John’s Gospel states,

“19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.'”

The metaphor continues. Last week, I mentioned that the County of San Diego outlawing gatherings in a surprise move on Maundy Thursday was metaphorical for the first “Maundy Thursday.” I also mentioned that the federal court siding with the County’s and State’s breech of the US constitution was metaphorical for the first “Good Friday.” Finally, in light of the Easter Sunday gospel text, I urged us to be living metaphors, carrying/bringing Easter tidings to our communities. With today’s gospel text, the metaphor continues.

“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews,…” The disciples were afraid. They were in hiding. They were in self-quarantine, in lock down. We could spend time discussing the rationalizations which they might have made to and for themselves for their actions. It does not matter what rationalizations we make when we are afraid, because regardless of the day, age, or circumstances, those rationalizations are roughly the same. When we are afraid, we hide – or run – or deny – or make excuses – or … These events are true, but the names are always changed to protect the guilty.

San Diego County has banned gatherings. That unconstitutional decree did not apply just for Holy Week and Easter. It continues, which is why the metaphor continues. Like the disciples, we are hiding. Some are hiding from the coronavirus, which is good. Some are hiding from other people out of fear of the coronavirus, which is questionable. Some are hiding because they would be afraid to be seen at church this morning. Some are hiding because their churches have told them to stay home to protect themselves from legal harassment, and some just cannot hide the fact that they cannot help or hide themselves.

As Christians, we are generally rule followers. If we take a cross section of society, who are those who generally not only follow the rules, but also work hard to ensure that rules are followed for ourselves and for the well-being of all. In both biblical and Lutheran doctrine, we generally follow the rules because we believe that even secular laws have their origin in God’s rule, even if secular society does not act in accordance with God’s rules. (That was a play on words. Now chuckle.)

We currently find ourselves in a legal conundrum in the State of California and in the County of San Diego. The State of California allows a proliferating cannabis industry to thrive in flagrant violation of federal law, and furthermore, the State has declared this illegal industry to be “essential.” Similarly, the State of California not only accommodates and shields untold numbers of illegal aliens, but this week Governor Newsom pledged to reward this illegal behaviour with $500 bonuses of tax payer money. Willingly or not, California tax payers, who follow the rules by paying their taxes, will assist the State of California to be rule breakers and to support Federal rule breakers. It boggles the mind. The draconian declaration by the County of San Diego barring freedom of religion and assembly is par for the course on which the State of California has set sail.

People can and do argue about the legality of these and other matters. People make all manner of arguments about how coronavirus lock downs protect society, which by and large seem appropriate. However, when people are afraid to attend church for fear of legal harassment by local or state officials, a line has been crossed. The First Amendment to the constitution is clear, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” In other words, the First Amendment is non-negotiable, but for the “Nation-State” of California (or should that be “rogue-state”), flouting federal law is par for the course.

So, when the secular rule makers prove themselves to be great law breakers, what is a Christian to do?

Apart from all the legal and ethical intricacies, people are afraid. They are afraid of transmitting or contracting a virus. They are afraid of gathering or not gathering. They are afraid to go to church and not to go to church. What should Christians, as people who to take pride in following the law, do? To whom should we listen?

Whenever and wherever we are hiding in whatever stage or circumstances in our lives, we cannot hide. Jesus knows where we are, even when we have locked ourselves away in unrepentant, rule breaking lives, i.e. in flagrantly sinful life styles. In the midst of sinful fear and self-centred quarantine, Jesus appears and says, “Peace be with you.” Most of the time, we think that we are hearing voices. Jesus for our society is dead, and we often have little more affinity to him than happy recollections from childhood Sunday school. Again, he says, “Peace be with you.” Why does he go on like that? Can’t he tell that we are in hiding and afraid?

Then, he says continues, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you… Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” He has commanded us to leave our fear and hiding behind and to be sent like he was sent. Where did that end? Where will that end for us, on a cross, facing legal harassment by non-law abiding statutory bodies whose very ethos entails injustice in the name of justice? Jesus seems to have a couple of nails loose.

Where are we really? Everyday in the County of San Diego in sunny, southern California, life is always another day in the Garden of Eden. Each day we are forced to decide whether to listen to God’s voice or all the other voices (and vices) within and without. Each and every day, we listen to the wrong voices. As a result, we live to die not just another day but that same day. We listen to … Well, you know those familiar voices and vices which flagrantly rule our lives in place of God.

When God the Father raised God the Son from the dead, he raised Christians to a life beyond the rules. “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). Likewise, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2). Finally, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:21-25).

Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has placed us under a different rule, his rule. God has transformed us from rule followers into Christ followers. As Jesus was sent, so too are we sent to those who whose lives are ruled by fear and death, by the fear of death and death itself.

This is the essence of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. That doctrine often seems so abstract and lifeless, even to us Lutherans, but when faced with the prospect of legal harassment by statutory bodies, which flout the highest rules of the land, it reminds us that following the rules cannot and will not save us. We are saved only because we are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ and his word alone.

Listen to the words from Article VII of the Augsburg Confession, a chief Lutheran statement of faith states:

“It is also taught that all time there must be and remain one holy, Christian church. It is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel.”

In Lutheran theology, the church gathers and scatters on a regular basis. In other words, if we are not gathered, then we are not the church, even if we still remain Christians. By its very nature, being church does not entail merely sending words out over the internet. Church happens where the saints gather to receive the gospel of Jesus Christ purely proclaimed and administered in word and in sacrament. Furthermore, we gather to have that gospel proclaimed to us because we all know how easily we listen only to what our sinful selves want to hear from our ourselves, because in reality each one of us is a self-contained, self-quarantined, locked down, individual Garden of Eden.

Without a doubt, California’s new, electronically mediated, state religion is diametrically opposed in theory and in practice to the heart and life of the Christian faith. We all know, however, that we do not need the State or the County to separate us from God and his word. We do that all by ourselves, every single day. In fact, we self-isolate from God’s word so often that we may be secretly grateful to the coronavirus for covering our backs, for giving us an excuse to avoid church.

But then, while safely tucked away in our hiding place, Jesus is there. He keeps saying, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you… Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

So, get off of your couch. Gather up your household. Put on your face mask. Get out of your house, and go. Go somewhere today where people can legally gather, like a supermarket. While keeping social distancing, tell the people there that Jesus is raised from the dead, as he said. Wish them a Happy Easter! Sing an Easter hymn to those gathered. Share the good news to all whom you see. It is time for us to bring the Easter service to them, to be living metaphors, bearing and carrying the gospel over to others and getting the message across to them.