Sunday, April 19, 2009

Low Sunday

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
April 19, 2009

Year B: The Second Sunday of Easter
Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133
(1 John 1:1-2:2)
John 20:19-31

Low Sunday

It’s really too bad that the Second Sunday of Easter is traditionally a “low Sunday.” It’s too bad because each year we hope that the joyful spectacle of Easter will inspire people to come back the following Sunday for some more – even if we don’t have brass and timpani. And it’s also too bad this is traditionally a “low Sunday” because the gospel that we always hear on this day – the account of Jesus twice appearing to the disciples in the locked room – has so much to say to us, right here and now.

Today’s gospel lesson is from the Gospel of John. Most scholars think this fourth gospel was the last to be written, some time around the end of the First Century – several generations after the earthly lifetime of Jesus.

The Evangelist John is writing to a primarily Jewish community that faced an excruciating choice. For the first few decades the Jews who believed that Jesus was the messiah had continued to live as Jews. But by the year 100, for a variety of reasons, being a Jewish Christian was becoming increasingly impossible.

The Jewish Christians at the end of the First Century had to make a choice. They could no longer have it both ways.

It’s important to remember this excruciating choice because it largely accounts for the glaringly negative references to “the Jews” in the Gospel of John that tragically have helped fuel two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism. We hear it even in today’s passage. John tells us the disciples were hiding in a locked room “for fear of the Jews.” We need to remember that the disciples themselves were Jews!

So, near the end of the First Century the Evangelist John is writing to a community faced with a very painful choice.
On the one hand, they could remain faithful to the traditions of their Jewish ancestors and surrender their faith in Jesus.

On the other hand, they could reject their Jewish identity and place their faith in Jesus the resurrected messiah – the resurrected messiah who they could not see in the flesh.

But, they couldn’t have it both ways.

I’m sure one of the stumbling blocks to choosing option number two - one of the things that made it hard to choose Jesus - was that people at the end of the First Century were unable to see the resurrected Jesus in the flesh.

In other words, the first audience for the Gospel of John was essentially in the same position as we are all these centuries later – we are all challenged to believe in the resurrected Jesus we cannot see in the flesh.

It turns out that John is writing as much to us in the 21st Century as to those people at the end of the First Century. We have to make a choice. We can’t have it both ways.

Not so long ago, it was sort of possible for Christians to have it both ways, wasn’t it? Not so long ago, pretty much everyone went to church. After World War II the church went on a building spree, planting churches throughout the suburbs - churches that were packed with young families. In those days, I’m told, going to church was one of the things you did – it was one of the major ways people were expected to be involved in the community. And sports teams wouldn’t dare schedule practices on Sunday mornings!

When I was a kid in the ‘70s the blue laws were still in effect in Hudson County. I can remember going to Two Guys – sort of the Wal-Mart or Target of its day – and seeing the chains that separated the grocery section from the rest of the store. On Sunday in Hudson County you could by a steak but you couldn’t buy a sweater.

For better or for worse, except in Bergen County, those days are over.

Today, our culture certainly does not encourage us to go to church. And, let’s face it - we get no benefit or acknowledgement from the world if we actually go to church.

If anyone even notices, they probably think it is “nice” that we go to church or they think that we are a hangover from an earlier, more religious age. And since church is no longer the thing to do, it would be very easy to roll over on Sunday morning and go along with the rest of the culture.

And I don’t need to tell you, practices and games and all sorts of events are now routinely scheduled on Sunday mornings.

And so just like the people at the First Century, you and I are faced with a difficult choice. Just like the people at the end of the First Century, we can’t have it both ways.

On the one hand, we can go along with the larger culture – we can live pretty much like everybody else – we can live like our neighbors who think our faith is a lot of nonsense or irrelevant or quaint.

Or we can put our faith in the resurrected Jesus we cannot see in the flesh.

And since we’re here – even on “Low Sunday” – I guess we’ve made our choice.

But what about all of those other people out there? What about all those people who were here last week and who we won’t see again until Christmas? What about all of those people who haven’t heard or experienced the Good News that we proclaimed right at the start of today’s service: “Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!”

What about all those people out there?

Although just like people in the First Century we can’t see Jesus in the flesh, the truth is that if the Church really is the Body of Christ then we are Jesus in the flesh.

John the Evangelist describes that in today’s gospel when Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit onto the disciples. If we weren’t paying attention, we might have missed that in today’s gospel not only do we have two resurrection appearances we also have Pentecost!

Jesus gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit so we – the Church - can be his body in the world.

We glimpse a probably idealized view of the early Church as the Body of Christ in the snippet that we heard from the Acts of the Apostles: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul…”

And when we are open enough to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, when we are of one heart and soul, then the world can look at us and really see the Risen Christ in the flesh.

On Good Friday, even though I was expecting it, I was still so moved when all of the young people in the choir quietly took their places during the three-hour service. So many were present, even though it was spring break in Madison, even though many of the older kids had been up most of the night during the Maundy Thursday lock-in. For me, on the day we remember Jesus’ death, in those faithful young people I could see the Risen Christ in the flesh.

At our best, at our most open, when we are of one heart and soul, the world can look at us and see the Risen Christ in the flesh.

The other day Eliot Knight was outside the post office when someone pointed out the Recycling Ministry sweatshirt he was wearing. Eliot began his R.M. spiel when the person said "I know! I help out at Eric Johnson House next to Church of the Redeemer in Morristown. I know about you. You're one of the few churches that do what you say you do!”

At our best, at our most open, when we are of one heart and soul, the world can look at us and see the Risen Christ in the flesh.

During Lent our kids and their parents donated 593 cans of tuna – think about how many people were fed by that generosity! And, in part because we stepped up our contributions, Food for Friends in Dover said they had enough food and we are now able to give our donations to the Apostle’s House in Newark. (And in case you’ve forgotten, today is cereal day and next week is 100% fruit juice!)

At our best, at our most open, when we are of one heart and soul, the world can look at us and see the Risen Christ in the flesh.

If you were at the 9:00am service on Easter you know that Bishop Charles Keyser - whose daughter and grandchildren are parishioners here – was our guest celebrant. At the end of the service during the recessional, the bishop’s granddaughter – Lena Caroline – stepped out of the pew, took her grandfather’s hand and they joyfully walked down the aisle together. It was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen and made my Easter.

You and I, we’ve made our choice, but all of those people out there face a choice between the world and the church. It’s not an easy choice, but we can make it a little easier for them. At our best, at our most open, when we are of one heart and soul, the world can look at us and see the Risen Christ in the flesh.