Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 7, 2013

3013.04.07 “Behind Closed Doors” – John 20:19-31

Central United Methodist Church
Behind Closed Doors
John 20:19-31
The 2nd Sunday of Easter
April 7th, 2013

“Later on that day, the disciples had gathered together, but, fearful of the Jews, had locked all the doors in the house. Jesus entered, stood among them, and said, “Peace to you.” Then he showed them his hands and side.

The disciples, seeing the Master with their own eyes, were exuberant. Jesus repeated his greeting: “Peace to you. Just as the Father sent me, I send you.”

Then he took a deep breath and breathed into them. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he said. “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?”

But Thomas, sometimes called the Twin, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We saw the Master.”

But he said, “Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, put my finger in the nail holes, and stick my hand in his side, I won’t believe it.”

Eight days later, his disciples were again in the room. This time Thomas was with them. Jesus came through the locked doors, stood among them, and said, “Peace to you.”

Then he focused his attention on Thomas. “Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving.  Believe.”

Thomas said, “My Master! My God!”

Jesus said, “So, you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.”

        Jesus provided far more God-revealing signs than are written down in this book. These are written down so you will believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in the act of believing, have real and eternal life in the way he personally revealed it. – John 20: 19 – 31, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

Through the years, I have come to have a peculiar affection for the Sundays following major holidays, such as today, the 2nd Sunday of Easter.

It’s like those times when we gather as families for formal occasions, such as weddings, funerals, or graduations. We gather for the service, dressed in our best and on our best behavior. Then, after the formalities are over, we gather again for an informal dinner or breakfast, in jeans and T-shirts, at time when everybody is relaxed and relieved, and – for better or worse – their normal selves.

The second Sunday of Easter is like that. Traditionally known as a low Sunday, the crowds that come for Easter Sunday have departed, the Easter lilies have disappeared, the (real) Easter eggs have disappeared into egg salad and we are back to our normal life, going to work, raising kids, carrying on.

I have even come to have a special affection for the Gospel for the second Sunday of Easter, which is the same every year. Not all preachers feel this way – I have not always myself – and that’s why many preachers take this Sunday off. It’s hard to shake the question, what could I possibly say about this story that I haven’t said before, to the same people, not that anyone remembers.

And yet, if we look at the stories like old friends, whom we love to get together and visit with, then it takes on a different perspective. Just as we still chuckle over favorite jokes and stories, even if others may think we tell these jokes and stories way too often.  We begin with “Did I ever tell you the story . . . only to be met with, “Yes, Dad, we’ve heard that one many times before.”

The gospel from the second Sunday of Easter is like that, and yet, how could we not love this story?  It’s the story – as John tells it – of what happened to Jesus’ disciples after the women discovered his tomb was empty, which, as we heard last Sunday, the other disciples regarded as nonsense. You would think by now, the second Sunday of Easter, they would have come around, that they now know Christ is risen, as we know, and that we would find them dancing in the streets. Where we find them instead, is hiding out in a room with doors locked and shades drawn, locked in by doubt and fear.

Maybe they were playing the “What if?” game, that we so often play at such times. What if, the women were deluded or deceived? What if, grave robbers stole Jesus body? What if, the authorities come for us next? And perhaps the biggest “what if” of all; what if it’s true, and Jesus really is risen? What then?

The author Frederick Buechner has a sermon on this text, “The Seeing Heart,” in which he says that he had a seminary professor tell him once that you really can’t hear what the stories in the Bible are saying until you hear them as stories about ourselves.  And of this story in particular he says,

“I don’t know of any story in the Bible that is easier to imagine ourselves into than this one from John’s Gospel because it is a story about trying to believe in Jesus and a world that is as full of shadows and ambiguities and longings and doubts and glimmers of holiness as the room where the story takes place is and as you and I are inside ourselves.” (Frederick Buechner, The Seeing Heart, in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons)

And yet, it is exactly in the midst of this fear and anxiety, that Jesus appears. He doesn’t have to break in, they don’t have to let him in, suddenly he’s there, speaking peace, breathing the Holy Spirit upon them. “Jesus,” they must’ve said, “You scared the life out of us. Or is that into us?”

Isn’t that the way it still happens? In the midst of anxiety and fear, our world closes in, we wall ourselves off, we may even be hyperventilating about what’s going to happen next, as we imagine our worst fears. Our course, most of it never happens, but in some ways it doesn’t matter whether it happens or not, because the fear is the debilitating part. And then, sometimes, if we can only take a few deep breaths and open our eyes, we discover – as they discovered – that Christ is with us, speaking peace, breathing it into us.

I have a dear friend this weekend down in Memphis, a man who was like a second father to me, who’s on his deathbed, slipping away.  His wife died a few years ago, he was living in an assisted living facility but still the life of the party. Last week, getting up from a table, he somehow severely injured his back. The doctor told him it was so severe, he would never be able to return to where he was living, and so he went into hospice instead, not eating, not drinking, it’s just a matter of time.  I pray Christ will be with him as he leaves this life and enters the next.  And I pray Christ will be with me, with all of us, as we endure the passing of those we love. That’s only one example of one of those rooms of anxiety and fear, that we could talk about.  I’ve been there; haven’t you?

Someone may say, that’s all well and good, but I’m just not one of those mystical persons; I mean, isn’t this the same as having an imaginary friend? At such times I don’t want an imaginary Jesus, I need someone real I can feel and hold onto.

Understandable; interestingly, there was one among Jesus’ original disciples who felt the same way. His name was Thomas. We often call him – because of this story – “Doubting Thomas.” When the other disciples reported, “We saw the master!” Thomas said, “Really? Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, put my finger in them, and stick my hand in his side, I won’t believe.”

Eight days later, Jesus mysteriously appeared again, and this time Thomas was on the scene. Never one to skirt the issues, Jesus said to Thomas: “Thomas: take your finger and examine my hands; take your hand and stick it in my side; don’t be unbelieving; believe!

The story never actually says that Thomas did what Jesus invited him to do, as this painting by the great Italian artist Caravaggio, portrays. What the story says is, Thomas did believe, exclaiming, “My Master and My God.”

Really, this is not a story about Thomas; it’s about us. The most important thing in the whole story may be what happens next, when Jesus says: “So, Thomas, you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes; even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.”

My former professor, Martin E Marty, has observed that this story is not about Good Friday or Easter Day or even the second Sunday of Easter. He says it is about opening up the story of Jesus to a new stage of faith and church life. Up until this point in the story, faith came in the face of Jesus’ physical presence. Here, in this word to Thomas, the Jesus of John’s Gospel sets us up theologically for an experience of God NOT based upon sight.

After all, just decades after these words were written, the last disciple died. Never again on earth would physical eyes or reaching hands certify Jesus presence. A few hundred or a few thousand believers would come to faith in Jesus’ lifetime; however, billions would come to faith in the centuries since, when Jesus would not – could not – be seen except figuratively in pictures, or scattered visions.

So when Jesus speaks here, he occasions a blessing that still comes to us in Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas, to us sitting here today: “Blessed are those – blessed are you – who have not seen and yet come to believe. (Martin E. Marty, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, p. 398)

And that’s where we are today: In a world full of doubt, anxiety, and fear, there is no certainty, no proof, only the testimony of Christians through the centuries. It is a proposition of faith; believe! I wish I could tell you that if it doesn’t work out, you can have your money back, but I can’t. I will tell you that we can only find it to be true for us, in our own experience.

In the late John Irving’s novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, the narrator, John, has a number of conversations with his friend Owen Meany, about the meaning of belief.  In one scene at the schoolyard, Owen illustrates his faith in God by pointing to a gray granite statue of Mary Magdalene as twilight falls. When it becomes so dark that the statue is no longer visible, Owen asked John if he knows that the statue was still there. (To convey the unusual quality of Owen’s voice, Irving capitalizes his speech.) John says of course he knows. But Owen keeps pushing:

“YOU HAVE NO DOUBT THAT SHE’S THERE?” Owen nagged at me.

“Of course I have no doubt!” I said.


“No, I’m not wrong—she’s there, I know she’s there!” I yelled at him.


“Yes,” I screamed.

“WELL, NOW YOU KNOW HOW I FEEL ABOUT GOD,” said Owen Meany. “I CAN’T SEE HIM — BUT I ABSOLUTELY KNOW HE IS THERE!” (John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany, page 451).

Such is the faith Jesus celebrates in this story, the kind of faith we seek, and even once we have, may struggle to keep. According to Jesus, it is such faith that brings even better blessings.  May Christ be with us behind the closed doors of our lives, even in the midst of doubt, fear, and anxiety.  Amen.


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