*Preached on 28 April 2019, a First Christian Church of Hampton. The Easter season is an opportunity to explore the birth of the Church and how the disciples lives’ were so changed, they themselves became a beckon to Christ. It is much to ponder in an age when we really need to think about what it means to “be church” – not as an organization or for us to have some sense of belonging, but as those filled with a purpose that truly invites others into relationship. Lots to ponder! – Vinson
The Gospel of John 20:19-31 (New Revised Standard Version)
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, 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. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
There comes a time to each of us as believers, when we must live the resurrection, and yet the Sunday after Easter is invariably a tough one. The busyness of Lent and certainly Holy Week are over, and fatigue then hits in the wake of the drama… the trauma… and even the early word of the Good News. Clergy and choirs alike everywhere tend to feel as much relief that it is over as joy. Then, somewhere in the recesses of the mind and heart there a question always arises, “OK, what’s next?”
Let’s be honest, it’s usually not a question of energy, but of anxiety, as God’s word, in this case, from John, initiates us into the experience of those first disciples.
It’s Easter evening, when Jesus appears among the disciples. It has been a bewildering day of it. Gathered in the upper room, one could reasonably infer that nearly all of them had been hidden there through the bulk of the horrific and uncertain recent days since that last meal together. Given the sabbath would have gone from Friday night to Saturday night, they would not have traveled any distance even if they had wanted to. They still had the room for their use, even if was serving as a protected place to just absorb all that had transpired, especially with the reports from the women, Peter having gone himself to find the tomb empty, but unlike the women – not having encountered Jesus.
The setting is, if we are faithful in reading the scripture, a bit depressing. We are told that “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked.” They were afraid. They were unsure of how to get on with being Jesus’ disciples.
WHY I BRING THIS UP
Sometimes, if we are really honest with ourselves, we have a similar thought, it being: what do we now do as disciples… as church? Invariably, everyone will look around, scanning faces, hoping someone has the answer.
So let’s start there — in the ground of God’s wisdom — and think for a moment about the scene, through what John writes.
Jesus’ tomb is open and the stone rolled away, but the disciples’ house is closed with the doors locked as tight as the tomb had been.
Jesus is on the loose and appearing here and there, but meanwhile the disciples are bound in fear and hiding.
The few that ventured forth left the empty tomb of Jesus had entered their own tombs of fear, doubt, and blindness right along with the rest.
Jesus words of faith, hope, and love shared by the three Marys, Joanna and the rest Mary Magdalene’s on Easter morning, had seemed an idle tale.
The doors of faith have been closed, their eyes shut to the bold new reality.
They locked themselves in, the doors becoming the great stone sealing their tomb.
They separated themselves and their lives from the reality of Jesus’ resurrection.
But before we get judgmental about them, especially Thomas, we have to admit that we too know such days. We’ve experienced them. The days when we prefer to just stay in bed, pull the covers over our head, and close out the world and not deal with the full reality – both the death AND even the resurrection. It even happens to churches.
We might THINK we know what it is to lock ourselves in, but does that provide only a false sense of “security?” Might we – instead – actually be sealing our tomb and imprisoning our lives, our minds, and our hearts?
If Easter evening has come, the empty tomb has been seen, the words of Mary Magdalene saying “I have seen the Lord” have echoed… yet there is the holing up with those known best, while the doors are locked with fear.
Here’s the thing to note; as John describes the upper room, the doors, the locks – he is speaking of much more than about a physical space, its walls, doors hanging on pivots that were the typical hinges of the time, and wooden locks like Jesus might have once made when he was a carpenter. What John, who is the one gospel author who always uses story to get to the meaningfulness of events, vice just straight facts, is actually describing is the interior condition of the disciples as the locked places of lives are always more about what is going on inside than around.
So a week after Easter, the witness of John asks: How is our life different after Easter? Are we living in the freedom – and yes – the joy of resurrection? Or, are we still behind locked doors? John sets this scene to ask us to pause upon the deeper questions, witnessed through the disciples’ behavior and words: What are the closed places of our lives?
What keeps us locked in our own tomb?
Perhaps it is fear of the unknown that keeps us locked in our tomb. If we are paralyzed by our fears, it’s as if our feet are caught in a glue trap, and this will hinder our movement toward the resurrection.
Perhaps it is the questions we fear, the disbelief, and/or the conditions we place on our faith, that keep us locked in our tomb. If we cannot speak openly and honestly about what puzzles or confuses us, it will hamstring our movement toward the resurrection.
Perhaps it is sorrow and loss that keep us locked in our tomb. If we are so absorbed in our own woundedness that we cannot look up, it will restrict our movement toward the resurrection.
Perhaps it is anger and resentment that keep us locked in our tomb. If we are unwilling to embrace the light of new ideas, the exploration of possibilities, and hesitant to make changes, it prevents our movement toward the resurrection.
But here’s the thing, Jesus won’t be halted by locked doors, thanks be to God! John tells us “Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Jesus enters into the locked places of life… unexpected, uninvited, and sometimes downright unwanted… and if we happen to be absent in the moment, Jesus will then too – as Thomas found out. Standing among us, Jesus still offers peace and Jesus still breathes new life into his disciples.
I suppose that’s why I’ve found myself thinking again about a man I once knew some thirty plus years ago when I was a regional medical center chaplain in Kentucky, and this poor soul had been brought down from the mountains. If I was his chaplain, I also found him inviting me into being a student of God’s grace. The gentleman had an awful combination of an aggressive cancer and out of control diabetes. I had been called to an ICU because he was throwing things and the nurses were looking for a way to calm him down. They had put him in an isolation room, to minimize what other patients could hear, and when I stepped into the room, I realized his body had been whittled away while nothing would heal. Gone were his legs and even his hips. The cancer had spread into his abdomen and there was no hope, medically speaking. He had days to live, I was told. OR So They Thought! God had other plans. It was not an easy first meeting, as he would only stare at me in constrained fury. I finally said it was OK for him to be angry and I would be available if he changed his mind. Days later, his sister tracked me down. It seems he couldn’t remember my name, but he did remember a short, bearded chaplain, so the staff had no difficulty knowing it was me! At her behest, I returned again to him and we entered into conversation. He believed in Jesus, but he needed more.
He had sought to become perfect before he gave his life, not realizing Jesus was his perfection.
Dying, he thought he had no life to give, not realizing Jesus could do a lot with what little he had.
He thought his life had no meaning, not realizing Jesus IS the source meaning.
Finally, coming to a place of giving his life to Christ, I remember him asking me, “What can half a man offer?”
We all tend to go straight to the limits we perceive of ourselves. Factual? Perhaps. But absent of the insight of God. In his case, he had quite a lot to offer – once he began to rely on Christ and not himself. I witnessed God use him, half a man, one that not only puzzled the doctors when the cancer retreated and healing occurred, but who in the many weeks he was there changed his siblings not just to a reenergized faith in Jesus Christ, but to step into the joy that surrounded him. He became the one who lightened the hearts of others. I would see worn-out nurses step into his room and step back out with a renewed spirit. He couldn’t read or write, but his sister sent me a note the next year… he was a happy man, one they had not known and could have only been hoped for – alive for reasons medicine could not say, but we could!
We forget, it is not about what one has or doesn’t. It is always about what God has. It is not what this church has in people and resources. It is always about our openness to what God can do, through Jesus Christ.
So a second time, Jesus appears. This time it is to Thomas, saying again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” Speaking to all of us who have not seen the Resurrected Lord, but depend upon the Word, it is Thomas who is offers the first declaration in scripture of Jesus’ divinity, as he proclaimed: “My Lord and my God!”
As believers — we know, we trust — that Christ always stands among his people, in whatever places we are found, saying, “Peace be with you,” and breathing life into that which may appear lifeless.
Regardless of the circumstances! — Jesus shows up bringing peace, offering peace, embodying peace. Regardless of the circumstances! — Jesus shows up bringing life, offering life, embodying life. Neither may change the technical circumstances of our life and world… for this world can be a messy and challenging place. But the life and peace of Jesus’ resurrection enable us to meet and live through those circumstances – endowed with his peace, his breath, his life – sent into the life of others.
We just need to unlock the doors of our own hearts and lives and CONFIDENTLY step out daily into this life which sprang forth from Easter!