Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Sermon: Faith Behind Locked Doors

John 20:19-31

Every year on the Sunday after Easter, we read several passages about what the disciples did following Jesus’ resurrection. One of them that is part of our readings most years is from the gospel of John on how Thomas misses the first appearance of Jesus to the disciples, and when the disciples tell him about it -- Thomas doesn’t believe them. So we usually talk about doubt and the role it has in faith. But the thing that I want to focus on today is the rest of the disciples. Not Thomas. They are all locked up in a room because they are afraid.

Listen to the story and think about that as I read it. John 20:19-31

It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”

Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”

But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”

After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”

Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.

So what does it mean that the disciples were all together behind locked doors? You see, locked doors don’t sound that weird to us today, because we lock our homes, we lock our cars, we lock our churches. Everything is locked up, because we are concerned about theft, about crime, and so locked doors have become normal, even in the daytime. But in Jesus’ era, during daylight, doors were usually opened and unlocked to allow in light and air. It was a sign that friends and guests were welcome. So the fact that the disciples are behind closed doors, and in fact locked doors is a bit surprising. Clearly they were in hiding, they were afraid, and they were not ready to receive friends or guests.

So what happens? Jesus appears to them anyway. Even though the door being closed clearly conveys that visitors are not welcome. He then speaks to them words of peace. He tells them that they are sent out into the world, and he breathes the Holy Spirit upon them, telling them that if they forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven.

Jesus is being very pastoral here. The disciples were keeping their faith behind locked doors for fear of the anger and judgment of other religious people. Jesus is telling them to get out from behind the locked door, that they have a job to do. They have to live their faith, not hide it.

[shocked] But then 8 days later, the disciples are still hiding behind locked doors. They still aren’t doing what Jesus told them. Even after he gifted them with peace and the Holy Spirit. They aren’t going out to the world, they aren’t forgiving sins, they are just hiding. This time Thomas is there too.

Again Jesus speaks peace to them, and then he spends time directing his speech at Thomas, but I actually think he is speaking to all of the disciples.

He shows them his hands and feet, he shows them the wound in his side. And he says, “No more disbelief, believe!” If he isn’t just talking to Thomas here, what he is telling the disciples is, “Look at me. I am still alive. God has brought me through the crucifixion. I have suffered and died, and yet I am here with you. What do you have to fear? What reason could you possibly have to hide behind these doors? Stop disbelieving the power and promises of God. Get out there and live your faith.”

You see, Thomas wasn’t the only one struggling with disbelief. Jesus’ speech is for all of them. Thomas is just the object lesson for all of them. And for us. Thomas is still an object lesson for all of us today, especially those many religious people who hold their faith fearfully and cower behind locked doors.

The fact is that there are many Christians who are afraid to express what they really believe for fear of the consequences. This can happen in countries where it is illegal to express certain religious beliefs, or where it is unsafe. Look at the recent bombing of the churches in Egypt.

Even though a bomb had been found in one of the churches the week before, and security officers were at the doors, they made no effort to stop the bomber who can be seen on camera walking through the front doors, and moving to the front of the church. Attenders say the security forces don’t really try to protect them. Because of this a number of churches in southern Egypt cancelled their Easter celebrations last week. Fear stopped them from celebrating the resurrection of Christ. It is hard to imagine a more fitting parallel to the disciples hiding in a room following Jesus’ resurrection.

But it isn’t just in places like that where people are afraid to express their faith. It can happen in places where we think free expression is the norm, like here in our country. It can even happen in the church.

What happens is that people who have very deep beliefs are afraid to express them because they may not match exactly the official or predominant view. Perhaps they view the bible as a human book, or they question what the divinity of Jesus really means, or they don’t really believe that heaven is a place but instead it is a state of unity with God. And so they hide, because they are afraid of being condemned or kicked out of their religious communities because of the questions they have.

It can even happen due to politics. I actually know a pastor who was fired for expressing concerns over President Barack Obama’s policies soon after he was elected, and I know a pastor who was fired for expressing concerns over President Donald Trump’s policies. Such actions leave us as leaders of the church in a fearful position. When our faith obviously believes something that is a critique of the culture, should we hide behind locked doors, or should we speak up? Like the early disciples we often choose to hide rather than be honest with our thoughts. I know this is true of many people who find themselves afraid of the consequences of speaking and sharing their true belief.

In our Wednesday night classes we have talked about the ways to create safe places where people can honestly share the depth of faith, struggle with its questions, so that we can have dignified and honest dialogue, and so that the peace of Christ empowers us to do the work of the church – proclaiming forgiveness and hope.

Creating such a safe atmosphere allows us to do is to actually talk about the hardest parts of our religious faith without fear of judgment, it also builds up the whole community, filling us with a spirit of renewed belief. So for example, because Thomas is willing to disagree with others in faith, and not be afraid of condemnation, Jesus is able to come to Thomas and move him into a new belief. At the same time the rest of the disciples are also encouraged to grow in faith so that they have the courage to live their faith.

Of course it can also happen that one person’s questions challenge the whole community to reevaluate their faith and priorities. 500 years ago Martin Luther courageously nailed a list of 95 issues he had with the church to the door. The result of that act was reform, and the greater Christian church was reminded that we are saved by faith, not by works. We needed the reminder, so that we could spread the message of forgiveness to the world.

It is important that we don’t hide our faith behind locked doors, even in the face of violence, even in the fear of condemnation. We are carry the message of one who was arrested and crucified, died and was buried, and yet he lives. Why are we afraid?

The courage to step out and speak boldly can lead us personally to deeper faith when we find ourselves corrected by Christ, or it can lead the community to revitalization as we challenge false beliefs that have become the norm. And so because of this: I pray we may be able to welcome the Thomas’ who disagree and doubt, while also being open to correction by Christ on our beliefs. May we have the courage to come out from behind our locked doors so that we can proclaim the forgiveness of Christ. Then as people find that forgiveness, we can all have life in his name. 

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