Last Sunday, I was deeply honored to get to preach at my friend Fritz’ installation as the pastor at University Lutheran Church in Philadelphia. (One of the most beautiful modern churches I’ve seen, by the by. AND the acoustics were such that I DIDN’T NEED A MICROPHONE. Oh my gosh. You guys have no idea how happy that made me.)
My texts were John 20:9-23–Jesus appears in the upper room post-resurrection; and Numbers 6:22-27, the source of the “Aaronic Blessing.” (“May the Lord bless and keep you” etc.)
Blessings on your ministry, Fritz! The church is already blessed. 🙂
Two years ago, I was standing in a museum in Jerusalem, and in front of me were two small, long sheets of ancient, fragmented silver.
The sheets of silver had once been tightly rolled, and had probably been worn as amulets in their heyday. It had taken archaeologists three years to figure out how to unroll them without them disintegrating.
And so it took three years to see what they say. Because there’s writing on these tiny scrolls—writing that is nine thousand years old. For some perspective on that: while some human sat carefully inscribing text on this delicate silver, people over in China were discovering iron for the first time.
And although the silver upon which that text was so carefully inscribed is now fragmented and the sentences broken, you, my friends, with no knowledge of the Paleo-Hebrew script in which the scrolls are written, will be able to tell me exactly what they say:
The first scroll begins: May God bless you and keep you. And then the word, “shine.” And “grant you peace.”
The words on these nine thousand year old silver amulets, found in 1979 in a cave near Jerusalem, are the same ones you heard just now in our Old Testament reading. You’ll hear them again tonight, coming from the mouth of your pastor at the moment when God sends you out into the world.
The powers that be—whether Fritz, or the board, or the Holy Spirit—happen to have chosen to install Fritz here at University Lutheran Church on All Saints Day. It’s a day when we remember how thin the veil between death and life is, when we recall that the plane that separates us, here in this place, from people miles and millennia away, is as delicate as a sheet of fragmented silver.
It’s a thought to fill us with awe and wonder, and maybe a tiny bit of trembling—because let’s face it, that’s the weight of an awful lot of dead people hanging over us when we gather every week and perform this ancient liturgy.
But the truth is, a huge part of who we are, as Christians and as people, is shaped by who other people were, and what they passed down to us—for better and for worse. Sometimes, we call that shape “tradition,” and it’s something we treasure, an inheritance we pass down to our children.
For example, tonight, Fritz is wearing a cross that his grandfather passed to him. His grandfather received it from a congregant who made it for him in his very first call. That cross is a symbol, most importantly of the faith in Christ that binds you, but also of the love that holds you, the hands that have raised you, and the calling that drew you.
Traditions belong to communities as well as individuals. I’ve been given to understand that it is a tradition here, at UniLu, for dogs to come to church, students to be blessed, and for champagne to be drunk after every Easter Vigil. These are traditions you’ve been given, and also traditions you have given; an inheritance for a new generation.
Today’s gospel lesson talks about another inheritance, but one that no one ever calls “tradition,” because she won’t hold still long enough for us to let her: the Holy Spirit. In the gospel of Mark, she’s the dove at the river. In the books of Acts, she’s a pyrotechnic production. But here in John, she’s part of the greatest locked room mystery of the New Testament.
Here’s the scene: it’s three days after Jesus died, and the disciples are together in a locked room. They are frightened. And in the deepest grief you can imagine. And just starting to contemplate what comes next. Do they go pick up their nets again? Go back to counting taxes? Maybe while trying to be slightly better people than before? Jesus was dead. Did those three years they spent with him mean anything?
And in addition to all of that crap, they are also ashamed. They showed up at the crucifixion. They were faced with the option of throwing themselves on the cause, of dying alongside Jesus. But they didn’t. They stood on the sidelines and watched. They failed.
The thing they were most afraid of happened, and it crushed them. So they did what humans do when they are crushed, and cannot see the future: they gather together, and lock the world out, and mourn.
And in the middle of that locked room of fear and grief and guilt, Jesus appears. And his very first words are: “Peace.” Peace be with you. He cuts through everything they’ve locked themselves away with, and begins to fill their hearts with something new.
Jesus shows the disciples the wounds that mark where their world had shattered. They are still in him. But now they are a part of his victory. And in the midst of that dawning realization, Jesus says, for a second time, “Peace be with you.”
Now, personally, I think that when Jesus gives me peace, or when God heals me, it’s supposed to mean that everything that was hurting simply disappears, like it was never there. But it has never actually worked like that. It’s not like the pain was never there. It’s more like it’s been turned inside out.
I think that’s the kind of peace that Jesus gives to his disciples, when he shows up, at night, in the middle of the locked room. It’s not a peace that erases wounds. It’s the peace of knowing that our wounds won’t kill us. Or, in this case, that death doesn’t matter the way we thought it would.
Next, Jesus breathes on the disciples. Breathes into them. And they go from being lifeless clay, to having within them the breath of God. They were dry bones. But now they are flesh.
And then Jesus does the most remarkable thing. To these people who have been paralyzed by guilt, grief, and fear, literally locked into place, Jesus gives responsibility. He gives them the power to release or retain sin. The prisoners have suddenly been made the guards.
Jesus doesn’t stop at saying, “Peace be with you:” he charges the disciples with giving that peace to other people by doing for them what Jesus had done for them: showing up in the midst of whatever sin they were locked in with, and releasing them. Jesus takes the disciples, and all their pain and woundedness, and turns all of it, all of them, inside out.
This is the greatest part of the locked room mystery. It’s not just that a dead man came back to life and appeared in the middle of a locked room—although that’s pretty hard to overlook. It’s the mystery of what happened after: these disciples were locked in, huddled together, afraid and alone. And then something happened; they went out into the world. They preached and taught and spoke in tongues. They started a church. And then: they died for it.
But they knew: it didn’t matter the way they thought it would.
This is All Saints Day, when we remember that the veil between life and death is very thin indeed. But this is not simply because of tradition. It is because Christ has stepped back and forth across life and death, and is ready to take our hand and cross with us.
Life is full of little deaths: failures and woundedness that can paralyze us, if we let them. But Christ has done to us what he did to the disciples: he’s breathed on us, and invited us into living and dying for the sake of the gospel.
It is good to remember all that we inherit from our ancestors in faith, and be grateful. But most of all, we remember that we have received the greatest inheritance as God’s own children: the Holy Spirit. We have been breathed upon. We have become a new creation.
Fritz: you are called to serve in this place, at this time, with this gift.
People of God: you are called to serve in this place, at this time, with this gift.
This is not a simple, or an easy calling. But the promise that goes along with the inheritance of the Holy Spirit is this: Christ is with you. Christ is always with you. When you think you’ve locked the world out, he’s coming through the wall. When you think this stuff will kill you, Jesus shows up with a wound in his side and says, “Yeah, that wasn’t the way I wanted to start the weekend.” And then—oh gosh, this Jesus guy is just the worst—then he tells you “Peace.” And he breathes new life in you, and turns you inside out.
He takes the fragile, crackling, silvery scroll of you, and gently unrolls you until everyone can see the blessing that’s written upon you: words that lead to the Word made flesh.
In this work, in this unrolling, in this being turned inside out…
May the Lord bless you, and keep you from crumbling.
May the Lord’s face shine upon you, until you shine with reflected light.
May the Lord look upon you with favor and lovingkindness,
and may God grant you the peace that surpasses all understanding. Amen.