Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133
“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, the doors at the house where the disciples had met were locked in fear”. Our Gospel lesson this week begins with a gathering of scared folks, and I am adding grieving, angry, disappointed, and lost to the emotions that must have been in that locked room. We have to remember, the disciples didn’t get an Easter Sunday yet. They were living in an extended Good Friday. All the hopes and dreams they had pinned on Jesus were disappearing around them. I am struck by the poignancy of this gathering. Less than a week before, they had also been gathered in a room together. They gathered there with their teacher, their friend, the man they thought was their Savior. They gathered for a meal with him and he washed their feet, offered them a meal, and then said that before the dawn, they would betray him. They would not just be witnesses to his death, but they would be characters in his demise. So, yeah, let’s add guilt to the slew of emotions in the room. The pain must have been palpable. But they were together. In their darkest moments, they sought refuge with each other. They circled the wagons and took time to mourn and be together. This to me is a reflection of one of the greatest gifts of the church, gathering. It is when we offer a safe place for people to come and dwell and feel all their feelings, have all of the misgivings, and still be surrounded and grounded by their community.
The first strand of hope must have come in as Mary Magdalene rushed to their gathering place and told them the story of what she had seen. She recounted to them her testimony. She explained to them how the risen Christ spoke to her, called her by name, and she recognized him. Her spirits soaring, she breathed a new breath of life into the room. They may have even dared to hope for the first time since they had watched Jesus’s life leave his body. But, would the testimony of one woman be enough to remind them of the role that Jesus had given them to be out in the world healing, teaching, and preaching? Well, apparently not yet. They stayed gathered together, they stayed locked away, they stayed in fear.
Then Jesus appears, through the wall no less and stands among them. He offers them a blessing and proof: a blessing of peace and assurance that their authority in forgiving and retaining the sins of people is well intact and visual proof (in case appearing through a locked door wasn’t enough) that he was the one they were waiting for and the stories he had told about his death and new life were true. They had heard from Mary what they had seen, but now their senses were full of Christ’s presence. Their eyes saw him enter the room and then they saw the wounds that they had watched occur. Their ears heard the blessings that Jesus offered them. Their ears and spirits received his peace. Theirs ears and senses of calling heard his promise that the sins they forgave would be forgiven and the sins they retained would be retained. And, as I imagine it, their very flesh goose bumped and they felt a shiver of excitement when his breath landed upon them. I can feel the shift in the mood of the room as I read this passage. I can feel their Spirits lifting and their faith being reinforced. They are in the midst of a mountaintop experience. In those moments, faith and group connection are at an all time high, but so is the risk of excluding those who do not have the same, shared experience. You see, while the lock they used kept them safe and connected with each other, what message did it send to the rest of the world? In an attempt to not be alone, who have they left out? Who is left out in the cold as the breath of Jesus is upon those gathered in that locked room?
Well, we know one person. Thomas. Not even one of those they feared, Thomas was left out. Thomas, the twin, has been cropped out of this group memory. He comes back after Jesus has gone and they begin to tell him what they had seen. As they share this group memory, Thomas is unintentionally pushed to the outer bounds of the group. Their retelling of their first interactions with the risen Christ would not have been a dry and boring story. What we read now, the narrative that was written after generations of story telling, is still exciting. Jesus has no need for the boundaries presented by walls, doors and locks, the disciples receive the Holy Sprit and were commissioned into their vocations. More than all of that though, they were reconnected, reintroduced, put in new relationship with their teacher, the one who death had grasped mere days before. Their faith hadn’t been in vain. Their teacher wasn’t a phony. Their beliefs weren’t in vain. They told Thomas, just like Mary had told them. He was the first person they evangelized. It did not go as they planned. Thomas wasn’t convinced. Thomas wanted the tactile, visual, auditory proof that they had received. Thomas just wanted what the others had gotten. So, Thomas named his needs.
And Jesus answers his need with grace. When Mary is weeping in the garden, searching for the body, begging information from a stranger, Jesus offers her an answer. For her, the answer comes in his simply saying her name. As he calls her by name, she understands and believes. When he comes to the room where many of his disciples are gathered, he greets them with his peace, shows them his wounds, and gifts them with the Holy Spirit. In those words and actions, they too understand and believe. None of them believed without seeing. They were offered first hand interactions with the risen Christ. And so was Thomas. It may have been a week later (and my guess is that it was one of toughest weeks of Thomas’s life, wondering, questioning, and trying to reconcile a desire to believe his friends and the isolation that he felt from his uncertainty and from missing such an important group memory. But then Jesus shows up. And, in true ironic Jesus form, he shows up in the same room under the same circumstances as before. The story repeats itself here., “A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you’”. Thomas is greeted with the peace of Christ and then given the same opportunity to physically experience Jesus in his resurrection form. Honestly, for the purpose of this sermon and life, I wish that the story ended right here. I wish that the repetition of scenes continued: Thomas getting a blessing, Thomas believing, Thomas being affirmed in his call and then everyone being together, no longer to mourn, but now to celebrate. Then, when another person comes along, the whole story is repeated again and again. Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t it be convenient if Jesus himself in the flesh, offered us glimpses and touches, called us by name, and gave us exactly whatever it is that we need to believe? Repeatedly met our doubts with abounding grace?
Maybe the answer isn’t in the shortening of the chapter, but in the elongating of the story. If we look to the next chapter, the last chapter in John, the disciples are offered some pretty detailed instructions for what life is going to be like after he has ascended into heaven. He offers them instructions to care for he sheep and lambs like he did as their great shepherd. He reminds them that their job is to serve and not to seek privilege and glory for their work. And then, at the end of the entire gospel of John, the author leaves us with a note, “25 But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” If it sounds familiar, you may be matching it to the ending of out reading from today, “30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” The last two chapters of John’s Gospel, the two chapters in which we encounter the physical body of the resurrected Lord, we are reminded that the story we hear is just part of the story. So why include this one?
If Jesus came and went in the time between his resurrection and his ascension, why were we just offered this story? This story of questions and doubts, this story of inclusion and exclusion? This story of a disciple, again, seeming to miss the point? A story that repeats itself but ends up taking a different path? I think it is because this is the story that we need to hear. We need to hear the disciples and Thomas receiving tactile proof of God. We need to hear Thomas naming his doubts and not just blindly believing because of what the others had seen. We need Jesus to be willing to offer Thomas the proof he needs, because we need Jesus to offer us the proof we need. We need to believe in tactile signs of the resurrection. Do you remember where we began this story? In a locked room, scared. Isolated, circling the wagons, hoping beyond all hope that this story Mary shared about the Messiah was true. Hoping that her vision wasn’t blurry and her belief wasn’t unsupported. We began this story in fear and mourning. That may seem like a very familiar place to many of you. Fear. Grief. A need to isolate from a world that is so dangerous. A world that includes people being shot as they flee, a world that includes teen after teen taking their lives when the world turns their backs or raises their fists to them once they are living into their true selves, a world where children are abducted, elders are abused, and those singing hymns to the God we praise are in their next breaths spitting out messages of hate. Fear. Grief. A need to circle the wagons and find refuge in each other.
Thanks be to God for spaces, like that upper room, like the homes of family and friends, and like this church where we can gather. Where we can mourn. Where we can question the promises Jesus proclaimed before he was killed. And thanks be to God our story doesn’t end in that room. The disciples knew that their job was to tell others the good news. Mary knew her job was to tell others the good news. The trick is going out into that scary world. The trick is to create safe spaces without using locks. Jesus wasn’t kept out of the moment by the locks on the door, but one of their brothers was. Their haven, their safe space, became their hiding place.
This is as good a time as any to tell you that I have seen the Sound of Music more times in my life than I can keep track of. As a child, it was my sick movie. That meant, whenever I was sick, my parents would set me up on the couch in the living room with tissues, soup, hot tea and pop The Sound of Music into the VHS player. If any of you remember the VHS version of the Sound of Music, you will remember that it took a cassette change in the middle of the movie. The time it took to rewind the first tape before beginning the second was how I in my childhood defined infinite. I must also confess that I did a lot of fast forwarding through the “boring parts”. By that I mean mostly the nun singing and the kissing. I have, however, stopped that habit and thankfully so. At one moment in the movie, right before the Mother Abbess is about the sing her song about climbing mountains (which childhood Beth never understood as a metaphor and just assumed she was promoting the beautiful landscapes of Austria), she says, with her wisest expression and tone of voice, “Maria, these walls were not meant to shut out problems. You have to face them. You have to live the life you were born to live.” She recognizes that Maria has sought shelter in the safe space of her church when the world has become scary and she no longer understands her place in it. She is given a time of refuge in the church, and then she is sent back out. She is sent back out to live her life, not as she had planned it, but as God had intended it.
The disciples were gathered together after everything went wrong. They came together for safety. Then, they were comforted and sent back out. When their first attempt at evangelism didn’t work, they were brought back for a repeat of blessing and sending. Each week when we gather here in this space, we are offered a safe space, and thanks be to God for that safety, may it be for all people who come through these doors. Then we are sent back into our lives. But, like Maria, like Mary, like the disciples gathered in that room on the night of that first day of Christ’s resurrection, like Thomas a week later, we are not sent out in the same state we gathered. We are sent out with the Peace of Christ, we are sent out with the Holy Spirit, and we are sent out with a reminder, a push, a calling to live out in the scary world with the comfort of God who made us, who loves us enough to die and rise from the dead, and who calls us by name and shows us physical signs of the power of resurrection and the grace of divine presence. Remember, these miraculous things were going on all the time, the ones we read in this chapter are just the few that were written down so that we may believe.