The Sunday Sermon: The Second Sunday of Easter – April 23, 2017
Scripture: John 20:19-23
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So how many times have you heard this from me? “This is one of my favorite gatherings of the year.” I mean not just about this Sunday, but any Sunday, anytime we gather together for worship? I said that last Sunday. Easter’s a pretty cool time to get together as a congregation! I said that about the Thursday before. Our Maundy Thursday service is always a special one for me. Many of you, too, you tell me every year. I’m pretty sure I said that about Palm Sunday, combined as it’s been for us for a number of years, now, with the Confirmation of our eighth grade class. And the first Sunday of the New Year, the Sunday after Christmas, our Christmas Eve services, the first Sunday in Advent, the first Sunday of a new ministry year, the last Sunday of the summer … you get it! How many times have I said “this is my favorite Sunday?”
But that shouldn’t make the fact that this Sunday, the Sunday after Easter is … (wait for it) … one of my favorite Sundays of the year! Mostly because after journeys such as Lent and Holy Week and Sundays such as Easter, when we gather again as a church community, we have to ask “What now?!” All that was so “huge,” so consuming and defining. What now? Let us pray …
I was asking myself this question as Easter day ended, as Sunday turnedto Monday and the work week began. Early in the week, on my way home from the office, I stopped into the Barnes and Noble bookstore over at the Paddock Shops on Summit Plaza. I was looking for a small book I had heard of by Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale University. I found it, small book, paperback, only $7.99, and went to the checkout lane to buy it. While I was standing there waiting I glanced down and the magazine rack and saw a National Geographic magazine with a stained glass window picture of Jesus (curiously blond) and the words “Jesus and the Apostles: Christianity’s Early Rise.” An Easter edition, obviously. A reprint, it turns out.
I picked it up to glance through it, figuring there wasn’t much new for me, but, as soon as I opened the cover to the Table of Contents, I was called forward to the cashier. In a kind of unintended way, I just kept the magazine in my hand and made my way down to the checkout and bought it, too, which cost $13.99, six dollars more than the book I came in for.
That evening at home, I began leafing through it, looking at the beautiful pictures of Bethlehem in the morning mist and the Church of the Holy Nativity, which has stood since the sixth century at Jesus’ biblical birthplace. Many more full-page and two-page pictures of ancient mosaics, Renaissance portraits, and modern day scenes on the River Jordan, the Sea of Galilee, and Jerusalem. Twenty-four pages of “pictorial introduction” before the first article, “Life in the Time of Jesus.”
“Like billions of other human beings, Jesus of Nazareth, the man, passed through history like a campfire spark, a pinpoint of light here for an instant and then no more,” began the story, written by Don Belt. He continues:
What hard evidence do we have of this man? Sadly almost nothing. We know that Jesus had had devoted followers, some of whom may have given accounts that were passed down, decades later, to men who could read and write … His was one of countless executions carried out in Palestine during the fourth decade of the first century as the Romans struggled to maintain control of the distant, troublesome province … (But) to the Jews of Roman Palestine, men like Jesus weren’t uncommon. Their holy city, Jerusalem, saw a steady parade of itinerant Jewish preachers, healers, exorcists, soothsayers, and spiritualists. Some of the drifters, known collectively as “men of deeds,” were little more than con men who preyed on the weak and gullible. Others … called on their listeners to repent, warning that the end of the world was near.
Thronging to Jerusalem for feasts and holidays, Jewish pilgrims passed such (men of deeds) on their way to the Temple on Mount Moriah, presided over by the elite Jewish priests and religious officials who served at the pleasure of the pagan Roman governor. (These pilgrims) may have laughed at (men like Jesus and) their rough sandals and tattered robes, but (once in a while) the wild-eyed preachers sometimes struck a nerve.
What set Jesus apart is that unlike his contemporaries, he performed his miracles and good deeds solely for the glorification of God – free of charge – while dispensing wisdom on morality and the nature of God’s kingdom. There was a political side to his teaching, a call to turn the tables on the rich and powerful, elevate the poor, and cast our the hypocrites in high (religious) office. (And, according to the Gospels) people flocked to him from all over Galilee and Palestine.
(Now) as the narrative of Jesus moves to Jerusalem and the cross, Belt writes, it’s worth remembering that everything ever set down about Jesus, including the books in the New Testament, was written by people who never actually knew him, (composed decades after the events described, by writers who refined their stories to serve the communities they lived in.) But as diverse as these first writings about Jesus were, and are, the Gospels agree on a few things, including Jesus’ final Passover celebration in Jerusalem.
(As usual on this particularly volatile Jewish feast day,) the Romans were braced for trouble … as Jewish zealots and rabble-rousers came streaming in from the countryside, bent on turning the dusty streets of Jerusalem into a kind of religious theatre. (This stream included Jesus,) riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey … engaged in some theatre of his own, fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy … When he entered the outer courtyard of the Temple, instead of buying sacrifices, (he and his followers) began whipping the vendors and moneylenders, overturning their tables and cash boxes, an driving them from the Temple complex. (This is one of the very few incidents recorded in all four of our biblical gospels. There’s something pivotal about this act. Ina matter of days, Jesus was arrested and taken to Pilate.) Now, the Romans would never have prosecuted a Jew for messing up the Temple. What would they care? But the Jewish Sanhedrin bound Jesus over to the Roman governor for something much worse-for claiming to be the king of the Jews. This was treason, a political crime that Pilate could not ignore.
Again, there were no eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ appearance before (Pilate, by all historical accounts a brutal, no-nonsense administrator. We don’t know if Pilate truly washed his hands of the affair – exceedingly unlikely – or if he even looked up from his papers before pronouncing Jesus guilty of the crime … it’s doubtful he spent much time deliberating about the matter. Whatever transpired, we know that Jesus was handed over to the executioner for crucifixion and that the terrible punishment was carried out.
“What now?” was surely what the closest followers were asking in the days that immediately followed. At first they might have peered out from their hiding places, searching the sky for signs – a thunderbolt crashing down on the Temple Mount; a heavenly host led by prophets of old; Jesus, himself, bathed in glory, trailing a river of sacred fire. But none of that came. So … What now?
As the hours passed, (as the days passed,) the seeming truth sank in: Nothing, in fact, had changed. Passover continued, just as always. The moneylenders, unchastened, hawked their rates in the courtyard. Idol-worshipping pagans still had Judaism by the throat. So like the followers of every other revolutionary killed by the Romans, the disciples of Jesus made plans to slip away to their villages and pick up their lives where they’d left off three years before.
Then came a series of astonishing reports … Those reports are most often, if not exclusively shared, read, and preached on, on Easter Sunday. Reports of stones rolled away and empty tombs, of dazzling angelic beings and resurrection sightings. “Jesus isn’t dead!” All that saved all year for last week, for Easter. But, kind of like Christmas, saving this event up for only one day a year, keeps the real meaning of Easter limited to one day a year.
I believe, as likely as not, that what happens today in our scripture reading is the “real” first Easter experiences. What happens in this morning’s reading may be what made necessary last week’s “explanations,” the beautiful narratives of empty tombs, and rolled up linens, and Jesus appearances.
Listen for the Word of God … Read John 20:19-23 … The Word of the Lord.
The Apostles, fearing for their lives, probably feeling terror, shame, and devastation – terror perhaps foremost because if they’re caught, they too will be crucified. Shame because many had run away at the first sign of trouble, abandoning Jesus to his fate. Devastation now that three days had passed and no divine intervention had occurred – sit huddled behind locked doors.
We have no reports from inside that room, no historical evidence other than this: Around that time, in the days that followed Jesus’ crucifixion (three days, fine), the fugitive disciples of Jesus seem to have completely lost their fear. In public, they reported seeing Jesus resurrected from the dead and began preaching openly about Jesus as the “risen Christ.”
Of all those who heard and responded to Jesus during his brief ministry in Galilee and his week in Jerusalem, of all who “flocked” to see him in his lifetime, much fewer are here now, gathered behind closed doors in our scripture reading. And gathered in our sanctuary in the same way this morning. Last week we had a little over one-hundred and eighty apostles here for Easter. We congregated here with numbers matched maybe only one other time all year. This morning … I count about sixty. But, this Sunday, the Sunday after Easter is one of my favorite Sundays of the year. This Sunday, those that gather (you!) experience the reason that last Sunday’s explanation was so needed. Jesus was crucified, but Christ is alive. That’s what the followers realize this morning. Today, this experience, is what makes last week’s dazzling explanations necessary. This week, today, we realize that the breath of God found in Jesus of Nazareth has been breathed on us, into us. Christ – God’s anointed one – is alive. It is you. It is me. It is us.
Jesus rises, Christ is alive not because someone walked through locked doors after he was crucified two thousand years ago. But because while he was with us, he breathed new life into us, the gift of the Spirit, every bit as much of an Easter experience as last week’s proclamation. What now? We have a new life to live! Believe it. Receive it. Be resurrected. And be Resurrection …
Oh! And Happy Easter …
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / April 23, 2017
(In italics: Belt, Don. National Geographic, “Jesus and the Apostles,” 2017. pp 28-35. Parentheticals are the preachers.)