April 24 2022: Sermon Preached by The Rev. Carolyn H. Eklund

Year C;FB.2 Easter; 4.24.2022

John 20:19-31

In the late first century when the community of faith founded by John the Apostle was growing, a split between the believers in Jesus the Messiah and those who believed in the Jewish traditions taught by rabbis in the synagogue became a cause for grief, fear and even persecution. Those years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, as his teachings spread and communities began to follow him as the Messiah, that division became permanent. Not to mention the reading from Acts this morning so divisive historically!

Several times the writer of John’s Gospel uses the phrase, “for fear of the Jews,” as we heard in today’s Gospel story. There is painful history behind this statement that I’d like to address. By the time John’s community of Jesus followers started growing, its members began to be expelled from the synagogues. Scholars have identified that between the years 85 and 95 of the Common Era, something called the Benediction Against Heretics was a way to expel from the synagogue those who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah.

So, “for fear of the Jews” was a phrase in John’s Gospel that set a tone for the expelled communities that John founded during that period. There was fear of being put out of the synagogue for confessing that Jesus was the Messiah. And that fear was real because persecution of heretics was a real thing back then.

What’s important for us is that through history, this phrase in John’s Gospel has been used to fuel hatred and manipulate others to hate Jews. This manipulation was wrong in history and it’s wrong now.

Followers of Jesus our teacher, learn from him to love one another as he loves us. And we learn about the peace and forgiveness of God.  These are the lessons of today’s Gospel story. Hatred and persecution are NOT teachings of Jesus.

The first thing Jesus he says to his followers that evening of his resurrection appearance is, “Peace be with you.” Then breathed on them. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he says. He breathes on them as God did to give life to the first humans in the book of Genesis. He breathes on them the breath of God that brought the dry bones, sinews and flesh of the deported and exiled Israelites to life again after three generations of being crushed by the Babylonian conquest. Then, Jesus reminds them of God’s forgiveness. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven you. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

So, when Jesus appears to his scared and heartbroken followers and breathes on them, they accept his breath of peace with joy. He had taught this kind of peace to them over and over. Not the peace of the world, but the peace of God. Over and over again, he taught them to love one another in his model of love.

And over and over again he taught of God’s forgiveness. An example of God’s forgiveness is Jesus forgiving the woman caught in adultery from John’s Gospel. She was thrown to the ground, men surrounding her poised to stone her to death. And Jesus calmly says to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her.” No one lifted a finger against her. One bible scholar writes the truth about God’s forgiveness, “The faith community’s mission…is not to be the arbiter of right or wrong, but to bear unceasing witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ.”

Even before Thomas came to join Jesus’ followers behind the locked door that next week, Jesus was reminding those in the room of the fundamentals of his teachings. And Thomas shows us all that peace, love and forgiveness can’t exist without faith.

I have a book of daily devotions on 365 names for Jesus. Of course, one of the names is Teacher. Jesus was a brilliant and wise teacher. In his life and in his resurrection appearances he is always teaching. The Gospel story today reminds me that teaching is also coaching, and that repeating lessons and skills over and over result in excellence.

I remember an excellent basketball coach and teacher at my high school who took the team to the top Kansas championship year after year. I grew up across the street from the high school and my brother played guard under this coach, Walt Shublom. Coach Shublom had the face of an eagle and was tall and stocky. I was a little afraid of him. But I loved to go to the games and cheer because our players played with excellence. And we won!

I learned from Coach Shublom that to win consistently, you have to drill the fundamentals of the game. And that you had to have faith in the outcome. The fundamentals are the not-very-exciting drills for dribbling, passing, shooting, and learning when to share the ball instead of being a “hero” and taking the shot.

The excellence theses drills produced stemmed from the team commitment to winning and choosing to practice, practice, practice, drill, drill, drill the basics. “Coach” knew that these high school kids were immature, inner city kids. But he taught them to have faith in themselves and that the outcome of these drills led to winning. Yes, drilling the fundamentals was boring and redundant and routine. But the outcome led to strong team spirit and excellence.

Every time I study this passage from John’s Gospel of Jesus’ resurrection appearance, it is clear that Jesus uses every minute of his appearance to teach: to teach peace, love and forgiveness. I don’t mind calling the resurrected Christ, “Coach!”

One of the temptations for us today is to give over to the feeling of hopelessness as the world seems to be spinning out of control. I ask myself, “Is it naïve of me to be preaching about Jesus as the “coach” drilling the fundamentals of love, peace and forgiveness? I’ll confess that every day I follow the reports coming from the war in Ukraine. As I’ve watched video of cities laid waste by Russian artillery in Ukraine, I remembered the first time I heard the term, “scorched earth policy,” and it had to do with what Putin and Assad were doing in Aleppo, Syria. How am I to drill the fundamentals of peace, love and forgiveness when evil-doers bomb beautiful cities to dust killing the innocent?

Can the resurrection of Jesus really mean God calls for wars to cease, hatred to end, death to be overcome and evil to be vanquished? Well, YES! Alleluia!

The community of Christians celebrate these very teachings and we are called to choose each and every day to live into God’s peace not the world’s peace. We are called to choose Christ’s love, not the world’s love; the Spirit’s power of forgiveness, not the one-sided “all for ME” kind of forgiveness.

Our coach, our teacher, our resurrected God in Christ calls us to make these choices.  One bible scholar writes, “By loving one another as Jesus loves, the faith community (that’s us!) reveals God to the world; by revealing God to the world, the church makes it possible for the world to choose to enter into relationship with this God of limitless love.” It’s a daily choice.

Jesus appears to us today calling us to choose to reveal his limitless love to the world. Alleluia! Alleluia!