“WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?”
John 20:19 – 23
April 3, 2016
Chilmark Community Church
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
Last week’s Easter celebration ended on a note of joy and triumph. We read the story of Mary and Peter and another disciple discovering the empty tomb. We rejoiced with Mary as she realized that Jesus was still with her. We heard that the disciples went to their homes and they believed.
This morning we have another picture. It is the evening of the same day – – and here, instead of finding joyful excitement and a determination to spread the word about their morning encounter, we find the disciples behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews.”
I think we have to ask “What’s going on here?”
The joyful force of the resurrection day seems truncated. The expansiveness of the bright and beautiful morning has constricted down to a tight, fearful place behind locked doors. Whatever liberation the resurrection implied in the morning has become elusive by evening. “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week…the doors of the house were locked for fear of the Jews….” The disciples are in hiding for fear of the Jews???? – – – it demands that we pause.
We have to ask what John meant because short phrases like this are dangerous, interspersed as they are – without explanation – – here and there in all four of the gospels. Unexamined, phrases like this have been used to support, and perpetuate anti-Jewish and anti – semitic sentiment on the part of Christians and others for 2000 years. So a little historical context is in order.
The Gospel of John was written somewhere around 90 CE approximately 60 years after the death of Jesus. This would have been long after the end of the lives of people who witnessed the events first hand. A lot happened in those 60 years. In 90 CE when John was writing, there were no Christians – only a religiously diverse Jewish community with differing beliefs and expectations about a messiah that had been part of their history for generations. There were inevitable tensions as Jewish family members, priests, teachers and religious leaders wrestled with their beliefs and understandings of who this Jewish Jesus was near the end of the 1st century. There was no common agreement – – but the tension was between Jews who accepted Jesus and the Jews who continued to look for a messiah. There were numerous expressions of Jewishness. They didn’t all get along well together. When John writes about Jewish disciples of the Jewish Jesus being in a locked house “for fear of the Jews” he is reflecting a state of alienation within the Jewish community itself.
For centuries the church has not been careful about paying attention to this historical context of our own scriptures – we have been taught to believe what is written here – but we have not been taught to question what we read. The unquestioned negative portrayals of “the Jews” in the gospels have contributed to unimaginable Jewish suffering at the hands of the church and of others right into the 21st century. With this historical context in mind, let’s go back to that house and the locked doors and see what we meaning we might take from these verses for life today.
The principle player in the story is Jesus. He finds his friends, his disciples and students, behind locked doors. As the Resurrected One, returned from the other side of death, he appears as a loving presence to the disciples in their spiritual and emotional disarray – – he stands among them – -in their midst – – he encounters their fear – perhaps their alienation and marginalization from their own community – -they are in pain – -they are grieving – and they are afraid. … And what does he say?
“Peace be with you.” This is the one who endured torture, humiliation, pain, and the death of his most precious self under Roman crucifixion – – and his first words to his friends are “Peace be with you.”
It seems as though his greeting is enough to open the disciples’ eyes and they rejoice when they recognize him. Perhaps one locked door is opened. When their grief and panic and fear subside just enough, the Loving Presence takes command and repeats the greeting: – – “Peace be with you – – – As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” A holy commission to be in the world as Jesus was – – as compassionate healers and teachers, as seekers of justice, as bearers of the Divine Presence into the world. Jesus’ command has the power to unlock another door.
And then there is the gift of breath. “He breathed on them and said to them “Receive the Holy Spirit” – – These words are reminiscent of all the earlier accounts of the breath of the Holy One that both gives and restores life: – in Genesis – the breathing spirit of God hovered over the waters; and then again when God breathed the first human beings into existence and called them good. Later in the ancient story, Elijah, at God’s behest, breathed the breath of life into the widow’s dead son – and then there is the glorious account of the Divine Breath blowing through the valley of the dry bones – bringing Israel back to life. With the receiving of the Breath, another door is unlocked. As the Holy One sent me – – so now I am sending you – – Breathe deeply and receive the breath of life I give you to strengthen you for the work I call you to do.
And then comes what seems to be the crux of these verses, especially given the historical setting we have just looked at , – – then comes the specific challenge – – – “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, the are retained.” Wow! If all that those words meant was that the disciples should get out of the locked house and find ways to share their experience with their families and friends – begin to reconcile their relationships, imagine what the world would be like if we had stories that showed the disciples moving about Jerusalem and Galilee – finding ways to heal the fissures that had developed between them and their other Jewish friends and relatives – stories of creating space for diversity of belief and practice – – stories of manifesting the multitudinous ways in which God reveals the Divine Presence in humankind. But as the saga of the early Jesus community unfolds over time, it gives evidence of conflict and disunity, of power struggles and distrust as the issues of right belief supplanted the teachings of Jesus about right living. The tragic history of enmity and suspicion between Christians and Jews played itself out over the centuries. It is only in the last 50 years or so that the Christian Churches have begun to recognize and apologize for the sins perpetrated against the Jews in the name of Christianity.
The ancient story challenges the church – – and it challenges us personally as well. We all have days in our lives – perhaps even weeks and months and years, when we live in small, locked places – confined by sadness, sometimes by suspicion and resentment, sometimes by fear. An unskilled comment, a half-heard sentence, an eyebrow lifted in a sensitive moment – – a misunderstood intention – – all simple things that are enough to cause us to withdraw from relationship – to turn the key and lock the door of our hearts. We often suffer alone behind locked doors because of pride or misunderstanding. Life gets narrow and tight – we do not breathe as fully as we might. How often are families and communities broken by a failure to understand one another, by a failure to seek one another’s well-being – – by a failure to give and receive forgiveness – – – and isn’t it a curious thing that the first post resurrection command to the disciples is to be about the work of forgiveness!
The house with the locked doors is a familiar place. But the story refuses to leave us there. Rather it challenges us – – it actually commands us: Be at peace! Breathe! Forgive! The words come from a teacher who has done it all.
The death and resurrection of Jesus are primary metaphors in our tradition. The very act of dying is a metaphor for losing self. Through the crucifixion, the precious human self of Jesus is relinquished on the cross. On the cross, Jesus becomes self-less. This model of self-relinquishment is to become the model for any disciples who would follow Jesus. In modern terms, we might talk about letting go of the needs of our personal ego in the service of a higher good. Clearly – we don’t always get it right – – we don’t follow Jesus perfectly – – and that is where the command to forgive comes in. When we unlock the doors of our hearts enough to let go of the need to be right all the time and to extend forgiveness to those who wound us, we are on our way to fulfilling the command. Forgiveness will happen! On the other hand, if we are not able to turn the key and the heart door stays locked – – forgiveness is blocked – the life giving energy of the Holy One will not flow – – and life becomes very narrow and tight – – locked up, if you will. It happened to the disciples – it happens to us.
Sometime ago, I clipped out a paragraph on “resurrection” from PARABOLA magazine – – the writer* was wondering what it is that survives when the “self-oriented or self – centered life” is over. He/she wrote this: “The resurrection depicts what comes after the destiny of one’s personal story is lived out, yet there is still a life to be lived. The resurrection provides a mirror that something does come back; something survives the death of the self. What comes back to life out of the ashes of the death of the self is something that is really quite simple, but quite poignant. Returning from that place, the only thing left to do is to be a benevolent presence in the world.
I’d like to suggest that this is what is going on in the locked house. Jesus modeled the death of the self for the disciples. He modeled what he meant when he said “whoever seeks to save his own life will lose it. The one who is willing to lose her own life will save it.” Jesus asked this of the disciples – – and he asks it of us.
*sadly the author’s name is long missing
He asks us to let go of fear – to be willing to let go of being at the center of our own lives – -to die to self – – so that he can live in us. This means accepting the peace that he offers us. It means drawing in the breath of life that he gives us. It means moving out of the locked room into life bringing a benevolent presence into the world. This is the challenge of a resurrected life. In these days between Easter and the celebration of Pentecost may we receive the gifts of the Risen One. May Peace be with you. May you breathe deeply! May you forgive generously! May you be a benevolent Presence in the world. In this spirit, may we greet each other at the table to which Jesus invites us.