This sermon was first preached on April 18th, 2021 at Harrow United Church. I apologize for not uploading it directly afterwards, but this is around the time when life was very busy because I moved out west. Hope you still enjoy it:
I’d like to start today by asking a personal question: “When was the last time you saw Jesus?”
When I was in university, I used to lead a weekly women’s prayer group and every week I would start off with the same two questions: “How have you seen God this week?” and “How have you seen God today?”
At first, this question might come across as perplexing. After all, I am fairly sure that none of us have actually physically seen or interacted with God, yet, many of us have experienced God through people, life circumstances, and events.
The story that we read today illustrates this very concept and is particularly applicable in our current reality of living in the midst of a global pandemic and yet another lockdown since the news was first released in March 2020.
Many of us might have experienced the same emotions the disciples felt in this passage when the news was released two weeks ago. In particular, I found myself reflecting on the very nuances of how this lockdown was released at Easter time. It reminded me how just like the disciples had hoped that Jesus would be the one to save them from oppression and liberate them from Roman opposition, many of us placed hope in the vaccine as a way to curb the spread of the virus. Most of us likely hoped for a family Easter dinner, visiting loved ones, and possibly a summer holiday. Then Good Friday came and we felt all our hopes disappear, realizing that those things are not in our immediate future.
In our passage today, we meet the disciples in a locked room. This sense of being locked in is something we all can relate to now having lived through quarantines and stay at home orders. The Bible says the disciples stayed indoors due to fear or the Jewish authorities. All of us have likely known this type of fear at some point in our lives. For some of us, the raging virus causes us fear both for our own physical heath and safety and for the well-being of others in our midst. Others of us may have faced this fear awaiting a medical diagnosis, being required to complete a task which caused us massive amount of anxiety, having to sit an important university entrance exam, or facing an important job interview.
It is natural to feel afraid when we are placed outside our comfort zone, but how we react to that fear is of far greater importance. When confronted with fear we have a few options: we can ignore the fear altogether and not take the healthy risks we need to move forward in life, we can forget everything and run away from it perhaps to new towns, new jobs, or new relationships, or we can face it and move on with our lives. In this passage, the disciples chose the first option. They were locked in their homes and that fear kept them from interacting with the population. Instead of reaching out and connecting, they chose to isolate themselves. With the restrictions in place today, it can be very difficult not to completely isolate, and yet there are safe ways to still maintain contact with those we love even if only through Zoom. Studies have shown that complete isolation and cut off have negative effects on physical and mental health because humans are social creatures, and yet, there is a way to still let others know we love and care about them while adhering to safe measures.
Please don’t misunderstand me. There is a place for healthy fear. Healthy fear is what causes us to look both ways when crossing a street, to fasten our seat belt when driving a car, and to ensure we eat healthy and exercise. But there is an unhealthy fear that can drive us to become anxious, depressed, and overwhelmed by prohibiting us from doing things necessary for our development. I am not speaking about medical anxiety here, I am talking about the all consuming fear of failure and approval that sometimes plague us all.
While the disciples were hiding away in their homes because of this fear, Jesus came into their midst offering a word of peace. This is the second encounter in a short time span when Jesus shows up unexpectedly. Just a few verses before, Jesus met the disciples as they were walking on the Road to Emmaus (a town whose literal name translates “Warm Spring.”) As the disciples were walking, Jesus practiced good pastoral care through active listening and asking clarifying questions. The disciples were perplexed at his calm approach and asked him “are you the only one in Israel who doesn’t know these things?”
Jesus’s death had made front page news. The whole town knew about this hot topic. It would sort of be like if someone approached us today and asked “hey why is everyone wearing masks?” We would likely be tempted to look at them as if they had three eyes and ask “are you the only one who hasn’t heard of COVID?” Yet instead of revealing himself, Jesus asked a further question “What things?” and this question gave the disciples permission to share their doubts, fears, and disappointments that he one they thought would save them from Roman rule was not really who he said he was. It wasn’t until the disciples invited Jesus to share a meal with them that their eyes were opened and they recognized him. I have always loved their response as Jesus miraculously disappears “were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
Now Jesus has appeared again but this time to a different group of disciples. Standing in their midst, Jesus takes a more streamlined approach and doesn’t waste any time introducing himself. The disciples are absolutely terrified thinking they have seen a ghost. After all, they know Jesus just died and they didn’t think he had risen again. For those of us who grew up Christian, it can be easy to jump past these passages. After all, we know that in the end of the day good triumphs over evil and the hero wins. But the disciples didn’t have that information readily at their disposal. So, looking at this story through the disciple’s eyes, we can understand why they were terrified. Dead things are supposed to stay dead. Unless you’re Christ.
Rather than condemning the disciples’ lack of faith, Jesus acknowledges their doubts and invites them to touch his hands and side where the wound marks from the crucifixion would have been. In our lives, sometimes Christ shows up the best when we enter into his suffering and he enters into ours. It is very common that when we or a loved one hit rock bottom we genuinely call out to be saved. It often happens that in a moment of great fear, we acknowledge the need to depend on someone stronger than ourselves. It is often in intense moments of pain that we can feel overwhelmed by Christ’s love.
The Bible is clear that the Christian life is filled with both moments of intense joy and times of consuming sorrow and despair. A quick glance at any Bible commentary or a quick Google search will point to suffering through opposition, persecution, testing, and temptations. Yet, even despite these hard truths, we are given many other verses of encouragement pointing to God’s faithfulness and helping us stand firm even when evil threatens to engulf us. The Bible says that God comforts us, and most importantly, that although in this world we will face various trials, we can take heart because God has overcome and is stronger than anything we encounter this side of eternity.
After Jesus fully reveals who he is leaving no further doubt in the disciples’ minds, he does something else peculiar. He asks for something to eat. Just like in the Emmaus story, Jesus dispels doubt through sharing a meal. Table fellowship seems to have been one of the methods Jesus often used for informal teaching and transformative encounters. Many of us can relate. How many of us have shared a meal with a complete stranger and after a few hours considered them a new friend? How many of us have moved to a new town or a new church and been invited over after a service and made to feel welcomed? Perhaps some of us might even have shared a meal with someone who didn’t speak our language, but even despite a relatively silent dinner we left with our bellies and our hearts full. There is just something so inspiring about sharing a basic necessity of life with one another. Yet, it isn’t just in the mere fact that food is placed on the table, bur rather the hospitality and care the host usually extends: menu planning, using the best china, tastefully decorating the table, making the food visually appealing, buying flowers, cleaning the house, clearing away the dishes and so on.
For the last 7 years when I was part of an international Christian community called L’Arche I saw firsthand how important sharing in a fellowship meal is. It was around the dinner table that I built relationships with adults who have disabilities. In the careful feeding of someone who could not lift a spoon for themselves a real trust and bond was formed. Being an international community, we shared plates from around the world which helped us make a cultural connection. In L’Arche it wasn’t so much about whether someone was the best cook or not, but rather it was about the effort it took, and the extended time of talking, laughing and praying together. Table fellowship is something that is slowly being lost in our consumeristic culture especially with late working hours. Takeouts have become more common than before, and watching Netflix or texting at the dinner table has become the norm. And yet, there is something incredibly special about giving each other undivided attention when we are breaking the bread together.
Jesus does something else special. After he has eaten in front of the disciples and shown that he has a physical body which requires nourishment, he launches into a basic Bible study outlining who he is, why he had to die, and why he has been raised back to life.
I used to teach Sunday school and I loved hearing how the children had seen God. As we get older, it becomes easier to give expected answers like “through Scripture” or “through going to church.” These answers are correct and there is nothing wrong with them. But I love the way children answer. For them Jesus’s love is not just found in Sunday school, but also in hugs and kisses, bunny rabbits, and sharing snacks.
Today Christ is revealing his love to us every day if only we open our eyes and become aware of it. It is true that sometimes we feel those “aha” moments when we open the Bible up and our eyes alight on a passage that seems to be just for us, or when we hear a hymn that has special meaning. Sometimes we may hear a sermon that leaves us convicted as if the sermon was addressed just to us. But we also see Christ in more daily occurrences.
In preparing for my sermon, I asked some friends on my Facebook about ways they have seen Christ and ways they have been Christ to others. I received some pretty interesting and helpful responses and I wanted to share a few with you today. We see Christ when we have a hard day at work and we jump into our car and our favourite song is playing on the radio. We see Christ when we receive a text or phone call from a friend we haven’t spoken to in ages. We see Christ when someone says thank you, sends us a bouquet of flowers, or lets us go ahead of them in line. I personally see Christ a lot in the United Church groups I am a part of where I feel loved and accepted for who I am, and free to be my most vulnerable and authentic self as I share both my joy and my pain.
In answer to this question, I received two special stories from United Church friends I wanted to share today. The first one is a pastor in the Prairies who created a “kindness garden.” Instead of planting flowers, she delicately painted and arranged rocks in a beautiful formation with the instructions to “take one, share one, make one, or leave one.” Each rock had an encouraging word on it such as “beautiful” “beloved” “shine” “wonder” “life” “joy” and “breathe”. Just a few days after the garden was created, my friend received a knock at the door. A young man in his twenties had come to thank her for the garden and said he had thought about just walking by but he felt in his spirit he needed to express his gratitude. After introducing themselves, this pastor learned that this young man was from Iraq and had only been in Canada for four years. Her simple idea had infused the man with gratitude.
The second is from one of my friends still in her twenties who was suddenly diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease a few years ago. Her friends and family asked her what they could do to help cheer her up and she suggested that they all send her socks – her goal was 365 pairs (one for every day of the year). The project grew and blossomed and today has become a social enterprise called The Sock Project where socks are shipped out to a number of individuals facing severe health challenges, mental health struggles, or even just having a bad hair day. I love this story because it illustrates how from our own moments of pain and weakness, God’s love can shine forth and we can be “Jesus with skin on” to others.
Before I end my sermon today, I would like to set out two challenges for the week ahead. The first one is to recognize when Jesus is present with you this week. This could be through the kind words or actions of another, or even though an internal sense of peace, serenity and acceptance. My friend calls these God moments “sparks.” Perhaps note them down in your journal or your phone. By being mindful of these divine experiences, we may find ourselves finding mundane and muddled moments to be meaningful and profound.
The second challenge is to think about how we can be Jesus to another person this week. Think about who you know in your own network who might be struggling. Perhaps consider someone who is stuck at home alone or an elderly person who does not have access to a computer. It might take some practice, but if we treat every person we meet this week as “Jesus in disguise” we might find our attitudes and approaches drastically change. Again, it might help to make a mental or physical note of how these experiences made us feel and review them at the end of the week.
No matter what you choose to do, I believe that these two exercises will be a blessing to us. Jesus came at a time of uncertainty and fear, he came into our midst and brought us peace. He revealed himself and showed us who he really was, and he didn’t leave us wanting, but left us filled with hope. Today may we experience his presence right here and right now and thank him for fully showing up. Amen.