April 11, 2021
First Sunday in Eastertide
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.
John 20: 19-28
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… Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”
Today’s sermon is titled, On the Other Side of the Door. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have gone to bed in the past few weeks and then remembered that I did not bring in the bird feeder. Once I remember, there is no talking myself into letting it stay out there because the feeder hangs just outside of a door that can be easily opened just by leaning on it. That deck door opens to the inside, so if a bear just happened to fall against that door as it was ravaging the bird feeder, the bear would have instant access to the house and no way whatsoever to get out again. I’m not even sure I would know what to do in that situation.
Jesus’s disciples probably feel the same way when we find them in our story today; they are in hiding and not at all sure of what to do. They have no idea how far down the line the Roman authorities may go to root out the followers of the one they recently executed. Now that Jesus’s body is missing, perhaps the disciples fear being blamed for that, as well. Mary Magdalene is the only one who has seen Jesus and it is impossible for us to know how the other disciples reacted to her experience. After all, they were likely still in shock and most definitely grieving the loss of their beloved teacher.
The disciples are gathered behind a locked door; the scriptures are so clear about this detail. This is the detail that captured my attention this week, this image of a door closed and locked. On one side of the door the disciples are together in their grief and their confusion. I imagine they are putting together the pieces of what they remember from their time with Jesus and also wondering if it had all been for naught. Would they return to fishing, return to their former lives? How could they after all they had witnessed?
Then, through a door that is closed and locked, Jesus appears to them. There are four things Jesus does; Jesus offers them a blessing of peace, he informs them that “as the Father sent me, so I send you,” and then he breathes on them instructing them to “receive the Holy Spirit.” Finally, Jesus entrusts them with the power to forgive. Jesus came through that closed, locked door and he came through all their defenses. They must have been absolutely astonished. In that moment, they must have forgotten all about their fears of arrest and persecution. In that moment, the doors to their hearts and minds must have been opened far and wide. That is the perfect state to be in to receive something so precious as the Holy Spirit of God.
Through the breath, it comes to them. This is an insult to our modern senses, especially in a time of pandemic when our very breath is a vector for disease. For forever and ever though, breath and life have been one and the same. We can live three weeks without food, three days without water and three minutes without breath. Breath is life. In some languages, breath is also spirit.
The Hebrew word for breath is ruach. The Hebrew word for spirit is also ruach. The Latin word for breath, spirare, is also Latin for spirit. We find the same root word in respiration and in inspiration. These are not random coincidences; these words connect the very physical process of breathing and living with the subtle, invisible spiritual world of being. These words connect the body and the spirit and identify their dependence, one upon the other. For what is a body without spirit and what is a spirit without a body?
Jesus knew the answer to such questions in a way that we can only imagine, for Jesus experienced life in human form, gave up the human form in death and reappears…reappears with a message of peace and a most precious, most extravagant gift. The gift of the Holy Spirit is something Jesus promises to the disciples before his death. In the book of John, chapter 14 Jesus says, “I have spoken unto you, being present (here) with you, but the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you.” Undoubtedly, the disciples could not then fully comprehend what this may mean.
We know the history, though. We know that, even though the disciples stayed behind that closed lock door for a little while longer, and even though it would take another visitation from Jesus a week later, again behind closed doors, those disciples would eventually come out and begin to speak. Those disciples would travel and tell the story of what they had experienced. They would create a close community that was “of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4: 32-35).
It sounds idyllic to me. But as communities grew and churches formed, the Roman emperor saw these early Christians as a growing threat because the followers of Christ would not acknowledge the emperor as God. The persecution began and it was brutal. Had the disciples known what would await them on the other side of the door, I am not certain they would have ever come out of hiding. Jesus offered them what they needed for what they would eventually face…his peace, the presence of the Holy Spirit of God within them, and the ability to assure others that their sins have been forgiven.
Those disciples were equipped to carry forward the story of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection and they started a movement that is still taking shape today. As followers of Christ, we are challenged to consider the following question posed by Rev. Gail O’Day: “What does it mean to be a community shaped by the dying and rising of Christ?” I would also ask, “What doors are we still hiding behind? What fears are still holding us back from trusting in a love so infinite that not even death can overcome it?”
Jesus came through that closed and locked door. Jesus came through the fear and the confusion and offered a new way. The offer still stands for us today. Our world is not unlike the world the disciples faced on the other side of that door. We are seeking a better way, too. We are seeking a new and improved normal. We are seeking to be a nation strong enough in her foundation to embrace diversity, to prioritize education, opportunity, and well-being for all citizens. We are committed to protect the democratic ideals for which countless have given their lives in service to build our great nation.
In closing, I invite us to unlock and open the doors that we may be hiding behind. The world on the other side may be threatening, unpredictable, and more demanding than we are accustomed to. But the very youngest among us, and the generations that will follow us, will be greatly affected by both our action and our inaction. I pray that, as modern day disciples of Christ, we will open ourselves to receive the help that is available to us through the Holy Spirit of God. May our hearts be guided in God’s love. May our minds be guided in God’s love. In spite of our fear, may we unlock and fling wide the doors; on the other side is life and love like we have not yet known. So be it. Amen.
God who is both Father and Mother, I pray your blessings of peace upon us all this morning. This worldly life is fraught with hardship and disappointment and it can eclipse the light of Your presence among us. Help us, Lord, to attune our awareness of the divine that is intermingled with the ordinary, the blessings that come along with the tragedies, the beams of holy light that shine into the heart of darkness. For the parts of us that are fearful, grant us assurance; for the parts of us that feel unworthy, flood them with forgiveness. Strengthen us, we pray, when faced with difficulties within ourselves and within our culture, strengthen us with a love so tender that we become boundless and effectual, on every level of our beings. For the healing that is happening, we thank you; for the awareness that is deepening, we thank you; and for the guidance that is only a prayer away, we thank you. Through these words from Jesus, hear our prayer: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from the 12th century prophet, Hildegaard von Bingen, in her prayer to the Holy Spirit:
“Holy Spirit, making life alive, moving in all things, root of all created being, cleansing the cosmos of every impurity, effacing guilt, anointing wounds. You are lustrous and praiseworthy life, You waken and reawaken everything that is.”