"Doors Wide Open"
Scripture - John 20:19-31
Sermon Preached by Randall T. Clayton
Sunday, April 27, 2014
Last Sunday's service here was stirring, to say the least. The crowds, the sights, the sounds, the aromas, the Good News expressed in so many ways last Sunday morning all testified to the joy of Easter. Truly, it was a celebration to be sure. And that's as it should be because the news that that "death has been swallowed up in victory,"1 is just too good not to celebrate.
While I don't remember ever being in church on Easter when we didn't celebrate, there are a few Easters that stay in my memory. Many years ago when I was living in another place, I worshipped regularly at a very small urban church. While we typically only had 25 or so people in worship on a Sunday morning, we opened our building 7 days a week to meet the needs of the many people who were homeless in the area. With the help of members, interns and volunteers we served as a mailing address for hundreds of persons who were homeless, and we welcomed those people into the church building daily, where they could find not just their mail, but also food, clothing and linkages to other social services. We were known for our hospitality to persons who were homeless and we were also known for our radical welcome of all people. In fact, we openly defied a ban that existed at that time in this denomination against the ordination of openly lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered persons.
I remember one particular Easter there. Somewhere toward the end of the service as we were singing a hymn people started swaying, and then the swaying turned to dancing. Before long the entire congregation was dancing - dancing in and among the pews, dancing in the back of the church, dancing in the aisles, dancing in the sanctuary in the middle of the Sunday morning Service of Worship. As I remember that day, the dancing just happened. It just happened, joyfully and spontaneously.
Despite the dancing we did many years ago in a New York City church, and despite the wonderful celebration we had here last Sunday, I'm pretty sure that there was little celebrating for most of the first Easter day for Jesus' disciples. By that first Easter evening the disciples had heard and verified the fact that Jesus' tomb was empty. And, by that same evening they had also heard Mary's unbelievable news that she had seen the Lord. But it's not terribly likely that they really believed Mary's proclamation. After all the dead do stay dead, and the disciples also knew that when the state executes a criminal, they do it thoroughly.
By evening on that first Easter day, according to John's Gospel, the disciples had gathered together but they weren't dancing, and they weren't singing, and they weren't beating drums or blowing trumpets either. Instead, they were huddled together, in one frightened mass of dispirited disciples, with the doors to the house not just shut but locked tightly. Perhaps there was furniture piled against the door just in case the locks didn't hold. Perhaps they had the blinds drawn and had even snuffed out the candles so that no one could see that they were inside. And they were surely keeping quiet, perhaps not speaking above a whisper lest anyone walking by realize the room was occupied.
They were afraid that Easter evening. And their fears were well founded. If the authorities had killed Jesus - which they had - wouldn't the authorities come after Jesus' followers too? If the authorities were going to stamp out this fire of love started by Jesus, surely they would also try to extinguish any and all sparks to make sure the fire didn't ignite again.
So the disciples were huddled together, with doors closed and locked tightly. They were afraid of the authorities. Their faces, voices, and actions all bore witness to the reality that they feared for their lives. And perhaps the fear was more than just that they were targets for the authorities now, but it was also fear of the changed world in which they would live from then on if they managed to escape death.
With Jesus' death, gone was the hope that he was the Savior, gone was the hope that he would establish a kingdom, gone was their friend, the one they had left homes and business and family to follow. By Jesus' side, they had witnessed amazing miracles, heard incredible teaching, experienced his expansive love, but all this changed with his death. And that change surely frightened them, driving them to barricade themselves against that changed world in the hopes that they would survive. There was no joy that night. Only fear. Fear for their lives. Fear of the changed world outside those locked doors.
As they were huddled together frightened for what tomorrow would bring, not even being sure if they would even be alive in the morning, and frightened of the changed world outside of their closed doors, suddenly Jesus was present. The locks were still locked. The door was still closed. The furniture piled behind the door had not been moved. Yet Jesus was standing there.
"Peace," he said. "Peace." And he showed them his hands and his sides where nails and spear had pierced them. And the disciples realized at that moment that Mary had been right...she had seen the Lord that morning. And they realized at that moment that they too were seeing the Lord right then and there. The one who was crucified, dead and buried, had risen on the 3rd day. After offering them peace, Jesus told them that he was sending them out of that room, out into the world which frightened them, to live as his community.
The world was still a dangerous place for those disciples. The resurrection didn't alter that fact. Their lives were still in danger, and their future was unclear. Yet knowing that Jesus had been raised changed everything. The locks could be unbolted, the doors could be opened wide. If Jesus had been raised from the dead, Jesus would surely be with them as they left that room to live as his community in the world. And if Jesus had been raised, then nothing could separate them from God's love, not even a frightening world outside their locked doors.
That evening started with tightly closed and securely locked doors. But before it was over, Jesus was sending them out into the world. And I have to believe that before the next morning their fear had turned to joy and that maybe, just maybe, that frightened, huddled mass of dispirited disciples began to dance...just a sway or two at first, but then some foot tapping and finally, dancing. Like Mary had that morning, they too had seen the Lord. And that changed everything.
This past Monday as I was reflecting on the events of Holy Week and on our Easter celebration, I wrote a post for my blog which I entitled, "The Morning After." Part of what I said: "...now it's the morning after [Easter] and I find myself wondering,...How is our church different today than it was last week because of hearing the Good News all over again? How does Easter of 2014 shape what our church will be and will do for the rest of this year and beyond? If it were all just a drama [or a story book story], then we could go back to living as we did before. But if [the resurrection] is the truth for our lives, and if we grasp [the resurrection] as the centering moment for our faith, then it seems to me that hearing the story again just might have the power to change us and give us the courage to change the world."2
The world can be a scary place sometimes. Change happens quickly, and sometimes those changes shake the foundations of our lives. But Jesus is among us, right here in this very room, and as he did those first disciples, he beckons us to leave the safety of our sanctuary, inviting us to experience his peace, calling us to live as a community of hope and life which is shaped by the resurrection, asking us to open the doors to the future.
And so, we can either decry the reality that there's a lot of competition for Sunday mornings now when once it was solely the church's time, or we can open the doors and put some of our eggs in a non-Sunday morning basket.
We can either lament the fact that the vast majority of us here today have smartphones that keep us constantly connected, or we can fling the doors open and find ways to use that technology to share the Gospel in this changing world.
We can either ignore the changing demographic trends in our nation and go on doing business as usual or we can open the doors wide and explore what it means for our church's ministry that between 1950 and 2010 the percentage of persons over the age of 65 increased by 213% in our nation, and that this segment of the population will continue to grow faster than any other segment of the population in the US at least through 2050.3
Yes, we can close and lock the doors and live in fear...fearing for our lives...fearing for our future...fearing change...fearing of the unknown...fearing that there won't be enough for tomorrow. Or, we can go out into the new world of 2014 as a people whose lives and hopes are shaped by the resurrection.
That church I attended on Easter many years ago that erupted in dancing. But to an outside observer dancing probably seemed out of place. I mean, we were staid Presbyterians, after all. And, at least on paper, the church's future probably didn't look all that bright to an outsider. Their stance on the inclusion of LGBT Christians put their existence in jeopardy; they barely found enough money to do the mission and ministry they believed they were called to do; the foundations of the building were literally shaky and the roof was a bit leaky and there was no endowment to fix it; the dwindling numbers on the church roles were a concern and the reality that its members were no longer the wealthy but largely poorer people made the math of a stewardship season hard to figure out. An outsider might wonder, why did they, of all people, dance?
I think they danced because they believed in the resurrection. They danced because they knew that Jesus was alive inside their walls, and that Jesus was alive outside their doors as well. They danced because they were not afraid since Jesus had been raised from the dead.
Not being afraid meant they didn't need to worry about tomorrow; it meant they could take risky stands for justice; they could use their resources generously to bear witness to God's love; it meant they could open their doors wide; it meant they could even dance with joy on Easter day.
I concluded my blog posting on Monday of this week with the following sentences: "The lilies may be drooping now, the church pews empty this morning, voices may be hoarse from singing yesterday, and the candy all gone, but Jesus is alive. Today. Right now. Forever. And this makes all the difference in the world."4
The resurrection does indeed make all the difference. It means we don't need to fear the future. It means we now do not need to be afraid of change, or of what tomorrow may bring, or of what lies beyond these walls. Christ is risen and we can fling our doors wide open to whatever may come our way. We can embrace tomorrow because he is alive today and forevermore and there's nothing, nothing at all, that can ever change that. Alleluia!
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