Sermon. April 11, 2021
Rev. John Steitz
Richard Osmer in his book, Practical Theology shares that practical theology has four key questions and tasks. These are:
- What is going on? (descriptive task)
- Why is this going on? (interpretative task)
- What ought to be going on? (normative task)
- How might we respond? (pragmatic task)
Now let us apply these practical theology questions to the John’s story of the encounter of the risen Christ with the disciples.
What is going on?
The passage has two episodes. The first takes place on the evening of the Easter event and the second a week later.
We begin with the first episode. Just a few days ago Jesus, the leader of the disciples, was crucified. His dead body taken down from the cross and placed in a tomb.
The disciples are gathered in a house with the doors locked. They are disoriented and fearful.
They have heard that the tomb is empty. Thy have heard that Mary has encountered the risen Jesus who called her by name.
Despite the locked doors the risen Jesus is then standing among them. He comes as a wounded healer, showing them the marks on his hands and his side that indicate he had died on the cross.
The risen Jesus comes to them in vulnerability and shares his peace with them. Not the peace of empire and domination, the Pax Romana. This is a peace of vulnerability and nonviolence.
He breathes the Holy Spirit on them and commissions them as apostles for mission: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” A disciple is one who is learning. An apostle is one who is sent.
In the second episode we see the first results of their being commissioned as apostles. First, just as they didn’t believe Mary, Thomas doesn’t believe them.
Second they are still disoriented and filled with doubt and fear. We talk about “doubting Thomas” but all of the disciples are still filled with doubt. The doors are still locked shut. Their hearts have not yet opened to the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The risen Jesus comes again through locked doors. Shows his wounds. Offers the peace of vulnerability and nonviolence. Calls Thomas, all the disciples, and all of us to “Do not doubt but believe.”
Why is this going on?
What the disciples experience is disorienting. It can take any of us awhile to fully wrap our hearts and minds around sudden, jarring change.
In a few short days Jesus has been arrested, killed, buried, gone missing, come to them, and given them his peace and the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is a lot to process.
We have the tradition of twenty centuries to process the Easter event and we still struggle. The disciples have had a few days and jarring changes have come at them bam, bam, bam.
I don’t think it is unusual that the disciples would be disoriented. Or that a week later they would still be behind locked doors and filled with doubt and fear.
From a theological perspective this is John’s account of both the Pentecost event – the coming of the Holy Spirit, and what commissioning as apostles sent. Luke has the Pentecost event – the coming of the Holy Spirit – after the disciples are with the risen Jesus for several weeks and see him ascend into heaven. Matthew has the disciples go to a mountain top for the Great Commission. But even there is doubt along with the being sent as apostles.
One why in this passage is to share that the risen Jesus comes to us in peace and in vulnerability again and again. Through our fear, through our doubt, through our disorientation, the risen Jesus comes to us.
If we in the United Church of Christ say that “God is still speaking” we can also say that Jesus is still with us.
Jesus is with us in our confusion and vulnerability. Jesus is with us when everything seems to be falling apart. Jesus is also with us in the good times, but it is when we are most in need that Jesus’ peace and presence keep us from utter despair.
What ought to be going on?
As I said, I don’t think it is unusual that the disciples would be disoriented. At least in the moment.
Those who have received Jesus’ peace and the gift of the Holy Spirit are to live into the mission they are now called to. They are to reorient themselves. Process the events they have experienced and move forward in faith.
They are to leave the safety of the house with shut doors and go forward into the world. They are to leave their safe space and move into a brave space.
This will mean being vulnerable to others as the risen Jesus was vulnerable to them. This will mean being wounded as Jesus was wounded.
This will mean sharing a way of life that centers love and nonviolence rather than domination. In fact, it will mean sharing a way of life that challenges domination and the way of Empire.
The disciples, now apostles, are to share Jesus’ peace and to forgive sins. With an outward mindset they are to share the good news, build discipleship communities, and live into the resurrection reality with hope and courage.
How might we respond?
The great temptation of the church is to stay behind closed doors. To have an inward orientation rather than an outward mindset.
As an intentional interim minister I have guided several congregations through a transition process that includes developing a church profile. This profile asks three key questions:
* Who we are now?
* Who are our neighbors? and
* Who is God calling us to become?
Many congregations struggle with knowing who their neighbors are. I don’t mean the demographics of the community. I mean actually knowing who their neighbors are.
Many local churches have been so focused on themselves for so long that they no longer have any meaningful connection with their neighbors. Some local churches don’t want to connect.
The passage is calling us to move out of our safe spaces and move into brave space. This call is not just for a few but for everyone who has been blessed with the gift of the Holy Spirit at baptism. When we reaffirm our baptisms we affirm our commitment to move into brave space.
Yes, the rapid changes in our society are disorienting. Yes, the pandemic has been disorienting. We are to reorient ourselves through Jesus’ mission of love, justice, and nonviolence.
We enter into brave space by being an LGBTQ+ inclusive community. We enter into brave space by being an anti-racist church and multicultural welcoming community. We enter into brave space by being an accessible to all place of inclusion.
We are called to move beyond closed doors with open hearts, open minds, and open hands. But this is not a slogan. It is a call to be vulnerable like the risen Jesus, showing our wounds and sharing his peace without fear or domination.