2018-04-08 “When Doors Are Locked”

“When Doors Are Locked”

A meditation based on John 20:19-31

April 8, 2018

Community Congregational Church of Chula Vista

Dr. Sharon R. Graff

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                   Ordinarily, what happens behind locked doors, stays behind locked doors, at least, in polite company!  But the Risen Jesus doesn’t seem to follow that etiquette!  Resurrection Day isn’t even over.  It is the evening of that same day when the tomb was discovered to be unoccupied.  The disciples have sequestered themselves behind locked doors, behind locked fears, behind locked doubts, behind locked despair, behind locked confusion.  Behind those locked doors of spirit, body and mind, they are safe, or so they think.  Their fears and concerns are safely contained in that locked room; safe from the authorities who killed their Teacher.  Safe from daring to believe what Mary Magdalene and the other women told them.  Safe from The Teacher himself and all that he taught them.  There, behind those locked doors, the disciples can regroup, breathe for a moment, then resolve to get back to their formerly safe lives. 

                   The Risen Jesus, however, has other ideas…ideas not to be curtailed by fears…ideas of a vibrant future lived way beyond locked doors!  Life pushes through what appears to be dead, and the Risen Jesus does so, too.  Scripture says, “he appeared though the doors were locked.”  Rarely a slave to formalities, Jesus shows up, upsetting their illusion of safety.  Yeah, Jesus has a maddening habit of doing that, doesn’t he?!  Showing up, despite our best efforts to lock him and his teachings safely out of our way.  We are in a season, seven weeks in length, called Easter; it is one of my favorites in the Christian year for just that reason.  Jesus keeps showing up. Behind locked doors.  On the seashore.  Over a cookfire, making breakfast.  On a road between here and there.  Jesus shows up. 

                   Several years ago, a biblical theologian looked at that factor in the post-resurrection stories—the factor of Jesus showing up—and she concluded that resurrection was not a “one and done” experience.  Resurrection wasn’t limited to the early morning tomb.  Resurrection—the life experience of Jesus alive again, and yet in very different form—resurrection was and is an ongoing reality, for those first disciples…and for us. 

                   And isn’t it also interesting to notice in today’s story: when Jesus shows up, he isn’t recognized.  That’s worth pondering.  How could the very people who had spent years of life walking and talking with him, listening and watching Jesus work, how could they fail to see him when he showed up?  I’ve heard preachers perform all sorts of theological gymnastics trying to explain that conundrum.  What has come to make the most sense to me—as I live through various seasons of life, death, and life again—is that resurrected life looks quite different.  Resurrected life is unrecognizable, at least on the surface.  When one looks more deeply, however, at the actions and the verbs, then the Resurrected Jesus becomes apparent. 

                   In this story today, the noun is Jesus.  He came and stood among them.  They apparently didn’t recognize him until the verb, the action…“he showed them his hands and his side.”  Then they rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  Their seeing Jesus depended on his doing something familiar.  The other resurrection stories we’ll explore in the coming weeks are very similar.  Jesus shows up.  The disciples don’t recognize him.  Jesus does something familiar, and in the familiar action, they are able to see him for who he is now.  Resurrected.  Changed.  Unrecognizable, except through verbs. 

                   And that, friends, is where the story of Thomas takes on special interest.  Thomas fascinates me.  He is a man of action who sees first, then believes.  In this passage, Thomas goes where we know the other disciples want to go, but dare not.  He says what they are aching to say, but fear to speak the words.  He touches what they itch to touch.  Doubting Thomas, he has been called.  A bad translation from the Greek has brought us that word, “doubt.”  Truth be told, the Greek word for “doubt” occurs nowhere in this story.  Rather, the word, which is wrongly translated as “doubt,” literally means “unbelieving”… which significantly changes Jesus’ words to Thomas:  “put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

                   Keep in mind that this conversation originated a week before, behind those locked doors, when the disciples, sans Thomas see the risen Christ.  We are not told why Thomas was absent from that resurrection appearance…only that he was not there.  The other disciples, no doubt, tell Thomas about having seen and heard Jesus with them, and if you were in Thomas’ shoes, you can imagine how you might feel and react.  A week passes.  Still, for Thomas, there is no Jesus.  Thomas’ lack of sight is not due to his lack of clarity or his lack of faith.  He has made his needs very clear.  He must see the nail marks and feel the hole in Jesus’ side in order to believe.  While Thomas’ demands might make many of us cringe, or at least secretly judge Thomas as being overtly suspicious, the text doesn’t even hint at such judgment.  The demands of Thomas’ faith are just that—neither gruesome nor unusual—they are simply understood as what Thomas needs in order to believe.

                   Centuries later, developmental theorist Jean Piaget would describe concrete thinkers, and his description fits Thomas.  Thomas needs data, objects and specific events in order to resolve the puzzle of the resurrection.  The other disciples had had new life breathed into them on resurrection night.  Thomas had missed out.  He needs the breath of new life as well.  And so Jesus meets him on his own terms.  And when met, Thomas responds with one of scripture’s most impressive confessions of faith: “My Lord and My God!” he exclaims!  No, this dialogue between Jesus and Thomas is not about doubt and faith.  Initially, it is about believing and not believing.  Ultimately, it is about living in community. 

                   Living in community means acceptance for wherever you are on the journey of believing and not believing.  It means not being judged for your questions.  It means that questions about belief are not ends in themselves…rather these profound questions lead to a stronger and more cohesive community.  That is their purpose, and Jesus makes all of that very clear in this story.

                   The question Jesus asks of Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” and the follow up statements applauding those who believe without seeing, have been unfortunately interpreted as a divine put down.  It may be the easy answer to assume that Jesus is ridiculing Thomas for his lack of faith, but I think it sells short both Jesus and Thomas. 

Jesus does not appear to be interested in shaming Thomas, nor by extension, any of us who ask for a little proof from time to time.  Jesus, like the God he represents, offers himself in the form and with language the petitioner can understand. 

                   As one commentary writer has noted, “It is not touching Jesus that leads Thomas to his confession of faith, but [what brings about Thomas’ declaration of faith is] Jesus’ gracious offer of himself.”  Jesus, like God, gives Thomas and us what is needed for faith, and he gives it directly, simply, without rancor or judgment.  Why, we may ask?  I imagine so that he and we can move beyond “faith matters” to what really matters in the community of faith.  Think about how the original community would have or could have been distracted by faith matters… questions such as: Did Jesus really rise up from the dead?  Was the Holy Spirit given at Pentecost—50 days after the resurrection—or on resurrection evening as John’s gospel suggests?  Did Jesus ascend to heaven before, after, or during this prolonged stay on earth? How many angels can really fit in the tomb?  We are no different than those early disciples.  We can become distracted if not obsessed with matters and questions of faith.  And in so doing, we may never really get to what matters in the community of faith. 

                   This story concludes with the words, “There are many things that Jesus did…these are written that you may believe…and that, through believing, you may have life…”  Ultimately, this story is about life!  Not about a list of beliefs or a series of unbeliefs.  This story is about moving beyond locked doors of belief and unbelief, and through locked doors of questions of faith, so that your eyes are opened to see resurrected life—new life—right here within the verbs of community. 

                   Bruce Epperly, a process theologian, author, and pastor, speaks of Thomas, not as a doubter, but as a hero.  To paraphrase Epperly’s comments, even though Thomas does not experience resurrection day, Thomas stays with the other disciples…  When he was hearing wild and amazing stories of the Risen Jesus, Thomas could have left for home and abandoned the group altogether, but he stayed!  And that is the point precisely…Thomas’ faith reminds us that living in community in spite of our questions, remaining in community through seasons of believing and not believing, is a strong and sure way of finding truth that will sustain us.  For in community, we do not have to have all the truth ourselves.  In community, we do not carry the load alone.  In community, we can lean on the faith of others when ours is not as strong, for in community, God’s love depends neither on our orthodoxy or our certainty, nor will God’s love be diminished by our doubts or our questions.  For in community love takes root and nurtures.  Behind locked doors.  Despite and because of courageously asked questions.  Through accepting and being accepted on the journey of faith, no matter your current location.  In community—the kind of community Jesus was breathing into existence so long ago—Jesus breathed a way of peace, a way that invites us to move from fear, to move from confusion, to move through unbelief and belief; to move today into life…resurrected life… unrecognizable except for the verbs.  For that we say, “Thank you, Thomas, for persisting beyond your own locked doors—le chaim—to life!”


Amen and Blessed Be!