Grace Presbyterian Church
April 11, 2021, Easter 2B (recorded)
Never Back to Normal
(I am again compelled to open this week’s message with a disclaimer of sorts. This first part may be a bit more personal than preachers should necessarily get with their sermons. In this case I can’t come up with any better way to get to the point, though, so here goes.)
Back on Wednesday, as I had been grappling with these two scripture readings and how they would guide us in this time, I came across one of those “Memories” posts that Facebook likes to put out each day, with a sampling of posts that you’ve posted on that calendar date in years past. The one that caught my eye most of all was from three years ago.
In that post I was explaining why I was going to be away from this church for a span of two to three months: first for some professional and vacation time, then to undergo a significant surgery. Specifically, as some of you will remember, I had a colostomy. Much of the post consisted of some basic explanation of why I would be away for that length of time, or how my ability to do my job had been hindered to the point of non-functionality, or a lot of different other things. One idea that came up a couple of times in that note was that the period after the surgery would be at least somewhat occupied with finding whatever form of “normal” might be after the surgery.
That’s the one thing I am now convinced that I completely got wrong in the run-up to that surgery. My life is not “normal” anymore, and never will be. It is mathematically not “normal” in the sense that 50%+1 of the population will not ever experience this surgery and life after it. It is neither emotionally nor intellectually “normal” in that it never does fail to be a bit of a shock, even if just a small one, to wake up and find this thing there.
My life is not “normal,” and never will be again. Is there a routine to my life? Sure, and most weeks I can keep to that routine of maintenance and care without too much disruption to the rest of my life. (Most weeks the condition of pandemic shutdown is far more disruptive and destructive to getting things done than colostomy care ever is.) Still, I don’t get to go a week or whatever without being reminded that this thing is there, and that it isn’t going away.
That condition – that things are not “normal,” and are never going to be “normal” again – is something that the followers of Jesus are learning in the readings from the gospel of John and the book of Acts today, even if the reason for it is far more joyful (albeit rather frightening too).
In John’s gospel, we get Jesus’s first encounter with most of his disciples and followers after his resurrection. Yes, Mary Magdalene had seen Jesus in the garden and had come and told them, but (typical of a group of men) they didn’t really believe her, even though Peter and John had seen the empty tomb also. Jesus got into the room despite the locked doors, and once inside with the thoroughly un-peaceful disciples, pronounced to them the needed blessing “Peace be with you.” As if to verify his identity, he showed them the scars of his crucifixion – not a ghost, but a real live-though-once-killed human body. He “breathes the Holy Spirit upon them” (we’ll presume this was not during a pandemic), and essentially commissions them as his witnesses. It’s a good finale to a gospel, potentially, when you step back and look at it. In some ways it’s not extremely dissimilar to the end of Matthew’s gospel.
There was one small problem, though: where was Thomas?
We don’t know. We are given no indication of why Thomas wasn’t there when the disciples were gathered in that locked room. Maybe he was hiding somewhere else. Maybe his grief was such that he couldn’t bear to be around the others. Or maybe he figured, with Jesus gone, there was nothing else to do but to go back to his old life. Nothing left to do but to go back to “normal.” After the time he had spent among Jesus’s followers, time in which he had gotten a reputation for saying things other wouldn’t say, like “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way?” in chapter 14 of this gospel; or “Let us go with him so we can die with him” even earlier, in chapter 11; after those and other things, maybe he just couldn’t see any hope in staying, and decided to go back to his “normal” life.
Somehow the disciples got out of that locked room long enough to find him and convince him to show up next time despite his expressed disbelief (we call him “doubting,” but frankly I’m not sure that’s a strong enough word for his response here – maybe more like “faithless”? Or “hopeless”?). He does show up, and Jesus singles him out. Here his penchant for brash statements comes out for the good as he makes the breakthrough acclamation – “My Lord and my God!” – to which this whole gospel has been building. Even so, Jesus takes a little shot at him – “oh, so you believe because you’ve seen me? How much more blessed are those who have faith without seeing me…” And it’s worth noting that in the next chapter, when a bunch of the disciples are gathered together, Thomas does show up.
But make sure to note this: Jesus would not let the disciples’ lack of trust (with or without Thomas) stand in the way of his call to them. We could almost read this same factor into the story of the two disciples who encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. No matter what the motivation, Jesus wasn’t letting these disciples go.
If we were to look at the two readings as some kind of “before” and “after” portrait pair of the lives of Jesus’s followers, this scene clearly offers a “before” portrait. The disciples huddled in fear in their locked room, Thomas off who knows where. Jesus intervenes with, among other words, that breathed charge to the disciples to “receive the Holy Spirit” back in verse 22. What of that? What happens then?
If this is the “before” picture, our reading from Acts 4 gives us an “after” snapshot. Luke, in the early chapters of this follow-up volume to the gospel bearing his name, pauses the narrative occasionally with these brief descriptive portraits of the community of the early followers of Jesus. The passage of some amount of time (likely not that much, even with all that happens in it) and the intervention of the Holy Spirit (both in Jesus’s words and the intervening Pentecost event) bring that community to the place we see here, and it’s a very different scene from the one in John.
It’s one of those scenes that the modern church really doesn’t know what to do with. It is intensely … communal, in a way that frankly disturbs us. Our accommodation to societal norms of individual property – the “American dream” of home ownership and all that – leaves us squeamish at the appearance of what looks like, frankly, a commune. Nobody claiming private ownership of their stuff? People selling their property and putting the proceeds in the common treasury to be distributed strictly according to need? I’m going to guess most preachers are studiously ignoring this passage today. Furthermore, if you quoted this passage out of context, not mentioning its scriptural origins, you’d likely get a lot of politicians and others to denounce this with one of the big scare words of our time, “socialism.” You get a similar account in Acts 2:43-47, and brief notes in Acts 5:12-16 and Acts 6:7.
Things are different after the Holy Spirit intervenes. There’s really no honest way to read the book of Acts and not get that idea. And it’s not as if this is all richly rewarded; the community in fact comes under persecution, both from religious leaders and an empire not tolerant of difference. The community is ultimately largely scattered and driven out of Jerusalem. As a result, this faith goes mobile, spreading into Samaria and then through the Mediterranean basin throughout the rest of Acts.
The seed of it all is a community touched by the Holy Spirit, responding without fear (even if that takes a while) and without shame, living in the way Jesus taught his followers to live and the way that Holy Spirit guided them to live. In short, the community of followers of Jesus simply could not and did not return to “normal,” and the world was changed by it.
And yes, the church universal and local faces that same challenge after the most non-normal year we’ve seen in many years. The great question facing us all is, simply, do we desperately hold on to some hope of going back to “normal,” or do we follow where Jesus is calling us to go?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #239, Good Christians All, Rejoice and Sing!; #817, We Walk by Faith and Not by Sight