Plymouth United Church of Christ

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Sermon, Year B, Easter 2, April 15, 2012
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber Focus Scripture: John 20:19-31

“Do not be afraid.”

That’s what the young man in the tomb, from Mark’s story of the women going to the tomb on Easter morning that we read last Sunday. It said that a young man dressed in white was in the tomb, and he said to the women, “Do not be afraid.” Our translation said, I think, “Do not be alarmed” but the intent is “so not be afraid”. the same. The women had gone to prepare Jesus’ body, and the stone was rolled away and the body was gone, and this guy they never saw before was there saying, “Do not be afraid.” Do not fear what is happening. Do not be afraid in this moment. Do not fear now. The women, I think, heard it. Heard the man say “Do not be afraid”. I’m sure they registered that on their ears, but they didn’t listen, because they were afraid. The text said they were afraid. They were afraid anyway. And so were the disciples.

The disciples were afraid. What we just read is happening on the evening of that first Easter. And, as the text says, “The doors of the house where the disciples met were locked for fear of the Jews.” (Quick aside: when the Gospel says “the Jews” it is really talking about the Jewish leadership, not all Jewish; remember, the disciples and Jesus were also Jewish. So it’s fear of the Jewish leaders here.) So the doors are locked. They are huddled in the house with the doors locked because they are afraid. And understandably so. It’s been a pretty crazy few days. Those of you that were here on Passion Sunday, or Maundy Thursday, or Good Friday and heard the story of betrayal and crucifixion and all those things that went on in his last days of Holy Week, it’s been a pretty crazy couple days for these disciples. Their leader has been crucified as a political upstart, so by association they stand a good chance of suffering the same fate. And now the body of their leader has disappeared, at least according to the women. And so a pretty good chance they will get blamed for that. And there is this extra truth that the reason the tomb is empty, the body is gone because Jesus has come back to life. And they probably don’t know what to make of all that. What else do you do, but stay home and lock the doors and try to process it all and try to stay safe and stay alive? And while they are all locked up, the unthinkable happens: Jesus appears out of nowhere. He just shows up. The resurrected Jesus just... shows up.

“Peace be with you.”

It’s an odd thing to say, but the disciples were probably, at least if they were like me, were probably hyperventilating in a bit of a panic. They’re not used to people just appearing out of nowhere, especially people you’ve seen crucified. “Peace be with you,” Jesus says. He shows the wounds in his hands and his side, and says again, “Peace be with you.” Like our passing the peace. When we say “Peace be with you” or “The Peace of Christ be with you”, that’s what we’re doing with the passing of the peace is passing on this peace that Jesus gave to his disciples. Peace be with you. We’re wishing peace, the blessing of peace upon our neighbors, on our fellows here in this congregation.

And Jesus continues, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” Then he breathes the Holy Spirit on them, and then says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” And then he disappears. Isn’t that something? The disciples were probably like, “What just happened? What is going on?”

Thomas wasn’t there, though. Thomas was not huddled with them in this locked room. Thomas was not sharing in their fear, at least not in the room. And perhaps Thomas was not afraid at all. Perhaps he didn’t feel any fear at all, and so felt alright to go outside and do whatever he was doing in town. Had no fear to be out there. But he’s not there. And by not being there, Thomas also stands in sort of for us. We can think of ourselves as Thomas in a sense, because he was not there at the creation of the church. If we think of the beginning of the church as the giving of the Holy Spirit, when Jesus shows up in that room and breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples. And Thomas is not there at the beginning of the church, just as we were not there at the beginning yet we are part of that church. We are part of it. We have the Spirit that is given to us in baptism. Of course, the disciples have to tell him what happened once he does come back, just as we must tell those who have not heard the story the story, who have not been around to hear the Gospel News. We also are charged with sharing the story and passing it on to our neighbors. And so they pass the story on to Thomas, they say “We have seen Jesus”, and he doesn’t believe it. He doesn’t believe it.

And maybe you didn’t believe when you first heard it. Or perhaps you heard it as a young child, and so just accepted it and then when you were a teenager or young adult or some point, maybe thought, “You know, I don’t have to believe this. Let me think about this.” Maybe there was a moment in your life when you had to sort of process what all this means, and then come to a deeper belief. And maybe Thomas’ willingness to disbelieve was part of why he was unwilling to stay in the house, to be afraid, to stay afraid. That little bit of doubt he had may have been the saving grace in his life. We don’t know.

But a week later they are all still in the house. They apparently haven’t listened to Jesus’ statement when he says, “I now send you. As the father sent me, I now send you, go out and forgive.” They’ve not done that. But this time the doors are only shut. They are not locked. That’s what the text says. The doors were shut. The Gospel writer was very clear to say earlier that they were locked. And very clear now to say that they were shut. We don’t know the writer’s motivations, but I think there is something important in here the writer is trying to say to us. That perhaps the disciples had learned to fear less during that week. And now they didn’t feel the need to necessarily have the doors locked. They still want them shut, not quite ready to leave yet or leave the doors open. Maybe they’re growing less fearful. And we don’t know. That’s a question of our imagination that we can’t answer, but by asking it, we’re working on our faith development. It is important to ask these kinds of questions and let our imagination run and think about it.

But I do think the writer wants us to know that closed doors, whether locked or merely shut, that they are no barrier to Jesus. Jesus can go through them. Or more rightly, Jesus can go around them. The text doesn’t say he walked through them, or through the wall, but just appeared. The doors don’t matter. So if you have any rooms in your life or heart that you’re locking Jesus out of, that’s just an illusion. You can’t lock Jesus out. And Jesus has probably gone in there already and forgiven whatever it is you think is unforgivable, or dealt with whatever shame or whatever it is that you want to keep it locked up. Jesus has more than likely already been in there and taken care of it, so you might as well let it go. Throw it away.

Forgiveness is what is at the heart of this story. It’s about forgiveness. We often focus on Thomas and his doubt. And probably if you looked at sermons through history on this text, I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of them were on Thomas and his doubt with a moral lesson that you should not be doubtful. That Thomas is wrong for doubting. That that is his failure; that we have to be better than that. And I don’t think that’s true, and I don’t think Thomas is really the focus in this story. I think it is less about Thomas and far more about Jesus. It’s much, much more about what Jesus does here. And who Jesus is. Just like our own lives: it’s not so much about what we’re doing, but what God is doing in the world; what God is doing in us; what God is doing through this church; what God is doing through The Church around the world.

Jesus doesn’t say anything about their fear, having the doors locked, not doing anything. He says, “Peace be with you.” He knows they’re afraid, spo he says “Peace be with you”. And he knows, more than likely, that they know that he knows that they are afraid, and so he doesn’t feel the need to scold them for it. He says “Peace be with you”. He doesn’t make mention at all of their fear. He doesn’t say anything to the disciples the second time he shows up and they’ve still not done anything. He doesn’t berate Thomas, either, but offers himself: “Look, touch, feel. It’s me.” And Thomas, to whom we unfairly attach the name “Doubting” even though we don’t attach names to any other disciples. We could just as easily refer to Peter as Denying Peter or Power-hungry James and Power-Hyngry John, the two disciples who wanted to be at Jesus’ right and left hand in the Kingdom. Or Non-rhyming Thaddeus. Those of you that know Bryan Sirchio’s 12 apostles song, nothing rhymes with Thaddeus.

Thomas does come to believe. Jesus offers himself. And the text doesn’t say that Thomas touched, but that he believed. And he says, “My Lord and my God!” That statement of faith that yes, Jesus is God. And this bad rap as a doubter is unfair. As though being a doubter is a bad thing. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. And I don’t think that doubt is the enemy of faith or the opposite of faith. It is the source of faith. It is an important part of faith. That might sound odd, but it’s true. The opposite of faith is not doubt, the opposite of faith is certainty. Fundamentalism. Doctrinalism. Dogmatism. Literalism. Those are the opposites and enemies of faith, because those are all human creations. They leave no room for growth or for the Holy Spirit to move. They are taking the disciples room, that locked room the disciples are in, and taking that room and shoving God into it and then locking the doors on the outside so that God can’t be any more than what you want God to be. And also certainty and fundamentalism are born out of fear. They are reactions that come from fear. Doubt does not come from fear. It’s honest. It says “I have some doubts and I am not afraid to say that.” And if God says anything to us, it is not to be afraid. Easter absolutely is that message. Don’t be so afraid that you must have certainty. Don’t be so afraid that you lock your doors and refuse to leave to go out and proclaim the message. Don’t be so afraid that you fear leaving the comfort of your theological cell. There is more God outside that cell than there ever will be inside. Plus, Jesus calls us to come out of it.

The disciples started in a locked house. Then a week later they’re in a house with the doors shut. And then soon after that they leave the house entirely and go out and spread the message into the world. They entered the world with this commission from Jesus who said, remember a few minutes ago I said this story was all about forgiveness, the commission was this: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

I don’t think Jesus was really suggesting the latter is a good option, or that is a viable option. I think he’s saying it as a warning. A warning to the disciples and to us, saying, “I am entrusting you with a powerful, God-like tool: forgiveness. The power to forgive. You can use it or not use it, it’s your choice, but it’s the only tool that will build a new world, so use it. Because not using it is the way of fear. Using it is the path of peace.”

I would love to see more forgiveness in the world. More forgiveness between nations. More forgiveness between people, between political parties, between religions. More forgiveness in families, in churches, between churches, in schools. I’d like to see more forgiveness modeled on TV. On reality TV or any of the shows we watch. We see so much of vengeance and fear and getting even, getting back, oneupmanship. What if we saw more forgiveness. Imagine that world. Imagine what the six o’clock news would look like in that world. Imagine what Eau Claire would look like in that world.

Be not afraid. Be not afraid.

And peace be with you.

Let’s pray: Prince of Peace, Jesus our Christ, you draw us out of the locked rooms of our fear to go to your world, to your people, offering forgiveness as a way of life far better than fear, vengeance, hate, or punishment. Help us all to be less fearful so we can be more forgiving and bring the world to peace. Amen.

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