Going away presents
Lectionary blog for April 27, 2014
The Second Sunday of Easter
Texts: Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16;
1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
By Delmer Chilton
I remember the first time I “went away.” It was 1972 and I was going away to college. My family was pretty low-key about things like that and there was no special dinner or ceremony. If I remember correctly, I milked the cow as usual that morning, worked in the field with Daddy until noon, then went to the house for “dinner.” (On a southern farm, the meal in the middle of the day was always “dinner.” Lunch was something you ate in the cafeteria at school.) I took a shower, loaded my box of books and my clothes hamper full of clothes in the back seat of the car and drove the hour and a half down to the college.
But, I did receive a few “going away” presents. Daddy handed me $10 for gas, the first time I remember him giving me money that I had not “earned.” Mama gave me a couple of shirts she got on sale at JC Penney. And my cousin Julia and her husband, Sam, both teachers, gave me a Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary. I spent the money on gas and wore out the shirts but I still have the dictionary sitting on my bookshelves.
Today’s Gospel Lesson is about “going away presents.” But in this case, the gift-giving is done in reverse; the one going away gives the presents. As the disciples gathered in their hide-away room, they were a very disturbed, confused and fearful community. The events of the last week had overwhelmed them; their brains and their bodies were on emotional overload.
The Bible says they were full of fear. The Greek word here is “phobon,” from which we get the English word “phobia.” A phobia is an irrational and unthinking fear, emotional terror. These people were afraid of their own shadows. They were seeing monsters in the closets and boogie bears under their beds. Well, not exactly irrational and unthinking. Their world had turned upside down and inside out. They had left their families and their jobs, their lives and their livelihoods to follow this charismatic healer/preacher. And now this glorious revolution had come to a screeching halt. The wheels had come off the Kingdom of God parade, the movement had collapsed — all was in disarray.
If you want to know what they looked like, just think about the TV images of a favored team in the NCAA basketball tournament that loses. While the winners jump around and celebrate, the losers huddle on the bench, all their hopes and dreams smashed. They sit perfectly still, staring out in space. Or they hide their faces under towels, not wishing to weep on national TV.
The gospel march had come to an inglorious, confusing, disarrayed halt. Their season was over, and the Jesus team was left fearful, confused, inept and clueless, groping for a way to make sense of it all. And Jesus, the Risen Christ, came into that locked room with “going away presents.” He brought to them the things they needed to recover and go forward.
The first thing he gave them was peace. Jesus comes to them in the midst of their fear and the first words out of his mouth are “Peace be with you.” This greeting is very important, and he repeats it three times in our lesson. In Hebrew, peace is “shalom” — and means “completeness, welfare, health.” It is a state in which everything is as it should be. In Greek, peace is “eirene” – which in this case means, “harmonized relationships between God and (humanity).”
Jesus comes into the midst of these most “un-harmonic” and incomplete folks and gives them the gift of being at peace with themselves and the world. This peace is a most mysterious thing, for it is not tied to nor dependent upon external circumstances; it is not linked to how well you’re doing in your job or how well you’re getting along with your family or how much money you have in your savings account or how well your retirement fund is doing in the stock market. It is a peace that descends upon our hearts and spirits as a gift from God.
This peace is at the core of our Christian worship. The first three prayers of the Kyrie start with “in peace . . .,” between the prayers and the Communion, we pass the peace. In the post-Communion canticle we sing, “Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace . . .” We are blessed with the words, “The Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace” and dismissed to “Go in peace.” What are we, a bunch of baby boomer, old hippies? No. It is vital that we understand the source of the peace that we are praying in and passing around and singing about. It is not our peace, not our love, not our goodwill, not our friendliness, not our serenity; in those moments we are sharing with one another the peace that Christ has given to us; that only God can give.
After Jesus comforted the disciples, after he calmed their fears with his peace, Jesus gave these directionless people a reason to keep on going, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” Jesus knows that they think that the mission has ended with his death, but he proclaims to them that it has only just begun. Jesus comes to this disheartened and directionless group and gives them a reason for living. He defines for them a purpose, lays out for them their future, puts in front of them their mission. When Jesus shows them his wounds, it is not just a way of identifying himself, not just a way of proving to them that it really is him. No! In showing them his wounds, his scars, Jesus is telling them who they are, and what they are to do.
Suddenly, things he said begin to make sense — things like “take up your cross” and “losing one’s life for the gospel.” Things that seemed so peculiar when he said them begin to shout out their meaning as the disciples stare at his wounds. “Now I get it,” they think. “Now I understand. We are called to serve the world, to live for the world, to die for the world if necessary, because that’s what Jesus did.”
And then he gave them the best gift of all. He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” God provides what is needed to fulfill God’s purposes. That is not the same thing as saying God gives us power. God works through our sometimes feeble efforts to accomplish God’s will in the world. This is shown to us in Christ on the cross, which was not an exercise of power but rather a demonstration of humility and obedience and faith. God’s promise is to fill us with the Holy Spirit, to provide for us that which we need to do what we are called to do.
Look at Peter. On Good Friday we read about how Peter fearfully denied Jesus three times, scared to death of a serving girl. In today’s lesson from Acts we see Peter preaching on the streets of Jerusalem, afraid of no one.
Look at the disciples, huddled behind closed doors. Tradition says that of the 12 disciples who became known as the Apostles, the “Sent Ones,” only one died a natural death. The rest went to the four corners of the known world, preaching the gospel and were tortured and executed for their efforts.
What made the difference? What changed them? The Risen Christ breathed on them the Holy Spirit, provided them with the faith and courage to live a life devoted to God’s will and way in the world.
The Risen Christ comes to us today. Comes into our locked rooms filled with fear and confusion, comes to us with the same words and promises he had for the disciples. Jesus comes and calms our fears with God’s peace. Jesus comes and channels our lives to follow God’s purpose. Jesus comes and breathes into our lives the very Spirit of God.
Amen and amen.
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.