The Holy Gospel According to John 20:19-31
I’m wondering how many of us remember what it is like to wake up the day after our identities have changed. Think back to what might have felt like a big accomplishment or event for you. Perhaps that day after you graduated high school, college or graduate school. The day after you were married, or had a child. The day after you started your first big job, when you could finally say that you had started in a vocation you felt called to. In my experience, I woke up those days following expecting to feel entirely different, and in some ways, I did. But I was still the same me, even if I could say something new about myself. I was ordained, but I still didn’t like bananas, for example. I was married, but I still really really thought that 20 seasons of Law and Order wasn’t too many.
So, here we are, woken up, and reminded on this side of Easter that we are a resurrection people, an Easter people. A people with a new identity in this season. We have been freed by a tomb that was found empty, sent on our way by a God that would not be held down even by the grave, and now, we are left wondering, what kind of people does this make us? As I walked down the street yesterday in the cold but sunny weather, I had a moment where I thought, oh, my goodness, just last week I was here with Erin and Bev buzzing around getting ready for the Vigil all day! How has it only been a week? Even here in the office we’ve all felt the let down from the busy-ness, the excitement, the rushed planning of the Triduum, and now, we are left with that feeling of what should we do now?
Fortunately, for all the times we have felt the same, we are in some good company on this day as we hear the stories of what it felt like to be an Easter people not that long after that first Easter day. Except, for the disciples in the gospel of John, they are locked up in a room, full of fear and foreboding. So, not quite decorating the space with lilies and singing a resounding hallelujah.
As I was thinking about these locked up disciples, I remembered a story from way back when I was interviewing for a first call pastor position after graduating seminary. Of course, there were a lot of us out there looking for churches, and we’d come back and share stories with one another about the awesome, and sometimes totally bizarre things that were happening in churches looking for a pastor. A dear friend traveled to a congregation that she was really excited about. They were in a transitioning neighborhood with lots of excitement and and had a lot of possibility. She was there for a good part of the weekend, exploring the area and, on Sunday, attending worship. That’s when it got a little weird. On Sunday mornings, at this particular church, as soon as the pastor comes out of the sacristy and takes her place to begin the service, the head usher takes a key and locks all the doors in the church. Apparently, they had had some people come to worship that they didn’t know if belonged, wandering in part way through the service, homeless, or drunk, sometimes loud, maybe struggling with drugs. In order to keep worship going smoothly they decided the best thing was to lock all the doors as soon as it began, in order that those people couldn’t get in.
I’d say we could laugh about the ridiculousness of a church like that, but really, they are only doing what so many of churches do without turning the lock with a key. They are afraid. Like us who might not exactly jump up to welcome someone who doesn’t look like us, or who might make us uncomfortable, or who might seem like they don’t fit.
Our gospel text tells us that the disciples were locked in this upper room because they are scared, probably because they have just seen their Lord crucified. The text says they are scared of the crowds, but on scholar, suggests that there is a little more behind their fear. Scared of the crowds, sure, that makes sense. But, after denying the Lord that they promised to stand with, some of them promising to stand with him to death, it is no wonder that they are scared, and probably pretty ashamed. All their promises came to nothing, as each one of them fled, turned their back, or denied their Lord. They have already heard from Mary that the Lord lives, and, instead of searching for him, instead of wandering the streets of Jerusalem amazed that Easter has come, they are huddled in a tiny room, alone, afraid. Not only are they unable to experience the reality of the resurrection, I wonder if they are more than just a little scared that a Christ risen from the grave may not be coming to greet them with love
The disciples are locked in an upper room for fear. That church locks its doors for fear. Everyone says it is to keep the others out, but sometimes the locks that we work so hard to close aren’t to keep others out, it is to keep ourselves in. To keep ourselves in because we are afraid, or we are ashamed, or we are scared. Like the disciples, we lock ourselves into little rooms, perhaps because we are afraid of what will happen if we actually find Jesus. Afraid and ashamed for Jesus to see our scars, our pain, our struggles. Afraid that we have denied Christ one too many times and maybe all our chances have run out.
That is where the disciples are, locked up in a dusty and humid room, locked up scared and ashamed. But, suddenly, there is Jesus, right in the middle of them. Jesus doesn’t even open the door, he just appears in front of them. He just appears to them, even as they wait in fear. He appears and he says to those that are gathered, “Peace be with you…” Now, this isn’t just like the kind of peace that we give to one another before we take communion, this peace in our text is the opposite of fear. It is like Jesus is looking at each of those gathered and is saying, don’t be afraid anymore. Be free. Know peace. Open your doors.
And maybe, that is why we also get a glimpse into a vision of the church in Acts, usually thought to have been written only a decade or so after this vision of the post Easter church we read about in the gospel of John. Here we find a completely different kind of church. No longer are the locked up in some upper room for fear of the people around them and the darkness within themselves, this church, freed by the power of Christ who showed up in their midst isn’t behind a locked door, but out in the streets. They were telling the powerful story of Christ, no longer afraid of the resurrection but renewed by it.
But that’s not all. Because the thing about fear, if you can imagine a time when you have been afraid, is that it causes you to tense up. Think about the last time you saw a scary movie, or had to go into the basement at night, or woke up to the sound of something alarming. It is like every muscle and every molecule of your body is on high alert. We clench our fists, we tense our jaws, all of this is the body’s natural response to fear. Fear helps us prepare to run, because we need to be able to save ourselves. But, this church, in the book of Acts, it isn’t a church of the fearful. Because their hands and their hearts are wide open. They are selling their houses and sharing the profits, they are living together in harmony and releasing ownership of anything, so that no one in their midst was in need. No one claimed private ownership of anything. This is not a church afraid, it is a church resurrected, a people resurrected, where death and fear have no power.
Now, it can be hard to imagine ourselves as this kind of an Easter
people. To be honest, I think a lot of us are more skilled at locking ourselves and our possessions away in upper rooms, hiding things in closets, and stuffing our money under the mattress than we are in living with these open and generous hands. Fear can grab hold of us, convince us that a church like that is just some kind of utopian vision. A world like that is just a utopian vision. If we don’t privatize, well, then someone is going to take advantage of us.
But I think when we are quiet, when we try to calm our fears, when we
tell the stories of our ancestors in faith, in the deepest part of ourselves we want to live with unlocked doors. We want to live with open hands. We want to sit next to a neighbor and know that they aren’t going to bed hungry. We want people to stop having to make Gofundme accounts to pay for medical bills, or to make a just wage for honest work. And our text for today reminds us, that when Christ breathes peace into that room, that peace is for us, too. That peace is an invitation for us to live generous lives. To stop trying to accumulate and instead to live generously for others. To be out on the streets, not afraid, to give away what we have, to stretch ourselves to trust others with our possessions and with our money. To stop privatizing and start living for the public and the common good.
This is the work of the Easter church. This is what we have woken up to, and it isn’t just for us here, it is for the world out there. We have been changed, for the better, my friends. Let us live this resurrected life. Amen, and thanks be to God.