Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Word of Mercy: Sermon for Easter II

“Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." St. John 20:21

            “The doors were locked for fear,” Saint John tells us.  The disciples were huddling in the dark that first Easter evening, ducking and covering from all the drama that the spectacle at the empty tomb was likely to unleash.  It’s a rather odd postlude to the joyful news of Easter morning.  By sunset, there were no alleluias in sight.  An angel had proclaimed His resurrection. Christ had appeared to Mary Magdalene.  But the disciples didn’t really know what to make of it all.  Their initial excitement had deflated as they tried to come to terms with what the announcement might really mean for them.
 St. John remembered that they were frightened of the Jews, the religious authorities, who had a court and a police force of their own.  Jesus had seen the rough end of their justice a few days earlier, and once the news got out that there was no body in the tomb, they’d be out looking for someone to blame.  Tomb robbery was a serious crime, and though the disciples were innocent of it, the Sanhedrin didn’t seem to have much trouble rounding up false witnesses.  Announcing that the true Messiah had been raised by God, that the new creation had begun--that was even more dangerous, as some of them would find in a few weeks’ time.

            But surely, the disciples were afraid of Jesus as well.  He was their friend, to be sure, and to have Him back was a great blessing.  But if He was really resurrected, they might be the first to feel His vengeance.  As I mentioned last week, to any ancient Jew, resurrection was first of all about what would happen at the end of time.  Resurrection was deeply associated with judgment, the destruction of sin, the cleansing of the world’s abiding evil.  If Jesus was truly resurrected, then He was the world’s true judge, and the disciples were on the hook for their complicity in all the cruel events of a few days earlier.  Two weeks ago, we closed our Palm Sunday worship service by singing together one of the great German passion hymns:
“Who was the guilty?” we sang, “Who brought this upon thee?
            Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
            'Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
            I crucified thee.”[1]
And of course, it true of us, but it was true in an even more fresh and vivid way for those fearful disciples, those guilty men who hid in the shadows that day.
            Jesus appears among them.  He doesn’t ask them to open the door. He doesn’t wait to be recognized or to receive their questions.  He speaks first.  “Peace be with you,” He says.  It is an ordinary greeting in their native language, the modern Israeli’s “shalom,” the Arab’s “salaam.”  But here it means also those other words He spoke to them so often “Be not afraid.”  I do not come to you in anger, He means.  I will not insist that you pay for what you have done.  Instead, I come to restore you, to fill up what is lacking in you.  In place of your fear, I give you my peace.  It is a word of mercy, of grace that Christ speaks over them, a precious thing in a world so filled with violence, pain and fear.  It is the fruit of the resurrection’s victory, because God has made peace with this sinful world.  The resurrection is the great evidence, as one of our finest collects says, that He is “carry[ing] out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; [so that] whole world [may] see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made,” the only Son, “Jesus Christ our Lord.”[2]
            And then Jesus speaks peace over them once more—he doesn’t announce peace just once, but peace upon peace.  God had promised just such a restoration through the prophet Isaiah long before. “I have seen their ways, but I will heal them;” He promised.  “I will guide them and restore comfort to Israel’s mourners, creating praise on their lips.  Peace upon peace, to those far and near,”[3] says the Lord. “And I will heal them.”  There is peace, healing and forgiveness for the disciples themselves.  But peace will also flow through them to others.    “I am sending you,” He says.  "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."  Jesus doesn’t merely forgive His disciples. He makes them the ones through whom He will forgive the world.  Because they have tasted of His reconciliation, they can become, as Saint Paul would say, “the ambassadors of reconciliation”[4] for the whole world.    
            The Church’s sacred ministry begins here, in this darkened room, as Christ imparts this peace and the power to forgive sins.  This is the first Pentecost, you might say, and it is as surely the birthday of the Church as that splendid morning fifty days later.  In the preaching of the Gospel, in Baptism and the Eucharist, in Holy Absolution, the church shares out the peace of Christ with the world.   And those who share the word, and lift up the chalice, and pronounce the solemn words of forgiveness, every single one of them from the apostles to the one ordained yesterday afternoon has this in common: he or she is a sinner.  He or she stands in need of grace.  We give only what we have first received. 
            Religious institutions, you see, are dangerous things.  History shows us time and time again that no power corrupts so easily and completely as sacred power.  A few of you know this well from personal experience.  Israel’s religious authorities, the men who prayed before the people and handled holy things, they were the ones who orchestrated the death of God’s only Son.  But make no mistake about it.   Jesus is beginning an institution here, He establishing a priesthood.  And it’s nearly the first thing He does after rising from death.  God’s plan of salvation requires a community, and like every other community, the church must have its designated leaders, its hierarchy. 
But Jesus does it in an extraordinary way.  He doesn’t choose out the most promising recruits for this advance guard.  He goes to the worst of sinners, those who knew better and denied him anyway.  He goes to cowards, liars and fools.  He goes to those who can make no pretense of deserving His gift, who can claim no righteousness of their own.   There was no better way to show that this resurrection gift was for all, that redemption He had brought must know no bounds.  By giving the means of grace, the keys of the kingdom to the shamefaced apostles, He was demonstrating, as the great Anglican divine John Donne wrote, that [He] “hath excommunicated no nation, no shire, no house, no man;  He gives none of His ministers leave to say to any man, thou art not redeemed; He gives no wounded or afflicted conscience leave to say to itself, I am not redeemed.” 
Because there was peace for those fearful men, there can be peace for you.  Because they were forgiven, so may you, so may anyone, no matter what he has done, who calls upon the name of the Lord.  Among the fearful huddle, He opens the fountain of mercy whose streams will flow to the ends of the earth.  In that darkened room, He speaks the word that sets them free and would break bonds across the generations. “Peace be with you.”

[1] Hymn 158, Hymnal 1982.
[2] Book of Common Prayer (1979), 291.
[3] Is. 57:18-19
[4] II Cor. 5:20.

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