“Thrust into life…” – Sermon for Sunday, April 16, 2023

(This sermon was in response to John 20:19-31)

How do you define life?  Does that sound like an easy exercise to you?  Defining what life is, is kind of important.  There are ramifications based on how it is defined.  

Did you know that there are at least 123 definitions of life?  123.  That’s amazing, isn’t it?

What does that tell you?  That there’s no consensus and there has never been a consensus on what constitutes life.  Part of this lack of consensus comes from the reality there are so many different ways to look at life.    

There are the sciences – biology, chemistry, and physics and their many offshoots.  You have a range of biological characteristics of life, of which you’ll find lists that range from 6 to 11 essential characteristics of life depending on who you ask, to systems theories, to other ideas that I don’t understand in the slightest.  

Philosophy has been debating what life is for centuries, along with how to define such things as person and consciousness.  These aren’t easy things when you really dig in because there are plenty of situations that don’t fit nice tidy definitions – and what do you do then with your working definition of these terms?

Life has been debated in legal circles as well – mostly from the standpoint that there needs to be a guideline for society of when it is legal to declare a human being dead – which sets in motion a whole set of legal and financial consequences that go with the decision.  

And of course, life is debated in politics – difficult and complicated issues that carry serious ramifications for policies and society.  Often our political debates about how to define life go much deeper than rational arguments – to the level of emotion and identity.  These are deep, core parts of who we are.  

And there are theological debates about what life is too – often dealing with such things as the soul, the spirit, morality, justice, and other things.  

I’m sure there are other lenses that people look through.  The big take away is that humanity doesn’t agree on how to define life and what life is.  But we know it’s important.  

So, what does this mean when we hear John declare at the end of today’s Gospel reading, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”   

We might raise a few questions – questions like what does this mean?  What’s the practical application?  What does life in the name of Jesus the Christ mean?  How might life look different without Jesus, versus with Jesus? 

Life isn’t just some idea to be debated.  We’re living it after all.  When it comes to faith and life, here’s a few things to keep in mind.  There is a physicality to life and faith.  It is embodied.  We hear this through this entire reading.  And the physicality raises questions for us.  

Our Gospel reading starts off:  19When 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 Jews, (Referencing the Jewish Leaders, not Jews in general.  Also, the description of the doors locked reminds us that the room is like a tomb.  Tombs contain the dead, not the living.  And fear leaves people paralyzed, unable to go on with their lives – a type of death.). Where do we encounter locked rooms in the world and in our lives?  How are we locked away out of fear?  

The passage goes on, “Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” (Jesus is physically present and speaks.  Peace meaning shalom – wholeness and completeness.  This becomes very important as we go on.) Where do we encounter wholeness and with who?

20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.  (Physicality again.  These are his wounds – deep wounds caused by acts of cruelty and injustice, crucifixion is meant to be cruel and painful and shameful and dehumanizing.  The cruelty is the point.). 

Where do we encounter and see cruelty and injustice in our world and in our neighborhoods?  What are the wounds that see from such cruelty and injustice?

Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. (The physicality of seeing and witnessing firsthand Jesus very present in their midst.). Where are we seeing Jesus that causes us to rejoice?

21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (Shalom again.  Now Jesus is commissioning the disciples, sending them out, authoritatively.  Because he was sent authoritatively.  This is active and with expectations and responsibilities.  Another way to translate this statement by Jesus is – As the Father has sent me on a mission, so I thrust you into the world.  In other words, no more hiding in a locked room that is like a tomb.  Death has been conquered.  It can’t keep Jesus in the tomb nor out of places where fear has a death grip.  And Jesus is sending his followers out to bring shalom.)  How and where are we being thrust out into the world to bring shalom wholeness and peace to it?

22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  (What’s with this?  Remember, God breathes life into Adam in Genesis 2:7.  And we hear about the interaction between God and his prophet Ezekiel in the story about the valley of dry bones where God breathes life into the bodies of the house of Israel.  The story is about Israel feeling dead because they are in exile and without hope, hence the dry bones.  New life always begins with the breath of God.  And when we hear Jesus say receive the Holy Spirit, this isn’t a passive receiving.  The word actually means lay hold by aggressively or actively accepting what is offered.  It’s coming your way, so reach out and grab it.) How have we felt God’s breath?  And where has it renewed life?  

Jesus goes on, “23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (Another way of translating this is If you release the sins, or the missing of the mark of any, they are released.  If you hold onto the sins, or the missing of the mark of any, they will continue to be held onto.  Hear the physicality of this.  Forgiveness isn’t just saying the words in some abstract.  It’s specific. It’s embodied.  It is active and an action).  

Are we holding onto the sins of others, or even ourselves?  Or are we letting those sins go to release others and ourselves of the burden of those sins?

24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  (Do you hear the physicality of this?  Thomas wasn’t with them originally.  The disciples talk about seeing the Lord.  Thomas wants to see the wounds and touch them – to be convinced.  This is what it means to be human.  We cannot separate who we are from our senses and physicality.). When have we seen the Lord?  And what does it take to convince us that Jesus is really present and alive?

26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” (They are back at the tomb-like room again, and Jesus comes and stands physically present and says – Shalom.  Wholeness, completeness be with you.  That type of peace isn’t solitary.  It’s relational.  It’s communal.  That’s what makes it whole and complete.). How has Jesus been persistent in our lives, showing up again and again, and giving us wholeness and completeness?

27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”  (A better translation would be Don’t be unbelieving but believing.  Do you hear motion with this?  It’s a statement of life.  Jesus offers Thomas what he needed to be convinced – in a very physical sense.) How are we like Thomas? And how does Jesus meet us where we are with what we need?

28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  (The physicality of Jesus convinces Thomas of the foundation of the faith he already received from God.  He was already a faithful follower of Jesus. He was converted.  But he wasn’t convinced.  

It’s encountering Jesus – the embodiment of what life, death, and resurrection actually means – that Thomas is convinced.).  Is our belief in Jesus just an idea?  Or is it more?  Is faith just a compartment of who we are, or is it integrative throughout life and embodied?  What needs to change?  

The Gospel reading concludes this way: 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (These are the same words that we heard Martha utter in John 11 at the death of Lazarus, when Martha goes out to Jesus and they talk.  Jesus says “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will life and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?  And she answered him, Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”). How do we encounter Jesus in such a way that we declare like Martha and Thomas that Jesus is the Lord, he is the Messiah, the Son of God?  What are the other signs we have experienced Jesus doing in our presence?

So, what does all of this mean?  What does it mean to be alive in Christ – that’s the real question right?  

It isn’t passive, but rather active.  And not just active – it’s aggressively active grabbing hold of what Jesus is offering us.  

It is embodied.  It is integrated into who we are.  It’s not just some compartment of our life, but the very core of who we are in our whole being.   

It is Jesus authoritatively sending us on a mission.  With a purpose.  There is meaning to life.  It isn’t pointless.  And the meaning is found in Christ and what he is about and what God has always been about.  And what is that?

It is restoration, renewal, new life.  These are all just other ways of saying Shalom.  The Kingdom of God that Jesus talks about is a kingdom of Shalom.  The purpose and mission that Jesus authoritatively thrusts his followers out into the world to do is bring God’s restoration, wholeness, completeness, enoughness.  

It’s about releasing people.  It deals with cruelty and injustice head on, seeing their reality, not hiding from them or pretending those things don’t exist, especially if we don’t think we experience them directly.  And then taking action to replace cruelty and injustice with something far better.  There can be no shalom, or wholeness, so long as any others are suffering from cruelty and injustice.  

It cannot be contained like a tomb.  It can’t be hidden inside a building or room.  Jesus is thrusting his followers out of the tombs of the world that either we lock ourselves inside of or others put us in out of fear.  It’s meant go from this place where we directly encounter Jesus in a very real and physical way – in the elements of the Eucharist – where we are thrust out and sent into the world with a mission from Jesus.  And that mission is to bring hope, forgiveness, mercy, grace, love, and shalom peace, wholeness.  

People know the wounds of cruelty and injustice very well.  Some have suffered the cruelty and injustice for a long time.  They are wounded deeply.  We aren’t called to lock ourselves inside the building.  We might think that locking ourselves inside and away from the world is safe, but it isn’t.  Rather Jesus thrusts us out into the world to see the wounds of cruelty and injustice for ourselves, to touch those wounds if we need to in order to believe they are real.  

Jesus isn’t sending us out on our own though.  No, he has breathed the Holy Spirit on us and into us to accompany us on this mission.  We are not alone, and we can’t do this alone and on our own.  This isn’t about us coming up with techniques and going to fix people.  We can’t.  Jesus sends us out to see the world for what it is, and to bring what he equips us with – wholeness, peace, forgiveness, mercy, grace, and love.  To see the humanity of people, the wounds they live with, to accompany those people, to listen to them, and to bring Jesus’ renewal with us.  To bring the Holy Spirit with us.  To live the shalom peace that Jesus has empowered us with in the places where real, actual peace has been absent. 

In short – Jesus send us out to bring life to the world.  His definition of what life is.  His way of being alive.  Thanks be to God.  

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