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Let the Spirit Set You Free
LET THE SPIRIT SET YOU FREE
19 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 Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
This Sunday is the high holiday of the Christian church. Our faith hangs on the resurrection but when asked what it means in our ordinary lives, silence and/or formulaic, catechetical responses are likely to fill the room. It is difficult to make sense of an empty tomb or a Jesus that seems to pop in and out of rooms but it is a quandary we must struggle with if we are ever to experience the transformations that the gospel promises. Amid the joy, the soaring hymns and the greetings “He is Risen”—”He is Risen indeed”, it is easy to forget that the first Easter was filled with confusion, fear and uncertainty.
The disciples shared the same dilemma. Look at the range of reactions in the narrative. Read John 20. Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb and finds it empty. No Jesus. The most reasonable assumption is that the body has been moved or stolen. She runs for help and two of the disciples run to the grave. They too see an empty grave—that they could believe but “ for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” The disciples had no clue what any of this might mean spiritually, they could only see and understand through the lens of what they knew. The body was missing. There was no excitement. They simply return to their homes and shortly thereafter, we find them huddled and afraid. There was no reason to think that the same fate did not await them.
Meanwhile, Mary has lingered at the tomb and starts speaking with a stranger. It is Jesus but she does not recognize him. She thinks he’s the gardener. Something else has to happen to allow her to see beyond her expectations. Her main concern is recovering the body. Though she is speaking directly to Jesus, she does not recognize him until he calls her name. It is in that remembrance of the personal and the concrete—the relationship they shared—that Mary recognizes Jesus as her Rabbouni—her teacher. Now there is excitement.
Mary returns and tells the disciples she has seen the Lord but again they cannot make the connection that would allow them to understand what Jesus had been trying to teach them these last three years. Their behavior reveals they don’t really believe Mary. The disciples have locked themselves in a room. They are afraid. They were grieving and they certainly did not want the same fate as their friend and teacher. But, then, in the middle of all of that anxiety, Jesus appears. But is it really him? Jesus announces himself—”Peace be with you.” That’s not enough. He shows them his wounds. They needed a concrete connection between the world they knew and the world Jesus promised. Finally the disciples make the connection and ”… the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”
All of us need those connections. A common theme in the appearance stories is that Jesus goes unrecognized until these connections are made—when Mary’s name is called, she remembers, when Jesus breaks bread on the road to Emmaus, the disciples are finally able to see him, when the disciples could see his wounds, they could recognize Jesus and see him in entirely new ways.
I describe this sequence because it took a lot for even his closest followers to recognize Jesus. (FYI—The same process is repeated with Thomas—the disciples do not believe Mary and Thomas does not believe the disciples.) It turns out that personal testimonies were (and are) not sufficient. It takes a lot for us to see new possibilities—-much less the peace that God gives to us. It required something beyond what we see and hear in order to see and hear more deeply. In Jesus’ words, ““Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.
These are the stories of our faith but if they are only about the first century, they are ‘there and then’. Unless we make the connections in our own lives, no matter how many times we are told them, we will be like the disciples running around looking for dead bodies.
In our Faith in Real Life groups, I asked the when had they been behind closed doors, locked in and afraid. I asked when, how and if, they had recognized Jesus. Here are two of several. Linda Huffine told us that when her mother died, there were several days between the service and the interment. As she was awaking on the morning of the internment, it hit her that she would never see her mother again. As the tears came, she remembered herself as a young girl. She would have terrible nightmares and one night she had imagined that there was a large black spider in her room. If she moved or cried out, the spider would bite her and she would die. As a little girl, she was alone and terrified. She stayed frozen in her bed and cried herself to sleep. Now decades later, her tears as a grown woman overlapped with her tears as a young child. But this time, she heard a voice saying: “I was with you then and I am with you now.” Those words were a great comfort then—and remain so now. For the purpose of this blog, she recognized that fear, loneliness and terror were part of her life—and that there was a way through it. In Christian language, we are unlikely to see that dual truth unless we have seen the hands and feet of Jesus and made the connection.
I asked the same question of my Wednesday group and the discussion moved to music and the way it communicates beyond words. We spoke of the closing hymn we sing each Easter with the chorus; “And I will raise you up, I will raise you up.” Betty Cousar described the first time she heard that hymn. Her husband had died and her son had cancer. That hymn had her in tears and rushing out of the church. She went to Charlie’s grave and had her first big cry—after which she went to an Easter brunch. Both of these women were sustained in times of isolation and pain. Both found ways to move forward in the world and both would probably say, “I just did what I had to.” But that understates the faith claim each of them lived.
Our lives are filled with danger. All life is. Our bodies and our relationships are fragile. We can hold on to neither. God knows that about us and said “Do not be afraid—Peace be with you.” Look at me. I know what it is to be wounded and vulnerable. Love does not end. God’s peace is not of this world and it passes human understanding. He sends us out as he was sent. The same enemies and fears were present when the disciples locked the doors and when they unlocked them. There is no escaping our vulnerability in the world. God’s peace includes and reconciles us to the whole of life—even when it includes loss, hardship, despair, anxiety and fear. It includes the times we need a closed room and includes the times we live terrified of dangerous spiders, times we have lost people and vitality. God Peace does not end—even when we do not want to leave our beds, times we are tired of being a spouse or a parent and times we feel separated from our God. There is no time that the Spirit is not with us reminding us that we are not alone and calling us to the life that lasts and the life that matters.
This is the promise of our faith. It is in seeing those connections each Easter that we can recognize Jesus in the face of strangers, in the breaking of bread at an ordinary meal, in the relationships that sustain us.
LET THE SPIRIT SET YOU FREE. LET IT BE SO.
A small postscript, the title of this blog came to me as I listened to Monday’s Holy Ground devotional. (You can find them on YouTube. Search for Decatur Presbyterian church and look for the Holy Ground devotionals). Drew Wilmesherr sings a hymn that hung in my brain. When I heard these lyrics—- By the Father’s good degree, Jesus, you delivered me, by your spirit set me free to follow you.” —I knew I had the title for the blog I had been working on. Thank you, Drew and thank you for the Spirit that sustains my life.