(a sermon for April 11, 2021, the 2nd Sunday of Easter, based on John 20:19-23)
Well… all I’ve got to say here is that it’s a good thing that we know the Easter story the way we do, because given the readings we’ve shared over the past couple of weeks, you’ve got to wonder where the happy endings are!
After all, as you’ll remember last week our Easter Sunday reading of Mark’s resurrection story ended with the women running away from the tomb seized with “terror and amazement;” saying nothing to anyone, so stunned and afraid they were over what they’d seen and experienced. And now, this morning we’ve got this passage from John that begins with the men this time, all cowering behind locked doors, quite literally paralyzed by fear! For those of us still seeking a definitively triumphant end to this whole Maundy Thursday/Good Friday narrative, this would not seem to be it; for here we are, still… even now, as John tells the story, in the evening “on that day, the first day of the week” – understand, we’re talking about Easter evening itself here (!) – waiting with the disciples amidst their lingering hopelessness and fear.
Simply put, the disciples are hiding out; quite possibly hiding out in the very same upper room where Jesus had shared the Passover meal with them, where he’d spoken of the broken bread being his body and the wine the new covenant in his blood; to say nothing of promising them that he would not drink of “the fruit of the vine until that day [drinking it new] in the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14:25) It had only been three days since all this had happened, but it might as well have been a lifetime ago; because of course, everything – everything (!) – had changed: now the window shades are drawn tight, the doors of the house are barred and locked and these disciples are all huddling together for fear that what happened to Jesus would most certainly happen to them. So they kept quiet, so not to be heard by passing authorities, religious or governmental. All through these three days and long into each night, they’d listened for every footstep on the stairway; they’d braced for the sound of a knock at the door that meant that they’d been discovered.
What’s interesting to me as I think about all this is that surely by this time, the disciples had to have heard the news, at least in rumor: this news about the tomb being empty, this incredible, “impossible possibility” that just maybe what Jesus had said would happen had actually come to pass, and that he’d risen from the dead. Mark, of course, doesn’t allude to this at all, what with the women running off in fear; but at least in John’s version, Mary has her encounter with the risen Christ in the garden and then announces to the disciples that she’d actually seen the Lord! You’d have thought that this would have had at least some effect on the disciples; but not even this first-hand account of Jesus’ resurrection could serve to transform or even lift their spirits.
No, what’s clear even here is that in this “upper room experience” the disciples’ fear was far too great and all-encompassing; and not, we should add, merely in the sense that they feared for their lives. For you see, in these dark days since the cross, the remaining eleven disciples were wracked by their own sorrow and grief, intermingled with the horrible, dull pain of guilt and shame. To put it simply, life as they knew it was over; and the thought of going on was… terrifying. In truth, this upper room where just a few days before they’d gathered in Passover faith and sacred tradition served now as a prison to them; every bit of their own anguish and fear having become every bit as impenetrable as bars on the windows or a locked cell door. No Easter joy and triumph in this moment… just a lingering sense of hopelessness.
And you know what? I can understand that… and, I suspect, you can, too.
Truth be told, most of us know something about fear and dread; the kind of fear and dread that life and living can inspire on a regular basis:
Fear about whether we’ll be able to get by; to be able to work, make ends meet, and deal with all the financial pressures today’s world thrusts upon us.
Fear about the kind of fiercely divided, increasingly amoral world our children are growing up in, and fear about what happens to us all in such an uncertain time as this.
Fear about the lingering effects of a global pandemic, if things will ever return to “normal” and what if, still, the people we love get sick.
Or, for that matter, fear about whether life and living holds any meaning, or if in the end who and what we really are ends up a disappointment to everyone.
Fear of being alone; fear of being helpless; fear of being powerless; fear of being out there on the road of life without any answers and no hope at all.
And if that isn’t enough, how about you? What about your greatest fear? What do you most dread in your life? What is your greatest doubt? Friends, if you can put your finger on that, then you know what it is to be locked away in a prison of fear. This is what it means to live as though the tomb still held Jesus.
But here’s the good news… this is exactly where the risen Christ appears: stepping right in the middle of the disciples’ fear… and ours.
Although the doors were shut and the disciples were locked within, “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” In the Greek, eirene, but referring to the familiar Hebrew greeting of shalom: peace… God’s peace, not merely peace in the sense of feeling good or calm, nor peace as simply the absence of war or strife; but peace in the sense of true wholeness, health and harmony: the fulfillment of a promise that God would bring all of life’s blessings together for a common good: shalom! Now, this was a greeting these men had likely heard every day of their lives; but as it was Jesus who had brought it to them – Jesus himself, risen from the dead and standing there before them – as such it was more than a greeting, but in fact a true and lasting peace! Windows might have been shut, doors locked, hope lost: nonetheless the risen Lord had broken into the disciples’ upper room prison to free them from their fear; showing them his hands and his side, assuring them by his very presence that nothing in life, death or all creation would ever be able to separate them from God’s love.
This is the gift of resurrection, friends: that amidst all of our fears and dread, through our confusion and our lingering anxieties, in the challenges of our lives and even at the obstacles of our faith, the risen Lord stands with us and brings us his peaceable presence, fortifying our faith so that we might withstand the doubt.
When the disciples saw Jesus standing there, of course they rejoiced; and it’s no wonder that immediately they were able to open those locked doors and go out and boldly witness to what they had seen and experienced! Think of it: from fear-filled followers to fearless missionaries in a single moment! But that’s the power of God’s peaceable presence that comes through the risen Christ; he is not about to let us be shut up and shut out by the sorrow and sadness of life, but will meet us face to face precisely in those places where we dwell in fear; freed go out into all of life’s uncertainties with courage, with faith and with joy. Not even good old “Doubting Thomas,” whose story immediately follows our text for today, could stand by his self-imposed skepticism once he himself met the risen Christ. Even when he’d been given the opportunity to have the kind of “proof” he said he needed, in the end all it took was Jesus’ presence – and his peace – for Thomas to believe.
And here’s the thing; it’s a peaceable presence that ours as well.
No… we weren’t there with them in that upper room prison on that Easter Sunday evening; but just as I suspect we know what it is to be imprisoned by our fear, I also sense we’ve had the experience of having the breath of God’s own spirit blow divine peace into our lives right in the midst of that fear. Perhaps it’s come to us in those inexplicable moments of grace when our despair and confusion has been transformed into a palpable sense of serenity and, dare I say, even power; perhaps we’ve felt it in a time of prayer, or have shared it in a community of faith or in the embrace of a kindred heart. The point is that we don’t need to see the risen Christ – put our fingers “in the mark the nails and [our hand] in his side” in order to believe – because the “proof” is that wherever we are in our lives – physically, emotionally, spiritually – Jesus comes to us where we are and fills us with his Spirit, giving us his peaceable presence that drives out our fear and dread, calms our anxieties and eases our weariness; so that, like Thomas before us, we might “not doubt, but believe.”
Some years ago now, there was a powerful piece in Newsweek magazine written by James Harford, a writer and educator from Texas, who wrote about how, when he learned that he was dying from AIDS, decided to do everything in life he’d always wanted to do… against the emphatic advice of family, friends and doctors! He set out to take a cruise on the River Nile; he explored just about every street in Cairo (despite warnings that “there might be terrorists there,” and he’d get shot), and he literally crawled around the burial chambers of the Great Pyramids! After that he went snorkeling in the Caribbean, explored Mayan ruins, and when that was all done, he cashed in his retirement money and bought his dream sports car!
Harford was a self-described practical, cautious man; but now, he said, an uncertain future gave him the freedom to travel the world and do everything he’d ever dreamed of doing… without fear. And the upshot is that rather than killing him, all this increased activity actually served to improve his health! In fact, his prognosis was so good two years after he’d set out on his travels that he was forced to sell his beloved sports car. “I needed something cheap and dependable,” he said, “because I had a future.”
Now I’m not sure how much faith played into James Harford’s story (although I will say that looked up and discovered that before he eventually passed away and many years serving as an advocate for those with HIV/AIDS, he was an active member of a Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, Texas!) but it struck me that in a very real way this illustrates what happens when God’s peaceable presence comes into play. It’s the knowledge that while life is arbitrary, God is not; and whatever the challenges are that we have to face, Christ does come to us that we might be totally freed from the fear of it, and thus be able to live as fully and abundantly as we God has always meant us to live. And isn’t that the whole reason, after all, that Christ has come? As John’s gospel has said it at the close of the 20th chapter, it is “that [we] may come to believe that Jesus is the messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing [we] way have life in his name.”
It reminds me of something that the French scientist, mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal once said. It seems that Pascal’s daughter had recently died, and a friend had come to visit him; and this friend was amazed by Pascal’s sense of peace in the face of such of tragedy. And the friend said to him, “I wish I had your creed, then I would live your faith.” To which Pascal replied, “Live my life and you will soon have my creed.”
Truly, friends, the faith that frees us to live – abundantly, joyfully and eternally – is a faith that’s not about words printed on a page or found in verses memorized, but is ultimately experiential; about a real Savior who conquers death and comes to us in amidst our real life fears to set us free now and forever.
We need not be afraid of what this world and the uncertainty of this life brings to us. For the risen Christ has overcome this world, and promises us a peace that we will overcome our world as well.
So breath on us, breath of God, given us in the risen Christ… that we might be free…
…and may our thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
© 2021 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.