Thursday, May 22, 2014

“Where Do We Go From Here?” Easter 2A (April 27, 2014)

John 20:19-31
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the religious leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”  After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Teacher.
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Creator has sent me, I am sending you.”  And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Now Thomas (also known as Didymus, or the Twin), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.  So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Teacher!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”  Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Child of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Will you pray with and for me? Eternal One, the joy of Easter is still with us. Give us grace to live with joy in your presence and to share that joy with all your children. In all your many names, amen.

Easter is over—the chocolates have all been eaten, the baskets are empty, the bonnets have been put away, the lilies are looking a bit bedraggled…

No, actually that’s not true. Easter Sunday is over and past, but the season of Easter continues! In fact, the Easter season of the church lasts 50 days, until Pentecost—that is longer than either Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas, or Lent, the time of preparation for Easter. We have just come through Lent—a time of self-examination, of inward thought and prayer and meditation, of refocusing on our spiritual life.  The Easter season is a time of celebration and joy, of, in its turn, preparation for the great feast of Pentecost, the birthday of the church.

But that in-between time must have been a strange time for the apostles—for Peter and John and James and the rest. What an incredible time they had just been through! The events of Holy week—the strange meal with Jesus, then his arrest; the suicide of Judas, who had been an integral part of their group until the end; and then Jesus’ execution and burial…the greif, the sorrow, the pain…and then, the sudden joy, against all expectation, against anything they could have expected, when Jesus appeared to them, alive after all, not dead, but resurrected! It was almost more than they could stand. Thomas, who didn’t want to believe a lie or delusion, tried to protect himself from disappointment by his scepticism—and yet believed.

So, they must have been asking themselves, “now what? We’ve seen that our friend and teacher is not dead, but is risen. What do we do with that? What does he want from us? What are we supposed to do? Where will we go? What does he mean by that talk about us being sent, and about forgiving sins? What’s next? Where do we go from here?”

And this is a very normal reaction to life-changing events—incredulity, a slow belief, and then acceptance, but then the next step—what do I, what do we, do with this?—that is often shrouded in confusion. What do I do with this? Think of a time in your life when you were told something that changed everything—happy, exciting, thrilling news—the person you had come to love loved you too, or that the job you had been hoping for was yours, or that you had been admitted to the school you so much wanted to attend.

I remember when I was accepted to seminary—at first I was afraid they had made a mistake and sent me the wrong letter—that lasted about ten seconds—and then a dawning sense of joy and celebration when it sank in that this was real—I was going to seminary! And then the confusion, the what next, the where do I go from here? I didn’t know if I should go full time and get it done, or part-time and pay as I went, so I didn’t have debt when I graduated; I didn’t know what my schedule would be or what I should major in, who the best professors were or who my advisor would be; I didn’t know what to do next—I didn’t know where to go from there.  But I was celebrating! And that’s where I stayed, from that day in May when I received the acceptance letter until late August when I went for my orientation and to register for classes and learned the answers to all those questions and to others I hadn’t thought to ask!

That’s where the disciples are—they are joyful, happy, excited—Jesus isn’t dead after all! Let’s celebrate! But also—what does it mean? What are we going to do next? What does Jesus want us to do with this news?

They don’t really learn everything that Jesus wants them to do for a while—they are in this in-between place for 50 days. They have almost two months to celebrate and simply be with Jesus, to remind themselves of all that he is to them, why they followed him, why they love him—the who and what of the future can wait. For now, they are in a time of rest and growing joy and happiness.

Part of the reason for their uncertainty is fear—what comes next? Will the authorities try to kill Jesus again? Will they try to kill us? What are we to say and do?

Part of my uncertainty around starting seminary was fear, too—what if I finish the degree and the authorities decide I am not pastor material? What if I don’t do well? What if I can’t finance it? What if I fail?

Fear is a very basic emotion—it is what has kept the human species alive, but it can also be a hindrance. Fear can keep us from doing what we know we want to do, what is right or good. Thomas wanted to believe, but he was afraid of being thought foolish.

The unknown, in short, makes us afraid. We fear what we don’t know, because we can’t make a plan to deal with it. If I had known that my tuition and fees were paid for by a generous scholarship, for example, I would not have been afraid of how to pay for seminary. The disciples were afraid of how to go out in Jesus’ name, because they didn’t know what to say or where to go or how they would find the courage. If they had known that the Holy Spirit would be manifest at Pentecost, empowering them to speak God’s message of love, they would not have been so afraid.

But I didn’t know I had a scholarship, and I never did have one—I paid for seminary myself, though loans and an inheritance. The disciples didn’t know what to do—but they were told, later.

Sometimes our path doesn’t look very clear—there seem to be obstacles and barriers in our way, even though we know that’s the way to go. Yesterday was the Transgender Day of Empowerment—and I think of my transgender friends. Once they knew what they had to do, that path must have looked so difficult and frightening. From the conversations I have had with my friends, I have learned that as they started down the path, they were uncertain where they were going or how they would get there or what the journey would be like—there was fear. And it wasn’t always easy. But they keep going, through difficult times I can’t begin to imagine, and through celebrations I am delighted to share. But none of them knew exactly the path they would follow—they could only step out and take it as it came. And I thank God for their courage and faith in themselves—though I know it was not always easy, they made it, through that courage and determination and strength of will—and the sure knowledge that it was the right path for them.

The truth is, none of us know what is coming our way—we tend to be afraid and on the lookout for terrible things to happen—death, job loss, bad weather, broken relationships—but the reality is that good things are just as likely—a better job, new relationships, deepening of the relationships we have, or simply a beautiful day to enjoy the gifts God has given us.

For these next fifty days, rest in the knowledge that God is with you—Jesus is risen, our joy is complete. The future is the future, and God will be there, too. But for now, celebrate the joy and the blessings of life—the way will be shown to us, in God’s time. Christ is risen, alleluia!

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