Sermon Text from John 20:19-23 amid the COVID-19 Outbreak
The scripture lesson this morning is a post-resurrection encounter between Jesus and his disciples. It is Sunday evening, just a few hours after the Resurrection when Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene. It was an emotional reunion, and Mary became the first proclaimer of the Resurrection, tell the disciples all she saw and heard.
On that Sunday night, the disciples were gathered together behind locked doors. They were practicing social distancing, not because of fear of a virus, but because they feared for their lives. The Jewish officials (with help from Rome) just executed their rabbi, teacher, master, and friend. It would have been easy to believe that they were next. So they instituted their own “Shelter-at-home” order and stayed behind closed doors.
At some point in the evening, with doors locked, Jesus appeared among them. No word on how Jesus manifested himself in the room. Of course, this would have only heightened the fear of the disciples that someone new was in the room. Whether they recognized Jesus initially is unclear. Jesus speaks saying,
“Peace be with you.”
That peace is something that we need when we are fearful. Then Jesus showed the disciples his hands and his side. Now, every crucified person would have the nail marks on his hands. What is unique to Jesus is his pierced side. Even after the Resurrection, Jesus is touchable, and his wounds are visible. The disciples are overjoyed when they saw and recognized Jesus standing among them. The word that Mary spoke to them was true. Jesus was alive!
We don’t know how long the celebration lasted, but Jesus speaks again:
“Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
On this first Resurrection Sunday, Jesus meets the disciples in a state of fear and trembling. They won’t even go outside their doors. He sends them out of their locked room and into the world in Mission. As God, the Father, has sent Jesus into the world Jesus is sending his disciples. The Mission is to do the things that Jesus was doing. To care for the poor, to heal the sick, to give sight to the blind, to release those in bondage, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. The disciples were sent to participate in the Mission of what God was already doing through Jesus.
Jesus called the disciples out of fear and into Mission.
The last couple of weeks have been pretty interesting, haven’t they? As this pandemic grows globally, there is a wide range of responses. I think as we’ve talked with the Church and community members, there is a sense of fear and concern. We don’t know who is infected, nor is there a proven treatment or vaccine for the virus. We have been encouraged to stay at home and to limit our social interactions. I’ve been holding more Facebook Live and Zoom meetings in the last two weeks than I have in the previous five years!
Perhaps we resemble the disciples on that first Resurrection Sunday. Fearfully huddled behind closed or locked doors. Let’s be honest- staying home and practicing distancing is the correct response to protect ourselves and those who are vulnerable in our community. But like the disciples on that first Resurrection Sunday- I believe that Jesus is meeting us in our fear to offer us to things.
First, Jesus offers us peace. A.W. Tozer said,
“Peace is not the absence of trouble. Peace is the presence of Christ in the midst of trouble.”
Two times in this short passage, Jesus offers peace to the disciples. They needed peace because their lives were gripped with fear. They were fearful for their lives. They didn’t know if the Jewish officials were coming for them or not. In the midst of their troubles, Jesus met them there.
Secondly, Jesus offers them reassurance.
By showing them his hands and side, he let his disciples know that it was him. He was not a ghost or a vision. He was alive, present, and active in the world. Jesus has overcome death. For disciples concerned about whether or not Jewish officials were going to come crashing through the door- this reassurance brought hope and lifted their spirits.
Amid the trouble, anxiety, and fear that we experience during this trial- Jesus is present. Jesus is here. As we receive Jesus in our lives, Jesus offers us peace and reassurance that he has overcome the world and that through Jesus, we are more than conquerors. This morning, we can receive peace and reassurance.
Here is the turn, though; Following Jesus isn’t just about making us “feel good.” It’s not about warm fuzzy feelings. Jesus gives them something to do.
“As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
As the disciples deal with fear, discomfort, anxiety and worry Jesus sends them out to do the work that Jesus was doing: to care for the sick, to give sight to the blind, to feed the hungry, to release the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
I am sure that it would have been much more comfortable and more natural for the disciples to stay in the place where they were, locked behind closed doors to ride out the threat. But Jesus sends them out because they were called and equipped for a purpose. They had spent the last three years preparing to do this Mission. Staying behind locked doors was not going to accomplish the Mission.
As we gather around our computers inside our comfortable homes, the scripture reminds us that we, too, are sent out into Mission. Perhaps we’d like to remain behind closed doors and huddle up with a good book or a movie on Netflix; however, the Church is called to live as the Church in times that are easy and through turbulent times.
Reading through different doctors and specialists and watching the news coverage, it is easy to become overwhelmed with what is going on in our world. There is a scary possibility that things in our own country and community could become much worse in a couple of weeks. While we have focused on how to get online worship up- as best we can; as we concentrate on connecting with people over the phone, as we have created Bible Studies through video conferencing- this is not the Mission we’ve been called to.
The real Mission becomes how we live as the hands and feet of Jesus in Milford and beyond during this crisis. As followers of Jesus- who was sent into the world, we live in a perpetual state of sentness. We are sent to serve, sent to proclaim, sent to extend mercy, grace, and love.
As a Church staff, we are preparing for the ways in which our Church is situated to meet the needs of the Milford community during this time. We are blessed to see the volunteers of the Milford Community Food Pantry, many of whom come from Avenue, respond nimbly to the needs of our community in providing food for the community. We are blessed to see our School Districts meet the needs of our community by providing lunches and food boxes through the food bank- many of those volunteers come from local churches. The Church is sent into Mission in the world.
As individuals and families, now are the time to prepare for how to be in Mission to your neighbors. Our church community has been decentralized, a diaspora if you will, to our neighborhoods and streets. Each of you, each of us, is uniquely positioned to be the hands and feet in Woods Haven, Shawnee Acres, Silver Lake Estates, in Lincoln, Ellendale, Greenwood, Harrington, and wherever the body of Christ is located.
While we certainly need to put all the best practices in place to protect ourselves and our neighbors, as this situation continues to grow, we are called to serve. For some, it will mean intentionally calling your neighbors on a regular basis to stay connected, writing a note to someone in the nursing home, helping someone order groceries online and picking them up, and sharing resources. For others, it could mean volunteering with the food pantry, helping to distribute food at the Food Bank, or at one of the schools.
In this time of crisis, Jesus calls us out of our fear and into Mission.
There is one other thing that Jesus gave his disciples. In addition to peace and reassurance, Jesus breathes on them, inviting them to receive the Holy Spirit. The work that the disciples are to do cannot be done without the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit.
Likewise, we must do the Mission that God has given us through the power of the Holy Spirit. We should pray to God, asking for the Holy Spirit to guide us on how to serve best, discerning what the needs are around us, and how to meet them. In helping our neighbors through the Holy Spirit and in love, our community will know the love of Jesus Christ.
In the fourth century, a plague fell on the Roman Empire and spread rapidly. Countless people died. The population fled the cities for the countryside. The one group that stayed behind was the Christians, who cared for those who had no one to care for them. The Bishop of Caesaria and church historian named Eusebius wrote:
“All day long some of them (the Christians) tended to the dying and their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them. Others gathered from all parts of the city a multitude of those withered from famine and distributed bread to all of them.”
Eusebius went on to write that because of the Christians’ compassion during the plague, the Christians “deeds were on everyone’s lips, and they glorified the God of the Christians.”
When we allow ourselves to be sent into Mission through the power of the Holy Spirit, the world will see our deeds done in faith and glorify God.
This morning, as we close, where might God be calling you into Mission in the midst of this crisis? Who are the people that you can serve as the hands and feet of Christ?
Let us pray that together, we can share the story of God’s love through Jesus as we are sent into mission in our homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, and into the world.
Let us pray:
God of peace and assurance, during our times of trials and testing, you remind us that you are present with us. In the power of the Holy Spirit, send us out into the world to serve our neighbors in love. Allow our acts of kindness and love to point to your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.