The tomb was empty. The tomb of Jesus was empty. Now, the disciples have shut themselves up in another sort of tomb. They have closed themselves up behind locked doors.
Mary Magdalene has just shared the astonishing news that she has seen the Lord. Jesus spoke to her, sending her to these – his brothers and her brothers -with this good news. And the disciples huddle in fear behind closed doors.
Not that I’m judging. The disciples had a lot to be afraid of. They could have been accused of stealing Jesus’ body. They were sure to be punished for guilt by association with his movement. I’m not judging because I can identify with the disciples’ reaction of wrapping themselves in a cocoon of security to shut out the darkness of the world.
The story of Mary, or the other women in other gospels, encountering a risen Jesus who speaks to them? It’s wonderful and powerful. But most of us have never experienced anything quite like it.
But locked doors? Now, that, we can understand!
Most of us lock our doors against the dangers of the day and the fears of the night. We lock our doors to protect what lies inside and to ward off what lies outside. We lock our doors against strangers and solicitors, against salespeople and politicians. We lock our doors against rain and wind and things that go bump in the night. We lock our doors against thieves and con artists, against scary creatures – both real and mythic.
The wealthy among us not only lock their doors. They arm themselves with alarms. The poor among us make do with a flimsy latch, a bureau shoved into place or a large and barking dog.
John says that the disciples locked their doors for fear of the Jews – which has to be a kind of shorthand code because Jesus – and all the disciples – were Jews. The disciples in the weeks immediately after Jesus’ resurrection and a 100 years later when John is writing were afraid of those – by any name – who traumatized them with brutal actions to repress their way of life and their message.
It’s a bitter irony that a millennia later, it will be the Jews who futilely lock their doors against the evil forces of brutal repression.
We may not know much about empty tombs, but we know about locked doors. Only 7% of Americans leave their doors unlocked, so you might even say we are experts. We are experts on fear.
Fear arises when we perceive a danger or a threat. Fear is much more than an emotion. It is a biochemical reaction that transforms our bodies and our minds. Fear can lead to panic, hyperventilation, paralysis, poor judgment. It causes a constriction of the blood vessels, muscle tension – even an increase in white blood cells.
Fear can be learned. But it is also instinctive, part of the DNA of our humanity. Fear helps us survive. Throughout history, those who reacted quickly and intelligently to fearful situations were more likely to live and see another.
Sometimes in our modern world, fear prompts us to take action, and it’s a positive move. A tornado threatens, so we head for the shelter. When we get into a two-ton fast moving machine called a car; fear should make us strap on our seatbelts. There is even a time to cocoon out of fear. For example, when we risk infecting or being infected and place ourselves in a self-imposed quarantine.
But there are times our fear shuts us up and shuts us in. We close and lock the door and are entombed.
The Lutheran liturgical scholar, Gordon Lathrop, once said, “You don’t have to knock very hard on any door in your parish to find some sort of agony behind that door.” He could have said, “You don’t have to knock very hard at any door in your neighborhood to find a tomb of fear.”
Knock on one of four doors, and there is a woman who abused, by an intimate partner. Dignity is diminished.
Knock on 160,000 doors, and you will find a child who didn’t attend school that day because they are afraid of being bullied. Hopes are dashed.
Knock on 690,000 doors and find a young adult, brought to America as a child, who is afraid of losing the only country they have ever known or loved. Dreams are strangled.
Knock on the doors of 5.4 million in America and find a senior citizen afraid they can’t afford enough to eat. The future is uncertain.
Knock on the doors of the hearts and minds of ordinary people – worshippers and non-worshippers – and you find fears of what is real and concrete: cancer and violence and gunfire and addiction, warfare and death.
Knock, and you will find fears it is difficult to name, fears that lurk in the night, on the edge of our consciousness, fear of what might be, of what is unknown, of what could happen, of what lies ahead.
In all these places, fear does not protect us. We close ourselves off, and the cocoon we weave around ourselves protects only our fear. We lock the door, and our fear sits with us.
The disciples had every reason to lock their doors and sit in fear. They were afraid of the concrete threat and the unknown. One of their own has just betrayed them all. The mob in Jerusalem acted as mobs always do. The Romans brutally and efficiently executed their teacher, shepherd, and friend. Dreams were strangled. Hope was dashed. Dignity diminished. Relationships are torn apart. Futures forever changed.
Is it any wonder they sat behind closed doors, cocooned in darkness, nursing their grief, embracing their fear?
Is it any wonder we do, too?
There is so much remarkable in this reading from John. We often focus on Thomas and our own desire to see Jesus, in order to believe. Thomas prompts Jesus’ blessing on every man and every woman who has come after, when he says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
But perhaps most remarkable is this: “Jesus came and stood in their midst.”
No locked door could keep him out. No fear. No bad memories or challenging future. No soldiers. No Pilate. Not even betrayal and denial by his own deterred him. Jesus came and stood in their midst and said them, “Peace be with you.”
And, immediately after breathing on them his peace, he gave them a commission. Jesus gave them work to do. “Go. As I was sent, I send you.”
Jesus knew that the best antidote for fear is action. That the best balm for grief is reaching out to others. That the best care for broken dreams is a mission.
“Go,” Jesus says. “Go out. I send you. Just as the Father sent me, I send you.”
I send you out to the places where people huddle behind closed doors. I send you out to the places where the evil of repression still threatens. I send you out to the shadowy areas that are beyond what you know. I send you out to people who live in panic and chaos. I send you to people whose dreams are smashed, whose hope is mocked, whose faith is challenged, whose relationships are torn apart. I send you out to be with them in a future that is forever changed.
No evil could keep Jesus in the tomb. No closed door keeps Jesus from standing in our midst. No cocoon of fear keeps him from offering us peace. His peace is not the peace of the world. It is not simple comfort or a life forever free of pain. It is a life that will challenge and demand. Our peace comes with a directive: Go out.
Fear can’t keep Jesus out. Don’t let fear keep you in. Let us go, for as we go, Jesus comes with us so that we may have life in his name.