A Sermon for Low Sunday

Random Thoughts

Some of you have already reported to me that this year, Holy Week and Easter at St Martin’s had special quality. No doubt this has much to do with Fr Bill+, whose reputation for liturgical sensitivity is well earned. I also want to say how appreciative I am Bill+, for your generous invitation to me to be the preacher today.

Today is known as Low Sunday. It seems no one really knows anymore why the Sunday after Easter bears this enigmatic descriptor. At least Low Sunday is marginally better than Quasimodogeniti, which was the name for this Sunday in the old Latin Rite, deriving from the opening words of the introit As newborn babes, desire the rational milk without guile. There is a suggestion that the name derives from an early custom of the newly baptized, having worn their baptismal albs all week, today enjoying a much-needed change of clothes.

This Sunday is also known as Doubting Thomas Sunday. In churches up and down the land preachers will be addressing the imagined polarization of doubt and faith. Thomas, depending on your theology emerges as a personification of the evils or the virtues of doubting. Episcopalians tend towards Thomas as a kind of everyman, a personification of the virtue of doubt. For us the seeds of faith are sown in the fields of doubt.

Psychologically, I have always felt that the name Low reflects a very necessary ebbing of energy following the energetic highs of Holy Week and Easter. The Sunday after Easter has always been for me a time for some well-earned and very needed recuperation. Except that this year, Low Sunday is the occasion for meeting a new congregation – not a time for me to luxuriate in lethargy. 

Conversing with the Text

Part I   When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the [Temple authorities and their henchmen]… .[1]

So this is how it begins. The disciples of Jesus – dis-spirited – hiding themselves away – utterly exhausted and confounded by the events of the last week – exhausted beyond imagining – but the worst kind of exhaustion – the kind that also is accompanied by an agitated state of heightened anxiety. So this is how it all begins. Yet, it wasn’t meant to be this way!

Until Thursday night when it became clear to them that events were taking an unexpected turn for the worst – until then they had felt on the crest of something so huge. For months they had had this sense of growing momentum, of expectation that the world as they knew it was about to dramatically change. After all, were they not the Messiah’s inner circle?

For months now, Jesus had been showing them that he meant business. Ever since they had left Galilee it had been one amazing event after another. There was even that strange event with the woman at the well, in Samaria of all places. Then there was the amazing confrontation with the Pharisees over Jesus’ healing of the man blind from birth, which had both frightened them, and yet convinced them that Jesus, was unstoppable. Then only a week ago had Jesus not demonstrated his messiah-ship beyond doubt by raising Lazarus from the dead? Jesus was definitely the one who was about to spear-head a volte face, a turn-about-face, not only in their personal fortunes, but the fortunes of the whole Jewish nation. Jesus the Messiah – the promised-one – about which the prophets had spoken – the one who had finally come to set things right.

How had it come to this? If only Jesus had somehow not overplayed his hand with the Temple Priests. If only he had taken the way out that the governor had been trying to offer him. If only he had not confronted the authorities, a confrontation that had so terrified them and scattered in all directions. Even Peter, whom they all looked up to, their rock, had denied the Lord in the end, just as Jesus had said he would.

But what were they to do? Jesus had pushed it too far! He had miscalculated and this had cost them all dearly. First the death – that shameful death that now stigmatized all of them -the stigma of their leader’s death by crucifixion – as if Jesus was a criminal. Oh the shame of it all – shame as well as- as well as the loss, the grief, and of course their own guilt.

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The resurrection was a complex experience for the disciples. It’s easy to relate to their experience of bewildering loss and disillusionment. We can even relate to their fear of being persecuted by the forces that put Jesus to death. I think it’s harder though, for us to recognize the effects of shame and guilt in play within them at the end of Easter Day. There is the guilt of having failed Jesus, denying and deserting him at his eleventh hour.

Yet, I imagine it’s the shame that is most crippling. The disciples were ashamed of the way Jesus had died. How could the Messiah have been put to death on a cross? Even more problematic, how could someone who died such a publically, shameful death, be resurrected?

The disciples had seen Jesus die. They had witnessed his burial and now the worrying mystery of the tomb being empty simply adds to their sense of terror and confusion. It’s true that Mary Magdalene had reported her enigmatic experience of the risen Christ earlier in the day. Yet how can the men credit with any authority the witness of a mere woman?

The disciples behave as human beings behave in the face of overwhelming, and conflicting emotion. Secluded behind doors of wood and walls of plaster they seek that feeling of safety amidst a hostile, external world. Yet, the doors of wood and walls of plaster are emblematic of the impenetrable walls and doors within their minds. These, they have erected to shield themselves from the tsunami of conflicting emotion. Within them feelings of grief, fear, disillusionment, guilt, and shame vie for self-accusatory, ascendancy.

Part II    Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ He showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 

Locked away within the turmoil of conflicting emotions the disciples are not mentally ready to recognize Jesus. The old adage – the mind recognizes only what it is already looking for – applies here. They don’t expect to encounter Jesus because for them, he is dead. They don’t recognize him when he appears in their midst until he evokes a connection between his present transformed appearance and the wounds of his crucifixion. All the post resurrection appearances in both Luke and John operate on this pattern, either Jesus shows them his wounds or he breaks bread with them, only then do the disciples know him.

What we call memory results when chains of associations become linked together, build-up from the isolated impressions stored away in our minds. These linkages in the chain of associations that build memories become broken as a result of overwhelming emotion such as grief or shame, which can only be processed with time. What we can see in the post-resurrection appearances is Jesus repairing the associational links in the disciple’s memories, broken by the trauma they experienced on Good Friday. Through action – i.e. breaking bread, or showing his wounds, Jesus reconnects the broken links of associational impressions in the disciples minds. The result – they recognize him as he now appears – seemingly miraculously before them – connecting the post resurrection Jesus with the Jesus they remember.

Then they rejoice! Can you feel their sense of, ‘phew! Jesus isn’t rejecting us for our failures as disciples and friends, after-all.’ It is so crucial that we note here that Jesus does not seek out new and better disciples. He returns to those who have failed him. He breathes new life into them and sends them out to forgive sins.

Part III    Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

We are so familiar with Luke’s version of the descent of the Holy Spirit on Day of Pentecost that we tend to skate-over John’s less dramatic version of this event. Here in the locked room, Jesus forgives the disciples for their human limitations. He then, breathes the gift of the Holy Spirit into them empowering them to now go-out into the world to forgive sins.

Christians often, terribly misunderstand this passage. Jesus is not sending the disciples out to judge others. He is not commissioning them, as the Church has so often seen itself, as the arbiters between right and wrong. Jesus is not sending them out to judge the world. He is sending them out to extend their experience of having been forgiven by inviting others into the experience of forgiveness. 

Receiving this Text

Accepting forgiveness can be a complex process. Perhaps Jesus has this in mind when he tells the disciples that some sins will be retained. Human beings and human communities have a tendency to resist forgiveness. We cling to past hurts and grievances, refusing to forgive or be forgiven. Such retention of past sin harms us and harms our communities, impeding the creation of more creative associational links , i.e. more hopeful memories that are able to support new and better choices.

What we hear in this text is God’s invitation to know ourselves to be truly forgiven. When we so come to know ourselves, then how can we not invite others into that same experience, especially because as miserable failures, we human beings are only too aware of the harm that results when sin is retained.

John’s account of Jesus’ appearing to the disciples at the end of the first Easter Day helps us to frame a question about the future. I would like to suggest the over-riding question for us is and will continue to be: what kind of community are we dreaming of becoming? As your rector-elect, I seek only to frame the question. Together, we as the community of St Martin’s will begin to answer that question as we journey into the future.

However, what I feel I can do is to remind us of who we are. We are the heirs to the historic tradition of catholic and apostolic Christianity, physically situated on Orchard Avenue, in Wayland Park, in Providence, RI. More particularly, our historic catholic inheritance comes to us through the distinctive channel of over a thousand years of Anglican Tradition. This is a tradition of Christianity that understands that the function of being the Church is to exist for those who are not yet its members, and for those who may never come to see themselves as members of the Church. Our task is to witness to the presence of God, active in the world around us. We are to be what the Celts knew of as a thin place through which, the expectations of Kingdom of God permeate into the world around.

Like many Christian communities today facing the fearful uncertainties of a future yet to become known to us, we experience the temptation to retreat into a fearful self- preoccupation, like the disciples at the end of the first Easter Day. We are the Church. Our purpose is to attest to God’s work in the world. Each of us must be an extension of our community, reaching-out to others with whom we live and work and enjoy social connections in order to invite them into the community of the forgiven.

The importance of the right word

In his blog Listening Hermit, Peter Woods describing himself as a helpless digger into etymological meanings draws our attention to John’s use of the Greek word kleiso meaning closed, as in the doors were locked. He describes rolling the word around in his mouth as he tries to work out what the word associates-to, in his mind. Finally, it comes to him. Klesio is related to another more familiar Greek word, ecclesia. Where Klesio means closed, ecclesia means not closed.

It is important to note that ecclesia comes to be the word the first Christians adopted to refer to themselves as a community. The first Christians had come to see themselves as an open society, a society with open doors. This development, so soon after the death of Jesus sharply contrasts with John’s description of the disciples on the Day of Resurrection and following weeks. Jesus, at the end of Easter Day finds his disciples not only cowering behind closed doors, but locked away within closed minds.

At St Martin’s we are the Church – the Ecclesia – a community with open doors – a community of the forgiven extending God’s invitation of forgiveness into the world part of which involves the healing of our broken memories. This is the message of the resurrection. Let this Easter message give shape and content to our over-riding question: what kind of community are we dreaming of becoming? In some ways it’s less important to know the answer and more important to keep asking the question. Because its only when we ask such a question that we begin to participate with God in God’s dreaming us into becoming.

[1] It is regrettable that the English translators have not taken more care in giving the impression that John is hostile to all Jews. An anachronism describes the tendency to read back into history phenomena arising in later period. We need to understand that John, himself a Jew, leader in a completely Jewish Christian community is not suggesting that the disciples were afraid of Jews in general, but afraid of a specific group – the Temple religious authorities, who have already bribed the soldiers at the tomb to say that the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus. The fear John locates in the disciples is a fear of a persecutory religious authority structure that oppressed all classes of Jews. A tension with religious authority continues to be a live issue for John and his community. For while he writes after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD and it power structures, new tensions have emerged between the Christians and the synagogue authorities of his day. This is a doctrinal tension. For the Rabbis following the destruction of the Temple, John’s Christian Community is a dangerous heretical movement that threatens their attempts to reestablish Jewish religious cohesion around the synagogue and the practice of the Law. The Christians pose a danger for the Rabbinic Movement because many while, secretly worshipping in the church on first day of the week, continue to attend the synagogue on the Sabbath. It’s these overlapping boundaries of allegiance that pose the doctrinal tension. This doctrinal tension is quite different from the later emergence of the racial tension associated with anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is our issue not John’s. We have to deal with our guilt at the criminal complicity of the Church in the crime of anti-Semitism, and not read it back into the Gospels. For John and the other Christian writers the issue is their struggle with Jewish religious authority, it is not a hatred of all Jews

2 thoughts on “A Sermon for Low Sunday

  1. Thank you for such a beautiful sermon this morning; it really touched my heart and lifted my spirit. It’s great to be able to read it and reflect again.

    It was such a pleasure to meet you and chat with you on Saturday night. We on the Welcome Team are VERY excited about welcoming you to our quirky little state!

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