Were You There? (April 2013)

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.” — John 20:19

Can you imagine it? The fear and sadness and utter failure that Peter and the other disciples were feeling after Jesus’ execution? It had been a long week – arriving in Jerusalem to wild praise and high hopes, and then watching the dream slip from their grasp. Actually it had been a long three years – exciting and dangerous and astounding – but long. Three long years since Jesus had walked into their lives and turned everything upside down. Three years since Peter had walked away from everything he knew to follow this mysterious man. Three years of struggling to understand this teacher’s strange and radical wisdom, struggling to survive while enemies came at them from all sides. And for what? Jesus was dead, and so were their hopes.

Can you hear it? Clank! The iron bolt sliding into place and locking the door behind them. Locking doors wasn’t a common practice at that time. If you lived in a village or even a city like Jerusalem, where the disciples were hiding, you left your doors open. If you locked your door, it looked like you had something to hide.

Jesus’ disciples did have something to hide … themselves! It had been less than three days since Jesus had been executed on a wooden cross. And they each had failed him in their own way. Peter, especially, might have winced as he remembered denying that he followed Jesus – that he even knew him!

Can you see it in your mind: Peter looking around the room, thinking that this is what it had all come to? A handful of women and men crammed in to a small, hot room. The door bolted. The shutters sealed over the one narrow window. Many of them surrounded Mary, who was trying to convince them that she had been to the teacher’s tomb and found it empty, and that she then saw the teacher himself, alive and well. But they were skeptical.

But then, not many in the group had believed it when Jesus warned them he would die. He was supposed to save the Jewish people from the Romans.

And it took almost no time at all for the Temple leaders and the Romans to end the threat, to crush their hopes.

And then – and then! – something felt different. They looked around, and their eyes landed on a lone figure on the far side of the room. It was their rabbi. It was Jesus.

Confusion, fear and hope bubbled in every soul in the room. Then Jesus spoke: “Peace be with you.”

The first words – the first wish – of Jesus upon seeing his disciples was that they should be at peace. Passing the peace was the way you greeted someone in that day and age. It was like saying “hello” nowadays. But this time the words were different, special. The peace that Jesus was bestowing on his disciples was perhaps – in part – a personal peace, an inner peace. But more importantly, it was also a community peace, a passing of the peace from Jesus to the community of disciples, a peace to be shared and grown and multiplied.

“Peace be with you,” Jesus said.

And yet, it isn’t hard to imagine that the disciples still didn’t believe. That they were flabbergasted and silent and frozen in their place. Jesus would try to convince them. “I am not a ghost. I have returned from death, just as I promised.” Perhaps he lifted his robe to expose a terrible gash in his side. Perhaps he held out both hands to show the ragged holes, one in each wrist.

“I did die,” he might have said, “but rejoice! I have returned.”

Imagine as the dam of doubt burst. As joy and hope and relief rushed through the disciples like water through rapids. Maybe some of them laughed, maybe some of them shouted in triumph. Maybe some wept. Imagine how they beamed.

And then Jesus did the strangest thing. He walked over to one of the disciples, perhaps to Peter first, placed a palm on each side of his face, and looked into his eyes. “Peace be with you,” he said. “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And then leaned near Peter’s face and breathed. Imagine what it was like – sweet and light, serious and playful, joyful and purposeful. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus said.

The Holy Spirit. God’s Holy Spirit – the one that was there at the very beginning of creation, soaring over the waters; the one that descended onto Jesus when he was baptized by John. The Spirit, bestowed by our Creator God onto Jesus, the Son, was now being shared by the Son with the disciples. The Holy Spirit, the aspect of God that connects us, runs through us and around us and between us, the part of God that gives us our gifts for ministry, our talents, our treasures, that part of God that guides us, that pushes us in the right direction.

And Jesus said: “If you forgive anyone their sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

But the disciples didn’t imagine themselves as power-brokers. It was not up to them to choose whom to forgive. God had already done that – and it was everyone. Rather, the disciples’ job was to offer the message of such forgiveness to the world, and to try to forgive as God forgives, with no strings attached.

Can you imagine that moment, when the disciples finally understood everything that Jesus had been trying to teach them for the past three years? And to understand their purpose, finally?

Actually, we don’t have to imagine. Because we were there. That was, after all, the day the church began. We are the same church as those disciples. Yes, nearly 2,000 years later, but we are one. We are one community.

We carry the Holy Spirit within us, and we have the same responsibilities and obligations as those original disciples.

As Easter people, we share the resurrection through sharing the peace of Christ, pronouncing the love of God, and opening ourselves and our world to the Holy Spirit.

May Christ’s peace be with you.

Pastor Gage 

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