First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Dr. Cynthia Lindenmeyer
April 8, 2018
Scripture: John 20:19-23
Sermon: “Easter Sunday Part Two”
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. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Last week felt like the Superbowl of Sundays, and today, well, we’re the custodians sitting among the confetti. What happens between last week and this week in Christian churches around the world is an extended intermission of the Easter Day story. The Easter story does not end with the Resurrection. Welcome to the Easter Day Story Part Two.
I wonder if the Christian Church is too often placated with Part One and never returns to hear Part Two. And maybe that is why Christianity has taken off on an azimuth of misdirection that leads so-called followers of Jesus in a direction far, far away from where Jesus awaits. As British prophetic theologian G.K. Chesterton noted, “Christianity isn’t a failure; it just hasn’t been tried yet.”
I hypothesize that if the Scripture story you just heard were given as much emphasis as the resurrection, then possibly the world would be quite different. And I’ll argue that hypothesis in a moment…
First, I share with you part one of a story about Linda. In August of my second year in seminary, I served a Methodist Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina. I learned that Monday was shut-in day. My initial thought regarding shut-in day—it was a day to meditate: To shut one-self away from the crazy, hectic life that existed, and this was in the days before cell phones and dial-up Internet vied for our attention. I would soon learn that shut-in day meant I was to visit members of our congregation who were limited to involvement in the community of faith and were homebound. Over thirty members were on the Shut-In list.
During the next few Mondays, I came to understand that visiting someone who was homebound was like pushing pause on a life remote and experiencing the world from a totally different perspective. Often, I would see fear in the eyes looking back at me. I was really quite clueless in comprehending what it was like to be disconnected from the faith community. Most who were shut in were because of health issues. And they were afraid. Scared.
In today’s Scripture, we encounter the Christian church’s first shut-ins. The disciples were shut-ins.
They are in a locked room in fear. Why are they afraid? John’s Gospel reports they are in fear of the Jews. There could be other reasons they are hiding. Possibly, bolted doors were a dramatic narrative addition to have us wonder how Jesus did a Houdini and entered the room. Or…can we dare to think about a different message in the story: What if we think about how we would react if we were the disciples?
We’ve left home and family to follow Jesus the past three years. We eat together. Find shelter together. See the affect he has on people. Listen to his words. Half of which we have no idea what he means, especially the bit at dinner the other night before he was arrested. Instead of protesting his arrest, we flee. Instead of plotting a daring Jack Sparrow type of rescue, we watch from a distance as he was killed. And now we hear rumors that Jesus is back from the dead. Would he be a bit upset or angry with us?
What are we supposed to learn from the disciples, who loved Jesus, who were there when he was arrested, fled and upon learning of his death and missing body are locked in a room while the women are out and about Jerusalem encountering Jesus?
This is Part Two of the Easter Story. For those who leave the story and are OK with Jesus dying and coming back to life, then a narrative of victory over death is that Superbowl ending that churches invest so much in year after year on Easter/Resurrection Sunday, and the cross becomes a trophy of triumph and Easter is a day for confetti. Our team has won. Accept the resurrected Christ or you are on the losing side. But then we have Part Two. Why are members of Team Jesus hiding in fear? If victory has come, then why be afraid? What if the story isn’t about winning or losing, which in religious speak translates “salvation” or “damnation”?
Labor Day weekend I was determined to visit the remaining people on the shut-in list. “Linda” was number twenty-five. I called to schedule a visit and arrived at a home that was in a gated community, in a neighborhood I’d never been in before. Lion statues adorned a decorative stone driveway. The landscaping was impressive, and I remember being very careful when I parked to not hit a lion. Approaching a door, I never knew to knock, or ring the doorbell, but this was the first time I ever encountered an LED illuminated doorbell— I thought it was really cool. This was back when doorbells were quite boring and all pretty much went “Ding Dong.” The sound of this doorbell echoed all around me.
The Scripture is full of echoes, and this is one of my favorite echoes from Genesis chapter two when humanity was breathed into existence. Known as ruach in Old Testament Hebrew and pneuma in New Testament Greek, the breath controls the winds of our energy in bodily form. Our story today does not report that Jesus hypnotized the disciples to help them overcome their fear. No—it says Jesus came to the disciples who were behind locked doors, and breathed on them saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” He echoes the actions of God in breathing life into humanity, sharing his spirit, with the disciples. Then he goes on to say, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
I think the connection between breath and forgiveness in this passage is phenomenal. If you’ve ever experienced fear, you know what happens to your breathing. It’s hard to control. If you’ve ever been betrayed or wronged, you know how hard it is to forgive. Control of breath is the starting point of letting go—forgiveness entails letting go. When we forgive, we do not forget. When we forgive, we do not diminish the transgression. When we forgive, we let go—we free our emotions from a locked room of fear in order to open our closed hearts to experience peace and love. The breath of Creation, the breath of Jesus, is now breathing in the disciples so they can go to the door and unlock it and no longer be shut in…
I pushed the doorbell a second time. A young well-dressed woman answered the door, and two kids ran up behind her. I didn’t think this was Linda and I was right. It was Linda’s daughter-in-law. She led me down a hallway, out a sliding door, and pointed to a smaller home. I later learned Linda lived in the Mother-In-Law addition that was built a year ago.
“You can go right on in. I have to take the kids to an appointment so show yourself out.” So, there I was in this back yard, more lion statues by a pool, surrounded by pollen. I knocked on the door, no cool doorbell, and heard a “Come in.” I first noticed some paintings, the smell of paint, and realized a small kitchen, bedroom and eating room were all connected. Linda did not have much privacy.
“Who are you?” I heard her voice but did not see her until I walked around the Lazy-Boy and there was Linda, dressed up like going to the symphony. I would later learn Linda was in her 60s and this was her son’s home. Her son moved her from a smaller town in North Carolina a few years after her husband died.
“They think I have dementia, but I don’t.” I remember the look on her face and the utter sincerity with which she said those words. The words came from fear. What she was really saying to me, “I feel like I am being locked up.” Over the next few weeks, Stephen Ministers visited Linda. And then Linda became a Stephen Minister. By Christmas Linda was in the choir. That was 18 years ago. To this day, Linda is one of the pillar members of that church. The faith community breathed new life into her.
At the beginning of the sermon, I hypothesized that if the Scripture story you just heard were given as much emphasis as the resurrection, then possibly the world would be quite different. When we exit the story after the Resurrection, we miss the Reconnection. We miss Jesus breathing on the disciples. The same air Jesus breathed surrounds you and I. We are connected to the past, to the future, and to one another by our breathing. There is no winning or losing way to breathe. There is no way to breathe oneself into salvation or damnation. There is no black, white, Islamic, rich, American way of breathing. We all breathe the same. We all take a first breath, and a last breath.
And somehow, in between that first and last breath, we lose track of who we are created by God. I know I allow fear to imprison me into inaction: Fear of a chaotic world. Fear of the unknown. Fear of failure. Fear of rejection. Fear of speaking out against injustice.
This past week the life and ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr. was recognized as fifty years have passed since his assassination. Over and over in his message he echoed the teaching of Jesus—that love casts out fear. When we are Easter people, not just Part One Easter people, but Part Two Easter people, we understand that the risen Christ is about leading humanity into a future. And we cannot be led into the future until we let go of the past. That is why forgiveness is so vital to the Easter story. The day of Easter does not end at the tomb, but with God finding us, hidden, locked away, and breaths upon us.