Resurrection and Justification Eastertide 2018
"A New Creation"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
May 6, 2018
Acts 4:32-35; John 20:19-31
Acts 4:32-35; John 20:19-31
As I reviewed my notes before starting to prepare for this sermon, on first glance my summary of the text appeared to start, “On the evening of the first Easter, Jesus entered a locker room.” Still, there may be something similar between a team huddled in the locker room and the team huddled in the locked room on that first Easter evening. The game appeared to be over. The enemy had triumphed. Despair had demobilized the team.
In quick succession, John paints two pictures a week apart. In the first, a few of Jesus’ followers, possibly mostly the men, because the women for some reason have already figured it out and are waiting for the men to catch up – typical – are gathered behind closed doors – their hopes for the messiah in a chaotic mess. Fear and anxiety are palpable. Conversations are whispered. Lights are low. Their limbic systems are on high alert. Vision is narrowed. Hope is lost. Into this dungeon of chaos and despair Jesus breathes the Spirit of peace, discernment, and empowerment. It was the first Easter evening, and it turns out the women were right as usual – death could not contain the Lord of life.
And yet, still, a week later, the disciples were still there, in the same house, behind the same closed doors, still unable to move ahead in their mission. Nothing worth mentioning had happened in a week. Jesus’ overwhelming gift of the Spirit was not enough to create durable peace, purpose, or persistence. Thomas has historically borne the brunt of criticism for his doubt – but after all, he had missed the team huddle the week before, and nothing the other disciples had done in the meantime had convinced him to believe – that is to live as though – new life had begun.
At the time that the Gospel of John was written, Gnosticism and Docetism were concepts being considered by some in the Christian community. Gnosticism claims, among other things, that some persons are endowed with special spiritual knowledge – either preordained or by divine intervention. Docetism claimed that Jesus only appeared to be human, and that, being purely divine, he could not have died. Today we assume that Thomas’ distrust – a better translation than doubt – was regarding the resurrection. Equally probable was that some did not believe that the crucifixion could have occurred, and Thomas’ insistence that he see and touch the risen Jesus was more John’s way of affirming Jesus’ humanity than questioning Thomas’ faith. That the marks of his suffering would persist beyond his death has profound implications for us, implications that would be moot if Jesus was not profoundly human.
In some ways, there was nothing new about God becoming human. The gods of Olympus did so regularly, perhaps giving their worshippers the hope that they too could achieve divine status through an individual relationship or an achievement that merited such a reward. These gods were often depicted as capricious and oppressive – though also fallible and compromised. But there is little to suggest that the people of the first century actually believed that Zeus and family existed in any concrete or even spiritual way. The more salient concerns were the capricious and powerful humans who claimed to be gods to be worshipped by their subjects. These gods, the Caesars and Herods, and their minions, were all too real, seeming to hold sway over all creation through violence, oppression, and manipulation. Somehow these gods had conspired to bring down the bearer of a different way. To put it in the words of teens today, “That’s messed up!”
There are infinite examples of what’s messed up right here and now. One indicator of our messed-up-ness is that there are two months in the year designated to raise awareness of sexual violence in our culture. October is “Domestic Violence Awareness Month” and April is “Sexual Assault Awareness Month.” In the context of our own huddled secrecy, our breathless silence in spite of receiving the breath of the Holy Spirit, and our reluctance to carry out Christ’s message of peace and discernment, it is clear that sexual violence is a spiritual crisis. In our Easter celebration of the exoneration of Jesus – of God’s embrace of the human body – calling it very good – we must remember that in the United States, one in four women have suffered domestic abuse. Worldwide it’s more like one in three. In the United States, domestic violence has been reported in 28% of households – just a fraction of the estimated unreported total. In the United States, domestic violence is the leading cause of death in women – more than the next three causes combined.
And it’s not just women who suffer, but also men, children, the elderly, and persons with different abilities can be victims of domestic abuse. Abuse cuts across all racial, ethnic, and socio-economic categories. Abuse is not only physical, but can be financial, psychological, emotional, and spiritual. The perpetrators can be men or women, children or parents, whoever has the advantage, seeming to hold sway through violence, oppression, and manipulation…. That’s messed up.
Part of what allows this mess to persist is that we do not see sexual coercion or violence as a significant stain on the new creation that we are called to live into as Easter people filled with the breath of the Spirit. We are disciples, huddling behind locked doors, nursing the fears induced by a mind-set of tribalism, vulnerability, and privilege…. That’s messed up.
Perhaps the mess of sexual assault seems too remote or too overwhelming, but in light of the few statistics I have mentioned, we cannot deny that it is near at hand, in our midst, and more prevalent than we want to admit. Victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence carry an enormous load of fear and shame – and will work to hide it. Perpetrators are clever and controlling, often charming and even helpful in their public lives. Chances are you know a victim or an abuser. I’m not an expert on domestic abuse or intervention. But I do know that sexual abuse has a profoundly spiritual dimension. I encourage you, if you are or know a victim or abuser, find someone to listen. Find someone who will say “How are you hurting? Tell me about your pain.”
Every act of violence, every abuse of power, starts with personal decisions – decisions to withhold peace, decisions to withhold forgiveness, decisions to withhold power. Like it or not, it’s in our nature to slide back into our former ways, to worship the old gods in whatever forms they now take, to overlook the good news of Easter – that we are not alone or abandoned even when all seems lost. What have we done to change the world in the weeks since Easter?
But there is grace. Jesus does not condemn the disciples who for the second week in a row are sequestered behind the safety of closed doors. Instead he returns again and again with peace, discernment, and empowerment. The story of the disciples in the locked room is actually a creation story. The fact is that the bible is filled with creation stories – not one, not two, but dozens of them. In fact, you could say that the Gospel of John begins and ends with creation narrative. Here is how. Remember the great opening prologue of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
It was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through it, and without it not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in it was life, and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
It was in the world, and the world came into being through it….
From its fullness we have all received grace upon grace.
Many scholars believe that the twentieth chapter of John was originally the final chapter. Chapter twenty ends definitively:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Anointed, the One who shares in God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Think back to the story that we commonly refer to as the creation story:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
Chaotic and directionless, dark and roiling – perhaps even without sound until the breath of the Spirit moves. Or remember the second creation story – part two, but probably the older of the two:
At the time when YHWH made the heavens and the earth, … YHWH fashioned an earth creature out of the clay of the earth, and blew into its nostrils the breath of life. And the earth creature became a living being.
In the locked room, Jesus does what God did to unlock the power of creation; he brings order to chaos and bestows the breath of life. So John begins and ends with creation. The incarnational perspective on creation in John is a way of saying that creation is not just an act of God, but an incarnation of God’s very being. The breath of God is an awakening of the image of God that is inherent in everything that has the breath of life. And in John, this awakening spirit conveys three messages to the disciples: peace, discernment, and empowerment. “The peace Jesus announces is not one that can allow the disciples to remain behind locked doors. They are no longer merely disciples. Now they are apostles as well, sent into the world, just as God has sent Jesus himself.”[i]
We, who are followers becoming disciples becoming apostles, who have been invited, are now being called, and – if we choose to accept the mission – will be sent, have a role to play in the new creation. The vision of that new creation that Jesus has bestowed upon us, huddled here in our locked room, is characterized by three dimensions: peace, discernment, and empowerment. Jesus greets us with peace – but it may as easily be a command as an assurance. The new creation Jesus expects of us is one of peace. This peace is not merely an absence of violence, but a robust wholeness of right relationship with God and each other. This peace means not merely silence, but a sacred quiet in which we truly hear one another, in which we listen carefully, being fully present to one another. This peace means the yielding of privilege and power by those who possess them.
But this is not a rosy-colored-glasses kind of peace. The second gift Jesus bestows is that of discernment. In this new creation, forgiving sin and retaining sin are the two trees in the new garden. Their shared fruit is that of discernment. There will be evil and there will be malice just as there will be error and misjudgment. In the new creation, we will encounter messy things like sexual violence. There are no easy, universal answers. We cannot afford to rush to judgment. Each victim of sexual violence has a different set of circumstances, a different cultural context. And while we bear a responsibility to notice each other’s circumstances and to create a world in which violence is not an option, any intervention must not contribute to worse circumstances.
All of us have power – some more than others. Even victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence have power, but for one or many reasons have not been able to exercise it. Thus the new creation we are called and sent to participate in is one in which mountains of power are laid low and valleys are filled. We can choose to participate in God’s new creation of peace, discernment, and empowerment every moment of every day, from the youngest of us to the oldest, in large ways and in small. We often overlook the impact of the small. This week, make peace with a neighbor; forgive a parent, spouse, or child; empower a stranger or a friend. The more often you practice – the easier it will be to see. In another week, we may be able to step through the closed, locked door ourselves – “As my Abba has sent me, so I send you,” - and boldly proclaim a new creation of peace, discernment, and power. May it be so.