April 23, 2017-Behind Locked Doors

John 20:19-31

“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.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

Do you remember Mary’s proclamation to the other disciples? She first tells the disciples on Easter morning that the body of the Crucified Christ is no longer in the tomb where it should be. This sets in motion a foot race in which Peter and the Beloved Disciple set off to see for themselves what Mary stumbled upon in the garden. Having seen the empty tomb for themselves, they return home. Mary’s blessing is that she stays in the garden and in her grief and distress, she meets the Risen Lord who knows and calls her by name.

Jesus tells her to go and tell the others what he has shared with her. She goes to the disciples a second time to declare the mysteries she has encountered in the garden. ‘I have seen the Lord.’

How do you think the disciples spent Easter afternoon? They had heard the astounding declaration from Mary that the tomb was empty and Christ had spoken directly to her. Presumably, they had heard some retelling of the morning’s events from Peter and the Beloved Disciple when they too returned from the garden tomb.

Perhaps the afternoon was spent prepping the evening meal or it was spent in group conversation as the events of the past week were told again in agonizing detail in an attempt to make sense of them. As the afternoon hours turned into evening, there was a palatable fear and anxiety in the house where the disciples were staying. Of course there was.

What a terrible and traumatic loss the group had endured. Their friend was arrested by force, tried publicly, tortured, and then executed as a common criminal. There was every reason to think that what the ruling religious authorities and Rome did to Jesus could be done to those who followed Jesus into Jerusalem and proclaimed him as Messiah, Son of God. This is the heart of the matter when Peter is standing out in the courtyard of the high priest. He is asked time and time again whether he keeps company with Jesus of Nazareth and he insists that he doesn’t have anything to do with the man until the cock crows and his denial of Jesus is confirmed.

The doors of the house are locked because the Jewish ruling elite are quite capable of treating the remaining disciples the way Jesus was treated. It is into this climate that Jesus approaches the disciples. He speaks God’s shalom upon them, not just peace and tranquility but the kind of peace that only accompanies the presence of God’s kingdom. After he speaks peace into their midst, he offers them evidence of exactly who he is. Even raised from death, Jesus still embodies the wounds from his torture and crucifixion and this is telling. God doesn’t erase from Jesus’ body all of his suffering, woundedness, and marks of his humanity. If he did, Jesus would have been unfamiliar to those he called friends and disciples.

The marks of suffering help the disciples identify Jesus. They don’t ask to see his wounds-he preempts the move. When they realize by recognition of his wounds that it is indeed Jesus the Risen Christ standing there in their midst, they rejoice. It’s confirmation again of Mary, Peter, and the Beloved Disciple’s witness. The tomb is empty. Christ is Risen.

The disciples are given a commission in this Easter evening encounter with the Risen Christ. Go. You have been sent into the world. By the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, you are sent forth from this place. The same Spirit of God that hovered over the waters of creation and that was breathed into human life at creation is now equipping Jesus’ followers for life on the other side of the empty tomb.

After breathing God’s Spirit upon them and sending them forth, the episode ends and it comes to our attention that the disciple Thomas is noticeably missing. Where was Thomas? I wonder. Perhaps he was the only one not terrified enough to go out and walk the city streets, getting on with the errands of the day. Maybe he couldn’t stand sitting around the house replaying the agonizing events held down in spirit by the weight of anxiety. For whatever reason, grand or mundane, Thomas wasn’t home with the rest of the disciples. And when the news is shared with him that the others had seen the Lord, he suggests that until he sees the wounds of the Risen Christ, he will not believe.

And for that request, Thomas has been labeled through the ages as a doubter. That is a misidentification. Thomas asks for no more than what the other disciples were already given-a glimpse at the marks of suffering that verify Jesus is once again among them.

A week later, the disciples have gathered again and this time Thomas is with them. Jesus again enters the space speaking words of peace to them and offers Thomas the signs of woundedness that he insisted he had to see on Easter evening. Like calling the name of Mary in the garden, this offer to Thomas meets his need to see. Thomas hasn’t demanded more evidence than was already given to the other disciples. I think the church would do well to call Thomas something other than a doubter because I see an immense faith. It takes a deep trust to call out my lord and my god. That is a profound recognition that Jesus is the Christ, the promised one who has come to make Gods love known to the world.

On this second Easter Sunday, Thomas will be the focal point of many preachers as he has partly been here today. But I want to draw your attention to the fear that is paralyzing the resurrection ministry of the disciples. The disciples have literally fortressed themselves inside a private residence so as not to be found. Understandably so. They fear bodily harm for aligning themselves with Jesus of Nazareth. And this fear and physical isolation cuts themselves off from further relationship in the name of the one they followed faithfully for years as he healed, taught, and demonstrated the reign of God in the world.

When I search the scriptures and I see disciples behind locked doors, it’s time to take a pulse and see how close we find ourselves as the church in the world acting like the
disciples on Easter evening: scared of the volatile world in which we live, cut off from
our neighbors, or unwilling to live as if the resurrection of Jesus Christ is true and matters to the world.

When followers of Jesus Christ cower behind closed doors, the world loses out on resurrection hope and opportunities of restorative relationships with neighbors. And right now, the church universal stands on less ground in the United States than it has in the last century. A rapidly changing, complex, polarizing, and at times, volatile society does not make resurrection ministry any easier. For reasons of a rapidly changing world and cultural shifts that far outpace most established churches, staying behind the security of closed doors telling well known stories becomes comfortable. After while, that kind of ministry doesn’t lend itself to spirited resurrection ministry.

Nobody enjoys a church closing story-sometimes earnest and faithful Jesus followers can’t find a way out behind closed doors.

On Union Avenue in Memphis once stood a beautiful United Methodist church that dated back to the early part of the 20th century. There are several in Nashville that are equal in physical stature and history as Union Avenue. But in 2010 Union Avenue UMC ceased to exist as a worshipping community and by 2012, it ceased to exist even as a monument to Methodism in western Tennessee. It was ultimately demolished and a CvS pharmacy was built on the same plot of land.

And this is always a cautionary tale for those who claim the name of Christ and the hope of an empty garden tomb. When The Risen Christ enters into our midst speaking words of Gods shalom amidst our anxiety, he also breathes Gods Spirit upon us as a commission to go and serve our vulnerable neighbors. There are neighbors here in south Cheatham and just beyond whose livelihood depends on the continued willingness of this congregation to live for those beyond itself. Shoring up behind closed doors fearful of the world on the outside has never been this church’s way in the world because we know that in the wounds of the Risen Christ that God takes suffering and transforms it. That is resurrection ministry we want to be part of. Transformation of this community. Restoration of broken spirits. Recognizing Christ at work and on the move in a hurting world.

Don’t cower behind closed doors. You’re sent having felt the Spirit of God like a breeze on your cheek.