05/19/19 “Seeing Jesus: Behind Closed Doors”

John 20:19-31

Every so often, Marc has to go out of own for a night or two.  I’ve never been uncomfortable staying at home alone.  But one night, I was working in the kitchen, where we have large sliding glass doors opening onto our deck.  All of a sudden someone pounded hard on the windows.  I nearly jumped out of my skin.  My heart raced.  I quickly went into another room where I couldn’t be seen.  I sneaked back into the kitchen and turned out the lights.  Of course, whoever-it-was was long gone.

It was probably just kids, pulling a stupid prank.  We live on a corner, and every so often we have someone ring the doorbell, or pound on the front door.  But this was different—they had come through the yard, right up on the deck, where they could see me but I couldn’t see them.  Even though I knew in my head it was probably nothing more than kids with nothing better to do, I didn’t sleep very well that night.  Someone unexpectedly showing up in the space where you feel most protected can be pretty unsettling.  It makes you realize how flimsy the barriers between you and the world outside.

John doesn’t describe the reactions of the disciples when Jesus shows up unexpectedly among them, but Luke does in his version of the story.  He says that they were startled and terrified and thought they were seeing a ghost, even though, at that moment, they were talking with the men who had encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus.

John does tell us how they were feeling before Jesus showed up, though. They were afraid.  Afraid of the religious authorities who had engineered Jesus’ death.  Afraid enough to gather behind locked doors. But I don’t imagine that those locked doors would have been very good at keeping out an armed mob, especially if the mob included some Roman soldiers.  The disciples must have felt as vulnerable as I did that night in my kitchen, protected from the world outside only by some panes of glass.

The author of the Gospel of John wrote for people who probably knew something about locked doors—ones they locked to keep threats out, but also doors that had been locked to keep them out. By the time John’s Gospel was written down, some 35-70 years after Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, the temple—the center of their religious life—had been destroyed.  The old ways of worshiping were no longer possible.  Before the temple was destroyed, various groups within Judaism had been vying for control, but afterwards the Pharisees moved into leadership and began establishing rules along the lines of their own beliefs.

One of those beliefs is expressed in something called (oddly to our ears) the Benediction Against Heretics, part of a prayer that was to be said three times a day.  It probably went through several rewrites over time, but the oldest version we have says this: “For the apostates let there be no hope and let the arrogant government be speedily uprooted in our days. Let the Nazarenes [Christians] and Minim [other heretics] be destroyed in a moment and let them be blotted out of the Book of Life and not be inscribed together with the righteous.” The years after the destruction of the temple—the time when John’s Gospel was being written down—were not good ones for Jews who had come to believe in Jesus.

In several places in John’s Gospel, we read about the threat of being “put out of the synagogue”—being excommunicated as heretics. This would have struck a chord in the original readers and listeners. They themselves may have been thrown out of their synagogues for believing in Jesus. Locked doors may have figured prominently in their lives—the doors they locked to keep out a threatening world, but also doors that had locked them out, cutting them off from their communities of faith, making them outcasts.

Locked doors are part of our lives, too.  We may not have to worry about someone beating down our doors and hauling us off as threats to the religious establishment or government order.  But there is plenty to be fearful of—and plenty that various groups want us to be fearful of, either because of real risk or because our fear serves their interests. Economic insecurity, health care concerns, climate change, political instability in the world. People of races and cultures other than our own, people of social and economic classes other than our own. People who come here from other countries, documented or undocumented. People who don’t share our faith, and people who share our faith but understand it differently.  These all can make us fearful and drive us to close and lock our doors.

I heard expressions of this kind of fear when the Whitehouse Village Council discussed whether or not to allow medical marijuana to be sold here. What kind of people might come here if it were allowed?  I’ve heard that people were fearful when plans were being made to build subsidized housing in our community. People talk about how nice our community is but are fearful about what will happen if more people—more outsiders—move in.  We’re fearful about what may happen if our denomination ordains gay and lesbian persons or allows same-sex marriage—or what will happen if we don’t.  It seems safest to shut and lock our doors, clearly marking those on the other side as unwelcome outsiders.

But, the doors we close to keep things out also keep us in.  They prevent us from reaching out to others, especially those we fear or don’t understand.  Closed doors prevent us from seeing others’ humanity and the ways in which they could enrich our lives.  Closed doors prevent us from sharing our vulnerability with those who have the same dreams and desires, and who suffer from the same fears, the same worries, the same pain, and—yes—even the same doubts.  This impoverishes both those on the inside and those on the outside. We become prisoners in cells of our own making, unable to fully experience the joy of the abundant life Jesus came to offer us.

The doors we close can be legal, or religious, or political.  But we also shut the doors of our hearts.  We lock our hearts against the things that can hurt us—rejection or inadequacy or confusion or scarcity.  We close ourselves off from people who make us uncomfortable or issues that upset our equilibrium, thinking that will keep us safe.  We’re like little children who put a scrap of cloth over their faces and think mommy or daddy can’t see them.  We think that if we close the right doors and lock them tightly enough, we won’t be vulnerable to what and whom we fear.

Maybe that’s where Thomas was.  He wasn’t in the room the first time Jesus appeared.  When he got there, and the others told him about Jesus’ visit, he insisted that he wouldn’t believe it until he saw and touched the nail marks himself. Because of this, he’s been labelled “Doubting Thomas.”

But maybe doubt wasn’t his primary reaction.  Maybe he was protecting himself. Maybe he could just as easily be labeled “Hurting Thomas”—hurting because he was wondering, “Don’t I mean anything to Jesus, that he would come when I wasn’t here?”   Maybe his outward reaction was his way of slamming the door of his heart to keep from being hurt even more.

Or, maybe he was more of a “Fearful Thomas.”  Not fearful, as in afraid of physical danger.  After all, when Lazarus was sick and Jesus decided to return to Judea, where he had just escaped being stoned, it was Thomas who was willing to brave the threat and accompany Jesus.  He wasn’t afraid in the sense of being timid around Jesus, either.  When Jesus told the disciples he was going away, and that the disciples knew the way to the place where he was going, it was Thomas who spoke up and said, “No, Jesus, we don’t know where you’re going, so we don’t know how to get there.”

Maybe it wasn’t so much that he didn’t believe what his brothers had told him was true, but that he was afraid it wasn’t true.  Afraid that once again his dreams were to be dashed.  Afraid that his hope was in vain. Afraid to open his heart to Jesus and then have it broken again.  And so, he closed the door in order to shield himself from more disappointment.

Like Thomas, we may also close the doors of our hearts to the possibility of seeing Jesus.  We may fear that if we let him in, he’ll see us as we really are, and he won’t like what he sees.  Or, we may fear the demands that full discipleship places on us, so we keep a barrier between Jesus and us.  We may be afraid that Jesus doesn’t want to come to us at all.

But here’s the good news.  Jesus doesn’t let a closed door keep him away from anyone.

The disciples were together behind closed doors, but that didn’t stop Jesus. He came and stood among them.  Luke tells us they were afraid. Why?  Maybe they had felt well-protected from the dangers outside and were shocked that someone had gotten through their defenses.  But, in addition to the physical doors, they had closed other doors, too.  They had their own doubts about the resurrection.  Maybe it was the doors that had been closed by feelings of fear and vulnerability and doubt that kept them from recognizing Jesus in their midst.

The disciples needed to see Jesus for themselves before they could believe in the resurrection.  So, Jesus came to them, and without their even asking, he knew what they needed.  He showed them his hands and side, and they rejoiced when they finally recognized the Lord. None of the doors they had securely shut and locked were a match for Jesus, not the first time, on Easter night, or the second time, a week later.

Jesus’ second visit is almost a repeat of the first. The doors were shut. Jesus came and stood among them. He repeats his greeting, “Peace be with you.”  But this time Thomas is present, and Jesus meets him where he is, in all his pain and confusion. He knows what Thomas needs, and without making Thomas repeat what he had said before, he invites Thomas to touch him.  He doesn’t scold Thomas. He doesn’t berate him for speaking his need for the same proof the others needed and had been given. Jesus simply does what he did on the cross: he offered his body so that Thomas could see that he is our Lord and our God, the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who offers us life.

Jesus doesn’t let our doors keep him out either.  He is with us through the presence of his Spirit—the same Spirit he breathed over the disciples, the Spirit who gives us the courage and strength and compassion we need to be door openers as Jesus was.  Jesus is present with us, empowering us to open our doors to those the world fears—the strangers and the outcasts, the ones who are feared because of where they’re from, what they look like, what they believe, how they got here, how live and whom they love.

This strength is part and parcel of the peace Jesus gives to us.  When he first spoke words of peace to the disciples in the locked room, it was merely a conventional greeting.  But the second time, his words meant much more.  They were the completion of the promise he had made before his death—that he would give his peace to his disciples, the peace of living at one with his Father.  And in Jesus’ words to Thomas, we hear words of assurance for us—that even if we do not see Jesus as the disciples saw him, even if we can’t put our fingers on the marks of the nails, we are blessed as they were—blessed in our believing that Jesus is the redemptive Word of God, blessed to receive his Spirit and his peace.

This peace is not the kind of peace that allows us to sit quietly behind closed doors.  It’s a peace that we are to carry with us as Jesus sends us into the world—a world we cannot enter until we open any doors we’ve closed.  We take it with us as we open our doors to those Jesus was so comfortable with.

The Epistle reading for today is from Acts, where Peter tells the disciples in Jerusalem about how and why he ended up in the home of a Gentile man and how that man and his household received the Holy Spirit. It’s a story about closed doors being opened. Closed doors separated Jews and Gentiles—no Jew would ever eat a meal with a Gentile, and certainly wouldn’t stay in Gentile home.  But Peter had a dream that led him to open that door.  At the same time, a Gentile man named Cornelius had seen an angel, telling him to open his doors to a Jewish man named Peter, who would have a message of salvation for him and his household. Both Peter and Cornelius opened the doors that had separated them, and the Spirit of the Risen Lord was among them.

Whatever doors we have closed and hidden behind, Jesus comes to us.  He comes to us through the presence of his Spirit. He comes to us bringing his peace.  He comes to us with a mission—to open our doors and go into the world with the message of his love and grace, sent by him as he was sent by his Father.  Jesus comes to us through our closed doors and enables us to open them—to him, and to the world he came to save.  Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young