by Michael Shelley
Associate Professor of Christian-Muslim Studies; Director of A Center for Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice
“The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear…” (John 20:19).
All of us have experienced moments of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. Perhaps for some of us, these are such days as we anticipate a transition in our lives.
As I read these words of John 20:19 several times over the past few days, my mind went back to a number of events I lived through in Egypt: the food riots of January 1977, a major uprising caused by a reduction in government subsidies; the assassination of President Sadat in October 1981; an earthquake and numerous aftershocks in the fall of 1992; a half dozen or so bombs planted by radical Islamist groups going off in central Cairo in the mid-90s, a couple within a quarter mile of where I worked, another about 200 yards from my home. All of these events were times of uncertainty and anxiety.
However, as I meditated on today’s Gospel reading, I reflected mostly on the ten years I served as pastor of St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo. Prof. Rosanne Swanson served with me as co-pastor for the last four of those years. St. Andrew’s is an interdenominational, international church, situated in the heart of Cairo. It has a relatively small membership, in our years there less than a hundred people. The members come from a variety of countries and cultures. Through its one hundred and ten years of history, St. Andrew’s primary purpose has been to provide a church home for English-speaking foreigners who live in Cairo for shorter or longer periods of time, from a few weeks to thirty or more years. These people have included tourists, missionaries, development workers, diplomats, educators, students, bankers, and people in the oil industry.
Since the late 1970s, St. Andrew’s has also operated a program for assisting refugees, and through that program has helped thousands of people. They’ve fled from or simply left their countries of origin, because they believed their lives were in danger or the economic situation made life tenuous, so they left to seek security or opportunity elsewhere. In my years at St. Andrew’s, the majority of people we assisted came from Ethiopia, but others came from Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Rumania, Albania, Vietnam, and Iraq.
We offered a variety of educational programs: English for adults; a rudimentary education for children who had no other possibility for learning how to read, write, or acquire basic mathematical skills; we offered training in how to use computers; training in basic woodworking and handcraft production skills. We helped people find jobs, particularly among the foreign community of Cairo. We offered a once-a-week walk-in medical clinic to diagnose and treat various illnesses, and, for more serious cases, referred people to a network of medical specialists, clinics and hospitals in greater Cairo. We did advocacy work at several foreign embassies that accepted refugees for resettlement. We gave out financial assistance to help people buy food or rent an apartment.
St. Andrew’s has served as a sanctuary, a place to which refugees can come, find assistance, and feel safe.
Why am I talking about this? As I said, I was reminded of it as I meditated upon today’s Gospel reading. The disciples are in hiding. They’re afraid, John tells us. Perhaps they’re afraid of being hunted down by the authorities, because they were associates of the one who had been crucified as a criminal. Whatever the reason, they’re cowering behind closed and locked doors.
Amid their confusion and fear, Jesus suddenly appears. Standing in their midst, he shows them the marks of crucifixion, and says, “Peace be with you.” He greets them with a conventional Jewish greeting, but for them these words would never again have the same conventional meaning. This greeting now came from one who had journeyed through the valley of death and was now standing alive in their midst, “one who had himself conquered the death they still feared” (J. Marsh, Saint John [Penguin, 1968], 643).
Even though they had heard reports earlier in the day that Jesus was seen alive, they were hiding in fear. It seems these reports were not sufficient to calm their anxious hearts. So Jesus does something else. He breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Here’s a scene that parallels the Genesis account of creation. On the sixth day, God created Adam, but Adam was inanimate. Adam had potential, but lay lifeless. That is, until God breathed into Adam the breath of life (Gen. 2:7) (R. Brown, The Gospel According to John xiii-xxi [Doubleday, 1970], 1035, 1037).
It’s similar in our Gospel text. The risen Christ in a sense re-creates the disciples. He breaks into their world of confusion and fear, and breathes on them the life-giving Spirit. People rendered inanimate by confusion and fear are now enlivened and empowered.
Perhaps like me, there have been moments in your life when you’ve witnessed what you believed was the Spirit lifting up and empowering people.
Reflecting on the experiences of refugees I knew in Cairo, the life of a refugee is full of challenges and uncertainty. I knew many who could barely afford one meal a day, even when it cost less than twenty-five cents. Many lived in Cairo without proper documentation, that is, they didn’t have an up-to-date passport or visa. They faced the constant danger of being picked up in the streets by the police, detained in jail, even deported back to the country from which they had fled. Some faced health issues for which they had little or no personal resources to get treatment.
Yet, in spite of their precarious circumstances, many, when they came together to worship, did so with a sincerity and depth of feeling I’ve rarely seen anywhere else. When I attended their services, I always came away uplifted, because, in spite of their circumstances, they celebrated the greatness and generosity of God. Their faith in God was their ultimate security. Rather than viewing their lives in isolation, they saw themselves as part of something much larger, and by that were comforted and empowered.
Some observers might well ask, “Why? Were they just being comforted by pie in the sky?”
Perhaps. But, for me, it’s a profound example of how the Holy Spirit works to nurture, comfort, uplift, and empower people, even in their most difficult circumstances, perhaps especially in such circumstances because the Spirit has more congenial material to work with. The Spirit does this through the hearing of scripture, the singing of hymns, and the upholding of one another in prayer.
I’ve sometimes likened the Holy Spirit to sunlight streaming through stained-glass windows. During the day, from the outside, stained glass is dark. From the outside, you might think it’s just dirty glass. But if you’re on the inside, the scenes or art forms created by the different colors and arrangements of the glass come to life as the sunlight streams through. We might say the sun’s light empowers the stained glass to speak.
The Holy Spirit works similarly in our lives. The Spirit takes what we call the Holy Scriptures, which for many people are just ordinary human words and stories, and, like sunlight streaming through stained glass, the Spirit illumines the scriptures so that they speak of the marvelous things God has done, is doing, and will do. They nurture our faith in God, provide guidance for how to live in relation to the creation and one another, and comfort us through our most anxious days. They help us to see our lives in a much larger context.
Many of the refugees were remarkable evangelists. They invited others into their fellowship, because they wanted them to know the peace which Jesus Christ continues to give. For them, this wasn’t pie in the sky. It was a very present help in time of trouble. It was a treasure not to be hoarded, but shared. The Holy Spirit empowered and enabled them to participate in God’s mission.
Living in the peace of Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, they taught and continue to teach me many lessons.