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Locked In, Surprised by Jesus’ Presence: The Second Sunday of Easter

Sunday, April 19, 2020
John 20:19-31

A friend of mine mentioned earlier today that isn’t it so sad that Thomas said one little thing, surrounded by friends, and for thousands of years since that night, he’s been known as “Doubting Thomas,” and we all wag our fingers at him.

With today’s story we find ourselves in a locked room, among the disciples. Well, it’s two vignettes on two different Sundays. The first one finds Thomas absent. But what brought us here?

Well, we just need to go back to last week, to Easter Sunday’s gospel reading. What happened? Well, Mary, the Beloved Disciple, and Peter found the empty tomb. Mary had her encounter with the risen Jesus. She went to the disciples and said “I’ve seen the Lord!” The Beloved Disciple and Peter saw the unwrapped burial cloths, and at least one of them came to believe in the resurrection at that point.

That was early Easter morning. Today we pick up in the late evening on the same day. Somehow, even after those experiences (or at least hearing the news), the disciples are clustered together, locked in, out of fear. (The unfortunate reference to “fear of the Jews” is a recurring attribute of this gospel, probably the result of tensions between the synagogue communities and the early church that produced the fourth gospel; “Jew” in the gospel can denote the Judean inhabitants, Jews in general, or the Jewish authorities. Here I suspect it’s referring to the authorities.)

But we notice that Thomas isn’t with his friends. He misses the first appearance of Jesus to them. Why is that? Well, we know from earlier on that, when Jesus mentioned going to Jerusalem, Thomas pipes up with “Let us go with him, so that we can die with him.” Thomas seems to have guts. He’s a person of action. We all know someone like that, who, under stress, needs to be doing something. I bet he couldn’t stand being with the other disciples in that moment, and needed to get outside to do ‘something.’

What should we make of the disciples locking themselves in? Is it a failure (out of fear)? Or might we entertain the possibility that this was part of God’s way of acting (“God’s plan” as some would say)? I’m beginning to think the latter. There’s a saying from the ancient Desert Fathers and Mothers (the first Christian hermits and monks and nuns). “Go to your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” I wonder if that truth is at play here. And a truth for us to think about in our own time of distancing and quarantine. Being shut in does limit us in some ways. It is challenging. It is, in some cases, related to fear. But, while we’re in our cells (our rooms, houses, apartments, etc.), we can still grow spiritually. There are risks to getting overly busy and ‘productive’ during this time — we can unhealthily bury our anxieties through too much action — but, we can grow our spiritual roots. We can rest in God’s presence. The locked door doesn’t get in the way of the risen Christ.

What should we make of Thomas, and his doubts? Should we label him a failure? Or can we be a bit more charitable, and say he’s just a lukewarm, or less-good disciple? Or, can we be so bold to — again — say that this experience was part of God’s action? Some will say part of God’s plan; others might simply say that God was able to make use of the situation to become present, enliven faith, and strengthen the group. (Perhaps there’s no real difference.) Paul Gibson, architect of much of our green service book, began a sermon years ago with the comment that it’s a worth noting in itself that Thomas — even in his doubts — remained part of the disciple community. He still got on with them, and they still accepted him. There’s something for us in that observation, especially in our time of tension in the Anglican Communion.

It seems to me that God made good use of this time of fear, isolation and doubt. Look at how Thomas’s confession (“My Lord and My God”) mirrors the statement in John’s (Christmasy) prologue: The Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Look at how Jesus, who in John chapter 1 was called “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” now gives that power of forgiveness to the disciples: “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven.”

Look at how Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on to his friends, which he had earlier promised, in the context of John’s rendering of the Last Supper.

Look at how Jesus sends the disciples into the world, just as he had earlier said “those who welcome you, welcome me.”

These events that occur in the context of that locked room seem to have an important purpose. They happened in God’s good time. Fear didn’t get in the way. Locked doors didn’t get in the way.

It’s quite bold that the Church places this very reading on the Sunday after Easter, each and every year. We will no doubt (pardon the pun!) grapple with our thoughts on faith and doubt. And that is happening in the news, too. The pop-up coronavirus clinics in New York City are connected to the evangelist Franklin Graham. Those that want to help with them are instructed to sign a statement of faith. (Oh, how things would be different if the Parable of the Good Samaritan were considered there!) A little closer to home, a little while back I did some exploring of a Christian ministry that helps to alleviate poverty, thinking they might be a good fit for some of what we’re doing at St. Andrew’s. Part of what they require, though, is for any involved volunteers to sign a statement of faith. That’s not entirely what got in the way of our connecting with them, but I did find it odd that this fairly new group wasn’t satisfied with the fairly basic (and near universal, in Churchland) tenets of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, not to mention the fairly generous way we allow people to interpret them.

In that sermon of Paul Gibson’s he challenges that faith and doubt are not opposites (and this is quite commonly understood these days). What are the opposites of faith, though? He suggests: cynicism, despair, and unthinking fundamentalism. That seems right to me. We need to be challenged and refined by our doubts, but also open to the shock and surprise of God’s grace.

May we be shocked by the presence of the Risen Christ in our midst, even when locked in. Amen.

© 2020 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter