Third Sunday of Easter, rcl yr b, 2021
St. John’s Stay-at-Home
ACTS 3:12-19; PSALM 4; 1 JOHN 3:1-7; JOHN 24:36-38

Jesus himself stood among them
and said to them, “Peace be with you.” Luke 24:36

Easter disciples. How are we formed as Easter disciples?

Our three readings today show us more than we may wish to know.

Especially in the Gospel and in the reading from Acts, we see Jesus’ first disciples grappling with his suffering and death, and then, the unbelievable surprise of his resurrection. However well-prepared they thought they might have been to assist Jesus in his mission of renewing and deepening people’s faith, the disciples are now, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, promoted to being frontline workers. And proclaiming Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection in a world that has no clue about the significance of any of it is going to, at one and the same time, leave them disoriented, questioning, but also called more deeply to extend Jesus’ mission of healing, teaching, and preaching than any of them could ever have imagined. That brief comment in our Second Reading today from the author of 1 John captures beautifully the ambiguity of the moment: their knowing and not knowing, their uncertainty commingling with Easter promise of Jesus’ real presence, the stubbornness of their doubts contesting with their faith in the unlimited goodness of God: “Beloved, we are God’s children now,” we read in 1 John. “What we will be has not yet been revealed.”

It is Easter evening, and the disciples are secure in their temporary lodging in Jerusalem. Unannounced, Jesus stands among them and greets them with the words, “Peace be with you” – a peace they all sorely needed, given everything they were trying to take in. Luke reports that “they were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost” – the stubbornness of their doubts in collision with their faith in the unlimited goodness of God. As he did in last Sunday’s Gospel from John, Jesus tries to reassure the disciples by showing them his wounded hands and feet. He even invites them to touch him to confirm that they are not seeing a ghost. “Touch me and see,” Jesus says to the disciples. “A ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” Luke tells us that even this was too much for them to comprehend. “They were filled with joy,” he writes, “but also disbelieving and wondering.”

It may be another attempt to convince the disciples of Jesus’ real presence with them or it may be Luke’s transitional device in the narrative, but Jesus’ perceived ghostliness is again countered by his asking the disciples for something to eat. “They gave him a piece of broiled fish,” Luke records, “and he took it and ate in their presence. There’s a wonderful illustration of this moment on the cover of our worship bulletin this morning.

These post-resurrection anecdotes notwithstanding, I expect that the disciples were more convinced of Jesus’ real presence by his returning to message, so to speak: Jesus’ message was the need for his disciples to look to the integrity and promise of scripture in order to make sense of things, to interpret the mystery of God’s saving action. “It’s all there,” he tells them, “in the law and the prophets, and even the psalms.”

What is even more representative of the ‘old Jesus’ though is his call to mission. The work of his disciples, he tells them, is similar to his work, the work of John the Baptist, and the work of the Hebrew prophets. In Jesus’ name now, they are to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all people. He’s on message, and he reminds them of their job description.

In our First Reading, we see that this Easter evening visit from Jesus to the disciples in Jerusalem was foundational for them. It is now two or three months later and only Peter’s second-ever sermon, but he calls the crowd who have gathered around him at the temple to repent of the part they played in the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion, to turn away from the ignorance that fuelled their complicity in Jesus’ execution, and to turn toward God so that their sins may be wiped out. This passage also tells of the healing of the man lame from birth: the work of discipleship, we see in its fulfillment now, is healing and teaching, preaching repentance and proclaiming the forgiveness of sins.

For us who are invited by these readings to place our feet into the sandals of Jesus’ first followers, we can’t help noticing that all of the good work that is undertaken in Jesus’ name, all of God’s saving action for our broken world, is born in the frailty of human nature – in knowing and not knowing, in uncertainty commingling with the Easter promise of Jesus’ real presence, and the stubbornness of doubt contesting with faith in God’s unlimited goodness.

Sound familiar? For me, and maybe for you, it describes much of what I’ve been experiencing since March 11, 2020, the day the World Health Organization declared that COVID-19 was now a pandemic. It’s all there: the knowing and not knowing, uncertainty mixed in with our faith in Christ’s real presence in the world, and then being unclear about sighting God’s unlimited goodness when so many have and are suffering, so many have died.

Our faith is tried by adversity. Our formation as disciples, it seems, means drilling down in such circumstances, taking Jesus’ counsel of turning to Holy Scripture to interpret the mystery of God’s saving action, and then getting on with our call of healing, teaching, and preaching repentance and proclaiming the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name.

What inspires me in what we could easily describe as a hard teaching is that the work of the church has continued uninterrupted by things which in normal times may well have threatened the church’s mission. Christians found the means, found the resources, found the money not only to continue, but even expand our healing, teaching, preaching, our acts of love and mercy, in-reach to our parish community and outreach to the neighbourhood and the world around us. We’ve sewn masks and hospital gowns, we’ve provided more food than before for those who are hungry, we’ve opened emergency shelters, we’ve increased our advocacy for accessible, affordable, and supportive housing – advocacy that has shown amazing and lasting results. Our neighbouring parish up the street constructed a tiny house on their front lawn as a portal to do community ministry safely, including providing free or pay-as-you-can meals for anyone who is hungry. A few weeks ago most of the congregations and parishes in Waterloo Region met virtually with one another and with those who are leading the vaccination initiative in Waterloo Region to receive information and answer the questions individuals and communities have around being vaccinated. This is all saving work, and the interesting thing is that If anyone were to pass by our church buildings, most of them appear to be locked up tight. But the church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, and the church most certainly is not a resting-place, we’ve discovered over the past year, the church is a people – a people called to mission and discipleship by the One who himself was taken to ground by forces seemingly beyond his control, but also One who never stopped praying, never stopped loving, never stopped believing in God’s unlimited goodness.

I would be the last person to say that COVID-19 and its variants are the will of God. But what is abundantly clear and undeniably true is that COVID-19 has brought out the best in so many people who, before the pandemic, had not really come to terms with how to love our neighbour, how to love sacrificially when it involves people we don’t even know, how to slow down and appreciate the natural world as nurturing, as sanctuary, and as integral to life in the Spirit.

The pandemic crisis has also opened our eyes as Christians to the people around us who do not share our doctrines and dogmas, but are nonetheless the children of God. The phrase “we are all in this together” recognizes the folly of sectarianism and the meaninglessness of so many of the barriers we have erected to separate us from others and preserve the status quo.

How are we formed as disciples of Jesus? Interestingly, not by adversity, although we recognize that there is no absence of struggle in the journey of faith. If we are faithful, we will be tested.

What today’s readings show us is that our formation is actually quite gentle and as quiet as Jesus slipping unannounced into the room that is our heart. Because he is really present with us, with all of his disciples, grace is born within us and among us, the grace that leads us through questioning, doubt, fear, ambivalence, and even inertia to a proclamation that God’s goodness is unlimited, that Christ is risen indeed, and that in mission we become Christ’s real presence, participating in the mystery of God’s saving action for our broken and hurting world.

Easter disciples.

The Rev. James F. Brown