I’ve been thinking about the symbolism of clerical robes, such as this one I’m wearing this morning. The founders of Protestantism replaced showy liturgical vestments with this rather boring scholar’s robe because they wanted the focus to be on the teaching of the Word – not on what they saw as vanity and spectacle. They wanted their congregants to focus on the internals, not the externals, of our faith.
This emphasis on what is being preached vs who is doing the preaching (or what they looked like) is rooted in the early Church’s determination to not make an idol of the person of Christ. This is why we do not know what Jesus the human being looked like. Every image we have of him was created long after all who actually knew him were gone.
John makes this same point. He tells us Jesus said to Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Everyone in that room believed because they saw Jesus alive again, in person. But Jesus is warning them that his physical presence is actually an impediment to their ministry.
He said those who came after them would believe without seeing, and would be blessed. Jesus’ words, and the gift of the Holy Spirit that we receive through Him, are what matters – not his physical form.
This morning I’m also reflecting on John’s beautiful summation of Jesus’ entire ministry: “Peace be with you all.” …I also see it as the shortest complete sermon in the Christian Scriptures, so perhaps I should just stop right here.
I suspect the disciples had been behind those closed doors most of the time since Jesus was betrayed. So, at the beginning of this passage, they’d already spent at least three days there.
We are told they are afraid to go out … and for good reason. They knew they’d be recognized. And so, they feared they would be attacked, arrested, and perhaps even killed.
John previously said that that very morning Mary informed them that Jesus’ body was missing. Then, although hard to believe, she claimed to have actually spoken with him in the garden. In John’s telling, they didn’t immediately run out to verify this. They probably weren’t sure what this was all about, or if it was good news at all. I think they questioned what Mary had really seen, if anything. So, they stayed behind those doors, and I imagine they were ready to burst from the grief, regret, fear, and uncertainty that filled that room and their hearts.
We know about closed doors. This sanctuary’s doors were closed for two years, opening again only in the last few weeks. We endured that time in our own homes, keeping a dangerous world at bay beyond our own closed doors.
Just like the disciples, we kept ourselves isolated from the world because it was necessary. We weren’t “living in fear.” We were surviving. We were caring for those whom we love as best we could through a very challenging time. The costs of leaving our sanctuaries without protection were known, very present, and very real. The disciples’ situation was no different.
But now it seems like the world is even crazier than it was before we closed our doors. There are new dangers and concerns we’d never imagined. Never-ending revelations of wars between intransigent foes who are bent on annihilating each other; and wars in foreign lands as well. There are fundamental changes happening to almost everything that impacts our lives.
We do not know where all this dislocation and reshaping of the world around us and within us will end up, nor when. But, are we called to simply react to what is going on, or something else?
Going back to when Jesus first shows up in that room, he says “Peace be with you all,” and then we’re told “the disciples rejoiced.” The King James Version says they were “glad.”
Glad? Their teacher, best friend, and Lord, is betrayed, brutally murdered, buried, and his body vanishes. Everything they believed-in vanished with him. And then he shows up again – alive. And, they’re just “glad”?
I don’t know about you, but if I’d been there, I’d be scared clear into next week and deliriously and tearfully happy – all at the same time. Celebratory pandemonium might be a better description of the scene. I’m sure all that emotion pent up within them burst out like pricking the skin of an overfilled balloon. It just blew up over everything and everyone there.
Our Messiah is back! We’re saved! We’re vindicated! Our Jesus will show Herod, and Caiaphas, and those Romans, a thing or two!
Then Jesus repeats his sermon the second time, “Peace be with you all.” But now he’s admonishing them that they need not only peace from that which is now past; but peace for that which is to come.
He then says the Living God has sent him; and likewise, he sends all of them, and us, too. He breathes on them, saying “receive the Holy Spirit.” …They didn’t realize it yet, but it was time to begin their own ministries …in His name. But how are they to do this, and why do we need to? After all, their leader, Jesus, is back – right there in front of them.
The late James H. Cone, founder of Black Liberation Theology, really nailed the crux of the problem (so to speak): a White Male Heterosexual Messiah just can’t do the job, particularly for those who have been oppressed and exploited throughout their lives by people who look just like me. If Christ remains constrained by the physical form he walked-in on earth. The form the disciples knew and loved. The man who looked just like them; then the Messiah for all humanity that God intended could never come to pass.
Christ would instead be a symbol and weapon of oppression by those with power, not the shepherd and healer and protector of those whom they oppress. He could not be the one Matthew said would be called Emmanuel – God with Us. The God who walks in our shoes. The God who knows what it’s like to live, and to die, to have COVID, to be Black, or Gay, or Trans, or Homeless, or Female, or the million other things that make every one of us a unique, valuable, and valued, child of God.
Christ is not a miracle worker who makes all of the disciples’ problems – and ours – vanish at no cost. If he were, we would never achieve what God wants for us. We would never grow, never mature, never see the fruit of the seed of wonderful things that God plants deep within each and every human being.
He would do it all: we would never have to take responsibility for ourselves. We would never have to outgrow our own immaturity and foolishness. We would never have to take responsibility for the pain we inflict upon others, nor the damage we cause in the world around us. We would not be called to atone for the harm we inevitably and inescapably cause.
In order for us to fulfill the ministry of Christ, Christ cannot stay with us – or lead us – in physical form. It’s the ministry that matters, not the minister. This robe reminds us of that every time we put it on.
Now Thomas, alone of the twelve, was not there when Jesus first reappeared. Later, when he returned and heard the tale, he could not believe what he was hearing. It was just too fantastic. What had the others been drinking while he was out? Did they really buy Mary’s bizarre story from that morning? They must have, to come up with an even more bizarre story of their own!
Eight days later he gets his answer. They are all together again in that room with the doors shut against the world; and Thomas was now there, too. Jesus appears again, giving that same sermon a third time: “Peace be with you all.”
Jesus knew very well that no messenger can preach a message of peace if they are not at peace within themselves. It was a hard lesson to learn. Even the disciples had to hear it three times before they got the message.
We cannot start with peace on Earth, nor peace in the halls of power, nor any sort of external peacefulness. We must begin with peace within ourselves, the peace of accepting our human frailty and the Grace and Healing of God. The peace and unity of the Holy Spirit. This is the starting point for our ministry in Christ’s name. It is where we must begin if we are to build the Kingdom of God, as God has prepared and calls us to do.
And so, I leave you with this thought: Yes, the world is still full of turmoil and grief and war and scary things. Humans are still flawed. We are still hurting and hurtful creatures; but, we are also children of God. None of this has changed in the two millennia since Jesus left us. The disciples began their ministry in His name and we, their spiritual descendants, continue it. Christ is here. Christ is in us and with us by virtue of the Holy Spirit. The doors of this sanctuary and our homes are now open to let us in, and they are also open so that the ministry of the Word of God can go forth.
Peace be with you all.
John 20:19-31 “The Risen Jesus Appears to the Disciples”
Delivered at Memorial Congregational Church UCC in Sudbury MA, April 24, 2022
Copyright 2022, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.