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The Gathering

Daily Devotional for Monday, April 19, 2021 from Rev. Eric Douglass


Meditations for Easter: The Gathering
 
Acts 1:9: When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

“Is something wrong?”
 
I looked to my side, where a stranger was staring at me intently, lines of concern crossing his forehead.
 
“Did you see that?” I sputtered, pointing up to the sun.
 
The man squinted towards the blazing sky: “Did I see what, friend?”
 
He had missed it. But what had I seen? I’m not even sure, and I had no clue what it meant. I’m not even sure how to tell you what I saw, or where to start my story. So, you will have to excuse me as I try to pick up all the pieces…it’s almost beyond me.
 
It all started several weeks ago. Jesus, our teacher, was killed…crucified on the charge of sedition. Of course, this was all a lie. Jesus never told to us rebel or fight the Romans. But our leaders were angry about the changes he’d made: he healed people on the Sabbath! What a crime! Simply unforgivable! So they decided to kill him. What a petty group of people. How could they not see the hand of God in all of this? Sigh. But back to the story.
 
Our leaders had him arrested, followed by a mock trial. Then they stirred up the crowds, and had the gall to say that Jesus was the cause of the riot! As if a man who’s chief message was ‘love your neighbor’ would do that! But the Roman soldiers are not the brightest bulbs around. They saw a riot. They needed a cause. Jesus was an easy target. After all, the soldiers are tasked with keeping the populace in check. For Pilate, the easiest path was simply to get rid of the man. There you have it in a nutshell: Jesus was killed because the priests hated his reform, and Pilate was too scared to face off a crowd.
 
Well, after his death, his disciples—of which I am one—started meeting again. Just in small numbers. No need to risk getting Pilate’s spies up in arms. That really is the fear…that the soldiers would come knocking during one of our meetings and arrest the whole lot of us…on suspicion that we are continuing the Jesus-rebellion (as some call it). We were a frightened little band, too small to do anything, and yet too large to hide.
 
That all changed when some of our women came up with a story about seeing Jesus again. At first, of course, their report was dismissed…but more reports kept coming in: the disciples at Emmaus…Peter out fishing…Thomas in the upper room. As unbelievable as it sounds, God had resurrected our teacher!
 
I know this sounds crazy, and you have every right to stop reading this…but even I saw him! It was a gloomy night, with rain making puddles in the dirt roads, staining the hem of my robe to a dirty brown. Seven or eight of us had met in a small dining room for dinner and conversation. We mostly talked about the Roman patrols and Pilate’s spies, but our conversation had strayed into these ‘appearances.’ About half of us were convinced…and about half weren’t. We argued over whether a resurrection would take the person to God, or leave ‘parts’ of that person on earth. Other chimed in, reminding us that Jesus had said he would not leave us alone, but would “come to us.” But it was John who saw the underlying issue all too clearly: “I miss him too.”
 
At that moment, he appeared…standing behind John, hand on his shoulder. He uttered one word: “Peace,” and with those same piercing eyes looked at each of us…and then vanished in the darkness.
 
Now, you may think that I am hallucinating out of my extreme grief…but everyone else heard the same thing. How could I doubt such a thing? In that moment, I became a believer in the resurrection. And I saw Jesus—perhaps for the first time—for what he was: the son of God. And for the first time I called him by his real name: my Lord and my God. And for the first time, I prayed to him for mercy.
 
But that was not the end of it. Jesus just kept on appearing! That brings us to what happened today. The morning started with a glorious sunrise, much like the dawn that had come to my heart. I was happy. I went to meet with my brothers and sisters for breakfast, stopping by the marketplace for some bread and cheese, and a couple of figs. We gathered at the outskirts of Jerusalem, near the Mount of Olives, and talked about his teachings…how we could show love to those who so despised us…how we could be gentle in the face of anger…and how we could move forward as a community. Such lofty goals…
 
And that was when he appeared. His eyes were shinning, like he was proud of us, his little band of disciples. Like we were all that really mattered. And he told us that he loved us. And that we were to reach out into our world with the same gentleness that he had shown us. And that we were to carry on this mission. He smiled, and for just a moment, all seemed right with the world. Then he disappeared in the clouds and sun.
 
 “Is something wrong?”
 
I looked to my side, where a stranger was staring at me intently.
 
“Did you see that?” I sputtered, pointing up to the sun.
 
The man squinted towards the blazing sky: “Did I see what, friend?”
 
“It was God…just there…in front of the sun.”
 
The man gave me a quizzical look, and then slowly began to back away…his hands outstretched to keep some distance between us.
 
“He told us to be a family, and to care for others, and to be gentle with one another.”
 
The man stopped: “God told you to be gentle?”
 
“Yes, friend. For God was gentle first to us.”
 
“No one has ever been gentle to me.” He took a deep breath, as if trying to decide what to say next. “My father was an alcoholic, and a mean drunk…my boss yells at me to do this and to make that, and then docks my pay when I defend myself…the world is harsh…how could God be gentle?” He paused for a moment, and then continued with the pleading tone that I have rarely heard: “I need some gentleness.”
 
I walked over to him and put my hand on his shoulder: “Welcome home.”


Our Lord:
 
We so often need a gentle word
or a kind act or a bit of mercy,
especially when our lives have gone sideways
in a harsh and unforgiving world.
 
And then we turn to you,
only to find that you—in all your power—
are still gentle, and still kind, and still merciful.
And so we feel your hand on our shoulder,
as you welcome us home.
And so we are at peace.
 
Amen.

About the Author
Eric Douglass is the covenant pastor at New Hanover Presbyterian Church, where his work emphasizes adult education. Writing meditations is a natural extension of this. During the current pandemic, his goals have been to ensure that the folk at New Hanover see the deep connection that they have to God and the community, even though the community can’t meet in person. This connection is not just one of continued fellowship, but of God’s presence in the community. God stands with us, no matter what path we are on. In this way, God acts like the father and mother who refuse to abandon their child, no matter how wayward that child, or how difficult the situation. Psalm 23 captures this perfectly: “The Lord is my shepherd.” Eric is a graduate of the University of Missouri, initially earning a degree in biology, and then his medical degree from that university’s Medical School. After practicing medicine for many years, he earned a Masters in Divinity and a Masters in Theology from Union Theological Seminary, here in Richmond. Since that time, he has authored two books, frequently delivers papers at the Society for Biblical Literature, and is an adjunct professor at Randolph-Macon College. But the work he enjoys the most is teaching at New Hanover. Whether in casual discussion during the coffee hour, or a structured Sunday School class, or a Wednesday night special event, this is where he finds authentic people engaged in living out their life with God. Eric lives in Mechanicsville, VA, with his wife (Felecia). He enjoys doing fine cabinetry work and hiking. He has two children, Michael and Daniel, who both live in the DC area. His family is especially fond of playing board games, through which they have whittled away many a winter’s evening.