A family gathered behind closed doors. Fear of what’s outside. Fear that the thing outside will come inside. Does this sound familiar? I was struck once again this week by how Scripture is a living thing that meets us wherever we are to speak into our lives a word of hope, a word of challenge, a word of judgment—whatever it is we need to hear.
We’re hearing this story a week after we celebrated Easter in our parking lot. But, the events of the story take place on the same day as Mary’s encounter with the risen Jesus, some hours after she had announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” John began his resurrection story saying, “early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark.” He could have begun this story by saying, “Later that day, when it was beginning to get dark again…”
That evening, John tells us, there were disciples gathered together in a room. John uses the word “disciples” broadly. He doesn’t give the Twelve any particular attention; in fact, he rarely mentions them this way anywhere in his gospel. So, there were likely more people there than just the remaining eleven—actually ten, since Thomas wasn’t there. Mary and the other women likely were there. Some of the people we encountered with Jesus during Lent may have been there. People whose names we’ve never heard of may have been there. But, they all would have been people Jesus called family—people who had heard God’s word and were trying to do it.
They were practicing their own version of physical distancing—closed in behind locked doors. The threat they faced was not a virus, but what they feared could come to them through other people. They feared the ones John calls “the Jews.” This is one of those places where we need to keep John’s original readers in mind. They were Jews themselves who had accepted Jesus as the Messiah, and as a result they had been ejected from their faith communities by their religious leaders. They would have known whom John was alluding to. We have to take care not to lump all Jewish people—then or now—into a single image of an evil villain.
The Jews who were feared by the occupants of the locked-up room were the ones who had engineered Jesus’ death. The disciples had been seen with Jesus—identified as his followers. They had been in the Garden when he was arrested. They were understandably afraid that the hostility that led Jesus to his crucifixion would reach them and result in their own arrests and possible executions. And so, they gathered together, staying well away from the threat outside, and they locked their doors to keep the threat from coming inside.
We can imagine the tension in the room. We can imagine the stomachs knotted with anxiety over what might happen next. We can imagine the shoulders tense with the uncertainty of not knowing when it would be safe to return to their normal lives. We can imagine the dis-ease of wondering if their lives, and the lives of their loved ones, were at risk.
Actually, we don’t have to do much imagining. These feelings are particularly acute and widespread now. But they’re not unique to this time. There are other threats we want to bar our doors against. There’s an opioid epidemic, and we want to lock the doors and keep it away from our loved ones. When we fear that a relationship is crumbling, we close the windows so we don’t have to see the tell-tale signs. We seal the doors to keep grief from flooding in and to keep our strength from pouring out. A suspicious lump, or a sore that won’t heal, or a cough that won’t go away puts our regular lives on hold and leaves us wondering when we can open our doors again.
I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all been in our own locked rooms at one time or another, afraid that the threat outside will come inside. But our locked rooms are no match for Jesus. Even when we have locked them tight—maybe especially when we’ve done that—Jesus comes to us.
John tells us that on that Easter evening, Jesus came and stood among them. He doesn’t tell how this happened—whether Jesus kind of “oozed” into the room like smoke, or appeared suddenly as though produced by a magician. I picture it like this: The followers are ranged around the room, some sitting alone staring at the floor, some in small groups murmuring quietly, some sitting with their arms around each other. The room is dark, it’s nearly silent, the air is close; it smells a little of too many bodies and too much anxiety. And there, quietly waiting, is Jesus.
Someone looks up and sees him. Then, as often happens in a group, someone else senses the change in focus and looks that direction, too. Soon everyone is gazing at this most unexpected visitor. Luke says they were terrified, but John doesn’t say that. So, I picture them simply looking at Jesus without much of a reaction, as we do when catastrophe numbs us to everything that comes after it.
Jesus greets them in a most ordinary way: “Peace be with you.” It’s a common greeting, one which they would have heard and said on a daily basis but which must seem ironically inappropriate now. Still they gaze at him in silence. He slowly holds his wounded hands out to them, as one might to a frightened animal. Then, he slowly slips his robe from his shoulder, and they can see his wounded side as well.
The light begins to dawn. It’s Jesus. Not a ghost. Not a figment of their imaginations or wishful thinking. It’s Jesus, still bearing the wounds of his earthly life but different—coming to them in his resurrected body. Seeing that, they understand that he truly is the Lord. Their joy bubbles up and bursts out. You can hear the excitement. The sound of their voices rises. They dance and sing; they hug and high-five. Mary’s report that she had seen the Lord was true, and now they had seen him, too—truly seen him. In that seeing, a promise had been fulfilled—a promise he had made on another night, in another room, when he told them, “You have pain now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
In the midst of their rejoicing, he begins to speak again. They grow quiet, and he repeats his earlier words: “Peace be with you.” But now it’s more than a greeting. Now, it’s a gift. It’s the fulfillment of another promise—the promise he made when he said: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” Jesus speaks his peace into their turmoil—peace unlike that which the world gives, but a peace that will calm their troubled hearts and ease their fears. The peace is a gift they could only receive once they understood and accepted his Lordship.
But Jesus isn’t done. He continues, fulfilling another promise: “As my Father has sent me, so I send you.” As witnesses to his resurrection, they are now commissioned to fulfill the prayer he had made for them that night in the upper room: that they would be one so that the world may believe.
Still, he’s not finished. There is one more promise to fulfill: the promise that, even though he was going to his Father, he would not leave them on their own. He breathes on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
This is the same breath of life that God breathed into Adam. Just as God created life in the beginning, Jesus now bestows new life on those who know him. They experience the new birth of the Spirit that he had described to Nicodemus. But this is not a gift to be experienced only individually. It is also the beginning of life as a new community—a community of faith, a people whose life together is one of joy and peace, who are guided by the Holy Spirit, and whose mission it is to witness to the forgiveness of sin that Christ embodied in his death and resurrection.
Jesus continues to fulfill his promises to and in us today. He comes to us in the midst of our lives—whether those are times of ease or times of hardship. As we claim him as our Lord, we, too, experience the joy and peace that he offers. Into us, too, he breathes new life in the Holy Spirit, who walks with us and talks with us, and guides us individually and as a community. We, too, are sent in Jesus’ name to reveal God to the world, so that all may have the opportunity to accept God’s forgiveness and grace.
As I reflected on this powerful event in the life of the Church, I was reminded of the passage we focused on a couple of weeks ago. In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
When we are afraid, we may lock our doors to keep what we fear from reaching us. But no door can prevent Jesus from reaching us. Not a door. Not a cross. Not a tomb. Not a locked room full of confused and frightened people. No matter how tightly we lock our doors against the threats outside, Jesus is present. No matter how isolated we feel, Jesus is with us. No matter what is happening in our lives and in the world, Jesus comes and stands among us, breathing into us a new life of joy, peace, and community. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young