April 15, 2012
If you would like to read my sermon on Thomas from last year, go here.
I sometimes joke with people as I’m bringing them upstairs to my office at Grace that getting into our offices is like entering a prison. There are at least three sets of locked doors; two of those sets have no glass to allow a visitor to see what’s inside. We are well protected from the outside world and whatever dangers might lurk there. The church too is locked up tightly during the week. It’s only on Sundays that we open our doors and invite people in.
Behind locked doors. The simple phrase conjures up for us images of terror, of people hunkered down for fear of what ever might lie outside in wait, whatever or whoever might be trying to gain entrance. It’s an image of a world and a people held captive by the terrors in their minds, terrors of what might happen. Whatever security measures are necessary, and no doubt they are, the way we execute them says something about how we approach and think about our neighborhood, the people who walk the streets and sidewalks outside our door, our openness to the world around us. The Episcopal Church has a slogan you may have seen, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you!” I wonder how true that is for Grace.
There are other ways of thinking about locked doors—not just literally, as powerful as that may be. We all have locked doors—to rooms or areas of our lives into which we don’t want to invite anyone, even our own scrutiny. We live with fears, scars and hurt from past relationships, broken dreams, and the like. Sometimes, we ourselves, our better selves, crouch behind locked doors because of our fears of what might happen if we allowed ourselves to experience life outside those doors, to experience new hopes and possibilities.
The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews. After all of it, after Peter and the Beloved Disciple had run to the tomb; after the Risen Christ had appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden; after she had come back to the disciples and told them the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples gathered in a house behind locked doors, cowering in fear. John’s gospel blames “the Jews” for this, as he blames the same group for many other things that take place, including the crucifixion, and the unwillingness of Jesus’ disciples like Joseph of Arimathea, to make a public confession of faith in Jesus Christ. This anti-Judaism reflects worsening conflict between the Jewish community and members, and former members who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah. It’s one of the difficult realities of early Christianity, that has a long and pernicious history that continues to the present day.
But the other gospels agree that one of the common responses by Jesus’ disciples to news of his resurrection was fear. We see it in the women who went to the tomb in Matthew and Mark. We also see it in the response of the disciples when they see the Risen Christ for themselves. We might wonder about the source of that fear? Was it because they didn’t truly believe what they had seen—that Jesus had risen from the dead? Was it because they couldn’t process what they had seen and heard? The notion of Jesus’ resurrection was so out of the realm of expectation that they couldn’t make sense of it. Was it because, not believing it, they were worried, perhaps rightly so, that with the leader of their little band executed by the Romans, they might be next?
We don’t know; the gospels don’t give the details; they don’t explain the reasons for that fear or for the disciples’ behavior after hearing the news of Jesus’ resurrection. Whatever the reasons, there they were, gathered together behind locked doors, gathered for mutual support, gathered in fear.
Into that room, in spite of the locked doors, the Risen Christ appeared to the disciples. In that room, as he showed them the marks of his wounds, Jesus blessed them and empowered them. This is John’s version of the giving of the Holy Spirit. Jesus sends them out from that place, from that locked room to be his missionaries and he gives them the power of the Holy Spirit to do all of the things he had done in his ministry while among them—“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
One of the great mysteries—no, miracles—of the resurrection is the transformation that took place in and among Jesus’ disciples. From a band of ragtag peasants from rural Galilee, they became the agents of a new movement that transformed the world. Empowered by their experience of the Risen Christ, the spread the Good News of Jesus throughout the world. Their experience changed the world, and it offers the possibility of changing us.
We see that change taking place already in this story. There’s a subtle change, from one week to the next. Two significant details are different in the two resurrection appearances narrated here. The first is the obvious one, Thomas’ absence from the group on the the evening of Easter. The second is less obvious, though perhaps of equal importance. The first time, as we have seen, the disciples gathered behind locked doors. A week later, although the doors were shut, there is no mention of them being locked. Other things have happened, as well. The disciples have already accepted the task with which Jesus had charged them. They had told Thomas about what they had seen. They had gone out from that place, as Jesus had sent them.
Locked doors could not prevent the appearance of Jesus Christ among the disciples. They couldn’t keep him out, even if that wasn’t their intent. What they intended, certainly, was to be with one another, to process the events that had transpired and assess the news Mary Magdalene had told them. No doubt, just as the locked doors kept others out, those locked doors allowed them to focus inwardly, on one another and on the group, and not think about the larger world and the larger significance of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. They were asking, what does this all mean for us, and not “What does this all mean for the world?”
But Jesus was having none of it. “As the Father has sent me, So I am sending you.” He burst through the locked doors, burst through their introspection, and challenged them to leave the comfort of their hideout and share the Good News with the world.
I wonder about Grace’s locked doors. Now don’t misinterpret me; I’m not advocating we abandon necessary security procedures. What I wonder is what those locked doors say about us as a congregation and about our role in the community—even about how we think about our neighbors. What message do our locked doors send to our neighbors, and indeed, to ourselves? What are we saying about who we are, especially about who we are as God’s people?
I don’t have answers to these questions, but I do think it’s important to ask them. I’ve said before that the way we use our building sends an important message to our community; in some respects, it helps define us for others and for ourselves. For example, the fact that Madison Bach Musicians are having concerts here this weekend is an important witness. Grace Presents, the presence of the Men’s Drop-In Shelter, our food pantry, all of those speak loudly about who we are.
But could we do more? In the coming months, we will be exploring that question in a number of ways as we begin thinking about our space and our future. Stay tuned, and be ready to participate in the conversations.
But as I said, locked doors are not just about physical matters. Locked doors are symbols, and many of us know how we have closed ourselves off to others, and to God. The good news is that Jesus can break through the locked doors of our hearts as easily and as powerfully as he broke through the doors the disciples had locked. The good news is that the Risen Christ comes to us, to offer us new life and new hope, and also offers us the power and possibility of sharing the good news of that new life and new hope to others as well. Thanks be to God!