"Moving Beyond Locked Doors"

April 14, 1996 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon John 20:19-31 and 1 Peter 1:3-9

"Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy..." (1 Peter 1:8) Those words of Peter bring to mind a resurrection story from the gospel of John, which tells of when the disciples first saw the risen Christ. You may remember last week's account, also from John's gospel, in which Mary Magdalene became the first to behold Jesus just outside the empty tomb, but she was unable to really see him until he called her by name. From that point on she became the first to speak the message of resurrection, saying to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord."

Now, you would think that such a testimony might draw those who loved Jesus out of their terror over what happened on the previous Friday. But apparently Mary's words of witness were not enough to unlock the doors of their fear. On the evening of that first Easter Sunday, the disciples gathered with one another in a closed room. Apparently the strange report of an empty tomb was enough to get them out of their separate homes, and bring them together in one place. But, they were afraid. John's account says that "the doors of the house ... were locked for fear of the Jews." However, I wonder, was that really the source of their fear?

Of course, I can understand why they might be frightened of what the powers that be might do to them. After all, look what these powers had done to Jesus. The disciples themselves stood helplessly by while their Lord was stripped of dignity and strung up like a common criminal. Only one of them stayed around, though, to witness the worst, as death claimed another victim in its own cruel way. The others ran away, leaving the women at the foot of the cross. Were the disciples afraid that the same fate awaited them? Probably. But is that all they were afraid of?

The locked doors, the whispered passwords ... were these only for keeping out the dangers of crucifixion? Or were the disciples also afraid of the news Mary had told them? All those warnings Jesus had earlier spoken, about the suffering to come, had proven true. What if the other things he said were also coming to pass? Were they ready for a risen Christ? Were they prepared for resurrection? You'd think they would be, having walked by Jesus' side for so long, having listened to his words and witnessed his miracles. But, when it came right down to it, they were no more ready for what happened that first Easter than John Doe down the street. If anything, they fortified themselves against it.

However, can a dead bolt hold back the One who has risen from the dead? Certainly not that day long ago? Jesus moved beyond the locked door, he came to the disciples and spoke a word of peace. In my mind's eye, I imagine that closed room moving from black and white to vivid color. The stuffy atmosphere was replaced by a refreshing breeze. Easter bloomed. Isn't this what being "born again" is like?

Now, for some of us, that term is fraught with all sorts of negatives. Perhaps this is because we've been turned off by witnesses who shared the good news with a hammer, pounding out that one must be "born again," which sometimes means: "you must experience the good news in exactly the same way as I did." But that's not the truth, is it? In this resurrection story, Jesus didn't break down that door by force, did he? No, he came and stood with those he loved, and shared a word of peace.

Think about it. What was, and is, the greeting shared when two Jews meet, as well as the word they speak in parting? "Shalom!," which means "God's peace be with you." "Shalom" opens doors; literal doors, or the door to the human heart. Jesus said to his disciples, "Peace be with you," and their doors opened. They opened their eyes and saw him in vivid color, and they were filled with joy. They were, if you will, born again. Just like Mary when Jesus spoke her name. As you can see, already on this first day of resurrection, we see two ways of experiencing this new birth, one at the calling of a name, the other with a word of "peace."

For some of us, being "born again," or "born from above," or "born of the Spirit" (whatever we call it), this experience is dramatic and can be located in a particular time and place. My friend Lindy celebrated the day of her rebirth every year afterward. She remembered where she was, as well as the exact minute when her world came into focus through the Spirit. Others of us have come to this point more gradually. But our experience is no less real. It's like a refreshing breeze that powers our life. Call it, if you will, a "newness of life," an openness to the things of God.

In this morning's gospel story, Jesus breathed on his disciples, and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit." In the Bible, the Spirit is often spoken of as a wind from God, or the very breath of God. I like to describe it as a "breath of fresh air." It blows away the stuffiness, the pollution (if you will) that surrounds us spiritually.

Many of you are aware that I suffer from asthma. I also understand I'm not alone in this. When my asthma is kicked in by an allergen in the air, the experience is like drowning. I can't fill up my lungs. My breaths are shorter and more labored. Less oxygen gets into my system, thus causing headaches. Everything narrows down to survival, just catching a breath.

That's how I picture that locked room before Jesus came and breathed the Holy Spirit into his disciples. Then they could breath again, their spiritual airways (if you will) opened. Many of us struggle through life like those disciples in that closed room. Being born of the Spirit, however it happens (there is no "one size fits all," you know), is like being able to take deep breaths and allow God's peace to move through what once were locked doors within. By the way, it's hard to sing when you can't catch your breath. But when you can, watch out!

This "breath of fresh air," being "born of the spirit," though, is not just for its own sake - as if that's what it's all about: just breathing in and out. No, Jesus told those he loved in that closed room, "as the Father has sent me, so I send you." They were/ we are to continue the work of Jesus. What is that work? Well, this particular story puts a bit of flesh on the bones by remembering him say, " If you forgive anyone's sins, they will be forgiven. But if you don't forgive their sins, they will not be forgiven" (20:23 CEV). They were/ we are to be about forgiveness or, to put it in a different way, they/we are to be peacemakers - working toward reconciliation: helping restore the broken relationships that exist between people and God, and working toward reconciliation between people. Forgiveness is an essential component of the work Jesus gives us to continue.

Given to us also is the fresh breath of the Holy Spirit that transforms our task from being a struggle [short, labored breaths] just to survive, to becoming [long, deep breath] a joy-filled journey of faith. The Spirit is what empowers us to continue the work of Jesus. Is forgiveness, reconciliation, peacemaking possible without the Holy Spirit? You answer that one.

Some scholars have referred to this gospel story as John's Pentecost. In it, the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit are received at the same time by the disciples, not separated by 50 days. Again, that's how it is for some people. For others, it takes time for such things to happen, just like my asthma - it takes a while for my system to be restored after an attack. It doesn't happen immediately. But it does happen, and I can breathe freely again.

The rest of this resurrection story is, perhaps, more familiar to us. In it we watch the disciple Thomas struggle with his doubt for, you see, he missed out on the breath of fresh air. He was somewhere else at the time. "I've got to see and touch the nail holes in his body before I believe," he replied after the other disciples told him, "we've seen the Lord." Easter, for Thomas, happened a week later - why, that would be today, wouldn't it? Again the disciples were in the same house, Thomas with them this time. John makes a point of saying that the doors were shut. Still, Jesus entered with a "Shalom!" Is it a greeting or a reminder?

Thomas gets his chance to see the risen Lord, and to touch his healed wounds. "My Lord and my God!," he professes. With this confession of faith, Jesus speaks past Thomas and the rest, he moves beyond the doors of time and addresses us. Listen: "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe" (20:29).

Sound familiar? "Although you have not seen him, you love him," Peter later wrote; "and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy..." He's not only talking about faith, he's revealing what makes faith possible. Peter is describing that breath of fresh air, isn't he? - the new birth brought about by the Holy Spirit. How else can we love and believe in someone we have not physically seen?

"Shalom!," the risen Christ calls out to us, moving beyond doors we often lock out of fear. What are we afraid of? "Peace be to you!," he says. Then, amid our struggle just to catch our breath in this hectic world, he breathes upon us. "Receive the Holy Spirit!," he says, "and move beyond your locked doors."

If you have heard his voice speak to you this morning... If you have felt that breath of fresh air, and want to unlock your door and step out into this resurrection day... then do so. If your steps bring you forward while we sing the next hymn - well, someone will be here to step out with you. Count on it! Shall we sing of our Redeemer who has set us free? #344.

1996Peter L. Haynes

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