Sermon: “Behind Closed Doors”
Text: John 20:19-31
Note: My commentary on this reading can be found here.
They had locked themselves in a room, behind closed doors. Nothing was getting in. Nothing was getting out. This is how the disciples responded to Jesus’ death, which was probably the most frightening experience of their lives. Their leader, who was supposed to be the Messiah, had been arrested, beaten, and crucified among criminals until he died upon the cross for all to see. Crucifixion was a shrewd way to put someone to death, and the point to hanging someone on the cross wasn’t just to kill the person, but to do so in a way that would intimidate the masses. It was meant to send a signal, loud and clear: threaten the state, and this is what you get. The primary purpose of crucifixion wasn’t to put someone to death. It was to engender fear in the hearts of the public. Without a doubt, the disciples got the message.
The moment Jesus was arrested, they fled. They once were disciples of Jesus, bound together by a common leader and a common mission, and though they never completely understood what that mission was, it didn’t really matter. It was Jesus who called them together, Jesus who bound them together, Jesus who taught them, ate with them, walked mile after mile with them, together. But now that Jesus was gone, the only common thing among them was fear. They were afraid that the ones who did that to Jesus could do it to them as well.
Needless to say, this was not a great way for the church to get started, and indeed it was antithetical to what Jesus taught, preached, and practiced. A wise and learned prophet once taught his followers, “Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” That the prophet was Yoda from Star Wars makes no real difference. He was right, and the disciples were on their way down the path from fear to anger, anger to hate, and hate to suffering just in the confines of their sealed and locked room. In that room, they were no community. They were no fellowship. They were no family or brotherhood. They had lost every dimension of community except their shared sense of fear, which is no basis for community, especially a community of faith.
It is at that moment, the height of fear and terror that Jesus intrudes into their lives once more. Once more he calls them together, binds them together with a common purpose, and sends them out beyond the locked doors into a world of need. The birthday of the church wasn’t Pentecost according to John’s gospel. It was this moment, when Jesus breathed on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit”. This is the moment that his followers are turned from disciples (ones who are taught) into apostles (ones who are sent). And as we imagine Jesus standing there in front of them, countering their fear with words of peace and showing them the wounds in his hands and feet, we can also imagine that the disciples themselves were transformed. They were empowered by the Holy Spirit and commissioned to go out into the world bearing the good news of peace and forgiveness to all people. At first, behind their locked doors, they were a bit like the unhatched chick in a Shel Silverstein poem who declares:
The hens they all cackle, the roosters all beg,
But I will not hatch, I will not hatch.
For I hear all the talk of pollution and war
As the people all shout and the airplane roar,
So I’m staying in here where it’s safe and it’s warm,
And I WILL NOT HATCH! (Where the Sidewalk Ends, p. 127)
But hatch they had to. Jesus made sure of that. No more closed and locked doors. People had to come in. Good news had to get out. A church had to be born.
Last week I was having a discussion with a pastor friend of mine about the “Mainstream Protestant Decline”, the yearly loss of denominational membership not only in the Presbyterian Church (USA), but in all Protestant denominations (and some non-Protestant as well). As most pastors tend to do, we were self-diagnosing the problems of our denomination and thinking aloud about the potential causes for the membership decline. He said something that stuck with me, and I think there’s truth in it. “We’re not losing members because of moral values, controversial theological statements, or disagreements over controversial issues,” he said. “We’re losing members because we’ve got the greatest news the world will ever hear, and we’re afraid to tell it.” I think he was right. The truth of the world in which we live is that there are plenty of things to be afraid of. Consider that in the last week alone we’ve heard news stories about pirates off the coast of Somalia, violence spilling over the Mexican border into our country, a North Korean test-launch of a long-range missile, the abduction and murder of children, more lost jobs, on and on and on. In our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) there are concerns over changes to the Book of Order, there are concerns over not changing the Book of Order, there is fear and regret over budget cuts and layoffs in the PCUSA’s national office, and so on. In our own church we each have our own list of fears and anxieties and concerns related to employment, and health, or the loss of a loved one. There is much to be afraid of.
The temptation for the church during fearful times such as these is to stay behind closed doors. The tendency for any organization, when threatened, is to focus only inward, on self-preservation and self-security. Our primary purpose changes. It is not longer sharing the good news of God’s peace, forgiveness, and love, but rather survival on our own terms. When that happens, we may as well shut and lock the doors. Nothing gets in. Nothing gets out. The church dies.
About ten years ago, Auburn Theological Seminary published a study entitled, “Missing Connections: Public Perceptions of Religious Leadership.” It’s main discovery was that in the four American cities studied the public community – that is, the community surrounding the church – had little to no awareness of any contribution or engagement by the city’s churches. Let me say that again. In each of the four cities studied, the community had little to no awareness of any contribution or engagement by the churches. The survey data showed that no one in these communities had the churches or church leaders on their “must-call” list concerning matters of importance in the civic domain. The clear implication of this study is that many churches are still living on the other side of Easter, staying safely and securely behind closed doors.
Our scripture reading from the gospel of John this morning fires an arrow straight into the heart of our fear-driven, inward focusing tendencies. The Greek word describing the doors of the room where the disciples were is translated “shut” or “locked” in most English translations, but the word itself has a dual meaning. It can also mean “to close off” or “to withhold compassion from others”. It can also mean “to obstruct the entrance into the kingdom of heaven”. I wonder which meaning John had when he wrote his gospel. I’d bet that he chose that word deliberately, and had all three meanings in mind. Closed doors equals closed hearts equals closed kingdom. It is into the closed-ness of the disciples’ house that Jesus came, seemingly right through the closed and locked doors. He immediately addressed their fear, saying “Peace be with you.” He immediately addressed their inward focus, saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And then he, with a little help from Thomas, offered an antidote for fear-centered, inward-focused living. He shows his wounds and says, “Do not doubt, but believe.” When Jesus says “believe” he isn’t talking about a list of theological tenets. He’s talking about trusting God, and following him, even when we’re struggling in the midst of a fearful world. Faith is the antidote for fear, and faith is not a list of all the things that you believe. Faith is trust in God.
Do we really have faith? Do we trust that God forgives our fearful world? Do we trust God enough to open the doors and let the rabble in? Do we trust God enough to open the doors and tell the world the best news it’s ever heard? Most importantly, do we trust that our Lord and our God is Lord of the church budget, the book of order, the session meeting, and the worship service, and no presbytery vote or General Assembly or decision we make (whether faithful or misguided) can change that? Do we trust that God alone is Lord of life, and death, and nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God? Do we trust that God alone is Lord of the battlefield and the homeland? God alone is Lord of Iraq and Afghanistan, Somalia’s Coast and Mexico’s borders, Wall Street and Main Street, Washington, D.C. and Little Washington, N.C., and nothing – no election or president or congress or senate or special interest group is going to change that? Do we trust that God is a God of peace, and forgiveness, and love, and He is stronger than our fear, and terror, and insecurity? It’s the best news the world will ever hear. Will we be afraid to tell it? Will we be content with shutting and locking the doors? Or will we trust God enough to follow Jesus out into the world as his apostles, his “sent ones”?
Pastor and Theologian N.T. Wright said, “What Easter does is open windows of the mind and heart to see what really, after all, might be possible in God’s world”. (Surprised by Hope, p. 69) What is possible in God’s world? What is possible in God’s Presbyterian Church (USA)? What is possible for us here in this place? Today on this April Sunday in the echo of Easter good news, we gather and live in the hope that even after a congregational history as long as ours, God is bringing us to life even now. It is Jesus who has called us together. It is Jesus who gives us our common purpose. It is Jesus who teaches us, walks with us, invites us to sit at one table, and sends us out into the world. No more shut and locked doors. People have to come in. Good news has to get out. A church has to be born.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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This sermon was written by Rev. Lee A. Koontz. All rights reserved.