The Scripture Reading John 20:19-31 April
They are gathered together on a Sunday evening
in a room with locked doors. Doors that are not only locked, but bolted, fortified, and guarded. Their leader, Jesus, has just been executed, and they fear they are being hunted down by the Jews. If it happened to Jesus, it could happen to them.
They are leader-less and direction-less. They have given up everything to follow Him–leaving jobs and family behind–and it led them nowhere. Now here they are living in a maelstrom of anxiety and uncertainty.
At that very moment the Risen Jesus appears to them and says, “Peace be with you.” He appears to them, somehow passing through the locked doors while they remain locked. And lest there be any doubt about who He is he points to his riven hands and pierced side. They are filled with joy at seeing their Lord. When Jesus stands among them, fear is banished, and joy replaces it.
Then Jesus gives them work to do: “As the Father sent me, so send I you.” As the Father gave me a mission, I pass that mission on to you. What was my work is now your work.
A week later they are gathered together again. Same thing. Locked doors. Same feeling. Fear of being found by the Jews. One of the disciples, Thomas, had not been with them a week before. The disciples tell him that they had seen the Lord. “That’s o.k. for you, Thomas says, but unless I see him before me; in fact, I don’t believe in any of this spirit and ghost stuff. Unless I can actually place my fingers where the nails pierced his hands and thrust my hand into his side where the spear was, I will not believe.”
Immediately the risen Jesus appears among them, with the same salutation, “Peace be with you.” Peace…..He knew they were afraid. So he says, “Whenever I come to you, I will bring you peace.” Then he singles out Thomas and says, “Come, and put your finger where the nails were, and thrust out your hand and put it in my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
And Thomas gasps, “My Lord and my God.”
Locked doors. Locked hearts.
Thomas and the other disciples have barricaded themselves in that room. What they are feeling is understandable and forgivable. Fear–that primal instinct for survival, that instinct that saves us from danger–fear was dominating them.
Locked in a room with open doors. They had tried to close themselves off from the Jews, and in so doing they had locked out God’s miraculous possibilities. They had locked out the promise of transformation. They had locked out the resurrection.
And from this story Thomas becomes the patron saint of doubt. Thomas is lifted up as the prime example of a closed heart. I know he gets a hard time from a lot of preachers, who tell their congregations, “Don’t doubt; just believe. Just do it.” But it isn’t that easy. I like Thomas a lot. I like him, I guess, because I’m a lot like him.
For I have in mind exactly what God can do and God cannot do. I have defined God. I have limited God to my own understanding and experience. I know that God can do this, but I doubt that God cannot do that. There have been many times in my life when I doubted that God could crack open my closed heart. There have been so many times in my life when I doubted that God could transform my old habits and attitudes. There have been many seasons when I doubted that God could bring new life to a soul as stubborn as mine.
So I love Thomas, and I think that if I were a Roman Catholic, and could find one of those little plastic saints that one keeps on one’s dashboard, that instead of St. Jude, the patron saint of travelers, I would place one of Thomas on my dashboard, so that I could travel onward with one to whom Jesus shattered doubts with his presence.”
I will tell you a story. A woman I know had cancer. She knew it. Her doctors told her they were fairly certain of it. All the pre-op tests indicated it. Surgery was scheduled. She tried to prepare her children and husband for it. She tried to prepare herself emotionally for the long battle ahead. Her church prayed for her. She goes into surgery, and afterward the doctor comes out and tells her husband, “No cancer.”
A friend of hers comments, “I prayed for a miracle. But honestly I was surprised when my prayers were answered.”
God continuously the God of the unexpected, the surprising, the miraculous. God continuously the God who brings life out of death, joy out of sorrow, good out of evil.
When you read stories about the resurrection, there are a lot of conflicting information. In some cases, the risen Lord passes through doors, which suggests a kind of spiritual resurrection. In other cases, he eats a meal with his disciples, and invites Thomas to put his hands in His side, suggesting a physical resurrection. I’m not sure how to interpret this, for it is essentially mysterious and unfathomable. Nevertheless, the most important proof of the resurrection to me is that the disciples were transformed.
They were transformed. Imprisoned by fear, they leave the room emboldened in courage. Peter, the cowardly disciple who denied his Lord three times, becomes the inspiring preacher at Pentecost, standing up in public to declare his allegiance to Jesus. The disciples become ten times the persons they were before the resurrection, and they take the world by storm. In the year 50, there were 1,400 of them. In the year 100, 7,500. In the year 150–40,000, in the year 200–220,00. And in the year 300–6,300,000. Incredible.
Beginning that day in the locked room, the disciples learn that with the Risen Lord at their side, they can take on everything that life throws at them. They learn that with the Risen Lord at their side, the powers of death and hell cannot beat them down. They learn that by giving themselves over to the Lord each day, they find a strength even in their weakness, and that the Lord will always do more for them they can do for themselves.
The author Frederick Buechner sums this up in a lovely passage:
“So much has happened to us all over the years. So much has happened within us and through us. We are to take time to remember what we can about it…..we have survived, you and I. Maybe that is at the heart of our remembering. After twenty years, forty years, sixty years, or eighty, we have made it to this year, this day. We needn’t have made it. Thee were times we never thought we would and nearly didn’t. There were times we almost hoped we wouldn’t, were ready to give the whole thing up. Each must speak for himself, for herself, but I can say for myself that I have seen enough sorrow and pain to turn the heart to stone. Who hasn’t? Many times I have chosen the wrong road, or the right road for the wrong reason. Many times I have loved the people I love too much for either their good or mine, and others I might have loved, I have missed loving and lost…
“To remember my life is to remember countless times when I might have given up, gone under, when humanly speaking I might have gotten lost beyond the power of any to find me. But I didn’t. I have not given up. And each of you, with all the memories you have and the tales you could tell, you also have not given up. You also are survivors and are here. And what does that tell us, our surviving ? It tells us that weak as we are, a strength beyond our strength has pulled us through at least this far, at least to this day. Foolish as we are, a wisdom beyond our wisdom has flickered up just often enough to light us if not to the right path through the forest, at least to a path that leads forward, that is bearable. Faint of heart as we are, a love beyond our power to live has kept our hearts alive. So it is possible to find peace–a peace that comes from looking back and remembering to remember that though most of the time we failed to see it, we were never really alone.”
The words Frederick Buechner.
The disciples thought they were alone. Some days I think I’m alone. Some days you think you are alone. But in those moments, Christ comes through locked doors and locked hearts, and says, “Peace be with you.” And we know then that all is well.