Sermon: John 20:19-31 – The Power of Peace
1st Sunday in Easter, Year C (April 3, 2016)
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
I grew up in both a black Baptist and black Lutheran world, thanks to my parents. I went to Sunday school and worship at both churches. I look fondly and critically at both traditions and long to see a blend of the best of these traditions in one place. I love that Easter is a 50-day season for Lutherans and not merely one day to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And I love the Baptist teaching that we are an Easter people and “Hallelujah!” is our song!
I love how Lutheran churches declare that all are welcome but I also love how Baptist churches make an actual invitation to discipleship during their worship service, called “opening the doors of the church”.
After preaching, the pastor stood front and center and announced, “The doors of the church are open! Is there not one who wants to know Christ?” Visitors who wished to become disciples, to be baptized, to become members or to re-commit themselves to a life of discipleship were invited come forward for prayer and welcome. This was a part of every service in the black church tradition – opening the doors for invitation.
Today’s gospel reminded me of that, with these locked doors protecting the disciples. Granted, this was not yet a church but they were the first disciples of Jesus. And their response to hearing the first Christian sermon (“Jesus is alive!”) is to hide and lock themselves behind closed doors. They had good reason – Jesus was killed by the authorities and they were now being hunted.
They also needed time to figure out what happened. Their teacher had been executed. Now, he’s alive? That doesn’t make sense in any century. They needed to compare notes to see what they might have missed. So they have a lock-in.
Jesus appears in their midst, getting through their locked doors. He is alive and in the flesh. They touch him and are amazed. Jesus does two things. He says to them twice, “Peace be with you.” That’s important because it’s Christ’s peace that calms all fear. Then, he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” They receive peace for their fears and the power to forgive sins in Jesus’ name. They are charged to go out and to be Christ’s presence in the world, wounded and holy instruments of God.
They have seen and touched the risen Lord. They later tell Thomas who was out buying groceries, and Thomas refuses to believe. Can you blame him? Can you imagine being one of those very first disciples and your whole worldview shifts just like that? God in flesh, crucified and risen. How do you keep this to yourselves?
The story continues a week later. Just as we gather weekly for worship, the disciples are gathered again one week later. The doors are still shut and locked. Their fear of arrest overshadowed their joy of the resurrection. They couldn’t yet trust the peace of the risen Christ to get them outside and past their fears.
I think of that Baptist invitation: the doors of the church are open. Are they? Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. We can get stuck inside, afraid of what’s out there.
-“But our neighborhood is Hispanic or Black, and they probably don’t want to be Lutherans.”
-“But our neighbors are poor. They don’t have the money we need for our budget.”
-“But this generation doesn’t do things the way we do!”
-“But we’re not Jehovah’s Witnesses. We don’t go out!”
-“But I don’t know how to talk about Jesus.”
-“But what if they reject us?”
-“But what if they change our church too much?”
But…but…but. And those outside our doors hear our fears loud and clear. If they perceive that they’re not welcome because those inside are afraid, then they won’t come in. They will see church as disconnected and irrelevant. They will go elsewhere, maybe to another church where they feel they matter, or they’ll give up church altogether.
Fear can be very real as in the threat on the disciples’ lives. Parents in Flint, MI fear baptisms because of poisoned water. We’re supposed to fear every stranger and non-Christian. People in Chicago fear the spike in gun violence. Local and state agencies fear losing funding. Churches fear declining memberships. We may not face persecution but we face financial woes, marital break-ups, aging parents, fights with friends, bullies, health crises, political turmoil and unemployment.
BUT…we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. We have been given spiritual gifts for the building up of the Church. We have been given a spirit of boldness, not fear. So what’s behind our fear?
The Bible never says there’s nothing to fear; instead it says repeatedly, “Do not be afraid.” Fear can cripple us, preventing us from living, loving and leading full lives. We become incapacitated by our fear, hiding behind locked doors.
Here’s what Christ’s peace does for us. Christ’s peace calms us in our greatest struggles. Jesus said, “Peace be with you.” Behind locked doors, he breathed on his followers his peace. Behind our locked doors, Jesus breathes his peace on us. We have received the peace of Christ that still breaks through the fear that seeks to lock us in. Christ’s peace is that innermost calm that no storm can shake.
Christ’s peace gives us boldness to share the good news. Church folk could argue that there’s good reason to stay behind locked doors. The culture has changed! When has culture not changed? Is that a good reason not to be out making disciples? The risen Christ has breathed his peace and his power on us. There’s still work to be done, church. It’s hard making new disciples if we don’t get our own fear in check. There’s a resurrection to proclaim. The world needs our bold witness.
Picture 10 year-old girls. They play with the same gusto as boys. They are confident in their math and science skills. They amuse friends and family. They jump, run, laugh and climb and take bold risks. Adolescence hasn’t yet told them their limits and flaws. Girls (and boys) at ten exhibit bold faith.
Finally, Christ’s peace brings reconciliation and transforms strife. I don’t mean superficial peace where each side drops their complaints to get along. I mean a mature peace that transforms hearts, minds and situations. The Rev. Traci Blackmon is the United Church of Christ’s Acting Executive Minister of Justice and Witness Ministries. Her job is to negotiate peace where there is strife – with police, residents, governments, justice system, school districts and the church. She pastors a church near Ferguson, MO and also is a registered nurse and mother of young adults. When unrest broke out in 2014 and as fear overtook everyone, she risked her own safety and went out on the streets, nursing, listening, hugging, praying, crying, mediating peace. Because of her bold witness in Ferguson, Rev. Blackmon has become a national faith leader called to teach others the way of Christ’s peace. We all need to learn how to practice peace that brings real transformation.
I dare you to believe that Jesus’ resurrection is real! Dare to dismiss fear and tell other about Jesus! Dare to be peacemakers who transform families, communities and the world! Dare to live, love and lead generously for the sake of the world! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Pastor Kimberly Vaughn