Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

New Sunday (1st Sunday after Easter)

Sermon / Homily on John 20:19-31

Fleeing or Engaging the World?

by The Rev. Bishop Mark Hanson

Scripture: John 20:19-23

A reading from John's Gospel, the 20th Chapter:

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." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Then Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

Grace to you and peace from God our creator and from our crucified and risen Christ. Amen.

"Behind locked doors afraid." It is the description of Jesus' disciples, that first Easter evening. Yet, is it not also a vivid portrayal of our lives today? Increasingly we live isolated by our fears. We're terrified of violence, afraid of the stranger, worried about the future, uncertain about the economy. Yet I wonder how many of us Christians lie awake at night fearful that in the morning someone might accuse us of being followers of Jesus.

Is that not what kept Jesus' disciples barricaded behind closed doors on that first Easter evening?
If they went out into the streets, someone might say, "There he is! He is a follower of Jesus. Bring him to trial, crucify him!" Think for a moment. If someone did accuse you of being a follower of Jesus, what evidence would they have to convict you?

In the midst of his fearful disciples behind locked doors stands the risen Christ. What does he say? "Peace be with you." Such an ordinary greeting and yet such an extraordinary gift. What is this peace that Christ offers you as you contend with your deepest fears? What is the peace Christ brings into our world in turmoil? It is a peace that is both rest and movement. Joseph Sittler described that tension of peace as rest and peace as movement in a sermon when he said:

When the world is regarded as a succulent resource to be squeezed for its juice of joy, it turns out to be a thief, a liar, and a cheat. And yet when the world is received as a gift, a grace, an ever astounding wonder, it can be rightly enjoyed and justly used.

The peace of God as rest, whose gift is to have no anxiety, fulfills itself in a peace of God as movement which goes out with holy concern about everything.

The peace of God as rest in God's acceptance of a person is not a knowledge that the world can deliver, is not in fact concerned with the world at all. But this same peace . . . knows that the peaceless world is precisely the place for working out of God's will for truth, justice, purity, and beauty. Thus far, Sittler.

But before the crucified and risen Christ sends his terrified disciples, and you and me, out into the world, he gives three gifts. First, the gift of himself. "Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you.' After he said this, he showed them his hand and his side." How often when burdened down by fear do we cry out, "Where are you, God? Where are you in this world so torn by violence? Where are you in the suffering of my life?" The wounds of Jesus' crucified body, now risen, give us the answer. God is present in, not absent from, our agony. But not only present. The deeper truth of the cross is this: God is present for us and for the whole creation. Through Jesus' life, suffering, death, and resurrection, God is participating in our very being, bringing healing and peace in ways we cannot fully comprehend.

When the crucified and risen Christ comes into our fearful and sinful lives, he not only gives us the gift of himself, but he also sends us into the world. "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." Just think: into the violent world that had crucified Jesus, he now sends his followers. Yes, peace is rest and peace is movement. Sometimes, I wonder—dare I say I worry—do we look to the church to provide a refuge from the world, rather than a community of faith God sends into the world? Yet we are not sent into the fearful, sinful, violent world on our own. The risen Christ sends us in the power of the Holy Spirit. "When Jesus had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'" This is his second gift.

Our granddaughter was born without a connected esophagus. It has since been surgically repaired, thanks be to God. Before she was released from the hospital, we as a family had to take CPR training. On a tiny doll, each one of us had to learn how to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Well, I could not get that little doll's chest to expand with my breath. At first it was funny, then embarrassing, finally downright frustrating.

There are times when it may seem like we are out on our own in the world, that it is up to us to find within ourselves the resources, the energies to bring peace into the world. And then feeling inadequate, overwhelmed, discouraged, we can easily give up, withdraw into ourselves, tend to our personal issues and challenges, and just turn our backs and forget about the violent, struggling world. But what then do we do with Christ's words: "As the Father sends me, so I send you"? We claim the promise, Christ's promise, that we are sent into the fearful and often violent world not on our own, but in the power of the Holy Spirit, as a community of faith.

You see, peace is not simply the absence of conflict. Peace is the presence of justice for all. No, you and I will not always agree on the way to peace, yet in the power of the Holy Spirit, we are all sent into the violent world to be peacemakers.

The crucified and risen Christ gives us the gift of himself, sends us the power of the Holy Spirit, and with the promise of the Gospel. And this, then, is that third gift. What is the Gospel? What is that Good News? God forgives sinners! As the risen Christ said when he sent his terrified disciples into the world, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." Do you think by that Jesus could possibly mean that if I fail to tell my neighbor, my colleague at work, my son or my daughter, the Good News that God in Christ forgives you, then I bear responsibility for their sins?

When we are burdened with guilt, the hardest words to believe are these: "God forgives you." Yet that is the Good News! There is nothing in your past for which you need to atone, there is nothing in the future you need to fear. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are free to entrust our whole lives to God's promise. Living in faith, we are also free to go into the world to bear witness to God's love, to serve our neighbor, to work for justice and peace.

I am continually amazed that when Nelson Mandela came out of years and years of confinement in a South African prison, he did not call for retaliation and a violent uprising. Rather he called for a time of speaking the truth and seeking reconciliation. He chose nonviolence as the response to the terrible suffering he and thousands upon thousands of Black South Africans and Afrikaners had experienced for generations. "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

Doesn't that promise make you want to go and call up that family member, that friend, from whom you have felt alienated, with whom you last spoke harsh words, and share the good news, "God forgives you. I forgive you," and then ask for forgiveness? Why does it often seem easier to hold onto resentments, than to seek reconciliation? Why do we feel more secure behind locked doors than trust in the promise that the crucified and risen Christ is alive in the world and bids us to come and meet him there?

This is my prayer for you:

May the peace of Christ be with you always.
May you know that peace as rest and as movement.


About the Author:

The Rev. Mark Hanson is Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, headquartered in Chicago. He was also recently elected President of the Lutheran World Federation with headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Mark was educated at Augsburg College, Union Theological Seminary, Luther Seminary and Harvard Divinity School. Prior to his election as bishop of the St. Paul Area Synod in 1995 and as Presiding Bishop in 2001, he served churches in Minnesota for over twenty years. Mark is the author of "Faithful Yet Changing: The Church in Challenging Times."

See Also:

"Must We See to Believe?"
by the Rev. Dr. Wyvetta Bullock

The Everlasting Breath of Jesus
by the Rev. Dr. John Killinger

Thomas the Doubter
by Edward F. Markquart

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