Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
April 28, 2019
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.
Everybody can probably tell a story or two about being locked out of something. We’ve probably all locked the keys in our cars at least one time or left the house locked without taking our keys. I recall the very first Sunday that Laura and I were here at Meadowbrook in 2007. We invited some friends from our previous church in West Bloomfield to come over for worship and a meal and the house following the service. When we took our friends to show off our new house, Laura and I discovered that neither one of us had our house keys. But one of our guests was most industrious and frighteningly observant. He noted that our upstairs bedroom window wasn’t completely closed so he grabbed our ladder, which barely reached the window, climbed up, forced the window open, and crawled in. As we look back upon that day, Laura and I began to worry that some of our new neighbors had to have seen a man on a ladder breaking into an upstairs window in the front of our house, yet they never reported a possible burglary.
It is a little harder to get locked into someplace. A couple of summers ago, at my college reunion at a friend’s cottage in Higgins Lake, I visited the guest bathroom. Our host forgot to mention that on humid days, the door to the guest bathroom swelled and that you should not pull it all the way shut. Of course, I completely closed the door and was stuck in the bathroom. That bathroom was at the front of the house and all of my friends were at the lakefront, on the other side of the house. I knew that no one could hear my knocking or even my yelling. I thought about using my cell phone but I didn’t bring it into the bathroom. So I found a magazine and sat and read it for a while, until I could hear footsteps in the cottage. Then I was able to get someone’s attention and acquire my freedom. Of course the teasing I took from my friends was far worse than the experience of being locked in.
The Sunday following Easter takes us to a room full of disciples who had locked themselves in. They had purposely sheltered themselves in a secure place because they were scared. They had every good reason to be afraid. The scribes and priests who had been out to get Jesus for months had finally succeeded. The disciples did not know who might be the next victim. Would those same authorities show up at their door and drag them away and nail them to a cross? And it was one of their own who had betrayed Jesus. Was it possible that someone else out there was ready and willing to betray all of them?
They had heard the strange story from the women that the stone to Jesus’ tomb was rolled away and that the tomb was empty. A couple of the disciples had even run to the tomb to check it out for themselves. But they had not seen a risen Christ for themselves. They were confused. They were anxious. They were uncertain. If the tomb was empty, could they be accused of stealing Jesus body? Or maybe it all a set-up to punish them for their association with Jesus’ movement? Perhaps some of them were a bit afraid that this resurrected Jesus might be angry with them for abandoning him. Whatever their thoughts, they had decided that the best thing to do was to lay low and stay out of commission. They locked themselves up securely.
The disciples’ fear was so intense that they forgot the many words of assurance and comfort that Jesus had spoken to them. In that moment following Jesus’ crucifixion, all they could feel was fear. The fear was so strong they made certain that their doors around them were locked and that only a few people even knew where they were. It didn’t matter whether or not the threat of harm was real. Fear alone locked the men into their own prison.
There is a story about Western legend Black Bart, a professional thief whose very name struck fear into the hearts of travelers who ventured into the American West. Black Bart terrorized the Wells Fargo stagecoach line. Anywhere from St. Louis to San Francisco, from 1875 to 1883, Black Bart robbed 29 different stagecoach crews. Amazingly, he did it all without firing a single shot. Because a hood hid his face, no victim ever saw what he looked like. He never took a hostage and he never was trailed by a sheriff. Instead, Black Bart used fear to paralyze his victims. His sinister presence was enough to overwhelm the toughest stagecoach guard.
Fear is something that can easily control our lives. It is a great motivation for this day and age. There is a lot in life that can make us afraid. There are threats to our personal safety. There are threats to our jobs or our careers. There are threats to the happiness of our families. There are threats to our financial security threats to our health. We are afraid of not having enough and of someone else taking some of our fair share. We tend to doubt rather than trust. When we are afraid, we keep the better part of ourselves locked up. When we are afraid, politicians campaign for our votes based on our fears not our hopes. Fear makes us uncertain, causes us to doubt, diminishes hope, and controls our actions. There are a multitude of things that can cause us to be afraid. There are scores of reason to keep ourselves locked in and locked up.
Katherine Pershey writes, “Fear is a physiological response to tomorrow. It is almost always about death. Fear causes us to live in a perpetual state of anxiety. Fear is exhausting and depressing. Generally the calamities I expect do not come to pass. So I replace them with new ones. Time and energy spent that could be used constructively, for prayer or dishwashing or learning to quilt- I sacrifice to cultivate apprehension.”
Jesus came among those fearful disciples. He came through the locked doors. There were no walls thick enough to block the Risen Christ from entering. He came not as a ghost or as a vision but in a real personal identity. He showed them his hands and his side. He offered them three gifts.
He brought them peace. Three times in this passage he said, “Peace be with you.” It is a very simple thing to say but a most powerful expression. “Peace be with you.” I read a Tweet this week that it is comforting and encouraging to know that this was the very first thing that Risen Christ said to his disciples. He did not say, “Let’s get even,” or “Let’s make plans to defeat the power of our enemies” or “let’s taught those losers with the evidence of my resurrection.” Instead he brought peace. Be at ease. Rest from that which weighs upon you. Whatever doubts are in our minds, whatever sins trouble our conscience, whatever worry binds us up, whatever walls we hid behind, God comes to us and says, “Peace be with you. Be at peace.”
He brought them purpose. He said, “I send you into the world. As God has sent me, so I send you.” The word the writer of John uses for “send” is “apostello” the root of the word “apostle.” You will go forth to heal and teach and comfort and share. You are to look at the world and love the world in the same way I have done it. Having a sense of purpose is a powerful remedy to fear. If we know where we are going and why we are going there, the future seems much less uncertain and we feel better equipped to handle it.
He brought them power. Jesus breathed on them. He said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Some commentators call this the Gospel of John’s mini-Pentecost. There is no wind or tongues of fire. But there is a Resurrected Jesus breathing energy onto his followers. He gave them a reason for boldness. He gave them a reason to step outside their locked doors and to get busy doing what God had called them to do.
William Sloane Coffin once said, “As I see it, the primary religious task these days in to try to think straight…You can’t think straight with a heart full of fear, for fear seeks safety, not truth. If your heart is a stone, you can’t have decent thoughts- either about personal relations or about international ones. A heart full of love, on the other hand, has a limbering effect on the mind.”
All of us have been there with those disciples, locked up with hearts filled with fear. Fear makes us weak and small and inadequate. To us, the Risen Christ comes with peace and purpose and power. He bring us gifts that opens our minds and restores our hearts. He sends us out into the world to bring good news and hope to all of God’s children. As God sent Jesus, so we are sent today. “Peace be with you.”