Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Baptized by the Spirit

Easter 2A * May 1, 2011
The Rev. Deborah Magdalene
John 20:19-31

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. (John 14:27) Jesus says this to the disciples at the Last Supper. Christ’s peace is a greeting, a goodbye, an invitation to renewed ministry, and much, much more.

When the resurrected Jesus appears to his frightened disciples huddled together in their locked room he greets them three different times with these words, “Peace be with you.”

We use this greeting, ‘the Peace of the Lord be always with you,’ in our liturgy as we segue from hearing the Word of God to participating in the Holy Communion. The events on Easter Day, in the disciple’s locked and private room, are remarkably similar to what we experience here, week after week, during our service of Holy Eucharist.

We begin with readings from Hebrew and New Testament scriptures reminding us where we have come from and where Christ is asking us to pack up our bags and journey toward.

The sermon should reveal what is hidden in our travel itinerary. Like Jesus, revealing himself to his friends to be the risen Christ, preachers must reveal the Good News embedded in the ancient and familiar words.

It is with fear and trembling that I continue.

After we experience a ‘revelation’, if you will, of Christ’s message for us today, we re-enact Christ sharing his peace with us. Like the disciples, we are in our own private room of prayer and holy dining. And, just as the disciples were required to do, we turn to our neighbor and do likewise.

We greet one another in the name of the Lord, reminding one another that the Peace of God, which passes all understanding, is the powerful force, the Holy and unruly Wind that will change the world. Peace be with you. Abide in peace as you abide in Christ. And take Christ with you as you enter the world outside these doors.
We pass the peace to remind each other that Christ continues to come to us in scripture, is present in our own good works, and is the creative spark of new life in Christ.

Christ comes to each of us through the channels of peace, revealing his divinity in surprising ways, as we hear in today’s gospel. Christ knows how uniquely human is our doubt and unbelief.

Peace be with you – these deceivingly simple words carry with them the promise that our prayers have been and will be answered, our quavering faith fulfilled, and our isolation vanquished.

The disciples gather in their locked room on the evening of the first day of the week. It is still Easter day, the day that begins with Mary Magdalene visiting the tomb and finding it abandoned.

It is in the early hours before dawn when Mary sees that the stone has been rolled away from the entrance to the tomb. She runs frantically to tell the other disciples that something is wrong. For a painful moment in time, she and the disciples remain in the darkness and fear of unbelief. They do not know what the empty tomb means.

As dawn begins to lighten the sky, Peter approaches the tomb to see for himself what Mary claimed was true. He gazes into the empty tomb and still does not understand what he is seeing. In the darkness, he returns to the frightened disciples, while Mary keeps a tearful watch at the empty tomb.

In the revealing light of dawn Jesus appears to Mary, yet she doesn’t recognize her Lord. Her inability to see, or her unbelief, needs only to hear her name called in that sweet, familiar voice to be completely dissolved. She then believes, and runs in haste and with deep joy to tell the other disciples.
They still do not believe her report.

When Jesus finally appears to Peter and the others, it is the evening of that same day. Darkness in John’s Gospel always denotes confusion and unbelief. (It was in the dark of night that Nicodemus approached Jesus with his first questions.) The darkness mirrors the doubt, fear and confusion of the disciples.

Jesus then uses the pivotal words meant to remind them who he really is, “Peace be with you.” Don’t you remember?

His greeting is intended to pull them back in time to their last meal together, shared in this same room, when he promised that he would return to them.

He had said to them, “Peace I leave with you; my [own] peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, 'I am going away, and I am coming to you.' If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father.’” (John 14:27-28)

When Jesus shows himself to the disciples it is the fulfillment of the promise he made to them, just a few days before, at the Last Supper. He comes to them in order to abide with them – to call them each by name, to dwell with them in the peace that passes understanding, and to prepare them for their baptism in the Spirit.

John the Baptist testified that, “the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” (John 1:33) This is the moment of the baptism.

But, if we believe the text, Peter and the others still do not understand. It is not until Jesus intimately reveals to them his wounded hands and side that they finally believe, and finally rejoice, as a community, just as he promised that they would.

He reveals himself to them in a way that breaks through the fear and denial so that, through the chinks in their armor, he can blow the Holy Spirit into them, baptizing them in the Spirit, changing them forever more.

Peter had three chances to wake up, smell the coffee, and believe that he was really in the presence of the risen Lord. As we have experienced with Peter, it always takes three times for him to absorb Jesus’ teachings. (John’s gospel ends with the story of Jesus telling Peter three times to “Feed my sheep.”)

Once Peter and the others finally twig to who it is, standing among them, they rejoice, but they do not profess their belief in Jesus’ true nature: the Risen Christ, Son of God, in their very own presence.

That honor is reserved for Thomas. Once we understand how difficult it is for the disciples to understand, who know Jesus so well yet cannot recognize him in this resurrected form, we can have some compassion for Thomas.

Those who are in the room with Jesus need time and some extra help from their teacher in order to fully comprehend the ramifications of what they are seeing. Thomas isn’t there, for one reason or another, and his reaction to the news that they have seen the Lord is the same as the disciples hearing Mary’s report.

“I have seen the Lord!” cries Mary, but they believe her not. “We have seen the Lord!” cry the disciples, but Thomas believes them not. Peter didn’t believe when Mary told him, so why should Thomas believe what he hasn’t seen?

We need to take a step away from this story for a minute to see the full context of this locked room where the revelations take place. We must remember that this gospel was written during a time of great persecution and betrayal. The new Christian movement was literally being disowned by their parents in the faith – the Jewish authorities.

When we hear the words, ‘for fear of the Jews’ we are reminded of the context in which this gospel was written. Early Christian communities were being persecuted, punished, and banned permanently from the synagogues. Church took place in family homes, in rooms that were often locked and guarded for fear that they would be raided and run out of town, or worse.

Much of what we read in this story of Jesus appearing, in his newly resurrected form, to his community of disciples is designed to mirror early Christian worship and prayer.

Christians secretly gathered together in private rooms to share their experiences of Christ in their midst, to read passages of Hebrew scripture, to hear the occasional letter from Christian missionaries, like Paul, and to share in the Eucharistic Feast. From these early meetings evolved our current liturgies of worship and praise.

But fear was an integral part of the early Christian experience. When Christ says, ‘Peace be with you’, he is wiping away fear and replacing it with faith.
God intends for them to be right where they are, doing exactly what they are doing. Just as we, thousands of years later, are acting out our faith in the drama of our familiar liturgy – eager to hear God’s words of Peace to us, so that we can leave refreshed, comforted, and free of fear.

Jesus baptizes them with the Holy Spirit, creating in them a new humanity, reminding us that God created the original Adam, or earth-being, by blowing God-breath into lifeless creatures: inspiring new life.

It is as new life-forms that Jesus sends them out into the world, as he was sent into the world. Just as he revealed himself to the disciples, they are to reveal themselves to others as Christ-bearers. ‘Peace be with you,’ is to become the emblem of bearing Christ, and a sign of the new community.

When we come back to the locked room a week later, it is a Sunday evening. We recognize that this is just like the gathering of Christians on Sundays – a practice already in use during the time this gospel was written, in the late first century.

Thomas is with the disciples when Jesus appears and singles him out. In the midst of all of his friends, Jesus calls him to come and touch the wounds so that he can believe. And that is all it takes. At Jesus’ invitation Thomas falls on his knees and proclaims, “My Lord and my God.”

Each part of the story has presented a different way to perceive the Lord. Mary hears Jesus say her name, Peter and the other disciples see his wounds, and Thomas is invited to actually touch the risen Christ, which is enough to inspire the first proclamation of Jesus’ true nature – Lord and God.

The climax of this story occurs just after Thomas’ witness. Jesus first addresses Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” Then, Jesus turns to us, to the readers of this gospel and says to us, gathered here, in this room, “Blessed are you who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

We are the climax of this story because we depend on the hearing the Good News from others. Blessed are we who have come to believe that Jesus came into the world in order save us from ourselves.

The descriptions of the various ways Jesus’ disciples experience his risen form is one of the most compelling proofs of the resurrection. Something powerful happened to Christ’s followers after his death. Each one of them experienced the resurrection in a different way. Each received the baptism of the Holy Spirit in ways that called upon their individual gifts and created new, often powerful and courageous beings.

God raised Jesus from the dead in order to establish once and for all that the birth pangs of death are destroyed. Death no longer has the power to create or control life beyond the grave. Creation is in the hands of God. And it is through God that we receive the gift of the Spirit – the innovative, creative force that calls us to become bearers of Truth.

It is in Peace that we carry the message of hope out into the world. The Peace of the Lord is none other than the power of God, pulling Christ out of the grave in order to bring us life.

May the Peace of the Lord be always with you. Amen.

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