Texts: Acts 5:27-32; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31
Many years ago I gathered the children on Easter Sunday to talk with them about Jesus and his resurrection. Leave it to adults to come up with a word like resurrection. As if we really know what it means anyway. And how are you going to make sense of that with children?
So I brought one of those trick birthday cake candles that relights a few second after you blow it out. Everyone knows about them now, but they were pretty new then. The candle burned while I told them about how Jesus brightened up the lives of so many people with his love. But others were afraid of Jesus being so popular, so they killed him. And his friends laid his dead body in a grave. Then I blew the candle out.
Together the children and I wondered if death can really make love go away. We decided that it can’t. Because when you are loved very much, you feel that love even when the one who loves you is far away. Even if they are gone because they died, you can still feel loved by them. Just about then the candle sparked back into flame. And everyone laughed with surprise and delight.
Resurrection is not a technical word that explains something. It’s the word that describes what the people saw after Jesus died. He was laid in a tomb. He had no breath left in him. Then, the tomb was empty and Jesus was standing up, right there. That’s what resurrection really means – as the first witnesses said – then there he was, standing right here with us!
When it comes to things like resurrection, children have an advantage over adults because they have not yet come to believe that endings are final. Beginnings are mostly what they know. Every ending they have experienced is only the beginning of whatever comes next. Endings do not make things impossible. They make things possible.
This is the essence of what John’s gospel’s lesson today conveys. He has a different point of view than the other gospels – which you probably already know. The others used the wounds of crucifixion to reassure the followers of Jesus that he was alive again.
But John describes the scene with a different purpose. Jesus, absolutely, is dead, see? Oh, and also completely alive. It’s a thing so entirely obvious that only a child can really accept it. This, by the way is a point about faith and the adult mind that Jesus made several times in his teaching.
There are elements of John’s post-resurrection story that are peculiar to his time. Saying that the disciples stayed locked in a room because of their “fear of the Jews” is one of them. The disciples after all were Jews themselves, so it made no sense for them to be afraid of the Jews.
But John’s readers lived in a time when a line had been more sharply drawn across the Jewish community causing real enmity between those who believed Jesus was the Messiah and those who didn’t. The book of Acts, written before John’s gospel, shows us that inter-community struggle as it emerged. There the conflict played out between the apostles and guardians of Jerusalem’s official Temple faith. People felt very threatened.
By John’s time the Temple was gone. But the threat continued. Christianity had become unlawful in the Roman Empire; that was bad enough. But worse, people who followed the teachings of Jesus found themselves unwelcome in the synagogues as well. Finding safe places to worship was difficult. It felt like the world was against them.
John’s depiction of the fear of the disciples gets at the fear of a world “out there” that is hostile to faith in God. This feeling was as familiar to first century people of faith, both Jews and Christians, as it is to us. Unfortunately, as we can see from John and from Acts, our habit of getting caught up in turf wars over what constitutes truth and true faith does not advance belief in God or trust in God’s love. So no wonder there’s hostility.
The disciples were immobilized by futility and hopelessness. Jesus came to them to remove their fears and bring them joy. Three times Jesus said “Peace be with you.” In between this, he also breathed on them, this gospel’s version of sending the Spirit upon them.
The peace of Jesus is, in Hebrew, shalom. It is the wholeness that we all begin with in life. The wholeness that gradually disintegrates over the course of time. As we grow we forget our inner child’s simplicity of trust and hope. We focus more and more on things like what can’t be, what we don’t have, what is not possible. In John’s gospel, sin is the failure to believe.
And when these things define our lives and our attitudes, then how can God speak within us? How can God speak through us? The dam builds higher and higher. All the flow of God gets stopped up behind it.
Unless. Unless something breaks through that desperately hardened place. Something unexpected. Something irresistible. Something so confounding that no rules can be invoked that apply. Something that makes perfect sense to a child but is utter nonsense to most adult minds.
That’s what happened to the disciples that day. The resurrection evidence - that Jesus died and now is alive - comes right through their closed and locked door. Well, what can they do but welcome their best friend and teacher back into their lives? At once they started feeling whole again. And they remembered what Jesus came for - offering forgiveness and new beginnings.
God is love. Love forgives even unbelief. And those who believe, though they die, they live! Even death in God is the beginning of something new. Well, who doesn’t want to be in on that?
All except for Thomas. But the day came when his dam was breached and he got in on the peace and joy too. By the way, as John tells it, Thomas came back in to the community because the other disciples forgave his doubts and included him among their fellowship even before Jesus came the second time. It was their word and their forgiveness that opened the doors of Thomas’s doubt so Jesus could enter and begin something new.
They forgave in circumstances when any reasonable adult could justify holding on to a grudge. But you know, children can be like that - forgiving, starting over…without limits. Especially God’s children who feel Jesus, standing right there with them. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.