Creating a Community of Love by Rev. Randy L. Johnson

Scripture Text: John 20:19-31

Think about the one person who you believe has loved you more than anyone else in your life. That is what Jesus meant to his disciples.

Knowing how much Jesus meant to his followers, it is somewhat surprising to read the descriptions in the various gospel accounts of how hesitant some of the disciples were to accept the idea that Jesus had been resurrected. Matthew ends his gospel account in this way, “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” At the end of the long version of Mark’s gospel, we read of how when Mary Magdalene tells the disciples that Jesus was alive and had been seen by her, “they would not believe it.” Mark goes on to report that after this Jesus personally appeared to two of the men disciples, but when they went back and told the rest, their fellow disciples “did not believe them.” When at the end of the gospel of Luke, Jesus himself appears among the gathered disciples, it says that “they were startled and afraid, and thought they were seeing a ghost.” In response Jesus says, “Why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” After Jesus shows them his hands and feet to dispel their doubts, the disciples begin to feel some joy but, as Luke puts it, “while in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” And then we come to the account in the gospel of John.

It is from John’s account that there emerged the now common portrayal of Thomas as the one disciple who was the doubter, who had difficulty believing the good news of the resurrection. It is true that Thomas doubted the word of the other disciples when they him that they had seen Jesus alive. But, as we have noted from the other gospel accounts, it is not fair to Thomas to be the only disciple known for his doubts. Somehow in focusing on doubting Thomas, it has been lost how doubtful, fearful and dismissive the rest of the disciples had also been.

In John’s telling of the story, when Jesus first appeared to these disciples, he found them huddled together in a secluded room, afraid to even go outside in case someone would recognize them as his followers and turn them in to the authorities. As one commentator described them, “the friends who knew Jesus best, who had betrayed him, who pretended they did not know him, who had hid when he was arrested and run away when he was dying, they were now about to be confronted by Jesus while hiding, frightened and ashamed, behind locked doors.”

When Jesus stood among his disciples his first message was “Peace be with you.” Rather than shaming them, Jesus recognized the overwhelming feeling of fear that had gripped his disciples. He understood that behind their previous actions of betrayal and abandonment and behind their present feelings of doubt and despair was the underlying grief, fear and confusion they experienced when they had lost the one who had loved them as no other. Jesus knew that there would be no chance of creating a community of love in the face of such grief and fear. Grief shakes people at their core and leaves people feeling the need for refuge and protection; fear isolates and prevents people from building relationships of love and trust.

We see this today as overwhelming grief and fear threatens to destroy communities in countries such as Belgium, France and Pakistan. Suicide bombings, leaving scores of people dead and hundreds wounded, cause peace-loving people to be afraid to go out into the community, to use public transportation, to rub shoulders with strangers or to meet new neighbors. As one resident of Brussels put it, “We are afraid to go into the metro, on the trains; we are afraid now to live normally…We must speak out against fear, we need to shout, because we must be heard.” Another resident said, “I don’t want to think every time I see someone with a backpack that he is carrying a bomb. That is no way to live.”

Research shows that fear is on the rise not only where people are experiencing the direct impact of violent terrorism. More and more people across the globe share what some have called “secondary trauma.” This is caused in part by the constant and instant exposure we have via TV and popular social media to all the violence and death in our world today.

Another factor that has significantly increased a sense of fear across the world is related to the growing divide between the “haves” and “have-nots.” Cities around the globe, including more and more cities in the United States, are dividing ever more sharply by lines of wealth and poverty. Recently developed neighborhoods in North America are being separated and safeguarded by security walls with residents who can afford living in upscale homes located in what are known throughout the world as “gated communities.” But the fear felt in communities is not just what the rich feel as they try to protect and isolate themselves against the growing discontent within neighborhoods of poverty. We know from the experiences of people living in places like Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and closer-to-home, North Minneapolis, that those who reside in neighborhoods of poverty, particularly communities of color, are living with ever-deepening feelings of grief, anger and fear. These feelings are triggered by a growing sense of hopelessness that the institutions of our democracy which should be working for them are actually working against them.

We recognize that there are differing views of the legal evidence involved in specific cases such as the recent Jamar Clark decision in Minneapolis. But, as followers of Jesus Christ, we are drawn to the underlying realities of discrimination and injustice which fuel the voices of protest and despair. In response to these sad realities, our United Methodist Bishop Ough wrote about the things that need to happen to create a community of love. He wrote: “The Beloved Community will be restored when segregation by poverty and race no longer exists, when the lines between Northside neighborhoods and suburban enclaves are erased. The Beloved Community will be restored when police forces represent the demographic make-up of their communities. The Beloved Community will be restored when entrenched institutional racism is stamped out and we, together, affirm that every life matters.”

Creating a community of love does not come easy. When Jesus confronted his disciples locked in fear behind locked doors, he called them to share his mission of peace and love for all people, not just for the people of Israel. Jesus made evident the potential cost of joining his mission when he openly disclosed the wounds he carried from the cross. The peace that Jesus offered and the mission he invited others to join did not include the promise of never having to face suffering and death. In fact, we know that his first disciples went on to suffer and die, many as martyrs of the faith.

So what was it that moved these first followers of Jesus from isolation and fear for their own lives to risking all to help create a community of love? And what might move us today to join in this mission?

We have noted how at first the disciples hesitated to believe in the resurrected Jesus. Huddled in that room, they were like the woman described in a book by Jan Karon who during a complicated pregnancy, “was waiting to grow out of the terrible fear of too much happiness or too much sorrow.” The disciples were gradually transformed by the reassuring presence of the resurrected Jesus. Opening their hearts to the unbelievable reality that it truly was Jesus, the one who had loved them, the one who had somehow conquered death, made all the difference. They now understood that the peace and power which Jesus offered them was his Spirit of love, a love that would always be with them, that nothing in life or in death could separate them from this love, and that one day they would be together in his kingdom.

Like the residents of Belgium who refuse to let fear destroy their community, the first followers of Jesus realized during their time with the resurrected Lord that there are worse things than physical death. Living in fear, living behind locked doors, without love, without any trust in others, without a community where people can learn how to love one another and work together for good is not living. It is a form of spiritual and emotional death that cannot sustain life as God created it to be lived.

This is true for us today. We all will one day face physical death. That is a fact. But what is not certain is what kind of life will we experience between now and that day. Through his resurrected presence, Jesus was not only providing healing and hope for his first disciples. He was also teaching them and all those to come something essential about what it means to live life fully, something about the mission and the kind of community he was calling them to create. As Brian McClaren describes it in his book, We Make the Road by Walking, “It isn’t just for brave people, but for scared folks like us who are willing to become brave. It isn’t just for believers, but for doubting folks like Thomas who want to believe in spite of their skepticism. It isn’t just for good people, but for normal, flawed people like you and me and Thomas and Peter.”

Immediately after Jesus appeared to his disciples, the gospel tells us that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This same Spirit, the One who was powerful enough to raise Jesus from death to life, the One who empowered the early disciples, equips us today to go out into our community and to be a breath of fresh air- to share a message of peace and to create a community of love where all God’s children can discover their gifts and help build a better world. May God bless and lead us as we, through the Spirit of resurrection, create a community of love and together bring new life and new hope to our world today. Amen!