Powerful love dissolves our guilt and fear

Sunday Sermon

The Rev. W. W. (Tad) Meyer
Assisting Priest

April 23, 2017

When it was evening of Easter, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews...

 

It was the evening of the day of the Resurrection and the disciples of Jesus were gathered behind locked doors, filled with fear and trepidation. On one level, there was certainly some cause for fear and concern. Those disciples had just stood by as the Jewish authorities had put into motion the fearsome machinery of capital punishment and their minds were still filled with the horrific images of the confusing trial, the angry crowds, the mockery and torture and a twisted and broken body suspended from a bloodied beam. That machinery was still in place, poised and primed, and if they were identified as Jesus’ disciples, they could be tried as accomplices to his seditious activities and a similar fate might well await them. They had reason to fear for their lives, but that does not explain the depth of anxiety that seems to have darkened and imprisoned their souls. After all, according to the narrative sequence of John’s Gospel, by that evening the disciples already knew about the resurrection. They had already seen the empty tomb. Peter had actually entered into it and had seen the linen wrappings lying on the floor. The disciple whom Jesus loved had also entered the tomb and when he saw it was empty, he believed in the resurrection. Mary Magdalene had told the disciples about the testimony of the angels and reported that she had actually seen the Lord outside the tomb, initially mistaking him for the gardener. Jesus himself had told them any number of times what he believed would happen after his death and those prophecies appeared to have come true. The disciples may indeed have feared the long arm of the Jewish authorities but they also knew that the tomb was empty and they had heard Mary’s claim that the Lord had risen from the dead just as he predicted. Surely such news should have alleviated their fear of arrest or even of death, now knowing that the one they called Lord was ascending to the Father, to his God and their God. They may have had reason to fear, but they also had reason to rejoice. In that locked room, however, the shadow of fear seems to have blotted out all cause for rejoicing. It was fear that reigned in that room because what really made those disciples lock the doors and cringe in terror was the possibility that it was all true, that their Lord had indeed risen from the dead.

But why should such astonishingly good news be the cause of fear and trepidation? Why would the disciples by afraid of the joyful possibility that their beloved master’s prophesy was becoming a reality? Well, call to mind the saga of the last few days, those events that we so solemnly recalled and reenacted during the course of Holy Week. The disciples were certainly jolly on Palm Sunday, walking proudly with their master as he was greeted as a king, bracketed by waving palms and showered with cries of hosanna. They became increasingly uneasy, however, as Jesus began to offend the power brokers of Jerusalem, overturning the tables of the temple employees and attacking and alienating the Pharisees and the Sadducees with his radical teachings about God’s graceful mercy. They were undoubtedly uplifted by the beautiful sanctity of the last supper, but they were puzzled and confused by all this talk about denial and betrayal. They had traveled so far with this man they called messiah and they had sacrificed so much to be in his company, surely he was not suggesting that they would be unable to stay the course. They ate their fill that holy night, so much so that they couldn’t keep their eyes open when Jesus asked them to keep watch while he prayed. And then it began: the swarming crowd of priests and temple guards, smoky torchlight revealing faces twisted in anger and derision; the clanking sound of swords and armor; their brother Judas embracing the man he once called Lord. Why didn’t Jesus simply put a stop to all this, rising in omnipotence and calling forth his miraculous powers to silence and defeat this threatening array of angry and disillusioned men? Could it be that Jesus was powerless to stop these fearsome machinations? Could it be that he who could silence a storm at sea could not quell the violent gales that tore through these men’s minds and hearts? Was he really impotent and if so, where did that leave them? They decided that at such a delicate hour, discretion was the wisest course. They would adopt a low profile until they found out which way the wind was really blowing.

Peter, their natural leader, jumped in to defend his seemingly helpless master, wielding his sword in an act of misguided loyalty. His pride must have been sorely wounded when his chauvinism was not greeted with praise but condemnation by the very man he was trying to save. As the drama continued to unfold, it became painfully clear to him that Jesus was not willing to defend himself and Peter began to fear for his own life and safety. He decided to disassociate himself from the man he had named the Christ, the one he had called the anointed one of God. When questioned, he denied that he had ever known the man. Judas only betrayed his master once. Blessed Peter did it three times.

In their confusion and fear, all the disciples betrayed Jesus, all of them fled for their lives. Is it really any wonder that news of their Lord’s resurrection disturbed them so deeply. As the disciples huddled behind locked doors, wondering how and where their Resurrected Lord would appear, they undoubtedly thought about what he would say and what he would do to them, this pitiful band of betrayers. What do you think Peter was thinking? Do you think he relished the idea of being confronted by the man he said he did not know, the same man who had told them in no uncertain terms that those who denied him, he would deny before God the Father? It would certainly be reasonable to assume that the disciples feared the appearance of the Lord they had abandoned and betrayed and that they expected to hear from his lips words of condemnation and harsh judgment. And yet, when Jesus did appear, he bid them peace and then he reached out to them with wounded hands. The prison of the disciples’ fear was suddenly shattered and they were filled with joyful astonishment. The disciples’ betrayal deserved condemnation, but what they received was forgiveness and unconditional, loving acceptance.

Weeks before, when the other disciples fearfully tried to dissuade Jesus from going to Bethany where Lazarus lay dead, it was Thomas who boldly declared his intention of going with Jesus to share in the danger: Let us also go that we may die with him. And yet, despite that pledge of courageous and unshakable devotion, Thomas deserted Jesus at the first sight of real danger, fleeing with his compatriots. When Thomas returned to hear the news of the Risen Lord’s visit, his mind must have swum with a bewildering mixture of astonishment, guilt and disbelief. How could this man, wounded so viciously by the betrayal of those he loved, accept them with such merciful, generous love? It is interesting that Thomas insisted that he would only believe when he had seen and touched the wounds, the jagged symbols of his own cowardice and betrayal. And yet, Jesus accepted Thomas as well, inviting him to place his hands on the wounds which he helped inflict, asking him to believe in a love that is stronger that the power of human sin.

In an important sense, this account of our Lord’s first appearances is not simply an illustration of the miracle of the resurrection, but is instead a testimony to the resurrecting power of loving acceptance. Jesus gave those fearful disciples what they did not have and what they certainly did not deserve, love and respect rooted in loving acceptance. The disciples deserved condemnation, but he showered them with forgiveness. They deserved punishment, but he granted them peace. He gave them love and respect, and it was that gift that transformed them, empowering them to become the Body of Christ and to minister in his name. He even gave them the authority to judge others, to forgive and retain sins, but he did so in the context of his own act of unconditional loving acceptance.

On this blessed morning, we stand with the disciples, crippled by our own betrayals, all those times when we have denied our faith and failed to stand by the one we call Lord and Master. All those myriad times that we have failed to act with compassion, gratitude and generosity, when we have acted instead out of fear, selfishness and egotism. Like those first disciples, we deserve denunciation and condemnation, for we too in countless and subtle ways have wounded the Body of Christ. But into the prisons of our guilt and fear, the Risen Lord comes and he invites us to touch his body and taste his blood, bidding us, like our brother Thomas, to believe in a love that is stronger than our ability to sin. It is a love that accepts us in all our disheveled humanity, a love that will unlock the prisons of our hearts and empower us to reach out to others with minds and souls filled with loving acceptance, grace and gratitude.