The disciples are gathered together in the upper room on a Sunday when Jesus appears in their midst. It’s a week later, another Sunday, when he appears again and speaks to Thomas. Two Sundays in a row, the disciples gather and experience the presence of the risen Lord. And so we might start to see in this story an image of the nascent church. We gather on here Sundays and encounter our risen lord in bread and wine if not in bodily form.
But there’s something about this comparison that doesn’t ring true for me, at least in our time and place. Jesus’ disciples were gathered because they were afraid, afraid even for their lives. I don’t experience church as a place to escape from a frightening world. That is perhaps a caricature of the church, a way some might see us, but it’s not my experience.
No, when I think about the church, I have a slightly different image in mind.
When I think about Episcopalians here in church, I think we’re more like Hobbits. JRR Tolkien wrote a book about these small creatures who long for comfort and stability. It’s probably no accident that the word hobbits isn’t too different than the word “habits.”
At one point in the book, the wizard Gandalf appears. He has come to recruit the main character, hobbit Bilbo Baggins to go on an adventure. Bilbo says to Gandalf, “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!” Hobbits aren’t threatened by the world around them, but they stay home in order to avoid the inevitable discomfort and perhaps potential dangers of the unknown larger world.
Now, I know many adventurous souls in this place, people who have been all over the world. However when I think about myself and about the larger church, I think we can be tempted to limit our faith to the world of the familiar and the comfortable.
It is no small thing that Jesus says, “as the father has sent me, so I send you.” As God sent his son, so Jesus sends his disciples, so he sends us. Jesus came to glorify the Father, to show the world God’s loving and abiding presence. And he tells us to do the same. To go into the world and share the good news of God’s love. Church is sort of a counterintuitive place in this way. We come together only to be sent out again.
If this message has lost its wonder or its urgency for you, go and seek out the person who needs to hear words of comfort. You will have shared the good news and in so doing, will be reminded of how good it really is.
Rowan Williams interprets Jesus’ command like this: “If you don’t know why this matters, look for someone who does – the child, the poor, the forgotten. Learn from them, and you will learn from me. You will find a life’s work; and you will find rest for your souls; you will come home; you will sit and eat.”
Bilbo Baggins is the main character of Tolkien’s the Hobbit. He is the one so concerned to avoid adventure. But in the end, he goes off, joining a band of dwarves as they take back treasure from a dragon. And in the end, Bilbo is transformed. This hobbit who loved nothing more than to smoke on his pipe and make sure he gets second breakfast each day can say to his dying companion, “Yet I am glad that I have shared in your perils – that has been more than any Baggins deserves.” Glad to have shared in your perils. Bilbo has been changed by his adventure.
Jesus breathes on the disciples, bestowing the Holy Spirit. This echoes way back to the second chapter of Genesis, when God breathed the breadth of life into Adam and Eve. Then God was creating humanity. Here, Jesus is making creation new.
Following Jesus is a grand adventure. It may have its discomforts, but it also brings great joy and ultimately, transformation.
Today we heard how the disciples gathered in the upper room, two Sundays in a row. Even though they experience Jesus appearing in their midst, they don’t stay there. They don’t turn the room into a shrine. It’s a way station, a place to encounter the risen Lord a place to gather and sit and eat, a place to be encouraged and comforted, a place of rest. Yet ultimately it is a place to go out from, to go out into the world and share the good news that God is love and Christ is indeed risen.
At our best, this is who we are as a church, a community of followers, gathering together in order to be sent out to remind the world of God’s abiding love. We’re sent out to share the good news. Alleluia, Christ has risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.