Sunday 19 April 2020
The Second Sunday of Easter
In the passage from the Gospel of John this morning, it is still Easter Day. In the morning, Mary Magdalene has gone to the tomb and found it empty. She has gone back and reported this to Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved. Peter and the other disciple have run to the tomb, confirmed Mary’s story, and then returned to the place where the other disciples are staying. But while Mary is continuing to stay around the tomb, crying, she has encountered first two angels and then Jesus himself, who has given her a message for the other disciples: “Tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” And she has returned to the disciples and relayed all of this to them.
And that’s where we pick up the story this morning. The disciples are gathered together on Sunday evening. They are in a room, and they have the doors locked because they are afraid of the Jewish authorities, the same authorities who have arranged the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus. They have received the good news of Jesus’s resurrection, and they are locked away in fear.
Somehow, though, mysteriously, Jesus appears in the room with them. He utters the words, “Peace be with you.” He shows them his wounds. He repeats the words, “Peace be with you,” and then he adds, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” The word for sending out is αποστελλω, the same word that gives us the word apostle. An apostle is someone who is sent out, and Jesus is sending his apostles out into the world. To empower them, Jesus breathes on them and says, “Receive this holy breath, receive the Holy Spirit.” Spirit and breath are the same word in Greek. A week later, the apostles are still locked up in the room; they still haven’t gone out as they were sent. And again he says, “Peace be with you.”
I’ve preached this text many times. It comes up in the lectionary every single year, always on the Sunday after Easter. And here’s how I usually preach it. I contrast the fear that the disciples are feeling with the call that Jesus is putting on their lives. They are afraid, but Jesus says, have peace in your hearts. Stop being afraid. Leave this locked room and get out there and do your job. You’re supposed to be apostles. You’re supposed to be sent out into the world. What are you still doing here in a locked room? Get out there! To help you out, I’m going to breathe on you. I’m going to blow the Holy Spirit into you. Now get off your butts and get out into the world!”
So, just to review, the message I usually draw from this text is: 1) Let Jesus breathe on you. 2) Don’t let your fear of the authorities keep you inside. 3) Go out and share the breath of Jesus with as many people as you can. Right. There we go. Job done. Go in peace.
Except, no. That is obviously a terrible message to give right now. Context is everything, isn’t it? That message, that in most contexts is usually a message of life and strength and empowerment is very different in our current context. In our context it is a message of death and recklessness and destruction. Context is everything.
In a paper on the importance of understanding context when trying to improve medical systems, Prof. Paul Bate quotes a firefighter who is trying to explain the importance of context. The firefighter says, “Yelling ‘move!’ Is rude in one context, like if it’s your little brother standing in front of the TV, but it’s entirely appropriate at a fire scene when a wall is coming down. Most actions would be judged appropriate in some contexts but wrong in other contexts. For example, cops carry guns when they walk into banks, and no one thinks anything of it. But if you or I walked into a bank wearing a gun, people would be alarmed. I always chuckle at the bizarre things you get to do as a fireman, because of the context. I get to rip people’s clothes off, electrocute them, and cut their cars apart with hydraulic tools.”
Context is everything. Depending on the context, the same chemical can be a medicine or a poison. Depending on the context, the same words can be a compliment or an insult. Depending on the context, the same touch can be loving or an assault. Context is everything.
It’s been more than a month now that we have been locked away in our rooms. The first US case of coronavirus was found in Washington on January 21st. The first case in Oregon was discovered a month later on February 28. One day later, Washington announced its first COVID death. On March 12, both Governor Inslee and Governor Brown announced the closure of schools in Washington and Oregon. There were orders to shut down large gatherings, then smaller gatherings, churches, restaurants, parks, public spaces, sporting events. Governor Brown issued a state-wide stay at home order on March 23. For at least that long, we’ve all been living in a new world, a world of quarantine. Stay home. Stay safe. Save lives. We are all working to contain the spread of this virus. We are all working to flatten the curve so that medical resources aren’t overwhelmed.
To date, 120,182 people in Washington and 37,583 people in Oregon have been tested for COVID-19. Of those, 11,445 people in Washington and 1,844 people in Oregon have tested positive, or about 0.15% of Washingtonians and 0.04% of Oregonions. Washington has recorded 603 COVID deaths and Oregon 72. Here in Hood River County, 349 tests have been give with 4 coming back positive. That’s 0.02% of the population. And there have been no deaths. Klickitat County has had 16 positive tests and 3 deaths, while Skamania County has had 3 positive tests and no deaths. Which means we likely still have a long, long way to go before things can begin to return to something akin to normal.
Obviously, the way I have traditionally understood this story of Jesus and his locked-way disciples does not work in our context. No one needs to be breathing on anyone else. No one should be encouraged to step out of their locked rooms. No one should be encouraged to go out and interact with lots of other people. So I’ve been kind of stuck on what it is I’m supposed to do with this text in this context. How does this story of Jesus apply to the here and now?
There’s a group of pastors in our area who meet each week to support each other and to talk about the texts that we’ll preaching on the following Sunday, and I brought my frustration with this text with me to them this week. But while I was stuck, others had no trouble finding a relevant message of good news. Because while those disciples are locked away in that room with fear, what does Jesus do? He appears among them, and he speaks to them a word of peace. “Peace be with you,” he says. And again, a week later, when the disciples are still locked away, what does Jesus do? He appears among them, and he speaks to them a word of peace. “Peace be with you.” You see, I had always seen those words as words of challenge, words of exasperation. I had forgotten that they are also just what they say they are. They are words of peace. Peace be with you. I am here with you. Do not doubt, but believe. Whether we are too afraid to go outside, or if we are inside for all the right reasons and just having to endure being inside, Jesus comes among us and speaks peace.
John tells us that those disciples were locked up in their room because they were afraid. They were afraid of what was outside, of the political authorities who had had Jesus arrested and killed and might have exactly the same thing in mind for his disciples.
Fear us a part of what we are experiencing, too. There is fear of what is outside. There is fear of the disease itself. And this fear is especially powerful for those of us who are older or who have compromised immune systems. There is a real and reasonable fear of what is out there beyond our doors.
But there isn’t just a fear of what’s outside our doors. There’s also a fear that is right here in the room with us. And I find I’m spending a lot more time wrestling with the fear that is inside than with the fear that is outside. It’s a fear about who I am and how well I am standing up to the challenge of this time. It’s a fear about my own usefulness or lack thereof. It’s a fear about my ability to cope with the very real grief, self-doubt, frustration, anger, disquiet, anxiety, depression, edginess, irritability, disconnectedness, exhaustion, resentment… I’ll let you finish the list. I’m not as afraid of what’s outside as I am of what’s inside, not just inside my walls, but inside myself, inside my soul.
And so I close my eyes, and I imagine myself inside that room. Inside the room of my own heart. And the doors are locked. And I am there struggling with myself. Fighting with myself. Annoyed with myself. Disappointed with myself. And even though the doors are locked, somehoe, mysteriously Jesus appears there. In the core of my being. I cannot hide anything from him. And he speaks those words to me, “Peace be with you.” I am here with you. I am your peace. And he shows me his wounds. And he reminds me that there is no shame in the wounds that I bear, the wounds that I feel now. They are a part of me, as much as his wounds are a part of him. They are what makes us recognizable. “Peace be with you,” he says again. And I breath it in, the peace that he offers. [breathe] One lungful at a time. [breathe] And the frightened part of me responds, “My Lord and my God.” My Lord and my God. My peace is in you. My hope is in you. My strength is in you. My life is in you. [breathe] My Lord and my God.