Text: John 20:19-31
Biblical scholar and preacher Walter Brueggemann has suggested that the primary challenge facing the Christian Church in North America in the 21st century is that for most of our people, God is no longer a primary actor in the story of their lives. He suggests, “it’s not that our people don’t believe in God, it’s just that apart from church they don’t think about God all that much.” For certain, the biblical story – the narrative that teaches us to recognize God’s activity in the world – is relatively and increasingly unfamiliar to us, and certainly not a source of the kinds of stories we regularly tell and share as we seek to make sense of our lives. That is why I often like to tell personal stories that help us make a connection between a text and our lives. And so…
When I was six years old, my dad bought me a Red Rider B.B. gun. Not the smartest move on his part, but for a little girl who liked those sorts of things, I could hardly wait until morning to test it out. (Parents and kids, this story will confirm why guns are not good – especially when in the hands of children.) Anyway, the day after I received my Red Rider I spent the day at my grandparents’ house. My uncle Earl was living there at the time and decided that he had nothing better to do that day than to spend the morning teaching me how to aim at a target. We practiced for several hours before my grandmother called us in for lunch – or dinner as it was called growing up. After eating my grandmother’s standard lunch of fried chicken, boiled potatoes swimming in butter, green beans and homemade biscuits, my uncle Earl told me that he had to go to the barber but that when he returned we would practice some more. I followed him out the door with my Red Rider in hand. As he was backing up my grandfather’s 1957 Ford I took aim at a tree branch just above the car. Just as he pulled forward out of the driveway, I pulled the trigger. The next thing I heard was the shattering of glass and breaks screeching. Needless to say, I had not perfected the art of aiming in two hours. Aiming a bit too low, I suddenly realized that I had shot out the car window. And upon that realization, I threw down my Red Rider, ran into the house, locked myself in the bathroom and refused to come out. It wasn’t until my father arrived that I unlocked the door and emerged with tears streaming down my face. I can still remember how afraid I was – afraid of what I had done, afraid that I had hurt my uncle Earl, afraid that I was in trouble. At age six, fear had driven me to hide behind a lock door.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear…Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’
John reports that the disciples spent the evening of Easter Day behind locked doors. Peter and another disciple have seen the empty tomb. Mary Magdalene has spoken with the risen Christ, and she has told the disciples about it. One might think they would be off celebrating, announcing to anyone who would listen that Jesus is alive again. Instead, they hide out behind a locked door. But if you think about it, protecting themselves makes perfect sense. It was only a couple of days before that they witnessed the death of their leader. They know that as he was apprehended and executed, so they may be as well. If I put myself in their position, I totally get why they wait behind locked doors, as quiet as they can be, fearing every footstep in the street below.
Fear is a powerful emotion. It can make us withdraw, go into self-protection mode and shut down. Much like anxiety, fear limits our ability to see options and take action. It locks us up inside ourselves and causes us to live small. I understand fear. I have fears. I fear failure. I fear flying. I fear that I am not a good enough parent. I fear that there won’t be enough – enough money, enough love, enough time, enough…you fill in the blank. Fear is understandable.
When we find ourselves in these places of fear, it’s easy to lose perspective. When I read this passage, I recognized this image, this feeling of being locked in a room. My mind went to how I’ve felt in recent weeks with all that the legislature is doing, how all of these bills they’ve introduced over the last two weeks have made me feel like I’m trapped, locked in a room, fearful of what’s happening out in the world. And that’s what fear does. It not only causes us to feel locked up, it causes us to lose perspective on which side of the door the lock is on, and who’s holding the key to that lock.
You see, the more I read the story, the more I realized that the disciples were inside this room and they had locked the door themselves. It wasn’t that someone has locked them up, trying to hold them back, or keep them apart. They had locked the door, and they held the power to unlock it. But the fear was so present and so powerful that they needed something or someone to remind them that they were the only ones who could unlock the door. When Jesus appears, he speaks the words, “Peace be with you.” As simplistic as it may sound, that reminded me of my own father coming to the door that day saying, “It’s OK, Nancy. You can unlock the door. You can come out now.”
Maybe it’s more accurate to say that these past weeks, I’ve felt more locked out than locked in; that the things that are being introduced by our political leaders have me feeling more locked out than locked in. And being locked out fearful and disorienting. Yet, in the words of Virginia Woolf, “I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse, perhaps, to be locked in.” There is always somebody who is going to try to lock us out, whether it’s the Southern Baptist Convention or the General Assembly. But ultimately we have little control over other people’s actions, other people’s attempts to lock us out. Our power and our truth come in being willing to turn the lock and open the door when we’ve locked ourselves in. In the case of our legislators, it’s true that I am locked out of the discussions on the floor, out of the committee meetings, out of the act of voting directly on their proposals. I can focus on the lock keeping me out and call that the end. Or I can turn the lock on my own door and take action. I can write letters, I can protest, I can use my voice to rally others.
This is one public place where I’ve felt locked out AND locked in our larger community living these past weeks, but these locked places can also be very intimate and personal – places where we feel locked out or locked in by our emotions, by our relationships, by our work situations. Those places are just as real, maybe even more real, and for certain more personal. And yet, the places where doors are locked are most often the places where Jesus appears, with the words, “Peace be with you.” It is in our locked rooms – whether corporate or private – that this story of our faith reminds us that we have the power to unlock the door, to unlock ourselves – we are the lock makers and the key holders.
When we choose to live from a place of fear – that place that locks us up inside ourselves or that place where we give in when others move to lock us out – we live small. We withdraw, self-protect and shut down. This week, as I have read the bills introduced by our legislators – bills that diminish who we are as a community of people, bills that seek to exclude, bills that violate the rights of all people – I have thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out. And then I thought, how it is worse, perhaps, to be locked in. To be locked in to a way of living and acting that comes from fear and prejudice and hate and the need to control. Maybe it’s not that we are locked out of what’s happening on Jones Street but rather they are locked in – locked in by their own fear and prejudice and hate and need to control.
The good news today is that where doors are locked Jesus enters and announces, “Peace be with you.” To live with faith is to believe that God’s spirit is still entering the lock rooms of our lives and of our world announcing, “Peace be with you.” And through such believing, John reminds us, we have life.