Grace and peace to you all in the name of our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
Well, here we are, gathered together once again in this strange fashion for another Sunday morning worship during this time of pandemic. We the church made it through Holy Week observances as best we could under the circumstances, worshipping from home or in our cars at a drive in style worship service, listening at home through the radio, local tv stations, or the internet. Your pastors survived the stress and strain of trying to figure out how best to guide your congregation’s worship through the holiest week of the year.
And you in the church have survived the stress and strain of trying to figure out how to balance home life, work life, the health of your family and friends, and how you were going to observe Easter 2020.
Now that we are over that obstacle, I am sure your pastors are feeling a sense of “ok, we did that…now what?” And perhaps you are feeling that as well. We survived a very strange Holy Week indeed, but now what? How long will church be like this? How long will work, or school, or home life be like this? And perhaps the worst unanswered question, “Will things get worse? Will I get sick? What if people I love get sick? What about those people I know who are essential workers? What about those people I know who are unemployed? What now? Will things get worse from here?”
If you find yourself asking any of those questions today, then we are all in good company, because two thousand years ago, Jesus’ followers, all the faithful disciples who had followed Jesus around Palestine….they fearfully asked similar questions about “what next?”. They saw Jesus arrested. He was put on trial. He was lifted high upon a cross. He was executed by people in power. He died.
Now what? What do we do now, they asked? Will things get worse? Can things get worse? What if those people in power come after us, Jesus’ followers? Will we die too?
This is the scene that we encounter in John’s Gospel immediately after we hear the story of the resurrected Jesus greeting Mary Magdalene in the garden next to the empty tomb. I’m positive that Mary, filled with joy that her Lord was alive, returned to the whole group of disciples and told them what she had seen. But it didn’t seem to have had much of an impact sadly. Maybe the men dismissed her story as an idle tale.
Whatever the reason, it’s clear that Mary’s testimony wasn’t taken seriously, and we see all the disciples, all the Jesus followers are hiding behind a locked door. I imagine them huddled together in a dark room, the curtains are drawn, and someone keeps a lookout for fear that they will be discovered and arrested and killed just like their Lord Jesus had been. They are prisoners of their own fear of the unknown. They are paralyzed by it.
And on that evening, to their utter astonishment, Jesus bypasses that locked door and appears to them in the middle of the room. In the flesh. He is no ghost or apparition. He is Jesus and he is alive! Mary Magdalene was right! Their beloved Lord is alive and he is there with a purpose; to rescue them from their fear and darkness. Jesus is there to fulfill his promise and he gives them his peace and breathes on them, giving them the gift of the Holy Spirit.
This reading from the Gospel of John is the same reading we hear every year on the Sunday after Easter day, and every year it still manages to fill me with amazement. I can’t help but dwell on what it means that Jesus recognizes what his followers need. They need rescuing from their own fear. That fear is just as much a barrier to faith and mission as the actual physical door that they lock in order to keep out the threat of arrest.
Fear keeps them in that room, but the peace of Christ, the gift of the Holy Spirit giving them life, that is the Easter miracle of Jesus’ resurrection taking root in their own lives. This is the beginning of the church, the beginning of faith, the beginning of a new mission the disciples will live out, loving others as Jesus has first loved them, and telling others about the light of Christ which reveals the heart of God’s love for the world.
So what comes next? Jesus has given them the gift of peace and the Holy Spirit. What comes next? Actually, this gift completely changes the disciple’s hearts and their lives. Step by step they will leave the locked room and start long journeys elsewhere to destinations none of them could have first imagined.
According to church tradition, Peter leaves that room, sees Jesus again on the beach and eats breakfast with him, and then goes on an amazing journey preaching, healing, teaching, and living out Jesus’ love in faraway places like Antioch and eventually Rome. Philip leaves that room and encounters an Ethiopian eunuch, tells him about the good news of Christ, baptizes him, and that Ethiopian goes back to his home country and begins the first churches there.
And Thomas, dear Thomas who wanted what the other disciples had already received, who wanted to see and touch Jesus in order to believe, his faith in his Lord and his God sends him on a long journey all the way to India where he becomes the father of the first Christian churches there.
From a room locked in fear to journeys of faith, on fire with the Holy Spirit, the good news of the resurrection spreads to every corner of the earth.
So what happens next, dear church? What happens next for us? We still live in a time of pandemic. The threat of infection is still very real. The challenges are still the same. What happens next for us dear church?
Well, sadly it isn’t time for us to leave our own locked rooms yet. In order to love one another as Jesus first loves us, we need to do everything we can to protect the health and safety of others. So for now, that means church is going to continue to look a lot like this. Physically separated, worship taking place in our own living rooms, the people of God praying over the phone and through the internet instead of holding hands together in the same space.
But the good news of Easter two thousand years ago is the very same exact good news that we have today! Do our closed doors and social distancing keep Jesus away from us? By no means! The peace of Christ and the Holy Spirit come to us despite our closed doors and distance. That has not changed and will never change.
And even though we cannot physically leave our own locked rooms yet, it doesn’t mean that our mission in Christ is on pause. Standing in that locked room two thousand years ago, those disciples could not have imagined where the Spirit would lead them: to Rome, to Ethiopia, to India. Even though we can’t imagine right now what the future will look like, doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit isn’t right now inviting us to new types of ministries, new ways of loving our neighbors, new ways of being church, new ways of telling others about the love of Christ.
And now, more than ever, the world needs the light of Christ shining in the darkness of this illness. Now is the time to listen to the Spirit’s voice, and ask the question, without fear this time, “What happens next God? Whatever it is, we are ready.
We dwell in the peace of Christ. Locked doors, pandemics, social distancing, persecution, arrest, even the threat of death cannot stand in the way of your saving work. So, what next God? We are listening, and we are ready. What happens next?”
None of us can know what the future holds. None of us know what challenges lie ahead. None of us know the length of our lifespans, or what joys or heartaches we will experience.
But we do know this. The peace of Christ is ours. The Spirit breathes life in us each day. We abide in the love of God.
What happens next, is we the church walk forward in faith. Amen.