The Second Sunday of Easter
John 20:19 -- 31
On the evening of that day, that first Easter Day, the disciples were gathered together, but as yet none of them had seen their risen Lord. There they were behind locked doors. We can begin to imagine the thoughts they held within their minds, we can almost sense and feel the depth of their fears, we can listen for their quiet conversation among themselves as they questioned everything, and of course there in the middle of the room are the deepest feelings of guilt because they had scattered and abandoned their Lord at the point of his greatest need, and yet the fact that they had gathered together suggests to us that there was still a glimmer of hope within them, in this small community. Yes they had scattered at his arrest in the garden. The one who did stay nearby so he could find out what was going on, Peter, ended up denying that he knew Jesus at all. He who had promised he would never deny his Lord denied him three times. Most of them hadn't even been witnesses to the crucifixion, they were all ready far away from that place of horror, not wanting to be snapped into it themselves. Now they were hiding behind closed and locked doors. Yet even behind those doors they sensed the darkness over the land and then the rumors began trickling in, that it was over, that Jesus was dead. Perhaps they began to hear bits and pieces of what he had said from the cross. Feeling guilty, feeling overwhelmed, feeling disappointed in themselves, and barely able to look at one another, one can imagine that there was no joy in that Sabbath for the disciples. There was no delighting in the goodness of God's gifts. Perhaps they even wondered if God was still present or even if there was a God. Particularly because one of their own had been the betrayer they may have wondered if they could ever trust anyone or anything again. They had entrusted their life to Jesus and he was gone now. Yet as the new week began, they started to find one another, gathered behind locked and closed doors perhaps they began to open up with one another; they needed to talk, too grieve, to share their silence together. Then more rumors. The women said they'd seen him. John believed them; he saw the empty grave clothes. Others said they heard his body had been stolen and the officials would be very eager to find someone upon which to place the blame. Perhaps it was best for them to remain huddled away behind closed and locked doors, best to keep a very low profile.
"When it was evening of the day of the resurrection, 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."
Jesus then showed them his hands and his side, he showed them the vivid evidence that this was he who had been with them before his death, by showing them what had happened to him, the cause of death, and they were overjoyed to see him.
About a week later a meeting like this happened again. This time it was Thomas one of the 12 who is doubtful about all these resurrection rumors. He had not been there for the first gathering. Poor Thomas, so often getting the short end of the stick for being the skeptic. But his disbelief was no more or less than that of the others at first. The only difference was that the testimony the other disciples refuse to believe was that of women no doubt much easier for them to dismiss. Thomas dismissed the testimony of the other disciples, perhaps thinking of them sharing in a collective delusion. Perhaps he believed that rather than facing the truth of the grief and the death of their Lord they had determined to invent a story upon which they could carry on without facing the excruciating pain of the loss of Jesus. How could they have come to this conclusion without him he may have wondered? But then Jesus came and stood among them again, this time with Thomas present, and again he said, "Peace be with you." Jesus then 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."
Jesus came to the disciples as a bearer of peace. His greeting was so much more than a mere gesture of recognition, so much more then, "hello, how are you?" Its structure suggests that it was a formula of revelation similar to those used in extraordinary visitations, such as Gideon's meeting with the Angels or Daniel's visions and its connotations are, "peace be restored to you." That little gathering of disciples on that first Easter Day was far from being peaceful. Even upon the arrival of their crucified friend who was able to appear in the room with them through locked doors, even then, one can imagine that there was no peace within them. These disciples, locked within themselves, locked in fear, in disappointment and self-loathing, in anger and helplessness were nowhere near to experiencing peace. They needed the strong words of the Lord to comfort them and they needed to see his hands and his side to affirm that, yes he was the same rabbi they had loved and known and deserted at his cross, that this marvelous and extraordinary experience had a definite continuity with their past. He came to them even when they had run from him. He found them when they were hiding behind locked doors. He spoke peace to them with the strength that they had known before his death and when their eyes were finally opened, "then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord." And Thomas who struggled so, being left out in the first visitation and who was in disbelief of his brothers experience, proclaims in his experience of the risen Lord, "my Lord and my God!"
In this brief and powerful story from the Gospel of John, we see the trajectory of faith. We see fear turned to joy; we see the doubt of Thomas turned to the most powerful confession of faith in all of the New Testament, we see a retreat and inwardness and fear and hiding turned to an apostolic sending out in the power of God's own the Holy Spirit. Thomas proclamation of faith can still be found upon the lips of believers. An old friend used to say those words, "my Lord and my God!" Each time she received communion. As her priest I found myself moved by her faithfulness. Even though it was I who placed the body of Christ in her outstretched hands it was she who was strengthening my faith through a proclamation which I believe was made through her in the power of the Spirit.
And now we, as recipients of that apostolic mission, some 2000 years later, gather on this second Sunday of the Easter season. I suspect that among us there are still locked doors. We still spend a certain amount of time locked up within ourselves. Isn't it true that we lock other people out of our lives at times? Whenever there is someone we've refuse to forgive we lock them out and in refusing to forgive we lock up a part of ourselves as well. What if Jesus had locked the disciples from him because of his bitterness at their betrayal -- if that was the case he would not be the Jesus we know and love. Jesus forgives the disciples, he comes to them in their betrayal, and he finds them and unlocks the doors of their hearts and their lives. Sometimes we may lock out a spouse or a child or a coworker. Sometimes we lock out whole groups of people and nations. Over these last few years we have been tempted to lock out those who have chosen the Muslim faith from any possibility of grace, often stereotyping their faith as radical and violent, while refusing to learn the more peaceful nature of its beginnings and intentions. Perhaps our ears are just as attuned to rumors as the disciple’s ears were in that first Sunday of the resurrection. Perhaps today our hearts and our world is just as needful of hearing those strong words of peace that Jesus spoke, as the disciples were 2000 years ago. How can we know true peace? A peace that is more than an individualistic emotional high. A peace that does not close its eyes to the blighting of our environment. Or to the oppression of the poor. Or the suicidal violence of nation against nation with the threat of nuclear weapons always looming around us? We need not rehearse the litany of woes we have all become so accustomed to living with. Some may tempted to wonder if to seek true peace in the midst of this kind of broken world in which we live, isn't a rather naïve optimism?
The doors were locked, but Jesus came anyway. And as he spoke peace he showed them his hands and his side. Peace without wounds is no peace at all. Only the one who bears the marks of our deepest common disgrace can dare to say: peace be with you, for he alone knows the devastating price that our alienation from God has cost. Jesus was no unfortunate martyr; neither was he a revolutionary hero, or a mystical genius who came before his time. He was the Lord of heaven and earth who took on human flesh in the womb of Mary to demonstrate for all time and eternity that God and humankind are meant to be in an intimate fellowship. And the gates of hell did not and will not prevail against that precious and intimate bond of love. And all the sin and fear, all the callousness, and hand-washing cowardice, all the denial and betrayal and ignorance and mockery did not and will not prevail. As the world turned black that Friday, it seemed that they would, it seemed that there was no place in heaven or earth for this Jesus to dwell and he was torn asunder between the two by gaping wounds.
He showed them his hands and his side and they were glad. And they knew that his peace was real. There was room in the wounded side of Jesus for all of Peter's denials, for the disciples scattering, for their fears and questions and for Thomas’ headstrong empiricism. There was room even for Judas betrayal had he turned to receive it. And there is room in the wounded side of Jesus for you and for me, for all of our inwardness, our defensiveness, our anger, our fear, our betrayals and our cowardice. Yes, there is room in Jesus side for you and for me.
We cannot be peacemakers; we cannot hold together the chaos and violence of our world, of our economic brutality or military defense system. And when we really open our eyes to the horrors of the possibilities our leaders continually toy with, we are left with a feeling of dread and the inability to cope. I cannot tell you how often I hear the frustration among believers who feel that there's nothing they can do to make a difference in the world. We cannot bear or heal the brokenness of our poor planet with good intentions or powerful slogans or hard work or political clout. In and of ourselves, we cannot speak peace. But empowered by the breath of the Son of Man who can bring life when all doors are locked and hopes are gone, and empowered by the Spirit who hovered over the watery chaos at creation, and empowered by the Spirit of Jesus who bore and healed the brokenness of our planet, we can speak peace.
Jesus said, "Peace be with you. As the father has sent me, so I send you." And as we are sent out to speak peace to our world, our word will only be believable so long as we bear the wounds of its brokenness.