This is the strangest Easter season any of us have experienced in our lifetimes. Some days it feels like the strangest Easter season since the original. We just celebrated Easter last week, but we still feel unsettled, we still feel danger all around us.
That first Easter was hard to believe. Even some very close to Jesus didn't believe it at first. But things worked out in a miraculous way. The huddled group of disciples were in hiding, isolating in a locked house, yet those frightened men became Apostles fearlessly preaching God' message. It's a long way from the disciples cowering in fear behind locked doors, to the confident Peter at Pentecost addressing the crowd, calling out the Chief Priests and Pharisees for getting it wrong.
Last Sunday, despite our lockdown, we experienced the hope of Easter morning in the 21st Century. As today’s gospel reading begins, we’re back at that first Easter Sunday night. When Jesus appeared to his disciples that night they were hiding behind locked doors. They were laying low, cowering out of sight of the religious authorities, uncertain of what had happened and what would happen next. They were afraid they were being hunted down. The disciple called Thomas the Twin was not even in the house with them that Sunday night when Jesus appeared. Maybe Thomas was so scared he just hid at home. When Thomas finally showed up, the disciples told him Jesus himself had just appeared, greeting them with, "Shalom," and breathing the Holy Spirit on them. We can almost hear Thomas scoffing, "You guys are seeing things!" John's gospel tells us Thomas did say, "Unless I touch the nail holes in his hands and put my hands into his side and feel that lance wound, I won't believe it."
A week later Jesus appeared again. This time Thomas was with them and Jesus spoke directly to Thomas. "Touch the wounds in my hands, put your hands into the wound in my side." "Doubting Thomas" now believed.
Today, we have good reason to be doubting, fearful. This invisible contagious plague is still sweeping the world. By now we all believe the plague is real, as bad as they say. There's every reason to isolate, stay behind our doors, especially us older folks. We worry about catching the virus ourselves, we worry about our loved ones, our friends. We all worry about our savings, our work, our pensions, what will happen tomorrow. Danger!
But scripture tells us there’s nothing new under the sun. The sense of danger has been with us before. I remember the Passover Seder at my Bubbe's house. The youngest of the children asked the first of the four questions: "Mah nishtanoh hallilo hazeh micol hallelos?" Why is this night different from all other nights? I can hear my grandfather reading the Haggadah, the story of Passover in Hebrew. The sense of doom and danger built as he recited each of the ten plagues in an increasingly stern, clear voice. The plagues begin with water turning to blood. My grandfather would intone "Dom!" which means 'blood.' He would dip his finger into his glass and flick red wine onto my Bubbe's carefully laid table. Nothing could more symbolize the danger of plague than that drop of red on my Bubbe's spotless white tablecloth. (I now wonder whether she didn't have a word with him afterward about that tradition.)
Our readings today remind us how good it is that we are not alone in the face of danger. When Peter stood up boldly preaching Jesus' message, the danger was still there. The authorities hadn't given up on rooting out those heretical Christian Jews. Yet, in our reading from Acts we hear Peter proclaiming a Psalm of David;
I have set the Lord before me at all times: with him at my right hand I cannot be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my spirit rejoices, my body too rests unafraid; for you will not abandon me to Sheol or suffer your faithful servant to see the pit. You will show me the path of life; in your presence is the fullness of joy, at your right hand are pleasures for evermore.
God gives us the assurance David sang about and Peter quoted. The circumstances stayed exactly the same, yet everything changed. As promised, Jesus came, Jesus fell, Jesus ascended. As Peter and the others saw and heard and experienced, Jesus lives; God's promises are real. The mature Christian has freedom from fear. Even now in this time of great change and great danger, we know there is more going on in the world than meets the eye. Life does not just go on as before. As believers we know trials test and temper our faith.
Exactly what is our faith, what do we trust to be true? Jesus spelled it out, our common belief, the common faith which binds the Christian and her Jewish elder brothers in the faith. Jesus called out the most ancient and powerful of prayers, the Sh'ma, as the first of the two most important laws given mankind by God. The Sh'ma is prayed by all Jews:
"Hear O Israel, the Lord is God, The Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength and mind."
Jesus went on to add the commandment from Leviticus, "And the second is like it; You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
Jesus taught it is equally important to love our neighbor as to love God. Because God from the very beginning intended to lift us up from being animals of earthly blood - "adom" - to being divine sons and daughters of God himself. Jesus was the first human to become a direct family member of God, his Son. We are all invited to join our older brother as sons and daughters of the divine. That is why we love neighbors as ourselves. To love our neighbor is to love the sons and daughters of God. We’re family. God is at our right hand, God will not abandon us, and in his presence we will have joy.
On that first Easter, Peter was as fearful and anxious as the other disciples. The religious police were still on the prowl. Nothing had changed. But even through the fear, Peter's heart and mind had gotten the message. He burst out of hiding as a powerful man with strengthened faith. This morning we heard Peter's 1st letter to the flock of Jewish believers scattered throughout the world of the Roman Empire:
_Praised be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, he gave us new birth into a living hope, the hope of an inheritance, reserved in heaven for you, which nothing can destroy or spoil or wither. Because you put your faith in God, you are under the protection of his power until the salvation now in readiness is revealed at the end of time.
This is cause for great joy, even though for a little while you may have had to suffer trials of many kinds. Even gold passes through the assayer’s fire, and much more precious than perishable gold is faith which stands the test... You have not seen him, yet you love him; and trusting in him now without seeing him, you are filled with a glorious joy too great for words, while you are reaping the harvest of your faith, that is, salvation for your souls. When Jesus appeared to the disciples that first Easter night, he gave them one word. The word; Shalom. We translate this as, "Peace be with you." Shalom goes far beyond "peace." The peace of Christ, shalom, is serenity, wholeness, completion. Shalom means it is done, it's all taken care of, everything has been paid for; rest easy now. As Jesus said at the end of his last Seder with his disciples: "Peace is my parting gift to you, my own peace, such as the world cannot give. Set your troubled hearts at rest, and banish your fears." _
Our friend Doubting Thomas needed some help to get to shalom. He got it. Most of us have not seen The Christ, yet we love him; and trusting in him now without seeing him, even now in the middle of hunkering down, sheltering in place.
In the trials and tests of today, we rest easy. We are in the wholeness and serenity of Christ. We thank God our Father in all things, and for this time we live in. We are thankful for the blessings of life, for hope and for the Peace of Christ.
Until we see him at the last. Shalom.
John 10: 33, 34 - We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” _34_Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, (Psalm 86) ‘I have said you are “gods” ’ d ? _35_If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be set aside— 36what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?