Sermon April 11 2021 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.
They're still terrified, notwithstanding the reports of resurrection they've received. 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 the women, 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.
It's really quite striking. 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.
It's really quite striking that they KNEW that good news – but that it was separate from just being able to go back to normal life.
The good news was real -- even when normal life hadn't yet returned, and they didn't actually know when it would.
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 then stick them all together in lockdown? I suspect that like any of us, even with our most beloved, there've probably been some "moments".
We already know that when the women returned from the tomb with the news that Jesus had risen, the disciples lost no time at all completely ridiculing them – which probably made supper that night a little tense --
And that might only have been the tip of the iceberg. There might have been some REAL moments in that lockdown time when the risk outside honestly started to pale in comparison to the risk inside from all the uncertainty, all the anxiety, or even from too much time spent alone in their own company.
And even after Easter, even having heard the words "Remember, I am always with you.", even after feeling the feeling of "I will not leave you orphaned. I am with you until the end of the age".... the risk is still there. A week later, and they're still in lockdown, up in that Upper Room.
It clearly wasn't just "bing", resurrection, and everything's fine.
But in fact, what this story of Thomas in the Upper Room and indeed ALL the post-Easter stories in the gospels suggest, is that Jesus himself never imagined it would be.
We often read the various post-Easter "appearance" stories in the gospels as though they were gathered together and written down to be "proof", as it were, that Jesus Risen truly was seen and experienced and spoken to and engaged with, various of the disciples as different times.
Like, this wasn't just an empty tomb. Mary Magdelene saw him, he spoke to the women, he appeared to the disciples, he sat down and ate fish with them, he spoke to Thomas, Thomas touched him, he appeared on the road to Emmaus, he talked to the two men on the road, he ate and drank with them, he met the disciples on the beach, they saw him again in Galilee.
There's this long string of stories, and each story is its own "resurrection appearance". And the writers of the gospels share them all precisely as evidence. These things have been written down, each of them says quite plainly, so that those who weren't there can come to believe.
Which is an entirely reasonable reason to write them all down.
But I find myself wondering, in a week after Easter when vaccines notwithstanding we're still quite aware that nothing yet has gone "bing" and made everything fine,
I find myself wondering if maybe even if "proof" was an entirely reasonable reason for the gospel writers to write all those appearance stories down, maybe it WASN'T actually the reason all those appearances happened.
Maybe, in fact, Jesus knew that if the disciples were really going to find their feet again outside that Upper Room, it'd have to happen gently. Over days or even weeks. With a lot of reassurance, and time for questions, and HIM. Turning up over and over again. With MORE reassurance, and MORE time for questions. To help them understand and be prepared for how things would be different.
Because things WERE different when the disciples finally left that Upper Room.
The world they returned to wasn't the same. Those in power had found themselves feeling sufficiently threatened by the simple notion of justice and peace and well-being for all people that they'd crucified an itinerant preacher and healer... for insurrection.
Which is not the response of a secure society. That's a social order in which things are deeply broken, and if anything those in power will be even MORE reactive, MORE on guard. And the disciples are no longer flying under the radar.
The world they return to when they leave the Upper Room isn't the same. And in the time after Easter, when Jesus keeps appearing, I think that's what he's helping them understand and be ready for.
Which isn't just good news for them. I think it's good news for us. Because in our own space of not really knowing when, if ever, some semblance of normal will return – in our own space of already considering the way some things may well be permanently changed by the past year's reality – it seems to me good news that God is clearly the kind of God who appreciates it isn't easy.
Who understands the waves of fear that still happen, even as we start to feel hopeful. Who understands the frustration and guilt of being SO MUCH MORE aware and impassioned about how too many people are really struggling, even as just managing to keep our own pieces together is taking most of our energy.
The disciples don't explode out of that Upper Room, in a frenzied inspiration of Resurrection Glory. For all they shame Thomas, it took ALL of them time to find their footing. And what we see in these post-Easter stories is Jesus knowing it would. And being gentler with them than they were with themselves.
What does he say to them, every time he appears? Peace be with you. And it's not the formal greeting it might sound like to our ears – it's his prayer for them. For us. Be gentle with yourselves, he's telling us. Be hopeful, have courage, look forward, but be gentle with yourselves. Resurrection isn't a moment – it'll grow on you.