The First Lesson: Acts (4:32-35)
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
The Response: Psalm 133
1 Oh, how good and pleasant it is, *
when brethren live together in unity!
2 It is like fine oil upon the head *
that runs down upon the beard,
3 Upon the beard of Aaron, *
and runs down upon the collar of his robe.
4 It is like the dew of Hermon *
that falls upon the hills of Zion.
5 For there the Lord has ordained the blessing: *
life for evermore.
The Epistle: 1 John (1:1-22)
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
The Gospel: John (20:19-31)
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
One of the disadvantages of serving a church for over twenty years, as I have, is the fact that I have already used most of my really good quotes and references in sermons — although I do continue to add to my collection. But some of those citations that I have already used are well worth employing again. Among them is Robert Frost’s poem “The Mending Wall.”
In that selection, the poet challenges his neighbor who insists on the old adage: “Good fences make good neighbors.” He accepts the fact that there are a few situations when walls are necessary, but points out the fact that some sort of invisible hand seems to be always at work making holes in walls and tearing them down. His reflection reaches its high point when he observes:
“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.”
Today’s gospel reading reflects that same sentiment. But instead of a wall, it describes locked doors. And instead of “something” that works to tear down walls and to render locked doors useless, it is “someone”: that same someone whose resurrection we are celebrating.
When today’s gospel reading begins, it is Easter evening. Jesus’ disciples have gathered in a room and have carefully locked the doors. Why? Out of fear: fear of the Jewish authorities. But Jesus renders those locked doors useless and passes right through them. They and he will repeat the scene the next Sunday, complete with locked doors; but Jesus will again pass right through.
As we listen over the coming Sundays to readings from the Acts of the Apostles, we will hear story after story of the Spirit of God knocking down the walls that people have built and passing right through the doors that they have locked. Today’s first reading presents us with an idealized picture of the shared life of the earliest believers; but from the very start, God’s Spirit began smashing through the walls between those whom the first Christians would have considered to be “us,” on the one hand, and “them,” on the other. Some of the Jews who had refused to accept Jesus and even those who had opposed and rejected Jesus came to accept the Good News; the wall that had kept them out came down, and they became part of the company of believers. Shortly afterward, through the ministry of Philip, some of the Samaritans, the ancient enemies of the Jews, came to believe; much to the amazement of leaders like Peter and John, the wall that had kept them out came down, and they became part of the company of believers. Later this month, we will hear the story about Peter’s encounter with the family of Cornelius: a non-Jewish pagan who came to accept the message; and, despite Peter’s initial objections, the wall that had kept them out came down, and they, also, became part of the company of believers.
Over and over again throughout the centuries, people have tried to build walls and to lock doors to keep others out. Why? For the same reason that the disciples locked the doors on the first Easter evening: out of fear. We all tend to fear those whom we do not know. But over and over again, God has broken through those walls and walked right through those locked doors to welcome and embrace an ever-widening company of God’s children. And they have included many groups of people who had previously been kept out and had been told by some that they really did not belong. God clearly thought that they did belong – and guess who won!
That pattern of people building walls to keep others out and God knocking the walls down to bring others in – that pattern has continued throughout the church’s history and throughout our secular history as well. When Europeans first came to this hemisphere and began to proclaim the gospel and establish church communities, they at first insisted that the ministers of the church be only of European ancestry; but God broke down their wall and welcomed ministers from the First Peoples as well. At one time, those who had physical handicaps were likewise excluded from church leadership roles; but God broke down that wall and showed us the gifts they had to offer to all. Until the beginning of the 19th century, membership in the clergy of the Episcopal Church was limited to Caucasian men; but God broke down that wall, and our part of the church began to ordain men of African-American heritage as well. Until the mid-20th century, our church allowed only men to serve in positions of authority, including service on Vestries, at General and Diocesan Conventions, and as bishops, priests, and deacons; then God broke down that wall, too, and we began to welcome women equally into all the leadership roles in the church. And, in even more recent years, those who openly acknowledged that they were gay or lesbian were denied equal status in the church with those who were, or pretended to be, heterosexual; but God broke down that wall as well (at least in most dioceses), and we welcomed into full fellowship many who previously had been excluded.
Over and over again, we have built walls and locked doors between those whom we consider to be “us” and “them.” Mostly, we have done so out of fear of those whom we do not know. And then we have contrived some sort of rationale in an attempt to justify our exclusion, trying to convince ourselves why “they” — whoever “they” might be at the time – why “they” should not and could not and never would be accepted as full and equal members of the church and of society with “us.”
But here’s the scorecard: looking back at the past 2000 years, we have so far maintained a perfect record in our attempts to exclude people: we have been completely unsuccessful and absolutely wrong 100% of the time! We still have never managed to build a wall or lock a door that was able to keep the Spirit of God out: the God who deeply and passionately loves all people and who calls all people to share fully in the life that Jesus proclaimed. And each time that God has broken down one of those walls or walked through one of those locked doors, the church and our entire society have been greatly enriched by the inclusion of those whom we had tried to exclude.
As we continue our Easter celebration, we rejoice in and give thanks to the God who “doesn’t love a wall,” who “wants it down.” We ask for the guidance of God’s Spirit that we might recognize the walls and locked doors that still seek to keep others from sharing God’s gift of life with us. And we ask that we might have the faith and the courage to consign all those walls and all those locked doors to the ash heap of history, so that all people might come to share fully in the risen life given to us in Jesus Christ our risen Lord.