Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

April 7, 2024. Texts: Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 1:1 – 2:2; John 20:19-31.

Just before Easter, many years ago, a beloved church lady (feel free to make your own mental image here) came with an idea. She’d been to a friend’s church and seen their preparations for the resurrection of Jesus – Easter Sunday. She wondered if we would be open to a creative project. There wasn’t a lot of time but if we said yes, she would pull it together.

Her friend’s church was large, and put on a very good Easter show with wonderful music, dramatic lighting, and about an acre of blooming lilies inside. And outside, right next to the church entrance they had a life-sized reconstruction of the empty tomb. And this is what the beloved church lady was proposing to do for us. Make an empty tomb for Easter morning.

We said yes. If course we did. What could go wrong?

Early on Easter morning we came to the church prepared to be amazed. And we were.  There, just next to the broad steps at the entry to the church was the beloved church lady’s promised empty tomb of Jesus.

It was, in fact, a bright green nylon pup tent. The door flap was indeed open. The tiny tent was entirely, breathtakingly, empty.

The staff quickly rallied and found an old brown tarp to cover the bright green pup tent. They tucked the tarp around the tent flap. It looked…well, sort of like a small brown plastic rock with an opening.

The beloved church lady arrived later for the Easter service. When she saw her altered creation, she was devastated. She could not understand why others failed to see the empty tomb of Jesus in that green pup tent.

When Easter morning dawned, Mary Magdalene was the first to see the empty tomb and she saw it alone, according to John’s gospel. She took the news to Peter and the Beloved Disciple. They set off to see it for themselves. The Beloved Disciple outran Peter and was the next to see. Then Peter came and saw. If you hear a bit of competitiveness here, you’re not wrong.

Another disciple, Thomas, entirely failed to see risen Lord Jesus. Perhaps he didn’t get to the empty tomb after Mary, Peter, and the Beloved disciples. But if he did, the resurrection message just wasn’t there for him. All we know is that he was absent when the other disciples got together the next day. His Easter hadn’t begun yet.

It’s not like the others were entirely there yet either. The doors were locked after all. They were afraid. And maybe being just a little bit on the judgy side.

Because the first thing Jesus did was give them his peace. Then they saw his wounds. After that their joy began. Maybe they got a little raucous, since Jesus called some peace down again.

Then Jesus commissioned them in two ways. “I send you” was the first thing. Next it was “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive sin, it is gone.  If you hold on to sin, it remains.” And the way Jesus said this part, seems like less the authority to judge others as forgiven or not, than as a reminder that what you do in the way of forgiving or not forgiving has lasting implications for the way the faith community forms and functions.

The importance of these things cannot be overstated. As Easter dawn unfolded, the first instinct of those who saw, was to begin to define and order their community. Who was the first to see the empty tomb? Who first saw the risen Christ? Who is the most blessed in seeing?

But Jesus said, I send you. Peace. Forgive sin, or retain it. Jesus was putting them out there as witnesses. People see you, see your faith. What will you show them?

It’s fair to say that what we see in the empty tomb and the risen Lord Jesus is not just one single thing. Nor do we all arrive at an appreciation of Easter’s meaning at the same time or in the same way. This was just as true in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’s resurrection as it is for us now.

The disciples held space for their brother Thomas. Space for peace to flourish. Space for Thomas to see in his own way, in his own time. They showed him the patient and forgiving love of Jesus.

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe, said Jesus to Thomas. It wasn’t judgement. It was encouragement.

The spiritual energy of encouragement motivated the church in Acts. As 1 John says, they practiced walking in the light of Christ rather than the shadow of sin. So they could share things without anxiety. So they could honor one another and find agreement across their differences and despite their inclination toward competitiveness. And so also to become a visible blessing to the world, for many people were watching them.

And others may see though us, in so many different ways, is the risen Lord Jesus. The One who sends us with peace, joy and forgiveness. Whose empty tomb has even been known and celebrated in so many surprising ways.  Even, once, for those not too judgy to see, the resurrection was seen in a green pup tent.