Sermon for April 11- "A Gracious Return"
We recently concluded a study concerning the various atonement theories in Christian theology and scripture. The word atonement refers to Jesus’ crucifixion and the specific ways in which it heals the division between God and creation…a division created by sin… most commonly understood as the original sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Without question the death of Jesus is central to Christian faith and proclamation. In part this is because the death of Jesus is the only truly historically verifiable part of the Christian story…a fact attested in sources outside of the Bible. Theologically, the death of Jesus is at the heart of the New Testament. Paul repeatedly refers to “Christ crucified” and the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Gospels each tell, in their own ways, how Jesus’ death is at the heart of salvation.
Perhaps the Confession of 1967- one of the confessions in our Book of Confessions, states the nature of the atonement the best: “God’s reconciling act in Jesus Christ is a mystery which the Scriptures describe in various ways. It is called the sacrifice of a lamb, a shepherd’s life for his sheep…victory over the powers of evil. These are expressions of a truth which remains beyond the reach of all theory in the depths of God’s love for us.”
The saving death of Jesus Christ is indeed a mystery. We proclaim Christ crucified, Paul says, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles, which is another way of saying the same thing. Although we cannot talk about reconciliation and salvation without talking about the cross, I feel that we have too often stopped there. While it is important that we stand at the foot of the cross, it is also important that we come to the empty tomb. Paul makes this clear in that when he talks about reconciliation, he never separates the cross from the empty tomb, the death from the resurrection.
But I want to go one step further, and our story from John illustrates why. It is Easter evening and the disciples are alone behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews”. It is best to get this troublesome item out of the way—this reference to the “Jews”. Throughout John’s gospel there are references to “The Jews” who antagonize Jesus. Yet the entire story is populated by Jews, including Jesus himself. So what does this reference entail? The word in Greek that is translated as “the Jews” is a specific reference to those who were in charge of the synagogue…the Pharisees and other religious leaders who were jealously protecting the tradition of Moses from the Word that was Jesus. So that is who the disciples are afraid of—those with the power to punish them for believing, including excluding them from the synagogue.
But the larger point here is that they should not be afraid of anything or anyone. Jesus made this clear over nineteen chapters of miraculous signs and reassuring metaphors. But here they are on Easter evening still believing that the power of the synagogue rulers is stronger than the lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the world.
Mary told them. “I have seen the Lord”, she proclaimed after her Easter morning encounter. And Peter himself knew the tomb was empty because he saw it for himself, but he did not see Jesus. But fear still outvoted joy that Easter evening, until Jesus came and stood among them, ignoring the locked door altogether.
Peace be with you. This is all he said. Peace be with you. Not fear. Not anxiety. Peace. He then breathes upon them the Holy Spirit.
“We have seen the Lord,” they say to Thomas, using the exact same phrase Mary used with them. And the result is similar. Thomas is not convinced. Much has been made of our friend Thomas—doubting Thomas—who needs tangible proof as the basis of his belief. He is not alone in his doubt, but he is also not the focus of this scene. For here we find the most neglected aspect of Christian atonement theory. Yes, Jesus died for our sins. Yes, God raised Jesus from the dead. But the most unexpected and unmerited part of this process appears on Easter evening when Jesus makes a gracious return to his disciples.
Although the interpretation of Jesus death varies from gospel to gospel and from theologian to theologian, it is incontestable that Jesus died abandoned by those he came to love. Certainly Rome and the Pharisees cared little about him. But how hard it must of been to die abandoned by the disciples—his most intimate friends. Father, forgive them, Jesus says from the cross. They know not what they are doing.
Jesus is laid in the tomb, the stone rolled over the opening, and absolute darkness settled in both inside and outside of that grim scene. How Jesus was raised we will never know. And we shouldn’t. The resurrection of Jesus is not our business. The impact of the resurrection is certainly ours by grace, but the event itself is beyond our reach. Jesus’ resurrection was a promise of his father, a promise his father kept and kept between them.
The only part of the death and resurrection of Jesus for which we can take credit is the death. The resurrection itself is a private matter. We don’t get involved again until the tomb is empty. On Easter morning all that we know for certain is that the sin of humankind murdered Jesus and God reclaimed him. What we do not know on Easter morning is if God is willing to share him with us again.
Peace be with you, Jesus says to these frightened disciples, closing the loop and finishing the saving work of the cross. You see, we cannot know we are truly forgiven, we can not feel truly reconciled, until Jesus comes to us in the locked rooms of our sorrow and regret. The cross reveals the reality of human sin. The resurrection reveals the great love the father has for the son. That Jesus returns to us with peace and love —after his death and resurrection—reveals to us the depth of God’s love for us.
This is the most significant insight of my Christian faith. I have always been uncomfortable with the glory given the cross. The wounds that Jesus shows Thomas are indicators of the cruelty and violence of the crucifixion. No one in the gospel is celebrating the crucifixion—his followers are having a hard enough time with resurrection. I am equally uncomfortable with the notion that we are somehow “entitled” to the resurrection, as if it is a foregone conclusion that God would raise Jesus for “us and our salvation”. It could have been different. God owes Jesus resurrection life. God owes us nothing on Saturday.
God owes us nothing and yet gives us everything. Peace be with you, Jesus says. Receive the Holy Spirit Jesus says. Blessed are those who see and believe. Blessed are those who do not see and believe. Blessed are those whose faith is strong and blessed are those whose faith is weak. We are forgiven. We know we are forgiven because Jesus died, Jesus rose, and Jesus returned to reassure us of both his love and God’s love. The worst of us is overcome by the sheer grace of God in Jesus Christ. That is the good news of Easter—a truth not only for Easter morning and Easter evening—but for all of our days.