Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Out From Behind Closed Doors

“Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said ‘Peace be with you.’”
 John 20:26

The Rev. Luther Zeigler
The Second Sunday in Easter
April 3, 2016

            Today’s gospel text is commonly called ‘the story of Doubting Thomas,’ and it would be reasonable to suppose that a sermon on this Second Sunday of Easter should focus on Thomas and his well-known problem with doubt.  And goodness knows, there is much to be learned from Thomas’ story about the relationship between faith and doubt, believing and seeing, and about Christ’s willingness to meet Thomas where he is. But, I submit to you, that as rich as that aspect of the story may be, there is just as much to be learned in today’s text by closely watching the interaction between the risen Christ and the other disciples. Let me try to convince you.
            In John’s gospel, you may remember, the risen Christ first appears to Mary Magdalene.   After discovering the empty tomb on Easter morning, and telling Peter and John what she has discovered, Mary then has her extraordinary encounter with her Lord.  Initially, you’ll recall, she doesn’t recognize that the strange man lingering near the tomb is the risen Christ – that is, until he calls out her name.  “Mary!,” he says.  And it is then that she realizes that it is Jesus who stands before her.  “Go to my brothers and tell them that I am alive,” Jesus says.  And so she does.  Mary, the first apostle, immediately runs to the other disciples to tell them the good news that Christ is risen. The first Easter proclamation. And that brings us to today’s text.
            Now, one might think that in the wake of such unexpectedly wonderful news, the disciples would be dancing with joy in the streets or that they would quickly return to the tomb in the hope that they too could greet the risen Christ.  But, no, that is not what the disciples do.  Seemingly afraid of even their own shadow, they instead retreat into someone’s house, we’re not told whose, behind locked doors, cowering in fear, apparently unsure of what to do next.
            Perhaps they are afraid that they too may be arrested and crucified if identified as one of Jesus’ followers?  Perhaps they are afraid that they might be accused of stealing Jesus’ body to fabricate a resurrection, as the chief priests had openly predicted?  Or, perhaps, they are even a little afraid of meeting the risen Christ?  After all, unlike the women and the beloved disciple, most of them had fled the scene of the crucifixion.  If I had abandoned my dearest friend in his greatest hour of need, I am not so sure I would be eager to see him quite so soon, if ever.  All of these are possibilities.  The only thing we know for sure is that the disciples are, once again, afraid.
             And so, they hide.  They lock themselves behind closed doors.  There is irony here, of course:  Just as the chief priests after Jesus’ death ordered that his body be secured in the tomb behind a big boulder with guards standing at the entrance, because they were afraid of what might happen next, so now the disciples, after hearing that Jesus is alive from one of their own, seek to lock themselves behind the security of a heavy door, also out of fear of what might happen next.
            The risen Christ, however, will not let our fears stand between us and Him.  Instead, He walks right through the locked doors of our fears, stands in our midst, and greets us with the unforgettable words:  “Peace be with you.”  Christ brings us “peace.”
            If we have learned anything in the gospels by this point, however, it is that Christ rarely brings us exactly what we expect or want; rather, he brings us what we need.  And that is equally true of the “peace” he brings to his followers.
            Undoubtedly the “peace” the disciples crave in that moment with their risen Lord is the “peace” of security, of being protected from their fears, shielded from their persecutors and the angry crowds.  The “peace” the disciples yearn for, the “peace” that most of us yearn for, is, I suspect, something akin to a warm and lasting embrace, an enduring respite from the storm of life, a return to the safety of a mother’s arms.
            But what we learn today is that the “peace” Christ gives is not nearly so simple:  “Peace be with you,” he says.  “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  This verse is a critical pivot in John’s text.  The “peace” that Jesus has in mind, it turns out, is the “peace” of being sent back into the world.  This is the crucial moment when Jesus turns his disciples into apostles; when followers of Jesus are transformed by the gift of the Spirit into messengers of Jesus.  The strange “peace” that Jesus has in mind is the “peace” of being sent:  of being sent into a sometimes hostile world, of bearing his message to those who have never heard it, of helping to bring about His Kingdom. 
            So, how do the disciples take this news?  Now, that they have seen the risen Christ, and received the Holy Spirit, and have been given the “peace” of this apostolic commissioning, and have been told to embark upon a ministry of forgiving sins, what do our wayward friends of Jesus do?  They go back into their house and close the doors.   There is no indication in John’s narrative that any of them take Jesus’ words to heart.  Instead, in the very next scene, we find the disciples, a week later, once again back in their house, once again with the doors shuttered.  Fear runs deep in the human heart.
            And yet, Jesus returns, and once more breaking through the doors of their fears, he stands among them, and says:  “Peace be with you.”
            It is at this point in the text, of course, that Jesus turns to Thomas, the one who had not been there the first time round, and shows Thomas the wounds from his crucifixion.  And, were we focusing on Thomas today, we might dwell in these verses:  appreciating how Christ’s willingness to show Thomas his wounds reveals our Lord’s deep desire to meet Thomas in his unbelief, so that he might dispel Thomas’ fear – a fear of believing without seeing. 
            But because our focus is on the other disciples, let us notice the fact that Christ reveals his woundedness not only to Thomas but to these other disciples as well.  And in so doing, he is, I am convinced, meeting their unbelief as well.  Their unbelief stems not from a fear of believing without seeing, as with Thomas – for they have seen the risen Christ once before – but, rather, their fear is in acting on their belief.  They are reluctant apostles.  Their Lord had a week earlier breathed the Spirit of new life into them, and invited them to go out into the world as his apostles, and yet here they remain, behind closed doors, seemingly paralyzed by fear.  By returning to them and showing his wounds, it is as if Christ is saying:  “See, I too was sent by our Father into the world, I have endured all of its cruelty and hostility, and I have the scars to show for it; and yet, here I still am, given new and everlasting life by the Father, so that I might now send you out into the world after me to continue the work of building God’s Kingdom without fear.”
            In this sense, the Easter miracle of today’s text is almost as stunning as last Sunday’s message:  not only do we learn that Jesus is risen, but we are reassured that he will come again and again and again to us, determined to break through our fears, willing to appear when we are least expecting him, resolved to dispel our confusion, and to make apostles of us.  There is a wonderful relentlessness to the love of the risen Christ, one that is not deterred by our feeble attempts to keep him at bay.  He keeps bursting forth into our lives. 
            Of course, throughout it history, right down to the present moment, the Church has often fallen back into the same fearfulness that plagued these initial disciples.  Too often we close ourselves off behind the doors of our churches, where we are comfortable, and feel safe.  And yet the “peace” Christ offer us here today in the word and sacrament we share is the same “peace” he offered to Thomas and his friends – a “peace” that, by its nature, sends us out into the world. 
            There is a reason why, at the end of our service every Sunday, we are dismissed with the words, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”  We need to hear these words afresh, and take them to heart.  Like Christ’s first disciples we too need to claim and live into our Christian identity, not just within the fours walls of our Church, but out there, in the world.  We need to re-learn how to be apostles.                         
            So as you leave this place today, I invite you to consider these simple questions:  where is Christ sending you?  To whom can you bring the peace that passeth all understanding?

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