Easter 2 - A Safer Place?

Joe LaVela

Acts 4:32-35

Psalm 133

1 John 1:1-2:2

John 20:19-31

Founded in 1697, Manhattan’s Trinity Episcopal Church was Manhattan’s first Anglican church.  As the city grew, the church began adding “chapels-of-use” in the surrounding area to ease the congestion at the main church, including the nearby St. Paul’s Chapel, which was built in 1766 and is only one that is still operating as part of Trinity parish.  After his inauguration in 1789, George Washington went to St. Paul’s Chapel to pray, the original Trinity church building having been destroyed in the Great Fire of 1776 during the Revolutionary War.   Trinity was later rebuilt, but then torn down not long thereafter to be replaced in 1846 by the current Trinity Episcopal on Wall Street.   St. Paul’s Chapel, however, has been constant.  A bucket brigade saved it from destruction in the Great Fire.  It then narrowly escaped being destroyed by the collapse of the World Trade Center, and, as “The Little Chapel That Stood”, served 24X7 as a center for 9/11 relief efforts.  It is today the only colonial-era church in Manhattan and the oldest public building in continuous use in the borough.   As put by the Star Ledger, Trinity Church together with St. Paul’s Chapel “have seen fire and calamity and the sweep of American history, and through it all have kept their doors wide open.”

Now, more than 300 years out, parish leadership decided that lower Manhattan’s dangers required taking some extra steps.  Since March 1 of this year, access to either Trinity Church or St. Paul’s Chapel requires passing through airport-style checkpoints with metal detectors and security guards.  This applies not only to tourists going, for example, to see Alexander Hamilton’s grave in Trinity’s graveyard, but also to parishioners attending regular worship services.   Although some worshippers find it at least odd and perhaps off-putting, Trinity’s Vicar explained that the checkpoints are a necessary safety measure and would stay [QUOTE] “until this world becomes a safer place.”  

Until this world becomes a safer place.  How long do you think that will be?  I surely do not know but might not the answer – quite literally – be …. ‘till kingdom come?  I wonder if in the meantime someone should update Martin Luther’s hymn for them to make it “A Mighty Fortress is our Church.” 

Safety concerns like this are, of course, not unprecedented in the Church.   Dating back even to its very birth.  In today’s Gospel reading, we find the disciples huddled together on Easter Day itself in a house in Jerusalem whose doors they locked for fear of the Jewish authorities.   But the locks mean nothing at all to Jesus.  He just comes and stands among them saying “Peace be with you.”  After showing them his hands and his side, he again says, “Peace be with you,” adding “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  He then breathes the Holy Spirit on them.

He breathes the Holy Spirit on them.  On Easter Day, according to John’s account.   Our church calendar, however, celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit seven weeks after Easter, on the day of Pentecost.  That is how Luke tells the story.  According to Luke, Jesus remained on Earth until his Ascension 40 days after Easter, and then, 50 days after Easter, on the Day of Pentecost, the disciples receive the Holy Spirit with the sound of a rush of wind, not the breath of a physically present Jesus.  Although some adherents certainly have tried to reconcile these two accounts factually, I personally don’t think they are reconcilable if taken literally.  Instead, I see it as both Luke and John seeking to convey the same essential truth, but simply taking literary license to tell their stories a different way.

And it is Luke’s version that is firmly embedded in our church calendar.  Easter season lasts seven weeks and ends with the feast of Pentecost commemorating the giving the Holy Spirit.  But the persons who compiled the Revised Common Lectionary we use thought it important that we hear John’s version as well every year on the Second Sunday of Easter.  It is one of only a handful of readings that does not vary from year to year.

Why do you think that is?  It is a rich reading, so there are several possibilities.  Thomas’s iconic story and its attendant lessons on the nature of faith would certainly be one.  But I tend to think instead that it is for the very reason that John links Easter and Pentecost that it is important for us to hear his account each Second Sunday of Easter.   We rightly celebrate the joy and wonder of Easter with praise and thanksgiving.  But then on this Sunday, each year, we get a reminder from John that the resurrection is not an ending, but a beginning.  And it comes with a role for us to play.      

Earlier in his Gospel, John foreshadows that it is Jesus’ Easter resurrection that opens the door for the coming of the Holy Spirit.   In Chapter 7, John referring to something Jesus had then told the crowds, explains “Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” [John 7:39] So, no Spirit until Jesus is glorified.  And in today’s reading, John follows through on exactly that – as of Easter, Jesus has now been glorified, and, just so, that very day, according to John, he breathes the Holy Spirit on his disciples.  

The Greek word for “breathes” in that passage is the only instance in which that word is used on the entire New Testament.  But it is the same word used in the Greek translation of the passage in Genesis that says: “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”  [Genesis 2:7]   God the father breathed life onto Adam making new life, Jesus in turn breathes the Spirit onto his followers making each a new creation.

And so, too, in just a few minutes, we will celebrate the baptism of darling Brynn, the sacrament through which she receives new life in the Holy Spirit.

But none of this is an end in itself.  Jesus says, “As the father has sent me, so I send you.”  He breathes the Holy Spirit onto his disciples to equip them to be so sent.   And sent for what?  To continue Jesus’ mission of making God known to the world.  God the Father sent Jesus to reveal God to the world.  Jesus in turn sends his followers to continue the work of making God, as revealed through Jesus, known to others.

The Gospel accounts highlight that this can be a daunting task.   In the passage immediately preceding the one we heard today, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, who then goes to the disciples telling them “I have seen the Lord.”  Her testimony did not make any difference to them.  Instead, we find them at the beginning of today’s reading huddled behind locked doors.   Then Jesus appears to them there, showing them his hands and side, and they believe.  When Thomas, who was out, returns, they in turn tell him “We have seen the Lord.”  And, just as they had not taken Mary Magdalene’s word for it, Thomas doesn’t take their word for it either.  Thomas is not doubting Jesus -- it was his fellow disciples’ words that aren’t enough for him.  He needs to see for himself what the rest had all already seen.  So, Jesus appears to Thomas as well showing him his wounds.  And seeing them, Thomas proclaims, “My Lord and my God,” and believes. But Jesus does not mean to make personal physical appearances to each new convert.  His time physically on Earth is ending.  The Spirit is given to equip his followers to continue his work so that those who have not seen may yet come to believe.

And that is not accomplished by locking ourselves in behind closed doors, waiting for the world to become a safer place.  It is by manifesting God’s presence in the world as it is, with all its brokenness.   Trinity Wall Street, by the way, gets this.   The ribbing I gave them in the intro to this sermon aside, Trinity’s outreach and social justice work are, from what I understand, exemplary.   The apostles got it, too.  They left their hiding places and, as stated in today’s reading from Acts, “with great power … gave their testimony.”   Thomas himself is by tradition understood to have gone to India proclaiming the Gospel, where there is still today a denomination named in his honor -- Mar Thoma -- that is larger than the U.S. Episcopal Church – and in full communion with it.

But continuing Jesus’ mission of revealing God in the world does not require that we sell all our possessions and become itinerant evangelists like the first apostles.  

We can do our part by, with God’s help, making the love of Christ manifest in and through us in all that we do.  By loving others as Christ loved us, we reveal God to the world. 

That requires leaving the safety of our church walls.   Recognizing our common humanity with all people, we are called to service to others.  Through acts of service, in our witness to the brokenness beyond our doors, we may even get glimpses of what the disciples and Thomas saw.  As theologian Ellen Charry put it: “[I]n service to children, the elderly, the poor, the weak, the sick, and the imprisoned, one worships and glorifies God and comes to know the Lord and perhaps to touch his wounds, so that doubt is stilled.” [Ellen Charry, By the Renewing of your Minds; The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine]

But the starting point for it all is simply being the Church.  Christian formation to equip us for what we are called to do works best, and perhaps only, in community.  That is why baptisms are normally done in community and why a critical part of today’s baptismal service will be the vow the whole congregation will be asked to make: “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support Brynn in her new life in Christ?”   Her growth as a member of Christ’s body is a community responsibility.  And while it is true that the Spirit given in Baptism remains with us forever, our growth as members of Christ’s body remains an ongoing process for all of us. So, too, must we all return to church regularly for re-filling.   Today we renew our baptismal vows.  Together we support and reinforce one another.  But more than that, here, through the words of scripture that we hear and the Eucharistic sacrament we receive, we are renewed and equipped to do what we have been sent by Jesus to do, to shine the light of Jesus in the world.  And who knows, maybe along the way the world will become a safer place.  But let’s not wait for that.