April 28, 2019

John 20:19-31

“Standing Again”

 When I sent out my Friday email to the congregational email list this week, I included a rather goofy image of a winking Jesus saying, “I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down.” For a couple of days, I couldn’t get that song by the band, “Chumbawamba” to stop repeating in my head: “I get knocked down, but I get up again. Oh, you’re never gonna keep me down…”

It’s both a thoroughly annoying earworm, and a song of hope, and courage, and determination. When I think about Jesus, remembering his arrest, torture, and death, it can be the song of triumph on the third day when he is raised and it becomes clear that love wins, that God wins.

A little song from the Iona Community expresses the same sentiment more gently, but just as joyously: “Goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Vict’ry is ours, vict’ry is ours through him who loved us. Vict’ry is ours, vict’ry is ours through him who loved us.”

These are the kinds of songs that we need to keep running through our minds, because sometimes it feels like we are continually getting knocked down.

As individuals, we may be knocked down by illness, by broken relationships, by heavy responsibilities that we feel helpless to manage. We may be knocked down by challenges and losses that seem to come one after another with no relief.

As churches, we may be knocked down by financial struggles, by internal conflict, by overwhelming needs for help and hope in our communities, or by seeming failures in passing on our faith to the next generations.

As wider communities, we may be knocked down by racism, poverty, violence, and terrorism. As people of faith, we have hardly finished praying about one tragedy when the next one occurs, and we are overwhelmed by the prospect of trying to support and help those who are suffering most because of the sheer magnitude of the problems in our world.

Like the first disciples in our Gospel reading today, it may be tempting to lock ourselves up in a house (or inside a church), to huddle together, afraid of those outside the walls, and just try to hang on to our safety and security.

What happened to Jesus had knocked him down, and it had knocked the disciples down as well. They were no longer out in the streets healing and helping, and teaching and blessing, but they were locked up in a house worrying, and probably wondering if their lives of following Jesus had come to nothing.

But then “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.’”

Jesus had been knocked down, but here he was, standing again among them. One commentator points out that the word “resurrection” literally means to “rise again” or to “stand again.” By faith, we believe that even though Jesus was knocked down, on the third day he was standing again. Even though he was killed, on the third day he was raised.

But Jesus’ resurrection was not the only one that took place on that first Easter Sunday. His whole community of followers had been knocked down too. They were not literally dead, but their mission certainly appeared to be dead.

There was no chance of them getting up from their gathering, going out of the house and proclaiming God’s love to the world. Not until he brought them back to life by breathing the Holy Spirit into them. Not until he raised them up, and got them standing again could they be the church that God was calling them to be with a mission in the world.

The SALT Lectionary Commentary describes the resurrection, “not only of Jesus, but also of the community of disciples, moving them from inward-focused, locked-up fear to outward-focused, liberated witness. Jesus’ resurrection gives rise to the disciples’ resurrection – and in turn, they are sent out to proclaim, with their lives and words, the good news of new life for the world.”

In this Season of Easter when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, we often proclaim that because he lives, we will live also. Those are words that show up in the liturgies at funerals and memorial services. But they’re not just about the hope we have for life after death. They’re also about the hope we have for new life today and tomorrow in this world.

They’re about the hope we have that no matter how many times we are knocked down by hatred, violence, disappointment, illness, or failure, with Jesus’ help, and with the gift of the Holy Spirit breathed into us as disciples and as the church, we can stand again.

We get knocked down, but we get up again. They’re never gonna keep us down!

In our First Church Book Club this month, we read Amanda Lindhout’s 2013 book, A House in the Sky, the true story of her abduction for ransom in Somalia. The account of her abduction, torture, and repeated rape over the course of 15 months was horrifying, while her determination and strength to survive were inspiring.

As we were discussing the book, many of us said that it was very difficult to keep reading about the atrocities that were happening to Amanda and Nigel, a Canadian and an Australian who were held hostage until their families could get together enough money to appease their captors.

But one person commented that one thing that kept her reading was the knowledge that they would survive. Because it was a true story, and Amanda Lindhout wrote the book, we knew that in the end she would stand again. Even when the boys had her in chains, confined to a small sleeping mat, only allowed to lie on her side for days and weeks and months, we knew that she would eventually be standing again.

Of course, they were eventually released, and they went home, and they lived to write the stories of their experience. But the part that gave me hope, the part that strengthened my faith in the God of resurrection and new life was the account of what Amanda did with her life after that.

She did not come back to Canada to huddle in the safety and security of her family and friends who had worked so hard to get her out of there. But after recovering her health and well-being, she turned her attention to helping the women of Somalia.

In 2010, she founded the Global Enrichment Foundation to create more opportunities in Somalia by offering university scholarships to women. In response to why she established the Foundation despite her kidnapping, Amanda told the CBC’s The National “You can very easily go into anger and bitterness and revenge thoughts and resentment and ‘Why me?’… Because I had something very, very large and very painful to forgive, and by choosing to do that, I was able to put into place my vision, which was making Somalia a better place… I’ve never questioned whether or not it was the right thing to do… What else to do after the experience that I had, than something like this?”

Her foundation’s Somali Women’s Scholarship Program offers higher education opportunities to women in Somalia. Because of her work, many are expected to go on to become teachers, doctors, environmentalists and engineers, among other professions. The foundation also started the SHE WILL micro-loan initiative to financially empower widows and other Somali women.

She got knocked down, but she got up again. They’re never gonna keep her down!

Another community that’s been on my mind this week is the Reformed Church in Romania. I’ve been reading about their ministry and their connection with our Presbyterian Church in Canada since finding out that as the General Assembly Moderator, I’ll get to visit Romania in September with a group from our church’s International Ministries.

During the period of Communist government in Romania, the Reformed Church suffered through a period of intense persecution. All Church institutions, including more than 500 Reformed Church Schools, were confiscated, and church life was restricted to worship. Many ministers were imprisoned and tortured, and the number of candidates for pastoral training was severely curtailed by the Communist authorities who sought total control over all aspects of religious life.

Since the collapse of this brutal regime in 1989, the Reformed Church in Romania has striven valiantly to rebuild its ministries, and has made much progress, but it has been very difficult.

In 2006, the Reformed Church in Romania asked for help from our church through International Ministries. They had an old Reformed Church High School that had been returned to them by the Romanian government, and if they were going to keep it, they had to transform it into a viable school again. After 50 years of Communist neglect, it was in a totally unusable condition, and it was evident that it would take a lot of work and a lot of money to restore this wreck of a building.

Ron Wallace, then Associate Secretary of our International Ministries, appealed to Canadian Presbyterians to help, including the Romanian school as a Gift of Change project, and by grace, it caught people’s attention. To his surprise and delight, the appeal eventually raised over $52,000, and made it possible for the Reformed Church of Romania to begin the restoration.

Today, the school has been fully restored to its former beauty and is providing a Christian-based, Hungarian language education to some 450 students, enrolled in grades one through twelve.

They got knocked down, but they got up again. They’re never gonna keep them down!

Today I’m also thinking about the churches and the people of Sri Lanka. They were attacked and knocked down pretty thoroughly last Sunday morning when numerous bombs went off in major churches and hotels, killing hundreds of people and injuring many more.

Many news reports indicate that a backlash against Sri Lankan Muslims is occurring, including destruction of property and beatings by Christians, and that persecution is growing in a country where relations between Christians and Muslims used to be relatively good.

Meanwhile, Christian leaders in Catholic and Evangelical Churches are calling for peace and for calm. They are asking their faithful not to place the blame on their Muslim neighbours for the atrocities committed by extremists. They are pleading with their people to place their hope and their trust in God who will help them to stand once again – not in anger and violence against their neighbours, but in solidarity with all people of good will.

We don’t know the end of that story yet. We don’t know how the Christians of Sri Lankan will get up on their feet again to stand in faith and hope for the future, and in peace with their neighbours of other faiths. I did hear one report that indicated some Muslim leaders were saying that if the Christians needed somewhere to gather and pray, they would open up their mosques for them to use.

But Easter faith means trusting God, breathing in the gift of the Holy Spirit, and holding on to the hope that when we get knocked down, we’ll get up again. Because Jesus lives, we will live also.

When we stand together in our church and profess the Apostles’ Creed, declaring “I believe in the resurrection” it doesn’t just mean that we think Jesus was truly raised from death to live forever with God. It also means that we have faith that when we get knocked down, when hatred and evil are doing their worst against God’s children, there is still hope.

With Jesus’ help and by the Spirit’s power working within us, we will stand again too. Like those first disciples, Jesus has breathed the Holy Spirit into our hearts, and we have received the power of goodness that is stronger than evil; love that is stronger than hate; light that is stronger than darkness; and life that is stronger than death.

Victory is ours through Christ who loves us, and God will strengthen us to go out and proclaim the good news with our lives and our words, the good news of life for the world.