The Eighth Day

A Sermon Shared with the People of St. Matthew’s, St. Paul, April 27, 2014
John 20:19-31
Lisa Wiens-Heinsohn

A few years ago when my daughter Carly was about 4 years old she woke up in the middle of the night having a terrible nightmare. So of course I calmed her down and reassured her and in the process, I prayed for her. I said, Dear God, please help Carly feel safe, and protect her through the night, and please help her to sleep with no more bad dreams.” After my prayer was finished there was a long silence and I started to think that Carly had gone back to sleep. But just as I was about to go back to sleep myself a little voice spoke in the darkness: “Mommy, did God say yes or no?”

Does God say yes or no? God doesn’t protect us from bad things happening, not always. For the large collection of disciples on the Sunday after Jesus died, they were in the middle of a nightmare that wasn’t just a bad dream; it was real. They were terrified for their own lives, and heartbroken and confused and traumatized. They could not understand how their beloved teacher and leader and friend could have been so brutally murdered. How were they supposed to live, after that?  

Their friend Mary of Magdala had told them, that morning, that she had seen the Lord, but judging from their terrified huddle in the locked room, it sounds like they didn’t believe her. It is into this scene that Jesus appears to them and wishes them peace. But this is not enough.  He shows them his wounds, his hands and his side—yes, it is really him, his flesh and blood and not his ghost—and then they recognize him and are overwhelmed and overjoyed. It is the first day of the week; the day after the Sabbath. The beginning.  And in this beginning, Jesus does something strange. He breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” What do you think this means? 

In John’s gospel, Pentecost happens on the day of resurrection. Jesus gives the disciples his Holy Spirit on the same day that he rises from the dead. This Greek word for breathing or blowing only appears this one time in the entire New Testament. It is meant to invoke God’s creation of the first man and the first woman in the garden of eden long ago—God breathing the breath of life into the nostrils of the first man, so that the man becomes a living soul. So Jesus is breathing into his disciples, breathing the Holy Spirit into them, and the implication is that he is making them new.

Because of this act of continued creation on the part of the risen Christ, the ancient Christians thought of the day of Jesus’ resurrection as the eighth day of creation. It was the beginning of the new heaven and the new earth. It was both the first day of the week, where the whole cycle begins again, and also the eighth day, which is something radically new. In the new world Jesus creates there’s both continuity with the old—you can still see the scars in his hands and feet—and there is discontinuity too. It’s the eighth day, and in some way we are liberated from the endless cycle of Sunday to Saturday, first day to Sabbath. Jesus is literally re-creating his disciples, giving them new life that is grounded in God’s Spirit. 

Well, all this sounds well and good.  But my daughter Carly’s question keeps sounding: Did God say yes or no? I think what Carly meant was, it’s nice to pray, but can I feel and experience God’s love and protection even if I have more bad dreams? In the middle of the night I couldn’t work out how to explain theology to a four year old, so I punted. I said, “Carly, what do you think?” and she answered, “I think God said yes.” Whereupon she promptly turned over and fell fast asleep. And it’s the same for us. Even if we experience bad things, can we learn to trust God—to experience God’s “yes” to us in such a radically new way that our lives are truly transformed? Thomas needed an actual encounter with Jesus in the flesh before he could believe that Jesus was alive again.  And Jesus gave it to him.  And although we weren’t there in person, Jesus knows that we too need an encounter with him—and he promises us that it is possible to have faith in God’s “yes” even if we haven’t seen the risen Lord.  So what is it that brings us to faith? Where do we see God making all things new—that God’s Spirit has been given to us? And when nothing yet seems to be new—how do we step forward in faith, trusting in God's power to restore all things?

There is only one power that is stronger than death. That power is love. Love is the strongest evidence of God’s Spirit; it was love that moved Jesus to show his hands and feet to Thomas and the other disciples. God’s love is what empowered the resurrection of Christ. Love is the meaning of the eighth day of creation, which liberates us from all that has gone before and that can overcome any violence, any evil, even death itself. It was feeling God’s love that helped Carly trust God’s “yes” for her and go back to sleep. Love begets faith.

Recently I learned about a Minneapolis woman named Mary Johnson. Mary’s teenaged son Laramiun was murdered in 1993 by another teenage boy named Oshea Israel, who shot him at a party. Oshea spent years in prison for murder. At one point during Oshea’s long prison sentence, Mary felt she should meet the murderer of her son. And somehow she came to the place where she could see him as a human being. She forgave him and has now adopted him as her spiritual son. Together, Oshea, Mary, and Oshea’s natural mother have founded a new Minneapolis organization called—guess what? —From Death to Life.

It is the power of love, of forgiveness, that has allowed life and resurrection to come out of this terrible situation. Probably most of us haven’t experienced anything quite this dramatic. But let me ask you this. When in your life have you witnessed real love? Love that is strong, love that is contagious? Love that liberates, that heals, that makes change possible?

We can experience this kind of love. We become able to love this deeply when we experience that God first loved us. I invite you to take this week, the second week of Easter, and focus as much as you can on the living reality of God’s love for you. Love that truly is unconditional; love that meets you, not where you are strong, but where you are in doubt, or in pain, or ashamed or angry or hopeless. Imagine yourself in the place of Thomas, who really did need to experience the risen Jesus—he needed to see that Jesus was stronger than death. He needed the love of Jesus to meet him in his anguish and fear and doubt.

Although we don’t see the risen Christ the same way that Thomas did, he is here all the same. He is present in the body of Christ, at the table of Christ, and most of all, in the real presence of God’s Holy Spirit in our midst. God’s Holy Spirit is a powerful public presence who guides us, inspires us, warns us, and wakes up. Most of all, God’s Spirit is made manifest through the power of God’s love; the power of forgiveness, and the power of resurrection.

During the fifty days of Easter, we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection—the eighth day of creation, the power of love that is stronger than death. May we experience and trust this love, so that we may have life in the name of Christ.