Worshipping together at a good distance – 19 April

19 April 2020

Risen and reconciling God,
your greeting after the grave acknowledged the trauma and turmoil of that time
and our own. 
The message of peace was what your disciples needed to hear,
and what the world needs now. 
When we are reunited with those from whom we’ve been separated, may our greetings, too, be of peace, 
and may we see all division in the light of your reconciliation 
and all crises in the context of your resurrection.
Amen.
.


© The Corrymeela Community

Jn 20: 19-31

In too much grief

Your Word, O God, is an enduring friendship.
Sanctify us in your friendship.

Sometimes, whether in the worst of times or the best, the most important thing you can do is stand still.

That’s what John seems to have learned in the days that followed the shock of looking into the empty tomb − long days of loss, grief, confusion and, yes, of the first, fragile but distant glimmers of understanding.

And looking back on those days as he writes, John’s excitement about what happened after is palpable.

Like everyone who has had a life-changing experience, he doesn’t know whether to talk about it as over, or as something that is still going on. Because for him, as for us, the empty tomb was a happening in the past, but it keeps on interrupting the present.

And the present, as he recalls it, was very grim.

‘It was late that Sunday evening…’ says the Good News Bible, missing John’s point altogether. ‘Being therefore evening, that day, the first of the week’, is what John actually wrote.

‘Being evening’, being, John is writing in the continuous present, because for him, as for us, what happened on that day is not over, it is still going on.
That day, of course, is the third day after Jesus’s horrific death, the one that began with Mary Magdalene stumbling through the dark to the tomb only to find the stone rolled away, and the body gone.

So she went running back to Peter and the one whom John refers to as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, who is probably himself, John, the writer, reliving that day.

Mary thinks the body’s been snatched; and not believing their ears, the two men run back to see for themselves. And there it is, gone.

The two men go into the tomb, says John, and see the linen wrappings lying there, but no body.

Writing of himself in that moment, but in the third person, John says, ‘he saw and believed’.

What exactly John believed in that moment is not clear. Because in the next sentence he says, ‘They still did not understand the scripture which said that he must rise from the dead’. And then, writes John, the two men, Peter and John himself, turned around and left.

But Mary didn’t. And here’s the rub, here’s the first thing the beloved disciple keeps going over in his mind, Mary became the first person to encounter the risen Jesus.

How come? Because Mary stands there, outside the tomb, weeping. Finding herself in a dark place, feeling lost, seeing no way forward, Mary is too broken-hearted to run anywhere anymore.

Sometimes, whether in the best of times or the worst, the most important thing is standing still.

Then turning from the tomb, through her silent tears, Mary sees Jesus. In that moment, that moment of standing still, that moment of turning, her grief and inertia become a place of revelation.

It was evening on that day, writes John, the day Jesus sent Mary back from the tomb to announce to us that she had seen the Lord with her very own eyes.

Well, judging from what John writes next, Mary’s announcement had about as much impact on the disciples as Jesus’s oft-repeated promise that, though he would be killed, he would rise again on the third day.

Because what John recalls first about the evening of that third day is the fear, the contagious fear that made the disciples all huddle together, having first made sure that the doors of the house were firmly bolted.

You can hear them now, the disciples, talking over each other in their fear and grief, their anger and their shattered hopes, their shame and regret for all the things they did and didn’t do, especially for leaving Jesus to face the horror on his own.

‘Back from the dead? they say. Spare us the old wives’ tales. Anyway, what difference would it make? They’ll be coming after us now, because we were associated with him. All of this women’s talk is not helping anyone.’

Suddenly, writes John, ‘came Jesus and stood in the midst and says … . John slips again between past and present tenses, reliving in the present − years later − the past moment when the disciples, this time including John, encounter − in their own very present experience − the risen Jesus.

Now, at first glance, what Jesus does, standing there in the midst is a bit odd, even a bit contrary. He greets the disciples with words of peace, but then he shows them the wounds in his hands and side.

Earth to Jesus? I hear you thinking. How is your broken body meant to calm my fears?

Obviously, showing them his scars, was Jesus’s way of proving to the startled disciples that the one standing there in the midst was not a ghost, or a figment of their imagination.

It really is me, Jesus is saying with his broken body; see these fatal wounds? I really am back from the dead.

And it worked. The disciples, says John, their fear forgotten, become filled with joy, knowing in that instant that it was the Lord they were seeing with their very own eyes.

But there is also something deeper going on here. The peace and the wounds are not at odds; they actually go together.

It is significant that Jesus repeats the words ‘Peace be with you’ to the disciples.

These were the people who never seemed to get the point; these were the same disciples who had run away when they were most needed. As they looked at him there, with his wounded hands, and his wounded side, Jesus could see the shame in their eyes.

Shalom, says Jesus, using the traditional Jewish greeting, meaning peace, wholeness, well-being.

The very saying of it was a reminder to the disciples that they too are wounded, tormented by their own selves, hungry for a word that would release them from shame.

Shalom, says Jesus. And, in the very saying of it, he brought them healing, mending a relationship that had got all tangled up with darkness.
Shalom, says Jesus, the man of sorrows. And, in the very saying of it, he embodies resurrected life as wounded life.

Wholeness, says Jesus, comes as a grace to the wounded. And sometimes, whether in the best of times or the worst, all you need to do to experience that is to stand still. And then, like Mary, turn and see.

Having said that, Jesus breathed on them. The word John uses here (meaning to puff) is not used anywhere else in the New Testament. But it does occur, again only once, in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (known as the Septuagint).

In the great poem of creation that opens the Hebrew Bible, God is said to puff (same word) into an earth-creature the breath of life, and that creature made of earth becomes a living being.

On the evening of that day, the first of seven, Jesus, with one fragile breath, places himself symbolically on the same footing as God, breathing new life into the broken lives of the disciples.

And, in that gesture, the wounded Saviour, the firstborn of the dead (as the Scriptures put it) reveals himself to be the foundation of the new creation that God is building out of human brokenness.

Then Jesus urges the disciples to be open to the Spirit, who is to yet come, and who will breathe God’s power into them, and through them, sometimes with the force of a mighty wind, sometimes with the gentleness of a breath.
And then, astonishingly, he invests these people, who began the day in fear and despair, with the authority to carry on his mission.

A bit cryptically, admittedly; and misinterpreted through the ages.
If you (that is you collectively) forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven, says the Good News translation, missing the point again. If you put away people’s sins, they have been put away, says John. Still a bit cryptic, but notice the past tense.

You, says Jesus, are people who have heard God’s shalom being spoken to you, individually and collectively, spoken by a wounded Saviour, who has put aside the past. Pass that on.

And the disciples did, standing up and filling all Jerusalem with their teaching. Bearing witness, individually and collectively, to the wholeness that God can build, that God is building, out of human brokenness.

But we are forgetting Thomas, absent Thomas, who usually gets a bad press from preachers.

Undeservedly, in my opinion, because Thomas is actually courageous. While the other disciples are huddled together, eaten up by fear, Thomas is out there, feeling the fear and doing whatever it is he was doing, anyway. Obviously, he is one of those people who prefer to bury their grief and confusion in a whirl of activity.

However, when it comes to what the others are trying to get him to believe, Thomas stands his ground. He is not going to give in without tangible proof.
There is a kind of poetic justice about the way the disciples find themselves being dismissed by Thomas in exactly the same way they blew off Mary when she came back from the tomb.

But one week later, the same thing happens all over again; and this time Thomas is there. Then Jesus comes, says John using the present tense again, drawing us into the excitement of the moment. Then Jesus comes; and he stood in the midst. Jesus wounded but alive, speaking to Thomas the same word of peace.

In that moment, the moment of God’s shalom, the world goes silent on Thomas; the voices of the other disciples fade away. Seeing in Jesus the vulnerable God who never gives up, Thomas says the words that the whole gospel of John has been leading up to: ‘My Lord and my God’.

Sometimes, whether in the worst of times or the best, the most important thing we can do is stand still.

Mary stands weeping; Jesus stands in the midst; Thomas stands his ground. Their standing becomes for us a place of revelation.

Now it is our turn to stand and feel where the wind is blowing.

And to God alone be the glory,

Amen

Ruth Whelan © 19 April 2016