Sunday, April 15, 2007

Behind Closed Doors: A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Easter

“Behind Closed Doors”
John 20:19-31
April 15, 2007

Elaine Pagels is one of our preeminent scholars of early Christianity. This is the first paragraph of her book, Beyond Belief:

On a bright Sunday morning in February, shivering in a T-shirt and running shorts, I stepped into the sanctuary of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York to catch my breath and warm up. Since I had not been in church for a long time, I was startled by my response to the worship in progress—the soaring harmonies of the choir singing with the congregation; and the priest, a woman in bright gold and white vestments, proclaiming the prayers in a clear, resonant voice. As I stood watching, a thought came to me: Here is a family that knows how to face death.

Pagels goes on to explain that, just the day before, she and her husband had learned that their two-and-a-half-year-old son had a fatal lung disease, and probably would live no longer than a few months, perhaps a few years at the most. Though a scholar of religion, it was fear and trembling brought on by the illness of her son that brought Pagels, for the first time, face to face with the question of faith. What, she wondered, is faith exactly? For much of her life she had assumed what many modern-day Christians and atheists alike assume: that faith equals accepting a certain set of doctrines or beliefs. As Pagels found a home at the Church of the Heavenly Rest, she came to question when that definition of faith took hold. I would ask whether that is a real or even useful definition of faith. I would ask whether that definition of faith leads to the kind of fear and trembling that keeps people behind closed doors, afraid to show themselves.

The disciples are behind closed doors when we find them this week—closed and locked doors, in fact. It is the evening of Easter Sunday, and the resurrection doesn’t seem to have quite caught on yet; it hasn’t entirely taken hold. There is a mood, not just of skepticism, but of stomach-churning fear. Jesus’ body is missing from its tomb, and the strange and unlikely testimony of Mary Magdalene having encountered a gardener—or was it Jesus?—is circulating like wildfire. None of this yet signifies new life or glory to the disciples. Instead, it signifies danger. It signifies fear. It signifies, close the doors and lock them, for God’s sake, lest they find us and kill us too. The disciples, all but one, are a family brought to paralysis by this powerful fear. They are a family that does not know, yet, how to face death.

Everyone is there on this night, with one exception: Didymus Thomas, whose real given name is Judas, but “Judas” isn’t really such a good moniker at the moment; so everyone calls him by his nickname: “Twin.” Whose twin Thomas is remains a mystery. Everyone is there, in the upper room, except for Thomas the Twin, and we can imagine this group, huddled together for fear of the religious authorities, speaking in low tones lest spies overhear them, trying between them to figure out what on earth and heaven has just happened.

And then Jesus appears in their midst, despite the closed and locked doors, despite their fear, or perhaps because of it: Jesus appears, and says to them, “Peace. Peace be with you.” And he shows them his hands and feet, which bear the marks made by the nails and the spear. Jesus says “Peace,” and, like the infamous picture of Lyndon Johnson raising his shirt to show the scar from his gall-bladder surgery, he invites his friends into the old, intimate familiarity. Yes, he says, it’s me. Peace. And Jesus, without going on to explain exactly what this means, breathes the Holy Spirit on them. We can just imagine:

The Spirit releasing the friends of Jesus from the fear that has kept them locked behind closed doors…

The Spirit giving them the gift of peace…

The Spirit conveying the good news of God’s forgiveness of sin…

All these things and more are conveyed by Jesus giving the Holy Spirit to his friends. My denomination has a brief statement of faith that claims a number of wonderful and extraordinary things as the work of the Holy Spirit.

In a broken and fearful world

the Spirit gives us courage

to pray without ceasing,

to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,

to unmask idolatries in church and culture,

to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,

and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.

When Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit upon his friends, he unleashes a power whose chief attribute is courage. Jesus finds those living in fear, behind closed doors, and gives them courage to do all the things they need to do, including coming out from behind those doors, including facing death, if they must.

But there is someone missing this night, the night on which Jesus breathes courage into his friends. Thomas the Twin is… well, we don’t know where Thomas is, but he is not locked behind those doors. When Thomas finally finds his way to his friends and gets wind of what has happened, he speaks bluntly: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).

And so we return to that fundamental question, the question that haunted Elaine Pagels and which haunts our reading this morning: what is faith? Does faith consist of believing what we have not seen? Is it giving our assent to propositions which, by their very nature cannot be proven? Is faith our willingness to believe what others have witnessed? What is faith?

John has one answer, and Jesus gives it in a few verses. Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29). We can hear this statement one of two ways. We can hear it as a gauntlet thrown down—a “Believe or else.” Or we can hear it as a love letter to those who will come later, a love letter to, among other folk, us.

What is Thomas’ answer? Even though John draws a portrait critical of Thomas, readers of John throughout the ages have come to have a great deal of sympathy for the disciple forever known by the adverb “Doubting.” After all, all Thomas is asking is the same thing the other disciples have already experienced: a first-hand encounter with the risen Lord. Is that so wrong? Suzanne Guthrie offers a spirited defense of Thomas in a sermon published a couple of years ago in the Christian Century. Suzanne says,

Like Thomas, I want truth. I don't want a faith of smoke and mirrors… Faced with my own tardiness, depending upon second-hand accounts, whom will I believe?

…For 11th-hour laborers and others who are slow-of-heart, Thomas's caution makes him a more credible witness. Furthermore, after the invitation to touch the wounds of Jesus, he penetrates even beyond the superficial excitement of the moment. It is… Thomas who delivers the punch line that kicks off the next 2,000 years of professional Christology: "My Lord and my God!"

In order to come to faith, Thomas needs an encounter with the risen Lord—just as all the other disciples have already experienced. In that sense it is completely unfair to single him out as unfaithful or doubting. Also in that sense, the traditional definition of faith we had at the beginning—adhering to a certain set of propositions—doesn’t make much sense. In the end, faith isn’t about bullet points on a list. It is about a relationship with the one who died and rose again.

Pagels continues her story of the Church of the Heavenly Rest.

Standing in the back of that church I realized, uncomfortably, that I needed to be there. Here was a place to weep without imposing tears on a child; and here was a [diverse] community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine…I returned often to that church… because, in the presence of that worship and the people gathered there… my defenses fell away…

Though this careful scholar of religion does not put it in precisely these words, I am going to boldly go where she has not gone, and say this: what she found at the Church of the Heavenly Rest was an encounter with the risen Lord through his body, the Church.

We all need the body. Researchers tell us how people and animals fail to thrive unless they are held, unless they are in close, intimate contact with other people and animals. We all need the body. We all need the reassurance of a smile, or the challenge of a rebuke when we are wrong, or the bliss of being held in the arms of our beloved. We all need the body, and we all need all the things that nourish the body—clean water to drink, the balance of healthy foods, ample sleep, and time to play. We all need the body.

Thomas encountered the body of Christ behind the closed and locked doors, because stony limits cannot hold love out, and what love can do, that dares love attempt. And Elaine Pagels encountered the body… the body of Christ in the Church, not a stone or wood edifice, but people, the people of God. She needed the same things we all need. We all need a place to weep. We all need a place that mirrors the diversity of all God’s people. We all need a place in which to sing and celebrate. We all need a place where we can acknowledge our common needs, where we can say, “This is what being human looks like.” We all need a place to deal with and process what we cannot control or imagine: life, its pains and joys, its twists and turns, its devastations and delights, even death itself. We all need, in order to come to faith, an encounter with the risen Lord, and this is where we find it.

What is faith? I believe the gospel points the way for us: encounter comes first. Faith is a relationship, relationship with God through our relationship with God’s people. As we sing, struggle with the meaning of scripture, and commend our world and ourselves into God’s care, we participate in that relationship. That relationship, my friends, is faith. That relationship is what can remove our fear and replace it with the Sprit’s courage. That relationship is what allows us to step out from behind those closed doors. That relationship is what stirs our hearts to make the bold and grateful claim, “My Lord and My God.” Amen.


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