"Fear, Courage, and Transformation"
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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
April 28, 2019 at 10:30 AM
Central Passage
Revelation 1:4-8
Easter 2C

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: April 28, 2019 – Easter 2C

Acts 5:27-32; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31


Fear, Courage, and Transformation


              A group of people hide in a locked room, fearful of the authorities. This is how our reading from John’s Gospel begins today. And for the last several years, I’ve had fun using the disciples as a homiletical foil. Those stupid disciples! Didn’t they have any faith?! Jesus had told them in John 14 that he would go to prepare a place for them. He warned them that they could not follow him on the path to the cross – at least, not at that time. And finally, after his death, he appeared among them in that locked room, showing them the scars in his hands and feet, and breathing the Holy Spirit on them, the same breath that animated the first human. Despite all these graces, they remained behind those locked doors the very next week! Tsk tsk!


              It’s so easy for me, a member of several privileged groups in the United States, to say that. I’m of western European descent, able to trace my genealogy back to Johannes and Anna Flinner, who arrived in the port of Philadelphia in the 1750s. My family has been in this country since before its founding. We’re not recent immigrants. We all identify as some kind of non-Catholic Christian. We’re middle to upper-middle class economically. We’re well-educated – college education in my family goes back to my maternal great-grandfather, at least. I’m attracted to people of the opposite gender, identify as the sex I was born with, in a stable, happy marriage, and am expecting a child soon. I have good health insurance, access to excellent medical care, a passport, and a driver’s license. No one is harassing me for my religion, race, creed, economic status, marital status, gender identity, or sexual orientation. How easy it is for me to criticize the disciples for their fear when I have never experienced fear and hate they did.


              Other Jews, like these disciples, have endured this hate for thousands of years. Jews hid behind locked doors when Western Christian armies took a break from killing Muslims and Eastern Christians during the Crusades to kill Jews.[1] Jews hid behind locked doors from western Europe to the Soviet Union the first half of the 20th century, especially under the Nazi regime. Jews have hidden behind locked doors even in our United States, that bastion of freedom of speech, religion, and assembly. That hatred erupted again yesterday at a synagogue in southern California, where an emboldened anti-Semite and white supremacist murdered one person and injured three others on the last day of Passover, six months after a mass murder at a Pittsburgh synagogue that killed eleven people. This explosion of hate has been on the rise for a while now. In a report released last fall, the FBI documented a 37% increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes from 2016 to 2017.[2]


              It must be terrifying to be part of a group that is scapegoated for everything. A group that is easy to hate. A group like those early members of the Jesus movement, mostly Jews, who spread throughout the Mediterranean.


              That is the context for much of our New Testament, after all. They are stories and letters from a persecuted people. And even though much of the persecution of the New Testament church comes from Jewish authorities and leaders in the Temple, remember that those authorities, too, were themselves subject to persecution and terror from the Empire. The message the Jewish leadership constantly got from the Empire was, “Keep your people in line or we will destroy everything.” And eventually, they did. In the year 70, approximately 40 years after the ministry of Jesus, Roman armies would turn Jerusalem into a heap of rubble. The Temple, the place where heaven and earth met, obliterated. Little wonder that Caiaphas prophesies that it is better that one man die than the whole nation perish. Little wonder they wanted Peter and John to shut up. They all were part of that hated group. That scapegoated group.


              What is remarkable is how that scapegoated, hated, humiliated, beaten-down, defamed, desecrated, decimated group survives. How both groups that emerge from 1st-century Judaism – rabbinic Judaism and the Jesus Movement – survive. How the grace of God shines in them. How their God-given faithfulness and courage in the face of hatred and persecution has passed the faith down to us. How we enjoy the fruits of that rich faith that they had and are given the tools to develop our own response to God’s grace.


              Think of what John writes to the seven churches in Revelation. Seven persecuted, hurting churches. He tells them that Jesus has made them into a kingdom, to be priests to God the Father forever. Jesus has already freed them from the power of sin – not just their sins but the sin that lays on the whole world like a crushing weight. Jesus has already ushered in the Kingdom of God in their communities. Jesus has already ordained them – leader and layperson alike – as priests with full access to God, able to offer God themselves as a living sacrifice. Jesus makes a despised people into a royal people. A holy people. A loved people.


              God extends that love even to people like us. People of the dominant culture. People who are more often than not aligned with the persecutors than the persecuted. God extends us that welcome. God gives us that great gift of being part of a holy, royal, priestly people. There’s only one caveat. We can’t bring our privilege into God’s kingdom. We can’t bring the ways we distinguish ourselves from other people. We can’t bring our tribalism, our politics, or even our religious identity into God’s kingdom. We can only bring ourselves, naked and unashamed, just as we are without one plea. We can only bring ourselves, open to God’s saving, transformative work in us and in others not like us. And when we bring only ourselves in response to God’s grace, something remarkable happens. God buries us with Christ in baptism and raises us with him every day as a new creation. The courage of Christ becomes our courage. Look at what happens to Peter and John. Peter, the one who denies Jesus three times, and John, the one who desired power and glory, are transformed into bold yet gentle, truth-telling messengers of the good news of Jesus, which is the story of God’s love and forgiveness for all people.


              The Holy Spirit’s renewing work did not happen overnight for the apostles. It took a while for them to grow in wisdom, courage, and love, even after Jesus was raised. And it does not work overnight for us, either. It takes us our whole lives to learn to live as Christ would have us live, to walk in love as Christ loved us. But this is certain and sure. We will be changed. We will be made new people – both now and fully at the resurrection. It may take a while. The world is a frightening place, to be sure. But Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever, is utterly faithful and will not let us go.


              Let us pray.


              Lord Jesus, help us to bring only ourselves to you, trusting that you have made us part of your holy people. Put away the ways we evaluate the worth of ourselves and others. Help us empathize and stand with those who are the targets of hatred in our community, country, and world. And most of all, help us to be grateful for freeing us from sin’s power to be part of your kingdom. Amen.


© 2019, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.