“The doors were locked.”
I saw these words as I was scanning my social media feed a couple weeks ago: “The doors were locked …” And my brain automatically finished the sentence: “The doors were locked … for fear of the Jewish authorities.” I just assumed one of the accounts I follow had shared lines from this story in the Gospel of John. But then I looked more closely:
The doors were locked.
Staff were armed.
The police responded quickly.
And, still, 3 children and 3 adults are dead.
This social media post wasn’t about fearful followers huddling behind locked doors. It was about the shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville.
It’s not often that I confuse contemporary commentary with the words of Scripture. But, in this case, the disciples’ situation is familiar — too familiar. Because, like those first followers, we know what it is to be afraid. It wasn’t long ago that we were sheltering in place — not behind locked doors, but in lockdown — because it was the best way to protect ourselves from a deadly virus. Now we are emerging from the pandemic and returning to public places. But we are tragically aware that the forces of Death are still lurking. So, we go about our lives — depositing checks at the bank, grabbing lunch at the food court in the mall, sending our kids to school — all the while hoping, praying that locked doors will keep out active shooters or that there will be an exit close-by should we need one. Yes, like those first followers, we know what it is to be afraid.
Fear is not a surprising response, given the state of the world. It’s true now … just as it was true in those grief-drenched days after Jesus’ death.
Upon reading this story, it is easy to knock those first disciples for huddling behind locked doors. After all, it’s Easter evening; news of resurrection is spreading! Mary Magdalene has already come to announce: I have seen the Lord! (20:18). The disciples have heard the good news; they know Christ is alive. So why are they still so scared?
Well, they’re traumatized. The most formidable army on earth had just crucified their Lord, and the disciples are likely afraid they’ll be next. No one has to warn them about the dangers lurking beyond locked doors; they’ve witnessed them with their own eyes. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that it will take more than the word of a faithful woman to shake the disciples free from fear. It will take an encounter with Jesus, himself.
And this is exactly what the disciples receive. The Risen Christ finds them as they huddle behind locked doors. Peace be with you, he says.
It’s more than a greeting. It is an indication that a promise will be fulfilled — a promise that Jesus made to his friends during their final meal together. Only days before, Jesus had pledged:
… 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. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you … Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid (John 14:26-26).
Jesus had promised that the Holy Spirit would come alongside the disciples to be an advocate, a teacher, a helper … a divine presence to fill them with peace and sustain them in hope, even as they face woes and worries that would trouble any heart. Jesus did not, however, promise that the disciples would be shielded from suffering. In fact, the opposite is true. During that same meal, Jesus went on to say: In the world you face persecution, but take courage: I have conquered the world! (16:33).
As it happens, Jesus now has the scars to prove it. After proclaiming peace to his fearful followers, he shows them his hands and his side. He shows them the wounds made by Roman nails and a Roman spear. And, suddenly, the energy in the room shifts. Fear and despair turn to blazing joy as the disciples behold the wounded body of their Resurrected Lord and realize that Jesus has conquered the world. He has triumphed over the forces of death. And — because Christ has burst his prison — the disciples can, too. As one commentator writes, “In view of these wounds, [the disciples] can rest assured that whatever the world inflicts upon them, it will not ultimately undo them.” Death no longer rules the day. So the disciples need not cower behind closed doors; in fact, they cannot cower any longer in this tomb of their own making.
Jesus makes this abundantly clear. After showing them his wounds, he says: As the Father has sent me, so I send you. And, then, he gives them the very thing they need to go forth into the world. He gives them the Holy Spirit. More precisely, he breathes the Holy Spirit into them. Just as the Creator breathed into a lifeless creature formed from clay, Jesus breathes into his disciples. Just as the Creator gave the first human the gift of life, Jesus gives the disciples the gift of new life. Receive the Holy Spirit, he says, and then sends them out to continue his work. He sends them to bear witness to the Resurrected Christ and to invite others into the joy of abundant life.
We might wonder, then, why the disciples are again in the house a week later — why the doors are again shut. Thus far, it seems the group has testified only to Thomas — the one who was not with them when Jesus appeared. The other disciples borrow the exact words of Mary Magdalene when they share the news with their friend. We have seen the Lord!, they exclaim. But their announcement does not break through his grief. Thomas replies: Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands … I will not believe. Poor Thomas is remembered only for his disbelief. But, as far as I can tell, his response is no different from that of the other disciples — the ones who, in fear and despair, huddled behind locked doors … the ones who must have said to Magdalene: “We need to see for ourselves.”
Just as he did for those who were shut up in that house on Easter evening, Jesus seeks out Thomas. He gives Thomas the gift of peace and, then, he holds out his hands and invites Thomas to touch his wounds. Jesus invites him to see what the others have already seen — that Roman nails and a Roman spear are, ultimately, no match for God. That the Incarnate Word — the one in whom God’s fullness dwells — has suffered the worst the world can inflict on human flesh and, still, emerged victorious. That the wounds on Jesus’ body tell a resurrection story. And, when Thomas beholds the marks left by nail and spear — when he recognizes that the one standing before him is the very one who hung on a cross — Thomas utters the most profound confession recorded in any of the Gospel accounts: My Lord and my God. My Lord and my God.
Jesus responds with words that sound surprising after such a confession of faith: Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. I’ve always heard Jesus’ response interpreted as a critique of Thomas’ doubt. But I wonder if these are not, so much, words of disappointment intended for Thomas as they are words of grace intended for us — for those of us who have not, in fact, seen the wounded body of our Resurrected Lord and, still, have come to faith.
This — after all — is the purpose of this Gospel, as the last verses of today’s text remind us: These [things] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. John has borne witness to a crucified and risen Christ, so that those who would come to faith decades or centuries later might also encounter the Messiah and have life in his name. This story has been told and re-told so that generations of disciples might behold — at least with the eyes of faith — the wounded body of our resurrected Lord … So that we, too, might realize that Christ has triumphed over the forces of Death and shown us that the worst the world can wield will not, ultimately, undo us. This good news has been proclaimed throughout the ages so that our despair might turn to blazing joy … so that we, too, might burst our prisons of fear and follow Jesus into the world.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you, Jesus tells the disciples as they huddle behind locked doors. And this charge extends to those of us who have not seen in the way Mary and Thomas and the others have, but who have still encountered the Living Lord — who have still experienced the abundant life Christ offers. The Resurrected One still commissions us to bear witness to this gift of life in and for a world where the forces of Death lurk. The Risen Christ still sends us out, filled with the Holy Spirit and sustained by the assurance that — whatever the world inflicts upon us — it will not ultimately undo us. Yes, the Living Lord fashions us into an Easter People, empowered to proclaim grace and peace and freedom to the world God so fiercely loves.
I once heard a South African theologian by the name of Allan Boesak speak powerfully to this particular calling. Dr. Boesak is a preacher and teacher who rose to prominence as a leader in the anti-apartheid movement. During that struggle he endured injustice and saw with uncommon clarity how the forces of Death threaten to rule the day. Yet, rather than hiding behind locked doors, he and others bore witness to the abundant life Christ offers.
During his presentation, Dr. Boesak told a story about a school principal who lived in Soweto — the township in Johannesburg that came to the world’s attention in 1976, when police opened fire on black high school students during a series of demonstrations. At least 176 protestors were killed, though some estimates are far higher. Per Boesak’s description, this school principal was “a gentle fellow.” He did not go to protests; he was not a controversial figure. And, though he was black, he had a lot of friends in the white community in South Africa. They loved this principal, Boesak reported, because he did not come to their tea parties to talk politics. His friends in the white community would say to him: “You’ve got to tell the children, ‘It’s alright.’ They need to be patient. Things will come right; you just have to give us some time.”
Well, one day, those same friends saw this school principal at a rally; he didn’t say anything, but he was sitting on the stage. The next time they saw him, he was speaking at the rally. Then, they saw him again; this time he was leading a march.
So those friends confronted him: “What happened to you? We depended on you. Look at you — you’re making the situation worse.”
And the school principal looked at them and said, “You know, I thought about this: One day I will appear before the great judge in heaven. And the great judge will ask me: ‘Where are your wounds?’ And I will have to say, ‘I don’t have any.’ And, when I say [this], the great judge will look at me and say, ‘Was there, then, nothing to fight for?’”
At this point Allan Boesak addressed the assembly:
“In the end,” he said, “when this is all over and the battles have been won and the children have died and the blood is no longer on the street … we will appear before whatever judge — either of our conscience or the judge in heaven — and we will be asked: ‘Where are your wounds?’
“And [I hope you can be] a church that can say, ‘Here are my wounds, because I knew that there was something to fight for.’ As long as people are discriminated against, as long as people go to bed hungry, as long as people die from endless war … as long as this world is not a place that is safe for our children … there is always something to fight for. And the wounds you get,” Boesak continued, “… [the wounds you get] will be wounds that show you knew where to stand. And the One who will ask you about your wounds will not be me … It will be the One who appeared before Thomas and said, ‘Look at my hands and put your hand in my side.’ I pray that we will have something to show.”
I, too, hope we are a church that can say, “Here are my wounds.” I, too, hope all people of faith can say, “Here are my wounds.” Not because I wish pain or suffering upon us. But because our wounds show that we know where to stand — on the side of justice, on the side of peace, on the side of hope. Our wounds show that we do not cower behind locked doors, but that we follow the Risen Christ into a world where the forces of Death lurk, threatening to rule the day. Our wounds show that we trust that — whatever the world may inflict upon us — it will not, ultimately, undo us. Because Christ has already won the victory. And, through our witness, may our wounds tell a resurrection story, as fear and despair turn to blazing joy and others experience the abundant life Christ offers.
Gracious and loving God, we are deeply grateful that you have given us the chance to have lives of joy thanks to Christ’s rising from the dead. In his victory over death, you revealed yourself as a God of transformation who is ceaselessly working to bring good out of evil, justice out of inequity, peace out of strife and hope out of despair. Through all the stunning peaks and lonely valleys of our lives, we pray that our faith in the resurrection may live within us as a mighty source of strength and guidance and confidence.
Comforting God, we pause to pray for those for whom the proclamation of victory over death sounds faint or unbelievable. We pray for those whose lives have been torn apart by violence, loss, prejudice, or poverty. We pray for the lost, the lonely, and those who struggle with illness of body, mind or spirit. May all who suffer and all who grieve find in You courage in their nightmare of darkness; and may Christ’s resurrection be a steadfast source of comfort that heightens their hope in your promise of new life.
Loving God, we pray for those within our church family who are ill, for those facing a severe test, and for those who have lost a loved one. We pray for your healing Spirit that all who are in need of a friend or a good medical report or something positive to look forward to may find health, wholeness, and a firm resolve. May they be touched by the Easter hope of new life.
Eternal God, when the constant drumbeat of injustice, greed, and death in Ukraine, in Palestine, and in our own country threaten to make us cynical or depressed, we pray that you will replenish our spirits with courage to resist evil and to trust in your resurrection power. We pray that you deepen our commitment to faithfully follow the example of Jesus so that your light and love may shine through us.
Holy God, may we seek out joy in our time with family and friends; may we find delight in the laughter and energy of children, and may we open our eyes to the beauty of Spring and see it as another example of Your transforming love.
This and all things, we pray in the name of the Prince of Peace who taught us to pray saying, “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 debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.
 Frances Taylor Gench, Encounters with Jesus (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 135.
 Dr. Allan Aubrey Boesak, Keynote Presentation: “Let Us Not Be Afraid to Say It,” Next Church Conference in Atlanta, GA (February 22, 2016).
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