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Easter Evening

 

John 20:19-31
Preached at University Presbyterian Church
April 22, 2017
Rev. Elizabeth Michael

            Presbyterian pastor and the president of Princeton Seminary Craig Barnes remembers the day that he and his family moved into an apartment in a city new to them.  He noticed that the door to their apartment had four locks and wondered to himself why they needed so many.  “I soon discovered that the benefit was mostly emotional,” he writes.  When we got inside at night, after being worried about whatever, we could shut the door and turn lots of little levers.  Click, click, click.”[1]

I don’t know what sort of locks were in first-century Palestine, whether the disciples heard “Click, click, click” as they walled themselves into that house that evening, or whether it was the slamming of a bolt across the door frame or the thud of the heaviest piece of furniture in the room being shoved against the door.  Whatever the sound was, it must have been reassuring, if only minimally so.  Surely as the scenes of the preceding days flashed before their minds, the mechanism of that lock helped to block it all out.  The darkened shadows of those guards in the garden emerging to lead Jesus away, Click.  The agonizing, gut-wrenching, unending scream from the cross, Click.  The question asked of Peter but hovering over all of their consciousness as they count the mounting costs of discipleship—aren’t you one of his followers?  Click, click, click.

It makes for quite a different picture than we celebrated last Sunday morning.  Last Sunday, we read John’s story about early on the first day, when dawn crept over the edge of the horizon, stretching its long fingers over the earth’s surface until those rays of sunlight probed their way into a tomb and found it empty.  Last Sunday the lilies lifted their faces like trumpets to the heavens, the pews were packed with the fervor of celebration, the choir and organ pulled out all the stops in unending choruses of Hallelujah.  Early on the first day all was new and bright and promising.

But now in John’s gospel, it is evening of that day, and if we were to mimic the mood of this passage in worship today, we would pull down shades to cover these windows and bolt the doors and block out the world, click, click, click.

Craig Barnes, reflecting on his apartment door says, “I think of that door when I’m listening to how people cope with their fears.  They are keeping their hearts behind a door with lots of locks because something out there makes them afraid.  If someone tries to get in before they’ve been invited, especially if that heart has been hurt before, they will hear the ‘click’ of the lock.”

We are miles and millennia removed from those disciples quaking in their sandals that long-ago Easter evening.  But maybe we know something of locked doors.

We have our feelings hurt or our trust broken and so we steel our spirits and wall up our hearts, promising not to be so foolish and vulnerable next time.  Click.

A personal crisis has the ground shaking underneath us; no one would understand anyway, and so it seems best simply to decline social invitations and try to sort it out alone.  Click.

It’s not only personal matters of the heart that are subject to this tendency, of course.  We know it in our life together, too.  The economy starts to look shaky, so we stockpile more savings and find ourselves being stingy in places we used to be generous.  Click.

Instances of terror flare up across the globe, so we tighten our borders and increase our defense budgets.  Click.

There is, of course, an element of prudence in these measures; self-reliance and security are not evils to be avoided at all costs.  But there is a danger, too, and that is that we will fail to count the costs.  A danger that our attention to our own self-preservation will become a wall around our hearts, obstructing the lifeblood of the community.

The solution to this all-too human tendency is nothing less than Jesus himself.  In that locked-down house in Jerusalem long ago, those flimsy locks are nothing for the one who has just broken the chains of death—one moment the disciples are quaking in fear and the next, Jesus is standing among his followers.  He looks like he’s been to hell and back over the weekend, but there is no question about it, it is Jesus.  The wounds in his hands and his side are proof, and his greeting, “Peace be with you,” calls out all the fear in that darkened room.

What happens next must have been something of a surprise to the disciples.  Jesus turns to them, and he breathes on them…hardly enough force to raise the hairs on their arms, but sufficient power to make the foundations of ancient earth tremble with a memory.  A memory of the first time that divine breath met human flesh…when clumps of dirt and soil came together to form lungs and ligaments and legs, and a pile of dust turned into a living, breathing human creature.  Wherever God breathes, life appears.

This is John’s version of the Pentecost story, the day when a bunch of rag-tag followers were transformed into the Church.  Only here the Spirit doesn’t plunge from the sky like a heavenly dove or blaze into the room as a red-hot flame; here She comes as breath, as wind, as nothing less than the life of God filling our bodies and beings with life.  Jesus breathes his resurrected life into the disciples, and that breath pushes past every lock and barrier in that room, intent on making its home in their hearts.

Gordon Cosby, the founding pastor of Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC, is always teaching me about what it means to be the Church.  Ten years ago, as he neared the end of his life and long ministry, he looked at the Church and all its 21st century challenges—disestablishment and decline, disillusionment and division.  Charting a course forward, he urged his community toward greater vitality and faithfulness:

“This is what real church must look like for our times: Small groups of radical diversity coming together to learn to absorb pain at new depths, where we can be nurtured in…our primary life’s work of witnessing to the Source of Love.”

Gordon went on to push his activist community to reconsider its metrics:

“We might even begin measuring our faithfulness each year, not by how many causes we have espoused but by how many hearts we have helped to open.  I’m not talking about twisting people’s wills or persuading their minds, but opening their hearts—becoming locksmiths who can gain access to human hearts in a way that will prepare them for a mighty in-rushing of Love.”[2]

I have long loved that image of Gordon’s: discipleship as lock-smithing.  Too often in our history, the Church has considered herself the bearer of salvation, disguising the gospel variously as a creed to be claimed at the point of a sword, as set of rules cloaked in white skin and white culture, even as an agenda of well-meaning people trying to do good work in the world but who lose track of the Source of Love in their quest for justice.  Imagining ourselves as lock-smiths offers a corrective to that tendency, putting the power of that mighty in-rushing back in the hands of its one true Source, focusing our attention on the part of the human being most prone to wounds and most in need of healing.

I have long loved that image of lock-smithing, but I have long puzzled over what at first seemed to me to be a throw-away line at the beginning of Gordon’s words: that church must also be a place where people come together to absorb pain at new depths.  That piece felt to me an unnecessary hardship; pain is something that must be tolerated should it fall a community’s way, of course, but surely nothing to be pursued.

I am coming to understand differently now.  Partly as I watch the world around us grow more painful—as bombs fall, sea levels rise, and marginalized people groups cry out for mercy, how can the Church offer any real response if we cannot learn to absorb pain at new depths?  And partly because of this passage in John.

There is yet the detail of the wounds that Jesus bears in this story—the scars in his hands and his side that he shows his disciples before they recognize him, the same wounds that then-absent Thomas declares to be the proof he needs to believe.  New Testament scholar Richard Hays reminds us, the disciples did not go looking for Jesus’ halo[3] that they might believe; no, Thomas says it is the wounds that will make Jesus known, make Jesus credible.

It seems more than coincidence that the life-breath/in-rushing of love begins to flow at this very particular point in the story of Jesus, just as he bears both his wounds and his new life into the world.  This is his posture on the day the Church gets its start: pierced hands extended, exposing the marks of violence and resurrected body standing tall, evincing God’s still greater work.  This is how Christ meets us: offering the scars of solidarity from the worst the world has to offer and offering the new life that is wholly God’s to give.

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” Jesus says.  And suddenly it is incumbent upon us, the church, to meet the world in the way Jesus does.  Let them see our wounds; let them see the power of resurrection at work within us.

A few years ago, a friend of mine in Richmond went to hear Martha Rollins speak.[4]  Martha and her husband, Randy, have been long-time citizens of Richmond.  He was working as a district attorney and then became the secretary of public safety; she ran a small antique business.  Martha found her heart continued to be pricked by the socioeconomic gap between the people of privilege entering the front of her store and the people in poverty living behind it.  Soon that prick of her heart turned into a flood of compassion and energy, and she founded an extensive ministry in Richmond, Boaz and Ruth, to empower citizens returning from incarceration and to encourage just and helpful development in the neighborhood.  Randy started a program to help those same citizens restore their driving privileges in order to maintain steady work.  After several years of this work, Martha found herself digging deeper still into the city’s wounds.  Growing more and more aware of the scars left by centuries of slavery and racism, she focused still more intentional energy on uncovering the city’s history and building relationships and dialogue across racial lines.  Her new effort, Come to the Table, brought descendents of slaves and descendents of slaveholders together with a goal no less ambitious than healing those deep wounds of history.

At the point my friend heard her speak, Martha and Randy were recovering from a still recent break-in at their home.  An intruder had stabbed Randy in four places, leaving him with wounds in his chest, leg and back.  Martha shared that the healing of her husband’s wounds had become for her a metaphor for their continued work for justice and right relationships across the city.  At least one of the wounds was such that it could not be stitched up or bandaged over; the Rollinses were surprised to learn that it had to heal from the bottom up, from the inside out.  If the sides of the wound began to knit together before the bottom had done its work of replenishing what had been lost, the whole process would be at risk.   New tissue, new life, had to grow at the deepest part first, and from there healing could emerge.

The implication for the couple’s work in the city suddenly seemed obvious.  Band-Aids only cause wounds to fester, the Rollinses learned; for true and long-lasting healing, one must go to the deep pain and begin there.  And so at a time when it would have been easy to harden their hearts against the crime in the city and all who perpetrate it—click, click, click—Randy and Martha Rollins went back to work.

I do not know what woundedness you have brought with you this morning—a pain of your own, or one you bear on behalf of the world.  But I know that whatever it is, Jesus wants to go deep with you into the place.  Past the usual protests and distractions, past the shallow waters where most people’s patience runs thin.  Deep into that pain, deep into your heart, deep into the world.

But if we are to go deep with Jesus, we must prepare ourselves: such depth is inevitably accompanied by a mighty inrushing of God’s love.  May it be so in my life and in yours.  Amen.

 

 

[1] Craig Barnes, “Crying Shame,” in Christian Century, April 6, 2004.

[2] Gordon Cosby, Being Church NOW, posted http://inwardoutward.org/on-the-way/being-church-now/, accessed 4.22.17.

[3] Richard Hays, “Fingering the Evidence,” in Christian Century, April 1, 1992.

[4] Story relayed to me by Kathryn Lester-Bacon.  Further details retrieved from local news sources: http://www.richmond.com/news/local/city-of-richmond/article_059745e3-56fb-5da9-b4ce-32db02f0d7ba.html, http://www.richmond.com/discover-richmond/martha-rollins-grounded-in-faith-an-agent-of-social-change/article_98c362d5-d244-54d5-9fe1-237bbfa0db6f.html, http://encore.org/purpose-prize/martha-rollins/.  All accessed 4.22.17.

Elizabeth Michael , Interim Associate Pastor

Email: elizabeth@upcch.org

Phone: (919).929.2102 ext. 112

Bio:

Elizabeth joined the staff in September of 2016 and counts it a tremendous privilege to learn and grow alongside the saints of University Presbyterian. A native North Carolinian, Elizabeth studied music and religion at Presbyterian College and received her M. Div. at Princeton Seminary. Her life and ministry have been shaped by work with Presbyterian churches in South Africa, a season of living in intentional community alongside the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC, and the chance to be a part of a team welcoming home citizens returning from incarceration. Her spiritual life has been consistently nourished by immersion in the community of faith, most recently at Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church in Durham, where she served as Associate Pastor for seven years. Elizabeth has a deep love for Christ's Church, a deep hope in the gospel's reconciling work in the world, and a deep joy in the life of ministry. At UPC, Elizabeth offers support to the church's caregiving and worship ministries, among others. Outside of work, she tries to take full advantage of her library card, the local food scene, national parks, and friends who live in places fun to visit.