Think Easter- Sermon for April 11, 2021 from Pastor John

Sermon for April 11, 2021

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     This is certainly a beautiful time of year, and I do not only mean the season of Spring. It is Easter, a seven-week long festival on the church calendar. Sometimes businesses will put up signs that say “Think Spring”. The church should have signs up that say “Think Easter”. This is important for in many ways because we live in fearful times.

The persistent reality of fear began our Gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Easter. The disciples were gathered behind locked doors, probably double and triple bolted, because of their fear of the Jews. What was meant was fear of arrest from the Jewish Temple leadership, the same leaders that plotted Jesus’ death. This text in no way criticizes Jewish people for remember, the first disciples were of the Jewish faith. Earlier in the day Mary Magdalene told them with enthusiasm and joy, “I have seen the Lord.” She told them about weeping at Jesus’ empty tomb, wondering what happened to the dead body of Jesus. Then Jesus stood next to her and asked her just whom was she looking for. Mary thought it was the gardener talking to her. But when Jesus called her by name, “Mary”, then she recognized him. The risen Savior found her in her grief and turned the sadness into joy. Jesus told her to go to the disciples and tell them the good news. Mary did just that with the full authority of being the first witness of the resurrection.

But the disciples were not celebrating. Maybe they were skeptical of Mary’s announcement feeling it was just too good to be true. Fear still had the upper hand. Think of our own time. We gather at church and proclaim multiple “alleluias” because Jesus is risen from the dead. But then faith is shaken by the pandemic. We live in a time of lockdown because of the dangerous spread of a terrible virus. Even our church services are restricted due to what is said as “an abundance of caution”, a fancy phrase for fear. There are other epidemics in the nation as well. There is a rise of hate and violence against people of Asian origin, fellow American citizens. We hear of hate groups growing in number. Their hate usually targets people of color and still, 76 years after the Holocaust, Americans of the Jewish faith. Why the hatred, fear is certainly part of the answer. Another epidemic is gun violence. There are more guns than people in the United States and gun sales have not suffered during the COVID pandemic. Why so many weapons, who or what is stoking such fear? We are in lockdown due to fear of the virus and violence. So we must “Think Easter” and this does not mean chocolate bunnies and jelly beans, but Jesus risen from the dead and Lord so faith does not lose out to fear.

On the first Easter evening with doors locked for security, our gospel lesson simple stated, “Jesus came and stood among them.” Maybe for a second the disciples were afraid. How did he get there? Locked doors could not stop him from coming. Maybe Peter thought he would hear a word of criticism and disappointment for when Jesus was on trial he had denied he even knew Jesus three times. But Jesus first word to the fear-burdened disciples was “Peace”. Jesus said to them “Peace be with you.” Then Jesus showed them his hands and his side. Jesus showed them his wounds from the cross. Jesus was no ghost present to haunt them with reminders of their failures. The Savior who was crucified for them and the world, the one the gospel of John called the Lamb of God stood with them. Jesus first greeting of peace meant the entire forgiveness of sins. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This means that no unbelief or fear will stop the love of God known in Jesus.

There was an interesting discussion in Confirmation class last week. The class of four has become quite good at writing prayers of confession, and declarations of forgiveness for the worship service. In a prayer of confession a student wrote, “Even though I cannot forgive myself, I know that God will.” That sounded strange as if God’s forgiveness was incomplete. The student explained there are things you have done or left undone you feel badly about, and that feeling persists. We all know what she was talking about. We are so used to hearing about God forgiving our sins that it has lost its healing power. As a result we can feel locked in by an inability to forgive ourselves. Thinking Easter does not mean we forget about the cross. Jesus’ gift of peace was backed up by the wounds of the cross. It is important to imagine Jesus standing with us today, showing his hands and his side. The reality of Jesus’ sacrifice reminds us of the power of his healing love for us. His peace, his sacrifice, his love enables us to forgive ourselves.

The forgiveness of Jesus indeed brings joy. In our text we heard Jesus say again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” This gift of peace enables us to unlock the door of fear and go out into a hurting world with the gospel message of God’s love. The trouble is we may not be all that fired-up to go out into the world where there is sickness, hatred, and violence. It would be a whole lot easier to “Think Easter” in the comfort of the four walls of the church on Sunday. Jesus understands our hesitancy if not helplessness with being a witness of his love. Jesus breathed on his disciples and said “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.” The mission is always forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name. Forgiveness is part and parcel with the good news of resurrection because both mean newness of life. Forgiveness from Jesus is a resurrection meaning people can live and breathe again without the crushing burden of guilt and the fear of God out to get them with a sentence of punishment. Forgiveness from Jesus is meant to reach people where they hurt. Human beings are not just numbers or no-counts but beloved children of God.

For his life-saving mission Jesus breathes his life into us, the church. Jesus does not leave his church, his people, powerless, but provides them with the powerhouse of the Holy Spirit. In a newsletter from our Bible Camp at Fortune Lake a pastor told a story. Pastor Judy was at Camp serving as Health Officer one summer. Suddenly her life experienced a terrible upheaval. As she put it her marriage unexpectedly collapsed from underneath her. The grief of this broken marriage hit her and her children hard. The community at Fortune Lake responded with compassion and care. Pastor Judy recalled, saying, “We needed the Holy Spirit and a little extra help to get through. Fortune Lake got my family through the worst part of our lives.” The heavenly Father sent Jesus into the world to reveal the heart and love of God. Jesus sends out his church, his people, to enact his compassion for people hurting, harassed and helpless by their troubles. We share the peace of the Living Savior Jesus not by quoting Bible verses, but by being the living Bible of God’s mercy for others. It is interesting that in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles we heard God gave great grace for the followers to give testimony of Jesus’ resurrection. And the very next verse said “there was not a needy person among them.” We give testimony for the resurrection of Jesus in many ways, and let us be open to the grace of the Holy Spirit who guides us to respond with love with people’s needs.

In the gospel reading we also heard about Thomas, famously called “Doubting Thomas”. Thomas was not with the other disciples when Jesus first appeared among them. Even after the other followers told Thomas “We have seen the Lord” Thomas was not satisfied. Thomas had a mind of his own. He had an open mind because he said he would only believe when he would not only see the wounds of Jesus but also touch the marks of the nails and spear. Give the disciples credit; they did not reject Thomas for his insistence of “Seeing is believing”. When Jesus stood among the disciples a week later he said “Peace be with you.” This gift of peace included Thomas for Jesus went over to him and granted his request: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Thomas, do not be unbelieving but believe.” Thomas responded with a great confession of faith in Jesus saying “My Lord and my God.” Jesus does not condemn us for our struggles with faith. There are times when we have our doubts. Maybe we doubt because a doctrine of the church we find confusing. Maybe we doubt because involvement in the church has been hurtful and we may not want any part of the church any more. Whatever the reason Jesus does not withdraw his blessing of peace. Even if we no longer believe, Jesus does not withdraw his peace for Jesus is the Peace of God, the peace which surpasses all understanding. Jesus is ever at work getting the word out, either through the worship services or through the witness of other Christians, calling, inviting, and enabling struggling and skeptical minds to believe. Jesus spoke a wonderful blessing in the gospel today: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe, and through believing, one has life in his name.”

So often we are locked down by fear. So let us say “Think Easter”. Very simply the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection is that he shows up, in our midst, with his gift of peace. This is the peace of forgiveness and life lived uplifted with his love and hope.

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