One Week Later: Where is Jesus? (4/18/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
The Sunday after Easter… This is usually a “catch your breath” type of sermon. This is the week when preachers look back and grab that “throw away” sermon they put aside sometime over the past year, since it wasn’t worth delivering in the first place, and put it to good use.
And you can’t blame preachers for feeling that way. It may be Sunday morning, but spring is in the air. The garden is crying out for some attention. All those golf balls that have been lying dormant over the long, long winter are begging to be smashed a couple of hundred yards down the fairway.
The young people among us get senioritis—that disease of the intellectual spirit that attacks one’s ambition, and makes drive-in restaurants and walks in the park so much more appealing than a few more hours of homework, let alone a trip to church. Of course, senioritis is supposed to strike only seniors in high school, but I must admit I came down with a serious case of it every spring, beginning in kindergarten, and it was a recurring disease each year, all the way through college.
The Sunday after Easter is one of the lightest days of the year for church attendance, but I refused to give in the temptation to fall back on one of my dud sermons—and yes, I compose the occasional dud. Fortunately, I write my sermons well in advance. I usually have four or five sermons on my desk that I am working on at a given time, which allows me to take the duds, set them aside, and only deliver the ones that I think are worth hearing. (I know some of you are thinking, If these are his good sermons, I’m sure glad we don’t have to hear the duds.)
There is no way I could treat this as a throw-away Sunday, though, because each year, in April, we celebrate the birth of this great church—University Congregational Church. Had we baked a cake, it would be adorned with 21 candles; however, each year, showing that even Congregationalists have a liturgical side, we instead celebrate communion.
Communion is the ritual center of our faith. Jesus himself instituted communion at the Last Supper, and ever since, it has been the thread that holds most Christians together. We may argue about everything else, but with only a few exceptions, we seldom argue about whether or not it is appropriate to celebrate the sacrament of communion.
Today, as we prepare our hearts for communion, I want to examine a passage from the Gospel of John that deals with a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to his disciples. I’ll read the passage, which is found in the 20th chapter of John’s gospel, and reveals an event from Easter evening:
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
What a great passage! What I love most about this passage is that it warns us not to think we have figured out the resurrection. And it does this in a fairly straightforward manner. It tells us that the disciples were together in a locked room. Jesus did not pick the lock and sneak in. Jesus did not come down the chimney a-la Santa Claus. Jesus did not crawl in through the bathroom window. Furthermore, Jesus did not walk through the wall like some sort of ghostly apparition.
Jesus simply appeared to them. Now, the first thing those of us with rational minds want to say is that this was probably a mass hallucination brought on by the mutual despair of the disciples. After all, they’d had a pretty rough couple of days. The man they thought was the Messiah—the new king who would restore Israel to its former glory by overthrowing the Romans—had gotten himself nailed to a cross. These people had left behind their families and their businesses to follow Jesus. These people had done what Jesus asked them to do. They gave away every penny they owned and followed him, trusting that he would take care of them—that this mysterious prophetic voice from Galilee had a vision of the truth that eluded most.
And then he became a victim of capital punishment. Most of his followers deserted him. His enemies mocked him, spit on him, laughed at him as he endured pain beyond description. Yes, the disciples had the foundation of their lives yanked right out from under them. And here they are, just three evenings after the Last Supper—that fateful evening when Jesus had seemed so prophetic as he told them to remember him when they ate bread and drank wine, and only hours later was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.
And then, this very morning—Easter morning—they discovered that his body had disappeared from the grave. My goodness, if there was ever a group of guys more predisposed for a mass hallucination, I don’t know who they could have been!
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I think that is why the author of this gospel is so intent on saying what he says next. He says that Jesus showed them his wounds. Jesus showed them the very places the nails had pierced him. This was no hallucination. This really was Jesus.
But wait. The author of the Gospel of John first goes to great lengths to assure us Jesus is not bound by the laws of physics. Jesus does not enter the room like a physical being would enter the room. Jesus is simply there, inexplicably. And then the author tells us that Jesus shows the disciples his hands and side so they will know it really is him.
Okay, what’s going on here? It seems to me that John is telling us that Jesus is no longer the old Jesus—he no longer is bound by the physical body that once carried his spirit through life. But he is still real. Isn’t that what John means when he tells us that the disciples saw his wounds? This was not a hallucination. Something happened in that room, and it was not a dream. Something real happened.
But what? Obviously the disciples had some sort of real experience in which they were completely convinced that Jesus Christ was there among them. We get a hint of what this experience was all about when the author proceeds to tell us that Jesus then breathed on the disciples, and told them to receive the Holy Spirit.
John, John, John. We just can’t read John as if it is some novel, or historical tract, with detail after detail to be taken at face value. John expects a lot of us—the readers of his gospel. He expects us to know that in the Book of Genesis, when God creates the universe, God breathes the universe into being. We read in our English language Bibles that in the moment of creation, the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the deep. In the original Hebrew, it translates the breath of God hovered over the deep. God breathes the universe into being. God speaks the universe into being. God said let there be light, and there was light. John expects us to know that in the language of the ancient world spirit means breath, and wind, and life. The spirit of God is like the wind. We feel it but do not see it. It is real but we cannot grab hold of it.
Jesus breathes on the disciples and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit. John is trying to tell us something here—something important. Jesus Christ is just a real as anything in the physical world, but Jesus Christ is no longer physical. Just as God breathes life into these bodies of
dust, Jesus Christ breathes the Holy Spirit of God into our lives.
If you’re confused, good. So am I! John doesn’t look at the world the way most of us do. I really wish John were here. If I could borrow one of those time machines from the science fiction movies, I’d bring John into the present day and ask him some serious questions.
I would like to say to John, “Look, my friend, I’m not as in touch with things eternal as you are. I know this world comes at us in various shades of gray, but just this once, talk to me in plain black and white. In simple, modern English that even I can understand, tell me exactly what it was the disciples experienced in that room. Where was Jesus? Was Jesus a physical reality in that room? Was Jesus a spiritual reality only? And it is really important that you let me know, because I have a feeling that if I only knew the answer to that question, I would know where Jesus is today.”
I have a feeling John would look at me sort of like a loving parent looks at a child who asks, “Daddy, why are there stars?” And I think John would be understanding, but I honestly don’t know what he would say! So I would push him even further.
“Look John, I’ve always felt a special affinity for you. I have a mystical side, and I try to be a faithful follower. But life is mysterious enough. Life throws question after question at us, and it just isn’t all that helpful when you tell us you have the answer, and then hide the answer inside a brand new mystery. Come on, will ya!? We get it! The powers of the world killed Jesus on Good Friday, and the power of God’s love overcame all evil on Easter Sunday. Really! We get it. But after that—on Easter evening in that room with the disciples; and here, in the 21st Century, a week after Easter—where is Jesus now?”
And I think I know what John would say to me. I really do. I think John would put his hand on my shoulder, look me in the eye with all the love in his heart, and he would say, “You ask me where Jesus is now, and I can answer your question with a single word.”
I remind you that at University Congregational Church, we celebrate “Open Communion,” meaning all present are welcome to partake: young and old; baptized and unbaptized, Christians and those from other faith traditions. Jesus welcomed everybody to his table, so we certainly welcome everybody to ours.
Let’s join our hearts in prayer:
We give you thanks, God of majesty and mercy, for calling forth creation and raising us from dust by the breath of your being. We bless you for the beauty and bounty of the earth and for the vision of the day when sharing by all will mean scarcity for none.
We remember with thanks the prophets and teachers you sent to guide us, and thank you above all for Jesus Christ, the way, the truth and the life, who revealed to us so perfectly the beauty and power of your almighty love.
And we give thanks for the presence of your Holy Spirit, in this place and time, which unites all of those present to one another and to Christ. May your spirit be present upon this food and drink, as surely as it is present within our hearts, as we partake together.
In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.
We recall that on the night he was betrayed, Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and said, “This is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Likewise, after the supper, he took the cup, raised it, gave thanks and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink of it, in remembrance of me.”
(The Body of Christ)
(The Blood of Christ)
Let us go forth into the world to serve God with gladness; being of good courage; holding fast to that which is good; rendering to no one evil for evil; supporting the weak; helping the afflicted; and honoring all people as we love and serve God, through the spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen.