Who God Is; Who We Are Called to Be

John 20:19-23


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 them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.

Who God Is; Who We Are Called to Be


Just days Just days after Jesus’s death, his closest followers might as well have been on a deserted island. Overwhelmed by grief and fear, they had holed up inside a house and locked all the doors. They were confused, afraid, and pretty sure that choosing to follow Jesus had been a colossal mistake.

It is hard to imagine just how devastated the disciples felt. After all, just one week before they were riding high on Jesus’s power and fame – coming into Jerusalem to shouting, adoring crowds, visiting the temple where Jesus drove out the merchants, celebrating a Passover meal together. And then, with shocking speed, it happened: the betrayal, the arrest, the trial (such as it was), the crucifixion. Just like that, Jesus was dead and it was all over.

Change has a way of hitting us like that, even when we see it coming from a long way off. Maybe it’s the death of a loved one after a long, slow decline, maybe it’s the kids growing up and leaving home, maybe it’s the end of college or the end of a relationship, maybe it’s change in the culture or change in the church. The truth is, for most of us, it doesn’t matter if we know it’s coming: change leaves us feeling disoriented and afraid.

Years ago, the office supply store Staples came out with an ad campaign that featured a big red button with the word “easy” on it. A series of commercials showed people at work getting stressed out when they discovered they were out of some crucial item – usually printer ink and someone else in the office would simply press the “easy” button and voila! a quick trip to Staples solved the problem.

Those commercials got me wishing that I had a “pause” button. I don’t expect life to be easy, but I sure could use a little more time to process and figure out how to handle what life throws my way.  For me, it’s usually a parenting situation when I wish I could press pause, but there are plenty of other times as well. If we could just pause to grieve when sadness overtakes us, pause to rest when we’re tired and overwhelmed, pause to pray or think or call a friend before we have to respond to the latest crisis at work or at home or in the world.

Hitting pause is what the disciples were trying to do when they locked themselves in that house. They needed time to process and think and determine what to do next, now that Jesus was gone. But in the midst of the pause, Jesus appears – never mind the locked doors! Jesus shows up and he comes bearing three GIFTS: peace and the Holy Spirit and the power of forgiveness.

Nearly four years ago, when I was just on the cusp of being called as your pastor, Walter Brueggemann preached here on a Sunday which had been set aside to celebrate and bid farewell to the senior pastor Bert Campbell. The passage on which Brueggemann preached was this same passage we heard today. In that sermon, Brueggemann reminded this congregation that the gifts Jesus gave to his disciples are gifts sorely needed by a church about to head into a time of transition: the gift of peace, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the gift of forgiveness. The sermon was titled, “Take a Deep Breath,” a reference to the fact that in Greek, the word for breath and spirit are the same. Brueggemann observed that a time of transition is a good time to take some deep breaths. And for the last four years, as a church, you have done a lot of deep breathing. You’ve examined and evaluated internal structures and made adjustments to account for changing demographics and numbers; you’ve learned to work with new members and new staff who have all kinds of new ideas; you’ve listened for how God is calling you into a whole new future that builds on the best of the past. As a church, we have made good use of the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of the breath, and now the time has come to receive (and share) another gift the resurrected Jesus gave those first disciples and, by extension, each one of us – the power of forgiveness.

Again and again during their time with Jesus, the disciples witness Jesus’ power to forgive. It was primarily through forgiveness that Jesus let all kinds of people know there is nothing they could do or leave undone that could change or diminish God’s love for them.  In John’s gospel, forgiveness is rarely about moral or behavioral transgression; sin is the failure to see the presence of God in the world, the failure to receive God’s great gifts of mercy and love, so forgiveness is to help another see and experience God among us, just as Jesus did.

Today, as we continue to consider the Beatitudes, we reflect on Jesus’s promise that the merciful shall receive mercy, and the pure in heart shall see God. And to truly SEE God is to discover the depth and breadth of God’s mercy, which is poured out on us (and others) no matter what, because mercy is, quite simply, WHO GOD IS. To receive God’s mercy is to have our sight transformed.

Philosopher Eknath Easwaran describes that transformation this way, “When the distorting instrument of the mind is made clear, we see life not as a collection of fragments, but as a seamless whole. We see the divine spark at the center of our very being; and we see simultaneously that in the heart of every other human being in every country, in every race though hidden perhaps by clouds of ignorance and conditioning, that same spark is present, one and the same in all.”[1]

Receiving God’s mercy is what allows us to see in this way. And when we see that divine spark in every human being, we become bearers of God’s forgiveness to a world that desperately needs it.

“Ponder this,” Brueggemann preached to this community four years ago, “You are sent to forgive. You are sent to be a cottage industry in forgiveness. It is the church’s primary assignment from the Easter Christ to forgive…” He continued, “We live in a score-keeping society that would rather get even than to forgive or be forgiven. So I can imagine that in the landscape of this community, like every community, there are factions and sects and parties and lobbies that endlessly collide where nothing is ever forgotten or forgiven.”[2]

Our world is absolutely starving for forgiveness and the church is our place to practice giving and receiving it. Make no mistake about it, forgiveness is a radical attribute in a world that is really, really good at creating and maintaining factions and divisions. Forgiveness is radical, it is counter-cultural, and practicing it with one another is really hard work. But forgiveness is also the church’s most precious gift and sharing it is the church’s most important calling.

The Reverend Amy Butler is the senior pastor at Riverside Church in New York City, the seventh senior minister to preach from that pulpit, and the first woman. In a recent interview, she was asked how her childhood in Hawaii shaped her as a church leader. She responded that growing up on an island with a dad who was a community organizer taught her a lot about how to build and lead a community. “Think about it,” she said, “when you live on an island, you have to learn to get along, or you’re all going to die.”[3]

From the very beginning, the church has been a kind of island. It has been a place where people – all kinds of people – come together to form a community where everyone has a place at the table, where people have to learn to get along or the whole thing falls apart.

Our church’s future, like every church’s future, is directly related to our capacity and willingness to give and receive mercy, to see one another clearly, to communicate with respect and honesty, and to ensure each person has a place at this table. Amy Butler is right – if the church doesn’t do this, it will die.

Will Campbell is a Baptist minister, a civil rights pioneer, and author of the book, Brother to a Dragonfly. In that book, he recounts a time in the late 1960’s when he was to be a speaker at a conference of the young New Left radicals of that time.

Before he spoke, the conference viewed a documentary called “The Ku Klux Klan—An Invisible Empire” which showed such horrors as the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi the castration of a judge in Alabama, and the murders of four little girls in a Sunday School class in Birmingham.

The film took the viewer inside a Georgia Klan Klavern hall where an initiation ceremony was in progress. At one point the candidates were lined up in military formation and the command, “left face” was shouted. One scared and pathetic figure turned right instead, bringing confusion to the formation and eliciting jeers, catcalls, and raucous laughter from the conference audience viewing the film.

Campbell remembers: “I felt a sickening in my stomach. Those viewing the film were alleged to be on the cutting edge of social change black and white, women and men who had been taking over campuses in recent months.

“They used words like “establishment” as if it were poison. Who were they beyond that? Most of them were from middle and upper-class families. They were students or recent graduates of rich and leading universities and colleges.

“They were mean and tough but somehow I sense that there wasn’t a radical in the bunch. “For if they were radical, how could they laugh at a poor, ignorant farmer who didn’t know his left hand from his right? “If they had been radical, they would have been weeping asking what had produced him.”

After the film, it came time for Campbell’s speech, and then he was to lead a discussion on the film. So, he stood up and said: “My name is Will Campbell. I’m a Baptist minister. I’m a native of Mississippi. And I’m pro-Klansman because I’m pro-human being. Now, that’s my speech. If anyone has any questions, I will be glad to try to answer them.”

Well, the last sentence wasn’t out of his mouth before pandemonium broke out. Blacks and whites were shouting at Campbell and storming from the hall. Campbell noted it was one of the few times he felt fearful of bodily harm.

Finally, just a few people remained in the audience. Campbell writes: “It took time to get my little band of radicals settled down enough to point out to them that just four words uttered ‘pro-Klansman, Mississippi Baptist preacher’ coupled with one visual image:  white had turned them into everything they thought the KKK to be: hostile, frustrated, angry, violent, and irrational.

“And I was never able to explain to them that pro-klansman is NOT the same as pro-Klan. That the former has to do with a person, while the other with an ideology.”[4]

With the Beatitudes, Jesus invites us to a whole new way of seeing, a whole new way of understanding who God is and who God calls us to be. With the church, God gives us all kinds of opportunities to use that new sight, to draw on the Holy Spirit and practice the power to give and receive forgiveness, to come together with all of our differences and disagreements and nevertheless be a community that proclaims that the unconditional love of God is for ALL.

So: take a deep breath. Breathe in the Spirit, breathe in God’s mercy, breathe in the love that surrounds and sustains us. And then: breathe it out that the world may see and know the radical power of God’s redeeming love, which we are sent to share.



Prayer of Thanksgiving, Intercession, and Petition

Life-giving God, We give you thanks for all the ways you come to us despite the strong and solid doors we lock to protect ourselves and to shut out the world. Come to us now, with words of peace and forgiveness: come to us today. In government rooms where politicians meet In boardrooms where executives plan, In courtrooms where lawyers debate, in surgical suites where doctors operate, Come with words of peace. Come to your people wherever we are: In hospital rooms where we are waiting, in prison cells where we are afraid, in homes where we are struggling to make ends meet and to keep our children safe and healthy, in churches where we long to encounter you, Come with words of peace and forgiveness. Come to us whenever we are afraid and whenever we are grieving

Come to us now as we pray for those we care for and are worried about for Judy, Akeya, Marlene, Mollie, Chick, Dee, Shaun, Liz, Ward, Sue, Liam, Emilee, Louise, Gabriel, Greg, and Connie. We pray for Joaquin and all those grieving Bob’s death. Grant those who grieve an overflowing measure of comfort. Come to us and to each of them with words of peace and forgiveness, that we may all see you clearly. God, you call us to be people of faith, yet we are often overcome with doubt. We doubt that love can grow again in relationships where anger and bitterness reign supreme. You know the strength of love and the power of prayer: help us to be love and to pray without ceasing. We doubt that peace can come to the Middle East, to Syria, to Palestine; to all the places where hatred and racism reign supreme.

You know that peace is growing there: help us to be faithful peacemakers.

We doubt that the devastation of gun violence can ever by curbed in our country: as we hear the bell toll, may we be filled with renewed determination to work for peace and justice, that the victims of this epidemic may not have died in vain.

We doubt that the hungry can be fed in all the places in our city and in our world where there is not enough and where despair and hopelessness reign supreme.

You know that there are enough resources for all people to be filled in mind, body, and spirit; help us to be generous and faithful.

This morning we pray for all those here who are filled with doubts,
who wonder whether you exist and whether you are listening to our prayers,
who wonder what this whole community is about and why it matters.

We pray for people who doubt the purpose of life, who wonder whether to end it all, who face feelings of meaningless and despair. Help us to see those who are struggling and to risk reaching out and saying: me too. I know your pain. I see you so that they might know your presence and love. Lord, we want to believe, help our unbelief! Give us faith, small as a mustard seed, so that we can be your faithful people. Breathe your Spirit into us once more, For you have overcome evil, and by the power of your love, wicked plots fail, and the cruelty of the world comes to nothing, and the betrayal and denial of friends does not prevail.

Renew us in the power of your Spirit that we may open our doors and go out into the world to bring words of peace of forgiveness to the people we meet, that in our words and actions, they may indeed see you. Renew us in the power of your Spirit that we may have life in your name and go wherever you send us.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.






[1] Quoted in Richard Rohr’s daily devotional on Monday, February 5, 2018.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, “Take a Deep Breath,” preached at the Church of the Covenant on April 29, 2014.

[3] Interview with Amy Butler on the podcast “Can These Bones: A Faith and Leadership Podcast,” January 12, 2018.

[4]Brother to a Dragonfly, Will D. Campbell, Continuum Press, 1977, pp. 243-244.


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