Behind Locked Doors
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
Poor Thomas. He gets such a bad rap, doesn't he? I mean, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but pretty much every single year, on the Sunday after Easter, the lectionary turns up this well known story from the Gospel of John— the story of Thomas, the one disciple who just so happens to be out of the room when Jesus appears to the other disciples for the first time. Too bad for him.
Who knows where he was— maybe he was out getting food for everyone, or perhaps he was gathering information, trying to determine when it might be safe for the disciples to show their faces in public again. In any case, wherever he was, whatever he was doing, clearly, he missed out. And now he has the misfortune to be known for all time in all churches everywhere as “Doubting Thomas.” And I have got to say, quite frankly, I think it’s kind of unfair. I mean, let’s just look a little closer at what’s really going on here. After Jesus is killed, the disciples go and lock themselves up in a room. They are afraid to go outside. They don’t want anyone to be able to recognize them or associate with them with their fallen leader. And let’s remember that this is after they’ve heard Mary Magdelene tell them that Jesus is risen from the dead. This is after Peter and the disciple Jesus loved have discovered the empty tomb. And so despite all the evidence that something miraculous is happening, the disciples just can’t seem to get past their fear in order to embrace hope. And in the midst of all that fear and anxiety, the only disciple who was brave enough to venture outside this little room that they had locked themselves into was Thomas! So, we call him Doubting Thomas, but really, it was all the rest of the disciples who were so full of doubt and fear that they were paralyzed into inaction-- hiding out from the rest of the world and locking themselves behind closed doors. At the very least, Thomas probably shouldn’t be singled out as the only disciple who experienced doubt in those initial days following the crucifixion and resurrection. I think there was plenty of that to go around.
Beyond all that though, I would propose that singling Thomas out as the focus of this text actually kind of distracts us from some of the deeper truths of the story. Because ultimately, this is not just a story about Thomas and his personal inability to believe. I would propose that this is also a story about all of us, and all of the ways in which we lock ourselves behind doors of doubt, barricades of anxiety, and walls of fear. It’s a story about how so often, our own doubts and fears become very real barriers that keep us from experiencing true, transformative Easter joy. Think about it— the disciples had heard the good news— that Christ was risen. They had seen the empty tomb. But they were still captives to fear and doubt. How many of us sometimes feel the same way post-Easter Sunday? How many of us, even after proclaiming “Christ is risen, indeed,” are still locked into old patterns of anxiety, or are still held captive to all the same old doubts and fears?
So I suppose a reasonable question for us to start with this morning might be, what are the fears we have that keep us locked in the tomb, unable to embrace or experience the wild joy of resurrection? Maybe we’re afraid that we’re somehow not enough— not faithful enough, not successful enough, not worthy enough, not powerful enough—to make a real difference in the world. Maybe we’re afraid of failure— afraid to try something different or new because we don’t know how it will turn out or because we are afraid of what others might think or say about us. Maybe we’re afraid to offer God’s radical mercy and grace because we don’t want to be hurt or taken advantage of. Maybe we’re afraid to share God’s radical love because we don’t want to be rejected or shunned. Maybe we’re afraid to shine the light of who we truly are because we’re afraid that others will judge us, or laugh at us, or call us foolish. Or maybe, one of our deepest, darkest fears is that there really is nothing we can do— that the world is so locked into patterns of destruction and devastation that our own feeble efforts will never amount to anything of value or worth. Maybe, deep down, we’re afraid to believe— to really believe— that love truly wins. Maybe we fear that the message of the Gospel is nothing more than a pious, naive dream that can never really come true. After all, the ways of the world don’t seem to have changed much in the last few thousand years. It’s as brutal now as it ever has been, and of course, these days, we have the added benefit of cable news and social media to ensure that we hear all about it, all of the time— it’s relentless. And so, not unlike the disciples, we shut ourselves away, we we build walls around our hearts, and we hide away our hope. We’ve been disappointed before. We’ve had our hopes dashed and dreams deferred, and so we are afraid to try again. We are afraid to believe again. We are still locked in that dark upper room, just like the disciples.
And yet. It’s not all doom and gloom. There is good news to be found in this familiar story. The good news is that despite the fears that hold us captive, despite the doubts that sometimes cloud our vision and dull our imaginations, God still shows up, time and time again. Jesus showed up for that first group of doubtful, fearful disciples— even though they probably didn’t deserve it. I mean, think about it— they betrayed him, they denied him, and they deserted him when he needed them most. They were truly terrible friends. And now, these once bold disciples— who only days before were marching into Jerusalem shouting “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” cannot even manage to show their faces in public. If Jesus was willing to show up for them, in the midst of their crisis of faith and doubt, what makes us think he won’t show up for us?
You see, here’s the thing— God’s consistent and persistent love pays no attention to locked doors or guarded hearts. God’s love will always seek us out, no matter how many obstacles we put in God’s way and no matter how hard we try to shut God out. God’s radical and persistent love is a key that can open any door, break down any barrier, and shatter any chains that hold us captive. God’s love sets us free—free to believe, free to hope, free to feel joy and gladness, free to reach out, free to heal, free to give, and free to share that same radical love with a world that so desperately needs it.
So at the end of the day, I would propose that this isn’t really a story about Thomas at all. It’s not even really a story about us. In the end, I think, this story is all about God. Specifically, it’s a story about the persistence of God’s love— a love that is not going to be deterred by any of the ways in which we lock ourselves in or lock others out. And I don’t know about you, but for me, that alone is good news for my heart. That alone is enough to carry me through another week. But that’s not all there is to take away from this story. There’s one last piece— one very important piece— that we need to consider before we leave this story behind for yet another year. Which is that when God’s love finally does break through into our hearts and into our lives, it does not leave us unchanged, and it does not leave us without mission or purpose. When Jesus appears to the disciples in the upper room, he first offers them peace— a peace they sorely needed, and a peace we very much still need today. But then, he also gives them a charge— “as the Father has sent me,” he says to them, “so I send you.” One biblical scholar calls this story John’s Pentecost— for indeed in John’s gospel, this is the moment when the disciples receive the Holy Spirit and are sent out into the world to share Christ’s message of radical love and grace. And of course, we all know the rest of the story, right? The once doubtful disciples are blessed with a renewed sense of boldness and purpose, and they leave that locked upper room, no longer afraid, ready to turn the world upside down.
The same is true for us today. Even in the midst of our most anxious, fearful moments, Christ is there, reaching out to us, offering us a peace the world cannot give, a peace that passes all understanding. He offers us peace, and then, he sends us out with purpose and Holy Spirit power. And so may it be for us as it was for those first disciples. May we leave this place today armed with peace, boldness and purpose, ready to turn the world upside down— sowing love where there is hate, light where there is darkness, mercy where there is anger, healing where there is brokenness, unity where there is division, and above all, hope where there is despair. May it ever be so, Amen.