Four inches of snow covered the roads, and it was still falling. Dad found me and said, “Your mother wants some things from the grocery; let’s go.” I smiled as it was easy to persuade Dad to buy Cheetos, Captain Crunch, Cokes, and other treats on Mom’s ‘no-buy’ list. Walking to the car, Dad tossed me the keys saying, “You drive;” I caught the keys but stammered, wondering about my learner’s permit and the snow. The old master sergeant chuckled, “Are you planning to never drive in the snow?” For the next two hours, we practiced braking in the mall parking lot, steering through an intentional skid, and then climbing the steepest hills in town. By the next year, I would pick up Chris, David and Dan every snow day, tie a massive tractor innertube to the roof of my VW Bug, and drive to the best sledding in town. Decades later, I repeated these lessons with Lewis on a trip to Wisconsin and Caleb with a lot less snow in Tennessee!
In Matthew 16 Jesus tosses us the keys declaring, “You are Peter and (with people like you) I will build my church (Gr. ekklesia – called out community), and the gates of hell will not overcome the community. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you relax on earth will be relaxed in heaven.” (Matt. 16) Hear this Easter news, the Risen Christ entrusts us with the keys! How will we use this authority? Will we cling to the warm glow of a glorious past or dare to believe that Christ is with us, Christ’s Love fills our hearts, and indeed Christ is already out ahead of us-leading us?
John loves long monologues and personal stories, so after 18 verses about Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene, John covers Easter, Pentecost, and Matthew’s Great Commission with 4 verses. (Matt 28) John begins, “It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities.” I wish John did not identify the authorities as Jewish (as almost everyone in the story was Jewish… Jesus, John, Mary, the high priest). At times, fear leads us to lock the doors, throw up walls, or label our neighbors as strangers. The disciples did have reasons to fear the authorities. Jesus had been falsely arrested, lied about, beaten, mocked, and murdered in a span of about 12 hours.
They locked themselves up in fear, but suddenly Jesus stood in their midst. That Christ stands with us is near the heart of Easter. In Matthew 18, Jesus promises, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Jesus still stands in our midst. In John 14, Jesus goes so far as to promise that after Easter we will do greater things than Jesus did! Seems unlikely but consider that Jesus fed 5,000 people; in 1985, Father Charles Strobel began Room in the Inn. Today Room in the Inn unites 200 Nashville congregations and feeds over 20,000 meals each week. Jesus flipped over the temple tables; in 1848, at Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, Elizabeth Cady Stanton (a graduate of Troy Seminary) and Quaker minister Lucretia Mott organized the first Women’s Rights convention in the United States. Fredrick Douglass and others rounded out “the three gathered together” in God’s name! There would be decades of battles with the church and congress, but the suffragettes would achieve something greater than shutting down the temple for a day, bringing freedom and power to vote to women! What might two or three of us do if we remembered that Jesus tosses us the keys and stands ready to help us do greater things?
Jesus said, “Peace be with you.” Jesus must tell the startled disciples a second time, “Peace be with you!” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. describes this peace as “the equilibrium to stand tall amid life’s trials and burdens. Christ is able to provide inner peace amid outer storms. This inner-stability of the person of faith is Christ’s chief legacy to his disciples. Christ offered neither material resources nor a magical formula that exempts us from suffering and persecution, but Christ brings an imperishable gift: “Peace I leave with thee.” This is “the peace that surpasses all understanding… God is able to give us interior resources to face the storms and problems of life… there is a great benign Power in the universe whose name is God, and God is able to make a way out of no way!.” (The Strength to Love) What will we do with such strong peace?
“Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” Are we locked up in fear, clinging to old wine and ways, existing to serve ourselves or ready to strive to serve the world? Just as God sent Jesus to heal people, feed people, welcome people, liberate people from worshiping wealth, forgive from our hearts, welcome those pushed to the margins, and flip over unjust tables, Jesus sends the church out to do the very same work. Do we know we are sent to lift burdens, loosen yokes, and unlock doors that shut people out? What will we do with this missional key; will we pass the peace among ourselves or understand we are sent into the world to change hearts and reform systems?
Then Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” “Jesus breathed on them,” reminds us of Eden’s story where God fashions humanity out of the ground, and we come alive when God breathes the divine spirit into us! This deeply incarnational image of human belovedness fills the whole Bible. King David, facing the reality of his adulterous, treasonous, systemically corrupt, military dishonorable, murder of Uriah the Hittite, cries out, “Take not Thy Holy Spirit from me!” (Psalm 51) The idea that God still loves a wretch like David tells us how deeply God loves us. What will we do with this key understanding that we are beloved? Who are we helping discover their belovedness?
Jesus said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” John’s Gospel does not separate Pentecost and Easter. John’s Jesus constantly talks about how the Holy Spirit is with us. “When the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send, comes, the Holy Spirit will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said… I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send God’s Spirit to you…. When the Spirit of Truth comes, God’s spirit will guide you into all the truth.” (John 14, 16) It is strange to me given Jesus’ promise of the indwelling Spirit of God that the church lives with such fear of making a mistake. We repeat the sins of the Bible scholars Jesus chides in Matthew 23 who got so fixated on certain Bible verses that they tied up heavy burdens on people and even shut people out of God’s kingdom.* Will we catch the Spirit and untie heavy burdens and unlock closed doors?
John’s Easter message concludes, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” If you read through Matthew with us, you saw how the church resisted how Jesus forgave people so freely and easily! (Matthew 9,12, 18) So why is the church at times locked up in fear, worried about being too gracious and too loving. God is not an angry judge. And what if we get a verse or two a bit wrong? So what? What if Jesus literally meant “do not store up treasures on earth” and the UMC pension plan was not God’s plan? (Matt 6) So what? Did not Jesus just say, “If you forgive, it will be forgiven; if you loosen it up, God relaxes the rules in heaven?” Why not err on grace, mercy and love? How could we be more loving, generous, or forgiving than God? Did God disregard Jesus’ plea from the cross, “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing”? (Luke 23) If Paul is right that nothing will remain but faith, hope, and love, how is there room for fear, separation, or hell? (1 Corinthians 13) If 1 John 4 is right that God is love and there is no fear in love because fear flows from punishment, why do we live in such fear? We want to get it right, but Bonhoeffer warns that “But to procrastinate and prevaricate simply because you’re afraid of erring, … seems to me almost to run counter to love. To delay or fail to make decisions may be more sinful than to make wrong decisions out of faith and love.” (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy 218)
If you grew up in a place like Belmont, you probably do not know as much about what a debilitating fear of God does to one’s soul as I do. Despite sermons about grace, I heard about God’s fierce hatred of our sins. I can still put myself back in a metal folding chair in Bagdad Ky and l feel the humidity as a college age preacher made a mess of Matthew 5 repeating, “If you even look at a woman, you’re on a highway to hell.” I felt so guilty, not just because I mentally hummed Angus Young belting out AC-DC’s banger of the same name, but worse I could not stop thinking about Jackie from Jellico First Baptist. Religious fear is so debilitating, locking us up, holding us back, stifling our voices, and even shutting people out of God’s beloved community. The Apostle Paul tells us this guilt and shaming doesn’t even produce morality. (Colossians 2) Perfect love unlocks fear and unties burdens. (1 John 4) Radical Love liberates us, to become the beloved people God created us to be!
The boundless Love of God found Paul and gripped by God’s Love Paul threw the door open wide for others to find love, forgiveness and mercy. Paul thunders. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery (to the law); you were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge yourself; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5) Oh, that we might recapture a radical sense of freedom in Christ to be who God made us, not people locked up in fear of making mistakes, but boldly risking loving our neighbors as ourselves!
You have these keys to the kingdom in your hands; you are beloved, Christ stands with you (even 2 or three of us), you are forgiven, you are authorized to forgive, the Spirit of Truth still guides us, the peace of Christ still enfolds us. Will we dare unlock a closed door, flip over an unjust table, knock down a wall of hostility, believe we can feed more people than Jesus, overturn some statehouse injustice, turn strangers into our neighbors, or will we stay locked up in fear? Jesus has tossed us the keys to the kin-dom; let us use our keys to help heal the world! Amen.
*Jesus did not write a single book of the Bible. When it comes to Scripture we have to trust each other: the eyewitnesses, the prophets, and translators. Our trust makes little sense if we do not believe the Spirit of Truth is still with us, guiding us, prompting us, and sometimes telling us to lay something aside, be that circumcision, slavery, or Timothy’s prohibition on women’s authority.