Pass It On

 

Easter 2, Year C

John 20:19-31

Love not expressed, love not felt, is difficult to trust. Theologically speaking, that is the reason for incarnation. God knew the human need for nearness. Jesus is the incarnation of God’s love, which makes it all the more demanding (if frightening) to realize that for some people, we are the only Jesus they will ever meet. – P.C. Enniss

 

How many of you think of yourselves as radicals? Anyone?

Do we have any radical feminists in the house?

Are any of you crazy enough to believe that women are people too?

How about radical socialists or environmentalists or peace activists?

What kind of radical are you?

Let me ask you this: would any of you be comfortable identifying yourself as a radical Christian? (gulp) Anyone?

If not, I get it. I mean, identifying as a radical feminist is one thing, but a radical Christian; that sounds a little scary, dangerous even in this day and age.

We don’t like the idea of mixing radical with religion, and for good reason, but believe it or not, you have all already engaged in some pretty radical Christian behavior this very morning.

And for those of you cynics in the crowd, please know I am not referring to the fact that you’ve actually shown up for church the Sunday after Easter, as radical a move as that may be. (-sigh-)

No, I am actually referring to that thing you all did before when you got up out of your pews, reached a hand out to your neighbor, and said, “peace be with you.”

 

You all probably thought you were just being friendly, but I have to tell you that was pretty hard-core.

Yeah. You may not have realized it, but it was. Because the truth is, you probably knew some of the people you exchanged the peace of Christ with a few moments ago.

Heck, this being the first Sunday after Easter, chances are you probably knew almost everybody you exchanged the peace of Christ with a few moments ago, but you don’t know everything about them…at least not all of them.

You don’t necessarily know where they’ve come from or what they’ve done or who their parents were or if they took that prayer of confession we said at the beginning of worship seriously or not.

You don’t know the state of their immortal soul any more than you know the state of their bank account or their official rank in society. But you did it anyway, as Christians before you have for millennia, and this morning I’d like to remind you why.

I’d like to remind you that back in the day – and when I say back in the day, I mean way back, back before people even referred to themselves as Christians – the very first believers had a custom of greeting one another with a holy kiss or the kiss of peace.

It is one of the oldest customs in the Christian Church and from the very beginning it has been one of the most radical and subversive. For you see back in the ancient world when a person of a lower caste greeted a person of a higher caste they were expected to kiss their hand, their feet, sometimes even the hem of their robe, to show deference. Only equals would ever kiss face to face.

But Christians believed that in Christ there was now no such thing as high or low, male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile, clean or unclean, worthy or unworthy, saved or damned.

 

 

They believed that God had made peace with all creation through the cross, that a new world was being ushered in, and that in this new kingdom – God’s kingdom – all people were nothing less than children of the King.

And so they greeted one another as royalty. They greeted one another as equals. They greeted one another – no matter what their worldly status – with love and honor and respect.

The question of whether or not a person was right with God – a question that would have affected how or even if you related to others – had been replaced in their hearts with the good news that God is all right with all of us. So thoroughly replaced that it was ok to kiss first and ask questions later.

Their “holy kiss,” that slowly morphed into our passing of the peace, was a tangible way to demonstrate God’s radically inclusive love, God’s overwhelming grace, and – most important of all – God’s unconditional forgiveness and acceptance of all people, no matter what.

And they traced this custom back to the story we have before us today.

For you see, no one could have felt less worthy of God’s love and acceptance and forgiveness than the 11 disciples who huddled in that upper room. They had failed, no matter how you looked at it, utterly and completely failed.

If Jesus was dead, a fact to which countless people could attest, then they had placed their faith in a false messiah. If Jesus was dead, then they had wasted the last three years of their lives. They had endangered themselves and everyone they knew by giving into the visions of a madman. It was a complete and total mess.

But if Jesus by some miracle lived, as the women seemed to think, then in some ways it was even worse, for had they not all, to a man, run away in his hour of need? Had they not denied him, abandoned him, and betrayed him, each in their own way, when he needed them most?

Do you remember that time you screwed up so badly you thought there was no coming back? Well this was like that, if not worse.

 

The Bible tells us that the disciples had locked the door “for fear of the Jews,” in general, but I think there was really only one Jew they feared in particular. I think they were afraid of Jesus… afraid of what he would say…afraid of what he might do.

But what is Jesus’ first word when he appears to them after his crucifixion?

Peace.

“Peace be with you,” he said, even as he showed them his hands and side – the consequence of all our fear and violence carved forever into his perfect flesh.

Peace.

In the Hebrew, Shalom: meaning I am at peace with you.

All is forgiven.

Our relationship is whole.

We’re ok.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t demand an accounting or an apology.

He doesn’t make them grovel or wait for them to repent.

He doesn’t let them know all will be forgiven if…or when…

He lets them know that all is forgiven already.

Jesus goes first. Jesus forgives first; asking nothing more and offering nothing less than peace.

Just let that sink in for a moment. Really think about just how badly the 11 had screwed up and let that peace and forgiveness sink in for a moment.

Because it’s pretty hard to believe, when you think about it.

So hard to believe that he had to say it a second time, for as happy as the disciples were to see him, how could they possibly understand that they were forgiven…already?

How could they possibly understand that he had not and would not ever give up on them? How could they possibly understand after all they had done and failed to do that he loved them anyway, forever, for always?

Well, the truth is, they didn’t understand. Not the first time, and probably not the second time either. Jesus forgives them and then commissions them to carry his message of forgiveness out into the world –

“As the Father has sent me (to forgive you), so I send you (out now to forgive).”

He breathes the Holy Spirit on to them and then says the most curious and powerful thing before he disappears:

“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them;

if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

It’s a strange line, but I think what Jesus is saying is simply go:

Go tell the world our relationship is restored.

Go tell the world her sins are forgiven.

Go tell everyone you meet that God loves them… already. Tell them that they are forgiven… already. Go tell them that if what I just endured on that cross was not enough to separate them from the love of God, than nothing – nothing in all creation – can separate them from the love of God.

Go tell everyone, because if you don’t tell them, how will they know?

They’ll go on living as though their sins are retained simply because they don’t know any better. They’ll go on living as though God is angry at them, and what a shame that would be for them, just as it would be a shame for you, a shame to stay locked up here in this room even a moment longer.

“No,” says Jesus, “that’s not the plan.”

“Go!” That’s the plan.

Share the good news of God’s grace.

Tell them the truth that the truth might set them free.

Go!

And then he disappears like David Copperfield in a puff of smoke or something.

But do they go? No. Do they tell? No. They stay put. Even Jesus appearing to them and breathing on them and commissioning them was not enough to get them up off their duffs; at least not at first.

No wonder that Thomas, when he finally shows up, doubts what they have to say.

We tend to think that his doubts are all directed at Jesus, but what if his doubts have more to do with his friends?

[1]

Here they are claiming to have seen the risen Christ, claiming that Jesus appeared to them, forgave them, and commissioned them to carry his message of peace to the world, and yet …well… look at them.

They’re all still just sitting there.

I can’t help but wonder if Thomas didn’t so much doubt Jesus as he doubted them?

Rowan Williams says, “There is no hope of understanding the Resurrection … apart from the testimony of forgiven lives communicating forgiveness.”[2]

 

That’s what Thomas needed to see in order to believe. That’s what Thomas needed to touch. That’s what we all need to see and touch and feel.

 

“Forgiven lives communicating forgiveness.”

Forgiveness made real.

 

We all need something to hold on to. We all crave something tangible, which is why those first believers I spoke to you about at the beginning of this sermon took Jesus so literally. It is what gave them the courage to defy some of the most deeply ingrained social conventions of their day; the courage to kiss first and ask questions later.

 

For as they leaned over to greet one another, no matter how other the other might have been, they became Christ to one another.

 

Their kiss of peace was a tangible way of spreading the gospel: the good news that your sins are forgiven already, the good news that you are loved already, the good news that you belong – to us and to God – already, forever, for always, no matter what.

 

 

And it is the same truth we are making real here every Sunday when we pass the peace, whether we realize it or not: a truth so real you can feel it in the warmth of a hug or the firmness of a handshake.

And the fact that you may be called to offer it to those you know and those you don’t, gives us all a concrete way to demonstrate that there is a place in God’s kingdom and a place in this church for all. But let it not end there. Let it not stop here.

Because friends, this is about so much more than us being a friendly church or a welcoming church. This is a truth the whole world is aching for, but if we don’t share it, how will they ever know?

How many of you know P___, who sits out in front of our church? P___’s out there almost every day, so he and I have had quite a few chances to talk since I came here. Well one day we were chatting and he mentioned something that his pastor had said at his church. “You’re a seventh day Adventist, aren’t you?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, “but I’m not a very good one.”

“None of us are,” I said. “We don’t come to church because we’re good, we come because we’re forgiven.” Paul looked over at me when I said that, really looked me in the eye, I think to see if I really knew who I was talking to, as if to say, “Pastor if you knew the things I’d done…” but and I looked at him right back and as I did his face softened.

“Thanks for saying that,” he said with a genuineness that near broke my heart. “Really. Thanks.”

“… forgiven lives communicating forgiveness.”

That’s all.

So go and tell, because the world needs to know. Amen.

[1] Thanks to the Reverends Rob McCoy and Eric Fistler at http://www.pulpitfiction.us for this insight.

[2] (Quote found and inspiration derived from ideas found at http://girardianlectionary.net/year_c/easter2c.htm )