What’s Changed?

Preached by Rev. Will Brown, April 3, 2016
Taken from Acts 5:27-32; John 20:19-31

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I’m sure you’ve seen the ads, whether it’s for a new miracle diet pill or revolutionary exercise equipment that will transform the shape of your body. Or maybe one of the many home makeover shows on HGTV and elsewhere. There are always two pictures: before and after. Before the weight loss program, and after, with a dramatic change between the two.

Let’s think about today’s two scripture readings (from John and Acts) in those terms: before and after, two pieces of the same story.

First, “before.” John, chapter 20, verse 19 begins on Easter evening. It’s Sunday night, the third day since Jesus had been killed. The disciples have secretly gathered together and locked themselves in a room, afraid that the same religious leaders who had Jesus killed would also be coming for them. So they’re hiding, with the doors locked. Locked away, afraid.

Fear is a powerful emotion, isn’t it? It paralyzes us, renders us unable to act or even to think clearly. When we are afraid, we play it safe, avoiding risk. We hunker down. That’s where the disciples are, hunkered down in fear for their lives, afraid of who might come banging on their locked doors.

That’s “before.” How about “after”?

It’s Acts chapter 5, and the disciples once again are found behind locked doors, but this is an entirely different scene. They have been parading around Jerusalem, healing the sick, brazenly proclaiming that Jesus was raised from the dead, colliding head-on with the teachings of the religious elites, who promptly have them arrested. They are thrown in jail, with the doors locked. Locked away, unafraid.

“No-fear” is a powerful emotion, too, isn’t it? It frees us, enables us to act and think clearly. We can take risks, put everything on the line. There’s no need to hide away.

Before and after. What a contrast! Are these the same disciples?? They had locked themselves away, afraid that the Jewish leaders might find them; now they are defiantly preaching in their faces, getting arrested like they had feared, and then getting right back to work when an angel breaks them out of prison. Rounded up and interrogated again, they reply, simply and defiantly: “We must obey God rather than human beings!”

What happened to these people? How did they get from “before” to “after”? What changed?

In a word: resurrection.

I’m not sure quite how else to describe it. When the “before” picture is taken, it’s a snapshot of a devastating chapter in their lives. Jesus was dead. Remember how they had dropped everything and followed him? They left behind their families, dropped their nets on the seashore, gave up their livelihood and everything that mattered, just to follow Jesus. He amazed them with miraculous healings, walked on water, multiplied loaves and fishes to feed the crowds, taught them in parables they couldn’t quite understand, yet it made them believe in an entirely different world, a kingdom of God that somehow was at hand, breaking into the world everywhere Jesus stepped. Following Jesus: this is who they were now. And then he was dead.

What were they supposed to do? This unbelievable ride, following God incarnate around the countryside, just came crashing to a halt, and their lives with it.

That’s why I feel bad for “Doubting Thomas,” as we always seem to call him. You know how the familiar story goes: Thomas wasn’t in the room when Jesus had appeared to the disciples, so when Thomas gets back, they tell him what had just happened. But he stubbornly replies, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, … I will not believe.” At least that’s how we tell it, with Thomas being the doubtful disciple who must see things for himself!

But there’s another way to read this story. Might a more fitting moniker be Grieving Thomas? It seems significant that what Thomas demands to see are Jesus’ wounds, the very proof that Jesus had died. In his grief, all Thomas knows is the truth that Jesus was killed. When he hears his friends proclaim that Jesus is alive, he dismisses it as wishful thinking. Perhaps he knew all too well the voice in his head that we call denial, claiming the same thing, desperately yearning for it not to be true—maybe Jesus didn’t die, somehow, maybe he’s still alive? But Thomas knows what happened. He saw the pierced and bleeding hands and feet and side. So he won’t believe. He can’t.

Jesus has died, and with him died the hopes and identity of the people whose lives revolved around following him. They hunker down, lost, defeated, and afraid.

And then resurrection happens.

We do a disservice to our faith when we tame these stories. They are—and should be—painful to read. To truly put yourself in the shoes of these desperately grieving disciples—it hurts. It hurts because life is not tame. You know what it feels like to be in their shoes—the grief, the confusion, the questions. That’s why it’s so jarring to read the story this way, to sit with them in the depths of their grief and then collide without warning into the strange claim of resurrection.

But here we are in the Easter season, and that’s what we’re doing. This season is an emotional rollercoaster, and you better hang on, because right there, when the disciples are staring at each other in a sad room somewhere in Jerusalem, Resurrection just appears right there in their midst, not even bothering to knock on the door.

The grieving, broken disciples had no idea that they were posing for a “before” picture.

Having read ahead in Acts, we know where they’re going, the great things they’ll do, and this startling appearance from Jesus is clearly the turning point. He reassures them, breathes new life into them, and sends them out: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you!” Wow. So, what happens next?

Some of you have heard me tell this story before, but when Erin and I were living in Nazareth, Israel, a few years ago, we were fascinated to discover that with so many different Christian traditions (Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, and more), there was more than one calendar that the different churches followed. This meant there were different dates for Christmas, different dates for Lent, and different dates for Easter. When we went to church on Easter Sunday (a week after some churches had celebrated Easter), we greeted our friends with the traditional “Al masiih qam,” Arabic for “Christ is risen,” to which the response is “Haqqan qam,” “Christ is risen indeed.” Well, when we said the phrase “Al masiih qam” (“Christ is Risen”) to one neighbor, he dryly responded, “My Jesus rose last week.” [We were a week later in his church’s calendar.]

“A week later” is where our story picks up. The Gospel of John’s narrative jumps from the appearance of Christ on Easter evening to the week after Easter. Let’s see what these newly empowered disciples are doing. Hear again verse 26:

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”

A week later, there they are again, in the same house, with the doors locked. In a way this baffles me: Jesus just rose from the dead, breathed the Holy Spirit into you, and sent you out—what are you still doing here a week later?? Shouldn’t you be over here by now? [the “after” picture]

Then again, maybe they had been out there risking their lives all week, and now they needed to come back together for support and renewal, and to convince each other that this really did happen, that they’re not crazy and making it all up. Maybe what they had discovered was that resurrection is hard and slow, and it doesn’t take place alone. Their new life depends on each other. Their very identity now is a communal one; they have become the church, collectively resurrected and empowered to continue Christ’s work.

So a week later, they gather again—this time with Thomas—and again Jesus is present with them, reassuring them, giving them what they need to believe, and sending them out again.

Perhaps that’s why we are here too: community, mutual reassurance, to be strengthened, renewed, and sent back out.

In any case, the “before picture” of the disciples slowly begins to shift, and a new “after” comes into focus. By the time we arrive at the courageous stories in the book of Acts, these disciples look totally different. No longer hunkered down, they are bold and strong and decisive. The contrast could not be more striking. Yet there is one remarkable commonality between these two stories: locked doors.

In the Gospel lesson, they have locked themselves away for protection, and in Acts they are locked up in prison. But in both instances, God will have none of it. After all, this is the God who began the day by rolling away the stone door that was meant to seal a tomb. Mary Magdalene and at least some of the disciples had seen the open tomb earlier that day, yet by the evening, they have closed themselves in, locking themselves away in a “tomb” of their own making. But neither these locked doors nor the prison doors in Acts are any impediment to the God of Resurrection.

What about you? What about us?

Are we metaphorically locked away in a room somewhere? Do we keep ourselves safe, hold a little bit back, afraid of what may be out there? Some of the strongest prisons are the ones we build for ourselves, for self-protection or fear of the unknown. Or do we feel constrained by forces outside our control, imprisoned by forces more powerful than we are? Death, disease, the unrelenting passing of time, social stigma, the –isms and –phobias of our world—these locked doors can feel immovable and final.

Thank God that the God of Resurrection is no respecter of locked doors.

Whether we’ve locked ourselves away or feel locked in from the outside, our Easter God is rolling away the stone, calling us out to new life, and to get to work.

In closing, I want to ask us a question. As a congregation, is our self-portrait—if I were to hold up my phone and take a selfie right now (there it is)—is this a “before” picture or an “after” picture? Are we “before,” waiting for God’s resurrection to sweep over us? Or, “after”: has God already finished with us? Or might we be right in the middle, living in the midst of that transformation, being collectively resurrected even at this moment, as God makes us into something new?

Let us pray:

God, are we the best you have? Are we good enough? Use us anyway. Resurrect our hopes and make us your people. Amen.