facebook showing my oldest daughter on a river dock after a race. Rowing is one of those sports that parents love; you spend twelve hours waiting to watch your child compete for less than ninety seconds. But I was well-practiced, because before she rowed, Casey was a gymnast. She started the sport late, at the wizened age of 10, and when she was trying to get her back handspring her coach said, “It’s always easier for the younger gymnasts. They’re fearless because they haven’t learned that falling hurts.”

This memory came back to me as I read the late author Danaan Perry’s essay, “The Parable of the Trapeze” which is in his book Warriors of the Heart. Describing life as if it were “a series of trapeze swings” Perry writes about looking forward and seeing the next trapeze bar with his name on it and knowing he will need to release his grip on the bar he has in order to reach out and grab the next one. [i]

And then he writes,
Each time, I am filled with terror. It doesn't matter that in all my previous hurtles across the void of unknowing I have always made it. I am each time afraid that I will miss, that I will be crushed on unseen rocks in the bottomless chasm between bars. I do it anyway. Perhaps this is the essence of what the mystics call the faith experience. No guarantees, no net, no insurance policy, but you do it anyway because somehow to keep hanging on to that old bar is no longer on the list of alternatives. So, for an eternity that can last a microsecond or a thousand lifetimes, I soar across the dark void of “the past is gone, the future is not yet here.”
The disciples knew how much it hurt to fall, and to fail. They had witnessed the crucifixion and watched as Jesus was executed by the religious authorities. Gathered together they had tried to make sense of the news of the empty tomb that they had heard from Mary, Joanna, the other women and from Peter. Startled and terrified, they had witnessed Jesus returning to them and eating with them.

And now, they are listening to Jesus open their minds to the Scripture, and tell them he is leaving them and they are to wait for the Spirit to come to them.

Only Luke narrates the event of the ascension and he places it at the end of the same day as the resurrection. They had experienced a roller coaster of emotions – of grief, loss, fear and hesitant hope – and now, as Perry wrote, they realized, “The past is gone, the future is not yet here.”

That in-between time is transition. It is both terrifying and transformative.

We have had a lot of practice lately learning to let go of the past – what we know and love, what is familiar and treasured – and reaching into an unknown future. I know for me, some days it feels like I have a firm grip on what will happen next. And other days, or maybe even later that same day, it feels like my hand has just grazed the rung but it’s out of reach and I am freefalling.

But I’m not. I know God is with me and will keep me and sustain me, and all I can do is take the next faithful step.

At the Ascension, Jesus doesn’t vanish into a black hole or mythical abyss; in fact, he only leaves us so that we might know his presence even more fully.

Making us witnesses to all he has taught and said, he promises us that we will receive the power from on high – the Holy Spirit – and going ahead of us and leading us, he sends us into the world to tell everyone what we know:
that, in his name, “a total life-change through the forgiveness of sins” is offered to us, in the gift of grace.[ii]

In this in-between time, that sometimes feels like seconds but often feels like an eternity, Jesus is with us, leading us toward the new thing that God is doing and calling us to be.

May we open our minds and reach our hands out to receive Jesus’ blessing and leading.

Let us pray…

Holy God, Thank you for going before your people, leading us and making us witnesses to your Word.
Bountiful God, Thank you for your providing all that we need and sustaining us.
Merciful God, Thank you leading us to your grace and forgiveness by Your Word and Son Jesus.
God of Creation, Resurrection and Ascension, Clothe us from on high with the power of your Holy Spirit and encourage us to share the Good News of forgiveness and new life found in Jesus.
We pray in the name of your Risen and Ascended Son, Jesus.

[i] “The Parable of the Trapeze” in Warriors of the Heart. Danaan Perry., accessed May 22, 2020. Used with permission.
[ii] Luke 24:47 The Message

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Sixth Sunday of Easter

John 14:15-21

Grace and peace to you.

Today’s gospel picks up where last week’s text left off. Jesus still is speaking to the disciples in his “Farewell Discourse.” He has washed their feet; he has spoken to them about betrayal and death; and he has given them the commandment to love one another, just as he has loved them. (John 13:34) Last week we heard him reassure the disciples that God is with them even in the uncertainty and disruption they are facing. (John 14:1-14)

Today’s text begins and ends with bookends of sorts:

First Jesus says “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” and then he repeats himself, saying, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me.”

In both verses, the Greek verb for “love” is better translated as “keep on loving Jesus”, as in “the ones who keep on loving Jesus will keep his commandments.” And “the ones who keep his commandments are those who keep on loving Jesus.”

Some fifty-six years ago, a phrase came out of pop culture when American folk musician Len Chandler recorded a song and Martin Luther King, Jr. included some of the lyrics in a speech he made. The song was “Keep On Keepin’ On.” Today when you are in the midst of hard or challenging times, someone might tell you, “Keep on keepin’ on.” It’s encouragement to do what you know how to do as best as you can, trusting there’s hope ahead.

And that’s what Jesus says to his disciples in this text:

Keep on loving me – you know how to do that; love me by following my commandment to love one another. Keep on keepin’ on.

And when life is hard —
and we’ve talked about how being a person of faith and following Jesus doesn’t mean that we never face challenges or hard times, so we know it’s okay for us to admit there are times when life is hard — when life is hard, Jesus promises again that we are not left alone. Here he tells us God will give us another paraclete, an Advocate, Helper, or Counselor.

I hadn’t noticed before that the text says that God will send us another paraclete. Lutheran pastor Brian Stoffregen suggests that the Helper is not so much our helper as a helper to Jesus, reminding us of all that Jesus has said to us, what the promises of God are, and awakening us to the holy in our ordinary lives. We know Jesus as the One God sends us to show us how God suffers with us and how much God loves us. And here, Jesus tells us that God will send another One to us. 

John’s gospel alone describes the paraclete as the “Spirit of Truth”. Jesus says here, “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him...” (14:17) And later in 15:26, he says “the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father…will testify on my behalf.” And in 16:13, he promises that “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth….”

The bad news is that hearing “all the truth” means hearing that we are sinners. Turned in on ourselves — full of ourselves — we cannot receive the love God offers as we are. Grasping for what’s known and familiar, we cannot, by our own efforts or merits, open our hands and hearts to receive God’s surprising grace.

But there is good news in this truth-telling, too.

The paraclete is the One today who shows us the extraordinary truth of God’s abundant love and mercy as God lifts our chins and opens our eyes to see our Savior on the cross with open hands stretched out to the world.

Luther wrote in his explanation of the third article of the Apostle’s Creed,
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith…. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.
The paraclete is the One who helps us hear the Gospel — the Good News — that God loves us and does not leave us alone in our brokenness and in our sinfulness, but forgives us and gives us new life. In this same text in the The Message paraphrase of the Bible, Eugene Peterson writes, “you’re going to see me because I am alive and you’re about to come alive.” And I hear Jesus saying to us,
Keep on keepin’ on. Find your life in keepin’ on loving me and loving others as I love you.
Thanks be to God.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Fifth Sunday of Easter

John 14:1-7

Grace and peace to you.

Earlier this week, I went over to the sanctuary. We have not worshiped together in that space since March 8th and I haven’t led worship there since March 22nd. I thought about today’s gospel text as I removed the purple Lenten paraments and carried away stones and branches that adorned the altar. I’ve heard from altar guild volunteers that preparing the sanctuary for worship is a kind of devotional practice, and I could hear Jesus’s words, “I go to prepare a place for you” as I hung a new season’s paraments and replaced the wooden candlesticks on the altar.

These are also verses we often hear at funerals, and for many of us, it may be hard to separate them from images of heaven, or the life we have been promised after death.

It’s true that this passage is part of Jesus’ farewell discourse when he is telling his disciples goodbye, but he isn’t merely consoling or comforting them in their grief and sorrow.

When Jesus talks about the many “dwelling places” that God provides, Jesus is talking about God, Emmanuel, the God who is with us, here and now.

Back in the very first chapter of John, the Fourth Evangelist told us, “the Word became flesh and lived among us….” (John 1:14) Johannine scholar and preaching professor Karoline Lewis teaches that the verb here means “to tent”.[i] God pitches his tent alongside ours. Or as Eugene Peterson writes in his paraphrase The Message, “God moved into the neighborhood.”[ii]

That is good news when we are separated from each other and from our traditional worship spaces, the very places we think of when we hear the words “in my Father’s house.”

So, I want to hear from you what space you are in as you are worshiping today? Your living room, a bedroom, a basement? I invite you to use the chat or comments to name the space where you are.

Now, hear this promise:
God abides or dwells there with you.

After Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them, he says, “And you know the way to the place where I am going." (John 14:4) And immediately, Thomas leads the disciples in questioning him and says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John14:5)

When we are anxious or living in uncertainty, like Thomas we jump to those How, What and Why questions, “How can we know?”, “What do you mean?”, “Why is this happening?”

But Jesus answers the “Who” question instead, saying “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:5-7)

Jesus explains that the Way isn’t something we find on any roadmap. It isn’t a set of directions from Google maps or a GPS. It is a way of being in the world, living in relationship with God, and living in the image of God, in our daily lives. God shows forth who God is through God’s own good creation — us! God speaks through our lives as we bear God’s merciful love into the world.

Fourteenth century English mystic Julian of Norwich served as an ‘anchoress’, or spiritual counselor, in her community about 100 miles northeast of London. Cloistered in an approximately 12-foot square room attached to the church she participated in worship through an open window and people visited her in her cell for spiritual direction. [iii]Methodist pastor Kate Hanch imagines Julian, sheltering in place in her cell, mindful of the suffering she still witnessed in the world – illness, poverty and famine – mouthing the refrain attributed to her, “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”[iv]

God’s promise to dwell with us is not that that God will end all adversity, calm all the storms, prevent death or even cure all the disease. The promise is that God is right there in the disruption and uncertainty with us. Confident of God’s abiding with us, we can pray in the words of Julian of Norwich:

In you, Father all-mighty, we have our preservation and our bliss. In you, Christ, we have our restoring and our saving. You are our mother, brother and savior. In you, our Lord, the Holy Spirit is marvelous and plenteous grace. You are our clothing; for your wrap us and embrace us. You are our maker, our lover, our keeper. Teach us to believe that by your grace all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

[i] Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) (p. 17). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
[ii] ibid
[iii] “About Julian of Norwich.” Julian Centre.
[iv] Kate Hanch. “Amid this pandemic, can we say with Julian of Norwich, ‘All shall be well’?

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Grace and peace to you.
One of the reasons I decided to teach about the psalms during this Eastertide is that the psalms give us language to share all of our emotions with God. Following the Revised Common Lectionary, we only hear or sing about two-thirds of all the psalms though, and most of those are the ones that offer our worship, thanksgiving or praise. But there are psalms of confession, there are psalms of persecution, pain and personal struggle and even of violence and anger. Like I said, all of our emotions.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says there are three types of psalms: psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation and psalms of new orientation. The psalms of orientation “express confidence and serenity while psalms of disorientation name the places where our human experience, life and the world differ or break from those neat and orderly plans. [i] And then the psalms of new orientation “bear witness to the surprising gift of new life just when none had been expected.” [ii]
The psalm from the exile lectionary that we heard today is Psalm 30, one of the psalms of new orientation. In this psalm or song of thanksgiving, which we often hear at Easter, the psalmist “tells the story of going into the trouble and coming out of the trouble.”[iii]
Although we do not know what the nature of the psalmist’s suffering was, verse 3 explicitly names Sheol and the Pit, synonyms for the place people went after they died. But life and death weren’t just biological functions; life encompassed abundance and vitality, and conversely, death was any loss that diminished a person’s capacity for life.
In the New Testament, life means being in relationship with God. And death is the separation from God and the absence or brokenness of that relationship. Martin Luther teaches that one use of the Law is “to convict me that my own righteousness is never good enough. I need the righteousness that comes from God as a gift.”[iv] It drives me to name my sin and bare it before God that I may know the joy of salvation, of being brought into right relationship, and given new life.
In Psalm 30, the psalmist bears witness to how God responded to him, and offers praise for the healing and restoration he has experienced. He doesn’t deny that God is angered by our sin, but he knows first-hand how much more God desires to be in relationship with us than execute punishment upon us.
In verse 5 he says,
5For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
A clergy colleague’s young son said after a particularly bad day, “Jesus forgot to help me today.” The psalmist knows that when we confront the places where we have done wrong, when we confess our sin, we can feel very isolated and God can feel very far away. But the good news is that God’s victory over sin, death and the grave by any name is complete and total. This is the Resurrection Promise we hold – that in Jesus there is nothing, not even death, that can separate us from God.
And in verse 11, indeed the psalmist declares:
11You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
The promise we hear is that with forgiveness and grace, the God who loves us restores us and clothes us in new life. A new life that lets us continue to bear witness to what God already has done in our lives, and to continue to be transformed by God’s love and grace.
As we enter our eighth week worshiping apart, may we name all the deaths that we have experienced from this time of quarantine and those that continue to diminish our lives. Remember the Psalms teach us that there are no emotions we cannot share with God. God’s love for us is big enough to hold all of our disappointment and grief. And then may we join with the Psalmist in celebrating the Good News that God brings us through all kinds of trouble and may we offer thanksgiving that our trouble will not last.
Thanks be to God.

[i] Walter Brueggemann. The Message of the Psalms. 25, 51-52.
[ii] Brueggemann, 123-4.
[iii] Brueggemann, 126.
[iv] The Rev. Brian Stoffregen

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Third Sunday of Easter

Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
Luke 24:13-35

Grace and peace to you.
Sometime ago I discovered a podcast published by Our State magazine called “Away Message.” A Greensboro reporter travels all over the state sharing the stories of places that are off the beaten path. In the finale from the first season, recorded three years ago he walks from his house in Guildford County to his office in downtown Greensboro and as he walks he records the people he sees and the conversations he has, and how different his 14 mile commute sounds and looks on foot compared to the short drive he usually takes to get to his office.
As I was imagining the two disciples walking to Emmaus, some seven miles from Jerusalem, I remembered that reporter and his story, and also saw that his story and that of the disciples and ours today are all one story.
The Ingles in Kings Mountain, Cline’s Nursery up Fallston Road and Crest High School all are a little less than seven miles from the sanctuary. It isn’t like walking this discipleship journey is taking us to far away places or beginning a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. We are in familiar territory.
And yet, we are on the road, on the Way, with Jesus.
And especially right now, our lives look, feel and sound differently than they have in the past.
It’s easy to recognize the holy when we are on mountaintops and in sacred spaces like our sanctuary or celebrating the Passion of Christ during Holy Week, but as the disciples in Luke’s gospel discover, when we are in familiar or unremarkable surroundings, we can have more difficulty.
Jesus invites the travelers into conversation. His question to them is literally, “What words are you tossing back and forth?” Isn’t that so much of what our conversation feels like right now? Words tossed back and forth, from the news to us and from us to a friend, and then back to the news. The disciples are trying to get at the heart of the matter, to make sense of the cross, and sadly are unable to sort it out.
I confess that I don’t like the next bit of our gospel story. It sounds to me like Jesus is scolding the disciples and then lecturing them , showing them where they had missed the signs in Scripture that point to him being the Messiah and how they had forgotten his own words foretelling his death and resurrection. I’ll be honest - I like the Jesus who eats with his friends and heals the sick more than this One. But then I remember John’s Gospel where the gospel writer tells us
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. …grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
“Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Jesus tells the truth; in Luther’s words, he calls a thing what it is. And when my eyes are clouded and I cannot see the Way, I am grateful Jesus is there to set me straight.
And the disciples don’t seem bothered by this talking-to; in fact, when it looks like Jesus is going to leave them and continue on, they urge him to stay with them. Last summer I discovered an icon, a religious image, of Mary that called her the “un-tier of knots” and I wonder if that isn’t how the disciples felt listening to Jesus. Instead of feeling scolded or lectured, perhaps listening to him helped unknot or untie what the psalmist calls the cords of death and the anguish of the grave.
And then when Jesus was at the table with them, and took the bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them, their eyes were opened and they remembered how their hearts had burned within them as he had spoken about all these things. With perfect hindsight, they recognized they had been in the presence of the holy.
We are not participating in the sacrament of Holy Communion, or the Table, while we are apart, but later in worship I will invite you into spiritual communion, a practice of prayer shared by our full-communion partners in The Episcopal Church. In the absence of the physical wine and bread, broken, blessed and given, where else may our eyes be opened to see the holy in our midst?
Certainly with the psalmist we can begin with words of thanksgiving and praise. We first call on the name of the Lord because we know God’s promises to us, and then we call on the name of the Lord again as we experience the freedom of being rescued from sin and death and loved by God - the freedom to have our eyes opened to all that is holy.
Where else may we not merely glimpse Jesus but listen to God’s Word and pay attention to where God is being revealed?
Perhaps it’s in a conversation with a neighbor that would have been missed if you both got into your cars and left the house each day.
Or it’s in slowing down to look around you and notice when your heart is burning – where have you experienced joy this week?
The questions I leave for you on this third Sunday of Easter are:
When have you experienced the peace of knowing God is present with you?
What is a gift that you have received during this time of worshiping from home?
Let us pray…
Redeeming God,
We give thanks for your only Son made known to us in the breaking of the bread.
Close to Your heart, He brings grace and truth to us all.
Open our eyes and hearts to Your love and forgiveness and make us aware of your Holy presence with us.
May your grace sustain us as we follow Jesus.
We pray in your Holy name.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Second Sunday of Easter

John 20:19-31

Grace and peace to you.

For the next few weeks at least, I will be preaching from an ‘exile lectionary.’ While the Revised Common Lectionary includes additional readings from First Peter and the Acts of the Apostles, our worship during these weeks will focus on the psalms and gospels. The gospels continue to give us stories from Jesus’ life and ministry and the psalms invite us to bare our emotions before God, both expressing thanksgiving and trust and crying out in lament or sorrow, acknowledging both the grief we are experiencing and our confidence in God’s presence with us.

One of the griefs I have right now is that, during this period of staying at home to slow the spread of the coronavirus, home is no longer a place where we rest from busy-ness or we gather with family and friends for celebrations. Instead for parents and school-age children, home is now also a classroom. For many workers, it has become an office. For many people who have higher risk for the virus, it has become a place of isolation and quarantine. And for others still it has become a place where they are now at an even higher risk for domestic violence or abuse. So “home” may no longer be a place that brings comfort or the place where our hearts rest well. In our psalm this morning the psalmist reminds us all that when we are homeless, when our security and safety feel jeopardized, when we cannot find comfort in the familiar, God is our refuge and stronghold and our habitation.

That’s something that the disciples appear to have forgotten. They heard Mary’s proclamation when she found the tomb empty and met Jesus nearby, but they didn’t go to Galilee as they’d been told. Instead, hours later on Easter evening, they are locked behind closed doors, full of fear. The Good News Mary brought could inspire hope but it could not eliminate their fear.[i]

Thankfully, God's love for us is not dependent on our emotions or our actions.

So Jesus shows up for the disciples. He enters through locked doors and says, “Peace to you.”

This is his first appearance to the ones who deserted him at his crucifixion. Peter is there, trying to shrink into the shadows of the room as he sees the resurrected Christ and remembers how he denied him three times. The one who Jesus loves is there but the knowledge of his Lord’s love hadn’t kept him from being overcome by fear with the other disciples.

And even after his first appearance, they stay locked behind closed doors for another week, imprisoned by fear and uncertainty. We don’t know what their experience of that week was like – what questions they asked or how they second-guessed what they had seen and heard. But fear isn't new to us. And acting out of fear, our impulse is to turn inward - it is the definition of sin that Luther gives us. And when we do that we cannot breathe deeply or love abundantly. What the gospel tells us is that it wasn't until Jesus appears a second time that the disciples appear to be able to receive the peace God gives them in the presence of Jesus.

Do you remember when two years ago in Thailand twelve young soccer players and their 25-year-old coach wound up trapped in an underwater cave? For 18 days the world watched as the search and rescue effort unfolded and ultimately succeeded. And while there was death - one of the Navy seals died when his air supply ran out - ultimately, the boys, the coach and the other rescuers were all delivered from fear and danger. Imagine the relief and hopefulness the trapped youth experienced when they realized they were not alone, that salvation was coming. But I expect the time between them first knowing people were working on a solution, and their ultimate safety was filled with questions and doubts.

Anne Lamott wrote once, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.” [ii] Faith isn’t about having head knowledge or more information; it is about being in relationship with the living God.

Reading this gospel two thousand years later we don’t have a face to face encounter with Jesus to sustain our faith; what we have is a relationship with our living God whose love for us is more powerful than any human limits or circumstances.[iii] And, we have the witness of those who went before us and shared from generation to generation. Similar to the disciples that first Easter week, during this period of quarantine and staying at home, the closure of businesses and the suspension of our everyday activities has broken any illusion of control or certainty that we may have had. And yet, while we are scattered across the county in our homes, out of the church building and missing the physical presence of community, we have this witness from Scripture that Jesus shows up, no matter what uncertainty we are facing and what fears we are experiencing.

Thanks be to God. Alleluia. Alleluia.

[i] “Commentary of John 20:19-31.” Joy J Moore. Luther Seminary.
[ii] Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.
[iii] Francis J. Moloney SDB. John. Sacra Pagina.