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.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 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; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
He boarded the plain, a well dressed 6 foot 8, and hoped for an emergency exit row in which he could stretch out his already too long legs. He was a pastor and professor of theology, and was returning from a conference on the other side of the country and was looking forward to going home.
He loaded his carryon above his head, sighed at the normal sized seat, and reluctantly squeezed himself in. And, of course, on this small plane with only two seat on each side, a man equally as large lumbered down the aisle and sat down right next to him.
The two men fumbled over one another and conversation, as it always does on planes, began awkwardly.
The second man began, “So, what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a preacher.” And just as soon as the words were out of his mouth, his seat partner declared, a little too loudly, “I’m not a believer!”
“That’s fine,” he replied, “Frankly, it doesn’t make much of a difference – Jesus has already gone and done it all for you whether you like it or not.”
The preacher kept his mouth shut after that, and thought about catching some Zs as they made their way to cruising altitude, but the other man started talking. First it was just the usual flying next to a stranger chit chat, but then it turned serious, the man started talking about Vietnam.
He’d been an infantryman, fought in all the awful battles, and now tried to pretend like it never happened.
The man went on and on, talked the entire flight from coast to coast, describing all the terrible things he did for his country and how, when he came back, his country didn’t want him to talk about it. Eventually, he said, “I’ve had a terrible time living with it, living with myself.”
And then the preacher leaned over and said, “Have you confessed all the sins that have been troubling you?”
“What do you mean confessed?! I ain’t confessing!”
“Sure you are, it’s what you’ve been doing the whole flight. And I’ve been commanded by Jesus, that whenever I hear a confession like yours, to hand over the goods and speak a particular word. So, if you have any more burdening you, nows the time to hand them over.”
The man said, “I’m done. That’s the lot of em.”
And suddenly he grabbed the preacher, grabbed him hard like he was about to fall out of the plan and said, “But, I told you – I’m not a believer. I don’t have any faith in me.”
The preacher unbuckled his seat belt and stood up over the man in the sear and declared, “Well, that’s no matter. Jesus says it’s what inside of us that’s wrong with the world. Nobody really has faith inside them – faith alone saves us because it comes from outside of us, from one creature to another. And I’m going to speak faith into you.”
The fasten seat belt sign binged from above and the closest steward came over and ordered the preacher to sit down. But he ignored the command, and instead he placed his hands on the man next to him and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins!”
“But, you can’t do that,” the man whispered.
“Oh yes I did, and I must, and I’ll keep doing it over and over again.”
And he did. Only this time he said it louder, loud enough for the whole plane to hear, and the man became a puddle of tears and wept all over himself like a child.
The steward and everyone else on the plane were silent, reverent even, knowing that something strange and holy was happening.
After the plane landed, the man leaned over the preacher and asked to be absolved one more time, as if he couldn’t get enough of the good news, so that preacher did it one more time and the man started to laugh.
He said, “Hell, if what you said it true, then it’s the best news I’ve ever heard. I just can’t believe it. It’s too good to be true. It would take a miracle for me to believe something so crazy good.”
And the preacher laughed too, and said, “Yep, it takes a miracle for all of us. It takes a miracle for every last one of us.”
I’ve told that story from this pulpit before. It bears repeating, like all good stories, because it’s just so good.
Notice, the preacher didn’t just sit back and merely listen to the other man. He didn’t fill the voids of silence with trite drivel like, “I feel your pain,” or, “I know what you’re going through.” The preacher didn’t minimize the badness with talk of duty and responsibility. He didn’t deflect away or even change the subject.
Instead he offered absolution.
He gave the man the Gospel.
On the evening of the first Easter, the disciples were hiding and cowering behind locked doors in the upper room.
For years Jesus had prepared them for this most momentous occasion and it, apparently, didn’t make a beans worth of a difference.
They betrayed him.
They abandoned him.
They denied him.
Consider these would-be disciples. Terrified and alone. Apparently they didn’t really believe Jesus would do all that he said he would do. I mean, he only predicted his passion and resurrection three different times. He only told them parables about the upturning of the cosmos ever chance he got. He only promised that this is exactly what would happen.
And yet, today, whenever we think of the disciples, if we do at all, we usually imagine them as the paragons of morality, faith, and virtue. We see them as those who were willing to leave it all behind to follow Jesus. But here, in this story, they’ve left everything, namely Jesus, behind just to shake in terror.
The disciples are not the perfect Christians we often imagine them to be.
They are, in fact, just like us.
Sinners without a hope in the world, unless the hope of the world comes back from the dead.
And it’s to these fools, these faithless so-called followers, that the risen Christ first appeared on Easter evening!
And not only just Jesus encounter them, he made his way throughout locked doors to find them! He breathed upon them. He commissioned them to get out and to share the Good News.
You and me and everybody else, we are constantly falling short of Jesus’ hopes and expectations. We lock our doors, we turn our gaze away, we put up walls of separation, and Jesus keeps showing up! Walking through our doors, redirecting our attention, and toppling down our walls.
This story of Jesus appear to the disciples falls of the 2nd Sunday of Easter every single year, if we follow the lectionary. It’s like God wants to remind us over and over again right here, just on the other side of the resurrection, that Jesus ain’t done with us yet and we’ve got a job to do.
Jesus is going to get through whatever barriers and locked doors and walls we’ve erected.
Jesus is going to keep showing up to offer us words of grace even when we know we don’t deserve them.
Jesus is going to appear to the sinners and the doubters and everyone in between because that’s what Jesus does.
The beauty of the gospel is that Jesus never ever shied away from sinners and doubters. Even though, in the church, we often ostracize those very people to the margins of the community. Jesus does his best work, frankly his only work, with the kind of people hiding in the upper room.
Listen – Jesus rewrote and reknit the fabric of reality and then told a bunch of losers to spread the word.
I don’t know about you, but that gives me hope. For, it means that even on my worst days, Jesus is still for me. It means that even in the midst of my sins and my questions, Jesus has a word to share. It means that nothing, not life, death, nor angels, rulers, things present, things to come, powers, nor anything else in all creation will ever be able to separate me, you, and anyone else from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The world is going down the drain, but we’ve got a Savior who works at the bottom of the drain and he’s the only one who can do anything about it.
And what is the anything our savior does?
He forgives the abandoning, denying, and betraying disciples.
He forgives you.
Life after Easter is defined and made possible by Christ’s rather reckless forgiveness. It is reckless because it runs counter to how we believe the world is supposed to work – namely an eye for an eye. The problem with “an eye for an eye” is that it leaves everyone blind.
Jesus, however, offers a bewildering alternative – a life of mercy, peace, and forgiveness.
Whenever we read about life after Easter, those days between the empty tomb and the Ascension, we tend to focus on the disciples and their reactions. Which means we usually do so at the expense of sitting in the strange news that Jesus is raised from the dead only to return to the people who deserve him the least.
Jesus chooses the unworthy ragtag group of would-be disciples that he’d been dragging around for three years as the people through whom he would changed the world.
On Easter, Jesus returns not to the powers that be, but to people like you and me.
And notice: Jesus’ response to the sins of his followers isn’t to berate them, or judge them, or even damn them. He offers them peace, and commands them to do the same for others.
When you think about it, it’s rather confounding how God keeps coming back to us.
Stuck in captivity in Egypt? God shows up in a burning bush.
Lost in exile? God brings the people home.
Dead in sins? God sets us free.
The preacher from the airplane absolution walked through the airport with his seat partner after their holy experience. And right before they made for an awkward goodbye, the preacher handed his card over to the man and said, “You’re likely not going to believe your forgiveness tomorrow or the next day or even next week. When you stop having faith in it, call me and I’ll bear witness to you all over again and I’ll keep doing it until you do trust it.”
The next day the man called the preacher, and he kept calling the preacher every day thereafter just to hear the Gospel. In fact, he called the preacher once a day until the day he died. When later asked why he kept answering the phone, the preacher said, “I wanted the last words he heard in this life to be the first words he would hear from Jesus in the next.”
Hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven.
Believe it or not, it’s true, and Jesus is going to keep showing up to remind you. Amen.