2nd Sunday after Easter April 19, 2020.
Our celebration of Easter this year was different. The careful listener would have noticed that I did not say that Easter this year was different. I said our Easter celebration was different. Easter was and will always be the same: Christ, the Lord conquered death when God raised him from the tomb! Nothing and no-one can change this theological truth!
Easter celebrations change and adapt to circumstances but the message of Easter stays the same. Christians and Christians theologians over the centuries, from the Apostle Paul to Karl Barth to Wolfhardt Pannenberg agree: Christian faith is resurrection faith!
Christ rose from the dead and conquered death. His resurrection proclaims loud and clear that when all hope seems lost, when the last breath is breathed and death seems to be the victor, God steps in and abolishes despair, sadness and death. This is what Easter is all about! As Brahms cites in his Requiem: “Sorrow and sighing shall flee away!” Easter replaces sorrow and sighing with joy and gladness and life!
This is the message of Easter!
The four Gospel agree that Jesus was raised and that he appeared to the women and eventually to his Disciples also. The Gospel of John tells us that the weeping Mary Magdalene saw Jesus and her sorrow turned into joy. Then Jesus told her “Go to my brothers and tell them. She went to the disciples and announced to them: “I have seen the Lord!”
How did the disciples respond to this good news? As our reading of this morning informs us, they were together that Sunday evening. They were together, however not with joy and gladness. They locked the doors for fear. In other words, they were afraid, they locked themselves in. They were isolated from others, they did some kind of social distancing! And as we know now that people who lock themselves in, who social-distance themselves do not spread disease, but in terms of the Gospel, they were locked in and they did not spread the Gospel! The greatest message of all times was in danger of dying with them in their locked room! For they were prisoners of their fear.
The Easter event of new life and joy was supposed to energize them, move them to share the good new with others! Easter was such a transforming event, Easter shows that God really was able to marvelous things! They were meant to share it.
But what did they do? They locked the door, they kept to themselves and perhaps deep down they hoped that this will all blow over in time! Maybe those who were responsible for the execution of Jesus would forget that they were friends of the trouble maker. Maybe things could just return to normal!
I wonder what their reaction was when they, in spite of the locked door, saw Jesus standing among them? They were already jittery with fear and now this? But Jesus’ response was telling. He did not accuse them! He did not make them feel guilty. Instead he greeted them with these words: “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I send you.”
Let’s think a bit about the implication of these words: “As the Father has sent me, I send you.” Listen how a great NT scholar, Rudolph Schnackenburg describes this: “Jesus gives the disciples a share in his own sending for the earthly continuation of his work. He commissions them and he empowers them to continue his work! The fellowship of the disciples is to make him present in the world and to continue his ministry of salvation.”
To these scared, locked up, insulated and isolated group of uneducated men Jesus says: “Continue my work! Be my representatives in this world. Continue my ministry of salvation!”
This does not seem like the wisest decision, does it? What are the chances that the work of Jesus would continue? What are the chances that these men with their limited resources and gifts would find the courage, the wisdom, the right words and the strength and energy to continue the work of salvation?
One has to admit: Jesus was taking a huge risk in empowering these people to continue his work! The God we worship really works in unconventional ways!
How did that turn out? We know the answer because we know church history. The Book of Acts shows us that the church grew, the Disciples spread the Word and they did so with courage, passion, love and amazing commitment. This small movement started by a man who died the death of a criminal and who was placed in a grave and stayed there for three days was as good dead! And yet somehow, it became a movement that literally transformed the world! How did this happen?
John’s Gospel gives us the answer. Jesus breathed on them (literally blowing in) and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit!” In the OT, the symbol of “blowing in” points to life. So here Jesus gives the Disciples a share in the life of the Risen One. Jesus transfers a share of his life to his Disciples. They receive the power of the Spirit of God and the authority to continue Christ’s work!
The theological implication of Jesus’ words and actions is mindboggling: They are now co-workers of Jesus. They are now empowered to bring hope, joy, and new life to all.
We don’t have time to discuss in detail the paragraph about Thomas who was adamant that he would only believe once he had seen and touched the risen Christ. It suffices to say that Jesus’ response to Thomas makes it clear that those who come after the disciples (that is us) and who have not seen with physical eyes and touched the risen with physical hands are called blessed.
The point is that everything Jesus said to the Disciples applies to us as well. There is absolutely no difference between the Disciples and us. We too have received God’s Spirit, we rely on their witness of the Easter event and become witnesses ourselves. We have a share in Jesus ministry! We too are commissioned by Christ. We too are empowered to be part of Jesus’ work, to be his representatives in this world, to continue his ministry of salvation!
Which brings us to the question and title of the sermon: What now? Easter Sunday has come and gone. We too are locked down and we are scared too. Locked down to prevent the spread of Covid19, we are fearful and uncertain about what is coming next.
Let us remember that we heard the good news of God’s work in Christ. We too received God’s Spirit. We are now witnesses of God’s transformational work in our own life and in the lives of others. What now? We have a share in Jesus ministry! We are commissioned by Christ We are empowered to be part of Jesus’ work, to be his representatives in this world, to continue his ministry of salvation. What now?
What will we do? You see there actually is a lot to do. I am convinced that the Gospel speaks to the world’s most challenging problems. A 2018 article in a business magazine listed the 10 most critically problems in the world to millennials. These include: lack of economic opportunities, lack of education, lack of food and water, government accountability and corruption, religious conflict, poverty, inequality, and climate change. We of course should add Covid19 to the list.
Is there anything we as Easter people can do to address these problems? Not all Christians agree about what the most pressing problems in our world are. And Christians certainly won’t agree on the best way to address these issues. What now?
Easter faith is resurrection faith! The Easter message is first of all a message about new life. Jesus’ resurrection shows us that the Divine light shines in all the graveyard place of the world to show that God is able to bring hope and new life. God who was able to raise Jesus from the dead is able to do marvelous things in the world. God who is able to raise Jesus from the dead can bring newness to an old broken world. The Prince of Peace is able to bring peace to places where conflict is a way of life. The One who is able to reconcile people with God, is able to reconcile two political parties who seem to agree on fewer and fewer things. The God who raised Jesus from the dead is able to transform people to see and accept that radical inequality is not good for any society. You see my point: Easter faith never gives up hope for it is faith in God who is able to raise Jesus. A God who is able to do this, is able to bring about change to people, societies and the world. Easter faith is the belief that there is not a problem too big to solve!
Secondly, Easter faith is never a passive, insulated and isolated faith. Jesus, the Lord of all, call all of us to become part of God’s ministry in this world. We have a share in Jesus ministry! We are commissioned by Christ We are empowered to be part of Jesus’ work, to be his representatives in this world, to continue his ministry of salvation.
When we understand that we are part of God’s work, part of Jesus’ ministry, then we can never ever accept the world as it is. As witnesses of God’s greatest work, we can never be neutral or accept the status quo! When God loves the world so much that God gives his Son for the world, we ought to love the world so much that we will become advocates of all who suffer, we will comfort all who mourn, we will become involved whenever we see people going hungry, losing hope, and becoming desperate. We will take care of the earth, for God created it good, and gave it to us to be good stewards of it. And amidst the pandemic, even as we are sheltered-in-place, we will pray for the sick and dying, we will not let fear overcome us, we will not lose hope.
If these tasks seem daunting and overwhelming, let me remind you that we are extremely well equipped to do this ministry. We have received the power of God’s Spirit and the authority to do this work.
But before we think that authority and power mean that we can order or prescribed to people what they should do and what they should believe, let us remember the example that Jesus gave us when he talked about power and authority. Remember he said that his followers should not lord it over others. No, on the contrary, followers of Christ know that in God’s kingdom serving others is what it is all about.
So, our task is to serve the world, to be the least, to forgive, to turn the other cheek, to be humble and faithful.
Our world has not been this vulnerable in a long time. As people who believe in the resurrected Christ we have a lot to do, but we are not alone. We have received the Spirit of God. Easter happened and God who raised Jesus from the dead is still at work in bringing life to all the graveyard places of this world! And God called us to join God in God’s ministry to bring life and hope, to transform and to comfort, to help and to advocate for others. And to do so with loving kindness and compassion. Amen