The disciples sit huddled together in the dark room, barely daring to breath. The doors are locked, secured, and barred. The barricade provides a measure of security, but still they huddle in fear of what lay on the opposite side of the door. Death.
Jesus, their Lord and Master, had suffered intense, agonizing pain at the hand of the religious leaders. Yes, Rome had done the damage, but it was the Pharisees, scribes, Sadducees, and the ruling council that had brought up the charges and made sure Jesus received the death penalty.
It is safer to remain here together, safely tucked away, than to venture out there. To leave these walls is to risk being seen, being identified, and being killed for their connection with Jesus. Death waits on the other side of the door. They sit, not speaking, not moving… staring at the floor.
The air is hot and thick with the stench of fear. The room trembles from their shivering bodies. Normally, the evening would be filled with celebration, laughter, and fellowship. Yet, the silent tension can be cut with a knife. It weighs on them heavier than if an elephant were to sit on their chest.
The days following Jesus’ execution are dizzying and disorienting. Their heads reel from the sudden turn that life has taken. Once, life had seemed so full, so promising. Now, the world is crashing down upon their heads. The small room seems to shrink in around them, like darkness smothering the very life from them.
With their heads drooped and eyes pointing to the floor, nobody notices the man standing in their midst. There is no sound to announce his presence. No knock on the door. No scraping of sandals on the floor. Nothing. “Peace be with you,” he says softly. Heads shoot up, eyes wide with terror at hearing a voice. Fear grips their hearts as they look to the door to see it still latched. Had the authorities finally come to put them to death, too? And, how had they entered without notice?
Silence follows. The men and women lean away from the stranger, sure they are to meet their demise if he reaches for them. The stranger turns in a circle looking at each gathered there. His eyes are kind, not malicious. He smiles at them. They are still cautious, not sure what trick he might pull.
Then, the stranger extends his hands out, palms up. Holes can be seen all the way through his wrists, about the size of a spike. The disciples notice his feet also have these same gaping holes. Again, the man turns to face each one of them and then exposes his side where a gash from something like a spear must have pierced him. As light flooding a dark room, the disciples suddenly recognize this man is no stranger but Jesus himself! The disciples’ fear melts like ice sitting on sun-scorched pavement. It’s Jesus! They begin shouting and yelling for joy! It’s Jesus! The hands, the feet, the side… it is unbelievable! And, yet, here he stands!
Jesus again addresses them, “Peace be with you.” Jesus still shows them where the nails pierced him. He continues speaking, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” The disciples’ eyes stare more intently, unable to move from those horrendous scars. Jesus’ words echo in their minds, reverberate off the walls.
More than a couple of heads twist to observe the locked door holding the world at bay. Jesus wants them to go back out there? To endure what he endured? To suffer as he suffered?
They stand there silently. Then, without warning Jesus breathes on them. He says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The significance of that act isn’t lost on them. As the Spirit breathed the Creation into existence, now Jesus is breathing his life into them – God’s very Spirit. Jesus breathing on them is an act of creation. But, Jesus doesn’t stop there. He continues, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Now, Thomas was not with the disciples during this encounter. Excited about having seen Jesus, the disciples run to find Thomas to tell him the great news. They tell him, “We have seen the Lord.” Thomas’ eyes narrow. He’s no fool. Dead men do not rise. Those are the cold, hard facts! Thomas knows that Death is final. He responds to the others, saying, “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.”
Our story opens with the disciples crowded into a small home, huddled together. They are hoping to survive the storm that the world has thrown at them. The world is locked out; they are locked in. Even as Jesus’ lifeless body was laid in a tomb, they now reside in a tomb of their own making. The house with the locked door was meant to provide security, however, it only ensured death. The room meant to provide protection is a space that acts more like a tomb. Fear has buried them, Death has gripped their hearts.
The world has been turned upside down. Life is out of control. The sky is falling. The earth is shaking. All of their hopes have been flushed down the drain. If there is a future, it doesn’t look good.
We can readily identify with the disciples’ mindset to “circle the wagons.” This past week I was at a funeral in Texas. While riding to the graveyard, the driver, who I had only just met, began to talk about the woes of the world. He surveyed the landscape of our culture, the challenges for the Church and Christianity, and rendered a bleak verdict: “It’s all gotta end sometime soon, don’t ch’ya think?” Indeed, his depiction of politics, economics, and declining morality would be enough to make anyone wonder at the futility of hope in such a world.
This view of the world often gives way into a “storm cellar” approach to life. The storm is coming, lay low, take cover, and pray that somehow we’ll survive. We inhabit a world bent on death and destruction; it is little surprise we feel the need to lock the doors, hide out, and make sure we are safe.
Our story informs us that the disciples have locked themselves away “for fear of the Jews.” This desperate attempt to huddle for safety is rooted in fear. It is fear of the unknown. It is fear of the future. It is fear, ultimately, of Death. Fear has so gripped the disciples that they dare not risk the possibility of death. It is this fear of Death that paralyzes them, rendering them incapable of living.
Our own striving for security is surely rooted in the same fear the disciples display. It is fear that isolates. It is fear that closes off from others. It is fear that robs us of hope. It is fear that immobilizes us. Fear becomes so all-consuming that we are unable to see beyond the walls we have enclosed ourselves within.
Because fear drives so much of our lives, we, as the Church, have become a huddled mass trembling before the storm. Whatever the storm may be in your mind, illegal immigrants, ISIS, global crisis, job loss, family death, democrats or republicans in office, other nations, divorce, past mistakes and sins, our fears render us incapable of being the Church in response to those situations.
Fear creates enemies. Fear dominates our hearts and sharpens them for violence against our enemies. Fear only has room for “me.” It cannot open itself up to another. To do so would only make “me” vulnerable. Fear always creates in us paranoia of those different than me, especially those who I identify as my enemy. In such a state, we are unable to see anything other than threats to our life, security, and viability. By means of fear, Death becomes the overarching theme and power in our lives. And, Death says that we must operate out of self-preservation in order to save ourselves, protect ourselves, and maintain our lives, no matter the consequence to others.
Jesus steps through the walls meant to keep the world at bay. The walls cannot hold out Jesus. He greets his Church, these fearful disciples, saying, “Shalom!” Literally, “God’s peace.” If there is anything counter to Fear, it is God’s peace. Even as Jesus calmed the stormy sea, Jesus calls for the disciples’ fears to cease. “Peace be with you.”
If anyone would understand the extent of the storm swirling about in the world, it would be Jesus. If anyone can comprehend the power of Death and Fear, it is Jesus. He bears the scars, the marks, the wounds from his encounter with Death and Fear. They tore his body. They broke his body. They ravaged his body… until he lay dead, buried in a tomb. If anyone would understand the deep darkness of the world, it is Jesus!
Yet, here Jesus stands before the disciples. He is the resurrected Lord whom Death could not hold. He is the risen Christ whose life overwhelmed the Grave. He is the life-giving King whose reign knows no bounds. Death and Fear are conquered by Life and Peace.
The Resurrection affirms that there is no power in Death or Fear out of which God cannot ultimately bring Life. Resurrection says that Death’s reign is over. Resurrection undermines Fear’s power. Resurrection is God’s life-giving power at work in the Creation, which will not be defeated. And, Resurrection offers a new way of living in the world, not one dictated by Death and Fear.
Resurrection beckons us to live as those that have received God’s peace, living as those with hope, because we have encountered the Risen Christ! If the power of Resurrection is at work in us, then Fear and Death have no longer hold dominion. As such, we no longer need live under their tyranny having been freed from their grip on our hearts.
Instead, we are free to risk much, even giving up our very lives, for the sake of the Gospel and God’s Kingdom. Even if we should be killed, maimed, harmed, beaten, bruised, imprisoned, or enslaved, yet we would rest in the blessed assurance that God’s redemptive purposes are still at work and will not be undone. Yes, even our very lives might be raised to new life. If God can do that, then why fear what the future holds?
Jesus gives the disciples their mission: “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” He has shown them his nail-pierced hands, feet, and side. They see the marks of crucifixion, the wounds of suffering and pain. As Jesus was sent to suffer and die, now Jesus is sending his disciples to do the same. Jesus doesn’t call for the disciples to defend their rights, run for public office, ensure that the Church survives, or to gain power by any means necessary. Just the opposite. Jesus calls his disciples to suffer and die for the sake of the world.
Henry Nouwen explains the Way of the Cross empowered by Jesus’ resurrection, writing: “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”
Compassion, meaning “to suffer with,” is the means by which God reigns in and over the Creation. God, through Christ Jesus, enters into our world, takes on our suffering as his own, and nails it to the cross. The new life of Jesus brought forth through resurrection also means that the brokenness of this world is being made and will entirely be made whole again.
The Resurrection says that Sin and Death do not have the last word – God does. Even as Jesus’ broken body is made whole, so might the dead and broken Creation be restored and glorified. Brian Zahnd puts it this way: “The resurrection of Jesus is not about confirming life after death. It’s about inaugurating New Creation and the Kingdom of God here and now.” Now, Jesus commissions his disciples to no longer live in fear, behind closed doors, circling the wagons. Jesus commissions his disciples to live fearlessly, to live out the hope of Resurrection, and to offer life to the world being offered through their lives in acts of compassion.
It’s hard to deny that our society is often resistant, sometimes decidedly antagonistic toward the Church and Christianity. There is great vehemence, anger, and hatred directed toward God’s people. At other times the Church faces relatively unaggressive opposition, like a simple disagreement. Sometimes the opposition facing the Church is dangerous, such as we have seen with ISIS. We shouldn’t be surprised to see a world contesting the Gospel. After all, Jesus did tell us that the world hated him and it would hate us.
But, there is also another kind of opposition that has cropped up. It is a position that denies the validity of the Church and Christianity because our lives don’t always match our message. The Church, in many corners of our country, reflect the values of Death and Fear. They reflect the values of our culture and nation. And, as such, they deny any such claim to be rooted in love or the sufferings of Christ. And, if we cannot claim any connection to the suffering of Christ or Christ’s death, neither can we claim any hope in Christ’s Life and Resurrection.
Thomas hears the news of Jesus’ resurrection. The disciples tell Thomas, a fellow disciple, that Jesus rose from the dead and met with them in the flesh. But, Thomas is a realist. He is only willing to accept what he can verify by observation. Unless he can touch Jesus, see the scars and wounds, then Thomas will deny that Jesus rose from the dead and now lives.
In a similar way, if the world is unable to see the resemblance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in his disciples, then like Thomas they won’t believe. Jesus calls his disciples to be his Body, his pierced but resurrected Body. Yet, if the disciples don’t resemble the Master, if the Body doesn’t live out of Jesus’ compassion for the world, then should it surprise us that the world denies that Christ lives or that the Church has any place in this world? Should it so surprise us that the world would suggest that Christianity is merely a fairy tale told to children? Many are still waiting to see Jesus’ Body, identified by the wounds of crucifixion. Do we bear the wounds of Jesus in our own bodies?
“As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” Drink deeply from this well. “Whoever would follow me must pick up their cross and daily follow me.” Ponder the call which Jesus gives us: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Jesus understands the risk involved in living out Resurrection and the New Creation in a world still operating under the power of Death and Fear. And far from telling his disciples to create a holy huddle and lock the door, Jesus tells his disciples to get to living by offering their lives for the sake of the world.
Jesus breathes on the disciples after he has told them what it means to follow him. Ben Witherington states, “… as an echo of the story of creation where God breathed life into Adam, the first human being… we are to see this scene as a sort of starting over, the beginning of the creation of a new humanity. The theme of life in this Gospel comes to a climax as we see Jesus now able to truly bestow eternal life and power once he returns to the Father who sent him. When Jesus breathes out, he is not only emulating the original role of the Creator, he is also… communicating and committing himself to his disciples, in the person of the Spirit. It is his own resurrection life that he will bestow on them” (John’s Wisdom, 342).
If this is the gift of Jesus through the Spirit to those who are truly followers, reflect on the freedom this grants us in giving away our lives in service to others, not dictated by Fear, not hindered by Death! Enemies can then be perceived through the eyes of hope and God’s peace, rather than through eyes of Fear and Death.
Think about it. Illegal immigrants are no longer viewed as threats to national security, our jobs, or our economic security. Rather, we can see this influx of people into our communities as opportunities for sharing the Gospel with the people God is bringing to our doorsteps!
Members of ISIS and other Islamic groups aren’t persecuting us; they are persecuting Jesus. Saul killed early Christians but was eventually changed because of an encounter with Christ, becoming the greatest evangelist the Church has ever known. If Jesus can change Saul, can’t he also, through us, change the hearts and minds of our Islamic brothers and sisters? The Resurrection gives us hope that their hatred for us can be transformed into love for Christ.
Dinka was sold into slavery at the age of seven. His master, Ibrahim treated him cruelly, often beating and torturing him. Ibrahim typically called Dinka “Abid”, meaning “black slave.” Dinka’s family had been killed in the raid that took him from his home and for ten years he served Ibrahim.
Dinka’s living conditions were unsuitable for any human, surviving off of garbage and scraps. He was lower than an animal in Ibrahim’s eyes and constantly reminded so. Dinka was raised a Christian. This was noted by his master and mocked, stating that “Abid” shouldn’t be allowed to worship because he was worthless trash.
Dinka was charged with caring for the camels and watering them. He dutifully performed his tasks, despite the awful treatment from his master. One Sunday, Dinka heard singing coming from a church nearby. He went to the source and came upon a church service, which he remembered from his time at home. He joined in the worship.
Unfortunately, when Dinka returned home, he discovered that several of the camels had wandered away. Before he could find them, his master discovered the loss and flew into a fit of rage. Ibrahim beat Dinka over the head and on his body. Then, he took a plank and nailed Dinka to it, driving nine-inch nails through hands, knees, and feet. Then, the master poured acid on Dinka’s legs to cause more agony.
Dinka lay nailed to that plank for seven days, sustained only by the master’s young soon giving him food and drink. Finally, after days of agony and pain, the master’s son removed the nails and helped carry Dinka to a nearby hospital. After Dinka’s return from the hospital, Ibrahim saw no more value in damage property. Dinka was bought back by “Christian slave redeemers” who arranged his return home.
Upon his return home, Dinka’s name was changed by the village elders to Joseph because he had been sold into slavery and delivered like Joseph from Genesis. Amazingly, Joseph was not permanently damaged from his crucifixion, but healed. But, even more amazing, Joseph today says that God has helped him forgive Ibrahim! The power to forgive is the fruit of Christ’s Resurrection coming to fruit in this young man’s life.
“Jesus is calling his disciples to take up a costly task, one that may even require that they give their lives, but Jesus was standing in their midst showing them that even if that is so, there would be victory beyond the grave” (Ben Witherington, John’s Wisdom, 342).
Church, let’s stop living under the power of Fear and Death. Instead, Jesus commissions us to live out the power of Resurrection here and now, proclaiming to the world through lives of compassion that God is restoring the Creation and empowering us to live as New Creation by the Spirit.