Sermon April 19 2020 Lockdown (John 20:19ff) Rev. Betsy Hogan
So there they all are. The disciples. Still on lockdown, a week after Easter.
They've been on lockdown, in fact, SINCE Easter. The women went to the tomb, found it empty, Peter and the beloved disciple went to the tomb, found it empty, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, found it empty, saw Jesus risen, ran back to tell the others –
Each of the gospels describes that Easter morning slightly differently, from original Mark to Matthew and Luke, to John whose description is most detailed –
But once the discovery of the empty tomb has been made, it's back to the Upper Room. Where they've been since they arrived in Jerusalem, where they shared the Last Supper together, and where they hid, locked down, as the murder of Jesus played out.
John's gospel, as usual, construes this as them hiding "for fear of the Jews" – which makes this as good a time as any for a reminder that John wrote his gospel decades after these events.
At a time when those who believed in Jesus as part of their own "being Jewish" were being expelled from the synagogue, from the Jewish community, because their presence was causing issues with the Roman leadership.
Until then, the Romans had mostly been leaving the Jews alone, letting them do their thing, but when the Jewish CHRISTIANS – those who had embraced Jesus' Way – would no longer pledge allegiance to the Emperor, that had caused outrage with the authorities. Which resulted in a whole lot of Roman attention that the Jewish community just really seriously DID NOT NEED. So the Jewish Christians were being pushed out. Their presence was problematic. They were being expelled from the synagogue, expelled from their communities.
That's the context in which John writes his gospel, several decades after it all happened. When the Jewish Christians he's writing for really need reassurance that they've backed the right horse, in the midst of losing everything they've known. Basically John makes "the Jews" shorthand for "the enemy" throughout his gospel pretty much just to bolster up the Jewish Christian community he's writing for -- who are feeling oppressed by their own kinsmen – and in the process he lays the foundation for two thousand years of horrific antisemitism.
So there's that. That we have to be aware of whenever we read John's gospel.
The disciples aren't hidden in the Upper Room for fear of "the Jews". The disciples ARE Jews. And they're hidden in the Upper Room for fear of EVERYONE. Who isn't them. They're afraid of Roman guards, they're afraid of Roman authorities, they're afraid of the Chief Priests and leaders of the people, they're afraid of the scribes and Pharisees, they're afraid of EVERYONE. Everyone who isn't them. This little band of disciples, clinging together after Jesus has been murdered.
And still clinging together, afraid, locked into their Upper Room, when the women go out to anoint Jesus' body in his tomb, when they run back to say the tomb is empty, when Peter and the others see the tomb is empty, and when Mary Magdalene runs back to tell them she's seen Jesus risen.
They're still terrified. Locked into their Upper Room because their Teacher, their Rabbi, their Messiah, has been executed by the state. And they're his followers, identified as his people, his closest friends. The danger they're in is real.
And crucially, what we see in this passage from John's gospel that we just heard, is that that danger doesn't just go away when he appears to them.
The beginning of this reading takes place ON Easter day, later in the evening. They've heard the news of the empty tomb, they've heard the witness of Mary Magdalene, but that evening they're still locked in the Upper Room.
They're still afraid. And then – there's the appearance in their midst of Jesus risen. Saying to them "Peace be with you" and filling them with the Holy Spirit. And John's gospel says they rejoiced!
But a week later? They're still in there. Locked in that Upper Room. Still fearful, still uncertain, still not risking at all. And we're shown the one-week-later scene of Doubting Thomas seeing with his own eyes, placing his hands in Jesus' hands and feet and in his side, and believing –
Which is magnificent –
But it's worth noting that their experience – all of them now, including Thomas – their experience of Jesus returned into the midst of them, their rejoicing about that, the comfort of that, the strengthened spiritness of that –
None of it has actually made the risk outside any less real. All of the disciples except for Thomas, all of the women with them, they've known the rejoicing and the comfort and the extraordinary miracle of it all – for a whole week. And that HAS to have been transformative for them, even if Thomas was still annoying them with his questions –
But it hasn't made the risk outside any less real. They're still in lockdown. Thomas seems to be the one who's getting sent out to do the groceries. While the rest of them stay put, not really knowing when or how it's ever going to be safe for them to get back to normal life.
I find that quite striking this year in a way I'd never really contemplated before. Thinking about the disciples in lockdown with no real idea of how long it's going to have to last.
At some point, will the authorities cease trying to hunt them down? Will there be a point when it seems like maybe it'll be okay to go back out there? It's all really uncertain for them. Even As... at the same time they're knowing the comfort, and the joy, and the miracle, of God not having abandoned them.
I find it quite striking that they HELD that – but it was separate from just being able to go back to normal life.
It suggests to me that there's a way of HOLDING that, that IS separate from just getting back to normal life. That's real even outside of normal life. And still under lockdown.
I think there's a sense in which we can sometimes romanticize the disciples – or anyone in the Bible really – imagining that they were all somehow extraordinarily holy or devout or prayerful or full of grace.
When in fact, what we often see in the gospel stories is that they were patently NONE of these things, except every now and then. Sometimes they quarrelled with each other, disagreed with each other, tried to one-up each other as to who was best.
Some of them had things in common – they fished for a living, for example – but others? Matthew's a tax collector and a bunch of them we have no idea what they'd done for a living before they followed Jesus. And stick them all together on lockdown? I suspect that like any of us, even with our most beloved, there were probably some "moments".
There might even have been some REAL moments in that lockdown, where the risk outside looks like nothing... compared to the risk inside from each other.
They would have coped differently each of them. We know that some of them had families, from whom they'd been separated. Were they missing them? Were they worrying about them?
Just like us, some of them would be great at passing the time, while others must have been champing at the bit. Some needing routine, some doing a weird amount of baking, maybe some really frightened while others seem to be pretty calm.
All of them negotiating all those feelings about real risk outside the four walls, and real uncertainty about how or when that risk is going to abate – and learning, slowly, how to do that day by day within not JUST the faith they've always had –
But then also, after Easter, within this newly expanding understanding of what it means, after Easter, to hear the words and feel the feeling of "Remember, I am always with you. I will not leave you orphaned. I am with you until the end of the age."
But they're still locked own.
It wasn't just "bing" and everything's fine. It can't have been. None of us who have been experiencing this period of being locked down, held separate, navigating risk, can possibly imagine that it was just "bing" for the disciples and everything's fine.
Because every day is different. And one day is fine and the next day's overwhelming. And one day we want to punch the walls and the next day it's all about the worrying and the day after that it's peace and it's restful, and then out of nowhere we've had enough.
It can't have been just magic for the disciples, locked away in that Upper Room. I don't know that I ever really thought about it before, I didn't have any idea what it would have been like, but it feels to me like it's a wave.
These moments of grasping what they've grasped – that with God there's no 'gone' without 'return', there's no 'alone' without 'I'm always with you', there's no 'empty' without 'light' –
And then needing to grasp it again. And then again.
And then again! Which in its own way is a gift in itself. Just to know that the goodness and peace and comfort of Godness KNOWS about the wave and knows we need God to know about the wave. Not 'bing', not magic, but moments.
I saw a Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal in my backyard this morning. I could have watched them out the back window for hours. But they only stayed five minutes. I don't know if they're nesting nearby, though they might be. And I might see them again.
But they were so beautiful, even if I don't. And they're out there. How blessed we are in what we do see and even in what we don't. But still we trust. Amen.