St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Albany, CA
Second Sunday of Easter
Sermon by Steve Hitchcock
Gospel: John 20:19-31
My goodness! A locked room. Disciples full of fear. I never would have imagined that the setting of a Gospel reading would so closely match our current reality. Did anyone of us think we would be so isolated for so long – and so worried about what might happen to us or our loved ones?
So, this morning we too are in locked rooms. Like those first disciples, we are huddled together, albeit virtually. We are fearful of this deadly virus that is upending everything.
But the promise of today’s Gospel is that the Risen Christ is present with us right now. His Spirit is breathing new life into us. That living Spirit makes it possible for us to practice what Jesus describes as “forgiveness of sins.” In John’s Gospel, forgiveness is the beloved community that both transcends and celebrates our differences. That’s why Jesus, while lifted up on the cross, tells his mother Mary and Johns that they are now mother and son. Forgiveness is being the family of God’s adopted children and siblings of God’s Number One Kid.
That’s a pretty bold promise isn’t it? But one promises to keep us connected to each other during this frightening health crisis. And like the overflowing wine at wedding of Cana, that new life flows beyond us, inspiring us in new ways – as we shelter in place – to love our neighbors, both those next door and, perhaps especially now, those who face so much devastation in the world’s poorest countries.
I have often preached on this Second Sunday of Easter, which I call the Feast of Clergy Exhaustion (and well-deserved vacation). So, I’ve studied this text from John 20 many times. But with each re-reading, I discover new gems.
I’ve also preached often on the other day of clergy exhaustion: Christmas morning when John 1 is the Gospel. John 1 and John 20 are true bookends. From early in the church’s history, chapter 20 was seen as the book’s conclusion, with chapter 21 as an appendix if you will. Thus, John’s Gospel ends where it begins with the last word being zoe. Life that is eternal, not because it is in the future but because it begins now and is new every day hence.
I mention this because, in rereading chapter 20, I noticed first that Jesus breathes on the disciples. John is reminding us – as he did in Chapter 1 – of Genesis when God breathed life into Adam. That the Risen Christ is God’s new creation is reinforced by three earlier references to a “garden.” Before he is betrayed, Jesus prays in a garden. The place of Jesus’ crucifixion is called a garden, and the empty tomb on Easter morning is in a garden – where Mary mistakes the Risen Christ for the gardener. Today, the good news is that, even in our isolated homes, we are in the new Garden of Eden, where God is breathing new life into us.
The other item I noticed is that Thomas wants to see Jesus, but he doesn’t seem to want to see a Jesus restored and fully alive. Rather Thomas wants to see the wounded, executed, and dead Jesus. With this, John reminds us that it is the crucified Christ who is risen. The King of Glory is our wounded Lord. At the midpoint of the Gospel – in chapter 10 –Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down life for the sheep. It is by giving up his life that Jesus becomes one with the Father, and by being lifted up on the cross he draws us into that Holy Family.
Finally, I noticed the phrase “these are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah (or Christ).” Note, too, that the tense of what is translated as “come to believe” is more like “be believing” or “stay believing, keep on trusting.”
Being able to believe because of written words is different from the disciples. They came to believe because they saw the Risen Christ. In fact, those disciples didn’t believe Mary Magdalene when she told them that she had seen the Lord. But, significantly, even Mary didn’t see the Risen Christ until he spoke to her – and, like the Good Shepherd in chapter 10, called her by name.
We do confess – in part because of John’s Gospel – that we see Jesus today. For us, the Risen Christ is a tangible reality in the water of baptism, in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and in each other as parts of Christ’s body in the world. These days, though, we aren’t able t0 pass by baptismal water, we can’t touch the Eucharistic bread and wine, and we definitely aren’t seeing each other in the flesh.
That’s why the final verse of today’s reading is so encouraging. The promise is that the Big Word, the Word made flesh, is accessible to us through written words. Now, you may recall that in ancient times, not many people could read, and those who could read – even when they read only for themselves – read aloud.
This morning, as we gather virtually – like Mary at the empty tomb – we get to hear the words of New Life read and prayed aloud. And because the Spirit of the Risen Christ is always finding new ways to inspire faith, perhaps we can see our isolation as the gift of time to read more words – trusting that, even when read silently, the give us new life.
So, let’s keep on reading, keep on believing, and keep on living. Amen.
Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 29, 2020
Sermon by Steve Hitchcock
Gospel for the day: John 11:1-45
In today’s very long Gospel reading – almost entire chapter of 11 of John’s – is at halfway point of the Gospel. Notably, this is the seventh and final “sign” – the miracles that in John’s Gospel point to the “big Truth” about Jesus as God’s presence among us.
As we prepare for Holy Week, we are reminded that it is Jesus’ death that reveals God’s glory. That’s not just some lofty statement: we hear today that the Jewish leaders were trying to stone Jesus. The last verse of chapter 11 states that chief priests and Pharisees were planning to arrest Jesus.
John’s first readers would have noticed that today’s story features individuals and activities that we will see again at the end of John’s Gospel: Lazarus spends three days in the tomb, Thomas, the one who must put his hands in Jesus’ side, Mary weeping at her brother’s tomb as she would do at Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning, and a stone being rolled away.
Our response to this Gospel is not amazement with Jesus did long ago. Rather, we are invited to be part of the crowd that stands listening to Jesus. We join them in hearing a promise that is ours today: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live in me.”
Especially in the midst of the health crisis we’re living through, we should be very clear what is on offer. It is “even though we die, we live.” In these days when a frightening virus brings death literally to our door, hearing – and believing – those words of Jesus calls us from the tombs of our fear and uncertainty.
Right now, we may be in tombs of loneliness and anxiety. Or like Mary and Martha, weary with grief and worry. Today, Jesus unbinds us and sets us free. And, like Lazarus, each of us becomes a sign that we are alive in the Risen Christ.
Readings from The Lectionary Page: http://lectionarypage.net