April 19, 2020 Sermon
“From 11 Frightened Disciples:
The World WILL Try to Stop Us”
19 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.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
11 While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13 telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.
“From 11 Frightened Disciples: The World WILL Try to Stop Us”
What happened next?
I’m a big fan of literature – books, plays, musicals, movies, etc. – that consider the question of what happens next, particularly what happens next after a particularly grand or dramatic event.
- As a child, after reading fairy tales that ended with the wedding of a prince and princess, I remember wondering what happened next.
- As a child, at the end of every great movie I watched – “Star Wars: A New Hope” comes to the forefront of my mind – I remember wondering so much about what happened next that I wrote my own stories to “complete” the plot of the movie.
- As an adult, when television series end or when I come to the end of a book, I find myself imagining what happens next, even crafting the continued adventures of my favorite characters in my mind.
All of this wondering about what happens next probably explains why I’m so fascinated by the scriptures reserved (by lectionary makers) for the season of Eastertide. In between the stories of the empty tomb and – 50 days later – Pentecost, we get stories about what happened to the disciples AFTER the initial reports of resurrection, after what Peter and Paul seem to have considered to be the climactic event of the gospel. In these Eastertide passages, the gospel writers offer us a glimpse into how Jesus’ closest followers were transformed from 11 frightened disciples – “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews” – into the Church, an organism/organization wielding the power of Christ that spread to the ends of the earth.
Typically, during any given season of Eastertide, we consider only a FEW of these “what happened next passages” because the lectionary makers spread them out over 2-3 years. During the season of Eastertide THIS year at FCCGJ, we will spend our time looking at almost all of these passages that tell us what happened next (between empty tomb and Pentecost) to discover the lessons we can learn for the Church today. And, let’s face it, we need to hear and interpret these words in OUR time; we may have just celebrated empty tomb and resurrection, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to figure out what new life means for us amidst COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures, not to mention the challenges of modern technology, social networking, instant access to news (real, fake, and somewhere in between), and exponentially increasing distractions to our God-focus.
Today, we’ll hone in on what happened next in the environment of those frightened disciples. Yes, they were locked away. Yes, they were afraid. Some people might read John’s words about the disciples on the evening of the first Easter and proclaim those disciples to be more than a little paranoid. Maybe they were, but to quote Joseph Heller in Catch-22 (a book I have oddly never read), “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” For those disciples, I imagine the authorities of the day were after them.
Actually, I don’t have to imagine at all. Take a look at our second scripture reading; it’s the part of “what happened next” for the disciples that we’ll focus upon for today. Here’s what Matthew tells us happened next:
- “While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened.” It’s a bit unclear who is meant by “they” or “the guard” or even “everything that had happened.” Due to what had come prior in Matthew’s gospel, we can glean the important stuff. Sometime after the great earthquake, an angel rolling away the stone that had blocked the entrance to Jesus’ tomb, the appearance of the angel to Mary and Mary, and Jesus’ appearance to the two Marys, some of the soldiers who had been guarding the tomb went into the city (Jerusalem) to tell the chief priests everything that had happened – which means the guards had actually witnessed the events surrounding resurrection: stone rolled away, angels, risen Christ. Just like outsiders (the magi) had visited Jesus shortly after his birth to declare the truth of Jesus’ identity, outsiders (guards) declared the truth of Jesus’ resurrection!! (Resurrection wasn’t just a delusion of Jesus’ closest followers.)
- “After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers…” Isn’t it interesting how dangerous the truth can be! For the chief priests and elders, the truth of Jesus’ resurrection threatened their power. So…what happened next is the religious authorities devised a plan to bribe the soldiers to lie about what happened, making Jesus’ disciples look like liars and thieves. Yes, the authorities WERE out to get the disciples.
- “So [the soldiers] took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.” This verse demonstrates the power of some things: it demonstrates the power of authority to manipulate events to get what it wants; it demonstrates the power of greed over truth (the soldiers took the money); and, it demonstrates the power of a lie people want to believe. Remember, Matthew reported in chapter 27 that many “saints” were resurrected, as well, and after Jesus’ resurrection they “entered the holy city and appeared to many.” Somehow, even with all the evidence of what really happened, the authorities persuaded the people of something else. THAT is power.
So…what happened next for the disciples after Jesus’ resurrection is that the religious authorities of God’s people conspired against them to discount everything that had really happened after Jesus’ death and to make it look like Jesus was some common criminal guilty of a capital crime. Given the extent of the cover-up, it’s not a stretch to imagine the authorities would soon seek out Jesus’ disciples to shut them up, as well. After all, the disciples were the remaining loose end. (Is it a stretch to imagine the chief priests and elders would kill people to keep their power and status – and maybe even their lives?)
What happened next for the disciples is that the future looked very grim, so grim that they locked themselves away in a room for fear of the Jewish leadership (who was most likely trying to kill them.) Yet, somehow, this group of disciples moved from locking themselves away to wielding power that spread a movement of Jesus’ followers to the ends of the earth in relatively short order. How? That’s the question we will begin answering with this sermon and throughout the rest of this series.
Today’s answer can be found in the second half of our first scripture reading. Yes, the disciples were locked away in a room; yes, the disciples were afraid. Yes, the authorities were out to get the disciples. And then…Jesus appeared, and the disciples recognized Jesus’ presence with them.
“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.” – John 20:19b-20 (NRSV)
The disciples were SO afraid that they were huddled in a room with the door locked, but within a few minutes they were REJOICING. What happened? The only thing that changed was their recognition of Jesus’ presence with them. That’s ALL it took. Notice, they didn’t rejoice because of Jesus’ words. They didn’t rejoice because Jesus showed them his hands and his side. They simply “rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” They rejoiced when they RECOGNIZED Jesus’ presence with them. (The word that gets translated as “saw” actually means something more akin to “recognized”; it’s about an inward spiritual seeing, a seeing with the mind – not the eyes.)
Let’s move from the disciples on that first Easter to US one week after our celebration of Easter and resurrection.
I said before that “we need to hear and interpret these words [about what happened next for those disciples] in OUR time”. We do; we really do.
We need to start with our reasons to fear. For us, it might not be authorities out to get us (I sure hope it’s not), it might not be a singular person or entity, but there’s a virus that will attack you if it gets the chance, there’s an economic downturn and accompanying stock market tumble that will harm your ability to live as you have until now, there are stay-at-home orders that do impair your freedom to move about and do what you want to do, and these not-so-imaginary forces are merely the beginning of a very long list. There may not be authorities conspiring against us, bribing soldiers and spreading lies, but there are reasons to be afraid.
I imagine you are afraid. I imagine you are troubled. I imagine you have difficulty sleeping some nights. Amidst COVID-19, you most certainly know what it’s like to be shut up in your homes. And like the disciples in John 20:19, I imagine your spiritual state, most of the time, would not be described as “rejoicing.” I HOPE you’re looking for a way to do something about that.
The antidote to our own fear is the same as the antidote for the disciples’ fear: a recognition of Jesus’ presence with us.
Unfortunately, for many of us – maybe even for you, it’s not easy to recognize Jesus’ presence in our midst. We lament that we can’t physically SEE Jesus appearance in our midst; we lament that we do not have Jesus suddenly appearing before us the way he did for the disciples. If only we had an experience like THAT, it would be easier to recognize and rejoice.
But, I wonder, how easy was it – really – for them? I mean, why did Jesus have to show them his hands and his side? Apparently, Jesus’ appearance was such that the disciples could not recognize/discern/spiritually SEE his presence merely by the sight of him; they required some other form of proof. In other words, I would imagine that the people who struggle with seeing Jesus’ presence today may not have recognized Jesus’ appearance even in that room. I don’t say this to be harsh; I say this to point out that recognition (spiritual sight) has less to do with eyesight than it has to do with faith.
But, what can we do? I would suggest we need to know where to “look” if we want to recognize Jesus today. I firmly believe Jesus appears all around us much – if not ALL – the time; we just don’t recognize him. In order to start recognizing, we need to know where and how to look. Here are some places I recommend you look/search for Jesus’ presence in your midst:
- The communion meal. I don’t know where you stand on the issue of what happens to the communion elements after the prayer over the bread and cup is spoken. There are some who believe the elements become the physical body and blood of Christ. There are some who believe the elements become more of what could be called the metaphorical body and blood of Christ. Either way, I believe it is possible to recognize Jesus in the communion meal. I look for his presence with me every time I partake; most of the time, I recognize Jesus’ presence with me when I partake.
- Prayer/God’s Holy Spirit – The varying accounts of Jesus’ promising the Holy Spirit are worded differently. In one instance in John’s gospel, Jesus included the words, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (John 14:18). These words fit well with what Jesus promised with his last words in Matthew’s gospel: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” It sounds to me like Jesus promised his continued presence via the Holy Spirit. Which means, every time we pray, every time we try to connect with God via the Holy Spirit, we can look for and recognize Jesus with us.
- Acts of love/selflessness – I’m sure you remember Jesus telling his disciples, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). What you may not recall is that Jesus said these words right after Jesus talked about a future in which the disciples would be looking for him. Further, it is my understanding that in the ancient world, people recognized a master in that master’s followers/disciples. In other words, I’m quite confident Jesus was telling his disciples to look for him in acts of love on the part of Jesus’ followers. Which makes sense. Back then – and still today – the culture of people encourages selfishness and greed; true acts of love and selflessness are so rare as to stand out…and to reveal their source: God/Christ.
- Other People – This might sound the same as what I wrote above, but this is different. I’ve found that I start recognizing Jesus in my midst more than usual when I start asking myself about every person I encounter, “Could this person be Jesus?” or even, “How would I act differently toward this person if this person were Jesus?” In my experience, when I start TREATING every person like Jesus, when I start imagining every person as Jesus, I start recognizing Jesus with greater frequency.
- Scripture – Do you recognize Jesus’ presence around you when you read the scriptures? I sure hope so. I know I do. Everytime I read a story about Jesus in the scriptures, I start relating the story to situations in my life; I start recognizing Jesus in the modern analogs of my life that correlate with what Jesus was up to back then.
- Dreams – I know this doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for me, and I’ve known quite a few others for whom it worked. If you want to experience and recognize Jesus, ask him to visit you in a dream, and ask him to help you remember the dream…and don’t give up after a few nights or a few weeks. It takes time to recognize Jesus…even in your dreams. For some people I’ve known, myself included, the most powerful experiences of Jesus have come during dreams after asking Jesus to visit. Please don’t discount this possibility.
My friends, this is not an exhaustive list. There are SO many ways to recognize Jesus in your midst. My hope is that the items on this list will help you get started. My hope is that you’ll start to recognize Jesus in your midst with greater frequency…all so that you can experience what Jesus offered to those disciples in a locked room so long ago: “Peace be with you.”
In the midst of OUR time of need, Jesus’ peace will calm our fears, calm our anxiety. Jesus’ peace – which we can receive once we recognize Jesus in our midst – will begin our transformation from fearful to powerful…just like those disciples.
The Lord is risen!