(John 20: 24-31)
Last week, Grace began our post-Easter sermon series titled “Postscripts” – a familiar word here at Trinity as the name of our monthly church newsletter. It’s also a word referring to the story after the story – which, in some cases, winds up being the real story.
But that’s not really the way we do Easter, is it? We tend to think of Easter as a single event. We fill this place with brass blaring and timpani booming – and it is glorious. But by and large, churches tend to follow Easter with something like a return to “business as usual” – pack away the glory, get back to normalcy, same old same old. And yet, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the very cornerstone of our faith, was never meant to be contained in a single day. That’s why in our liturgical calendar there’s an entire season of Easter after Easter – seven Sundays we intentionally refer to not as Sundays after Easter but Sundays OF Easter. The Easter postscripts.
Our postscript today from the 20th chapter of John has, over the years, been referred to somewhat unfortunately as the Doubting Thomas story – as if it’s just about one guy. Which is a shame – because as is pretty much the case with all scripture, the thing we should be focusing on is oftentimes that thing which is not obvious. So as we read this passage I want you to certainly be aware of Thomas, but I want to invite you to pay attention to other details the gospel writer mentions. There’s one in particular that intrigues me – see if you can guess what it is. Listen now to God’s holy word:
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.’
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
This is the word of the Lord – thanks be to God.
Would you pray with me? Almighty God, open our eyes – but not just to see what we see, but what you want us to see. So that, with seeing hearts, we may live into our walk of discipleship with you all the more. In Jesus name, we pray, AMEN.
Monday morning after being gone all week for spring break, as I arrived at church, I followed my normal entering-into-church routine: back parking lot to brick patio through cloister doors and veering to the left….. And that’s where the normalcy ended. Because the double fire doors that lead into the admin building were shut tight. Which they’re not supposed to be.
As our staff will tell you, I have this thing about church doors being shut. Not outer doors, but inner access doors. It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine, I’ll be honest with you. In a day when the church needs to be as open and welcoming and accessible as possible, there’s nothing more off-putting and counter-productive than inner access doors shut during the day. So a little over a year ago the staff and I made the decision to prop open all fire doors down the admin hallway every morning – there are three sets of them. So now, when you stand at one end, you see all the way down to the other. They get shut at night because they’re fire doors and have to be, but first thing every morning, they’re opened up. Because that’s what church ought to be – opened up.
Except on this Monday morning. Which puzzled me. I just assumed someone forgot to open them, so I did. Checked in with a few folks on my way to the office, did a little work. Came back out in the hallway at one point and noticed that the doors were…… shut. Again! Hmm. This time I asked around; and that’s when I learned that one of our staff members was having a bad allergic reaction to the handful of Easter lilies that were left over in the cloister. Even a week after Easter, their aroma was as potent as ever.
We eventually moved the lilies elsewhere and the doors were opened again. Although we had to wait a full day, because the aroma of those lilies managed to linger there long after the flowers themselves were gone. Sounds kind of like our scripture today, doesn’t it – Easter, finding it’s way in through shut doors.
And I guess that’s why those shut doors were the thing that jumped out at me when I read today’s scripture back on Monday morning. You caught those doors, didn’t you?
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.’
I mean, it wasn’t like I’d never noticed them before; I just hadn’t paid much attention to them. Granted, I’ve always kind of wondered what was up with Jesus transporting through these shut doors like some kind of superhero. Would it make you think less of me if I told you that, as part of my sermon prep this week, I did a google search on superheroes who have the power to move through solid objects? It’s true. If you want names I’ll be happy to share them with you after worship. Let me just say that Jesus is not on the list.
But still – those shut doors. A small detail, offered up almost as an afterthought. That’s what grabbed my attention. And here’s the thing – it wasn’t the “how” that piqued my curiosity. Supposed super powers aside, that was not what I found intriguing. What I found intriguing was why: why the doors were shut in the first place.
Because truth be told, they weren’t just shut. The Greek word here, kleio, can also mean “locked.” The same word is used in the gospel of Matthew when Jesus gives the commandment to “go into your room, shut the door and pray to your Father in secret;” and later when Jesus blasts the Pharisees for “shutting people out of the kingdom of heaven.” Kleio.
So these doors were not just closed. They were kleio closed. Sealed off. Locked shut. No one getting in. No one getting out.
I mean, does it not strike you as more than a little odd that, a mere week after Jesus is resurrected from the dead, a mere week into the glorious Easter story that continued to be written after Easter itself, does it not strike you as odd that Jesus’ disciples would be hunkered down behind locked door? I mean, I get them hiding out before Easter, that terrifying time between crucifixion and resurrection, when all hope seemed lost and no one knew what was going on. But this is after all that – Jesus is risen, y’all! These disciples have seen him, talked with him. They know he’s alive!
And for the life of me, I cannot fathom why his disciples would choose to gather behind doors shut and locked tight.
Because, doors are meant to be opened, right? If not, it wouldn’t be a door; it’d be a wall. So when a door is shut, there’s a reason for it. If it’s a changing room door at the department store, someone’s trying on a pair of new slacks. If it’s a board room door, there’s an important business conversation taking place. If it’s the door to the pastor’s study late on a Thursday afternoon, someone is in there frantically trying to conjure up a sermon for Sunday.
Why did the disciples shut those doors – kleio – amidst their Easter reality? Who were the disciples trying to keep from getting in? What were they afraid of?
Hold that thought for a minute. You’ll notice, I’m sure, that up to this point I haven’t said a word about Thomas, the centerpiece of this supposed “Doubting Thomas” saga. And see, that’s another part of the story that fascinates me. Thomas seems to get all the bad rap here – wouldn’t you agree? Weak in faith. Dared to demand proof of the resurrection. Asking to stick his fingers in the wounds, what kind of guy does that?
Over the years, Thomas has become known as a sort of patron saint for disbelief and cynicism, and not in a very flattering way. There’s a website called “Doubting Thomas Anonymous” where people can post incognito about matters of faith they struggle with or flat-out don’t believe. The doubting thing goes even deeper than faith – the phrase “Doubting Thomas” has become a cultural expression for someone wallowing in endless skepticism and doubt. To be labeled a “Doubting Thomas” is hardly a compliment.
And I gotta tell you, I’ve never been comfortable with this depiction of Thomas, and here’s why: it just seems like a bit of an excuse on our part to look down on someone else as “less than” – he’s the doubter, he’s the one lacking in faith – not me. Which has the roundabout effect of making us feel better about ourselves. And I don’t think that’s the point of the story. I don’t think Thomas is in there to make us feel better about our faith.
I guess the real question I’m compelled to ask is, is Thomas even the real doubter here? And this is where I come back to those doors and the other disciples hunkered behind them. It makes me wonder if Thomas wasn’t the only one struggling with the notion of resurrection – just the only one brave enough to voice it. Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, put my finger in the nail holes, and stick my hand in his side, I won’t believe it, says Thomas.
And the other disciples? Only silence behind shut doors.
I like the way one commentator puts it:
What is most noteworthy for contemporary congregations is not that Thomas insists on his own firsthand experience, but that one week after the disciples have been visited by the risen Jesus and received the Holy Spirit, they’ve once again locked themselves behind closed doors. Thomas is actually one step ahead of the disciples – he only wants what they’ve already received – but the disciples have received and still do not live as Easter people
The disciples here strike me as the epitome of what could be called “kleio Christianity” – the dogmatic, rigid church that proclaims belief while choosing, literally and/or figuratively, to shut itself behind locked doors, leaving Christ to somehow engage the world on his own. The church that tells the world, if you want to be part of us, you must come to our door, give the secret knock, and come inside. And while we may venture out every now and then, what we’re most concerned with is staying right here, where we’ve always been, doing what we’ve always done, doors shut and locked tight. Because the very idea of truly living into Easter, this glorious, wonderful resurrection thing, scares us to death.
You and I have talked before about how the church, if it’s going to survive and thrive, simply cannot do this. It makes me wonder if the person we ought to be emulating here is, believe it or not, Thomas. The follower of Christ who says, Let me seek Jesus, find Jesus, ask for reasonable proof, ask the hard questions. I’m not interested in going with the flow, doing what’s always done just because that’s what’s always done, shutting myself off from the world. I want to see Jesus directly; I want to know Jesus personally, I want to meet Jesus so Jesus can shine in and through me. And then I want to be part of something bigger than me – something so big that it cannot take place behind doors shut tight.
I love what our favorite Mr. Buechner has to say about the Thomas story:
What we have to remember, he says, is that our eyes are not all we have for seeing, maybe not even the best eyes we have. Our eyes tell us that the mountains are green in summer and in autumn the colors of flame. Our eyes tell us that the small country church down the road needs a new coat of paint and that the pews are rarely more than about a quarter filled on any given Sunday.
But all these things are only facts because facts are all the eye can see. Eyes cannot see truth. The truth about the mountains is their great beauty. The truth about the church is that it’s always changing, for better or for worse. It is not with the eyes of the head that we see truths like that, but with the eyes of the heart.
The “seeing heart,” is what Buechner goes on to call it. That’s what happens, I think, when we open our shut, locked doors. Or when Jesus comes to us anyway, because even the tightest doors imaginable could never keep him out. Coming into our lives, into our beliefs and doubts, and making himself known to us. So the doors don’t have to be shut. So we’ll be compelled by the Spirit to fling them open wide and live into the resurrection reality of our Easter rejoicing.
Fling open wide the doors of a broken heart, broken by fractured relationships and dashed hopes and dreams..
Fling open wide the doors of fear that do immeasurable damage to our capacity for loving unconditionally and living in boundless grace….
Fling open wide the doors of our pain – deep-seeded, unbearable pain that rests like a heavy weight right here, weighing us down…..
Fling open wide the doors of a cautious, careful faith, so that for perhaps the first time in a long, long while we let the glory of Easter in.
We are, all of us, children of faith, says Walter Brueggemann. We spend our lives struggling with faith, struggling for faith, struggling against faith. Faith always has its way with us: It will not go away. Its voice is a haunting one. We have haunted lives filled with yearnings for what is not in hand, promises not yet filled, commands not yet obeyed, desires not yet granted, neighbors not yet loved. And because faith will not go away or be silent, we are destined to be endlessly haunted, uneasy, restless, on the way.
You and I, we have to work hard at flinging open the shut, locked doors that our uneasy, restless, haunting faith reveals to us. Because in the end, it’s not about those doors or about the disciples hunkered down behind them. It is about about Jesus – the one who finds his way to us wherever we are; the one who offers himself up in love; the one who presents himself to us exactly as we need him; so the Easter story can continue being written in and with us far beyond Easter itself. In the glory of that empty tomb, in the wonder of those open wounds, Jesus finds us.
That’s why doors are always meant to be open. Just ask Thomas. The seeing heart that allowed him to gaze through those shut doors to the possibilities beyond them. The seeing heart that does the same for us. That is what matters most. That is all that matters.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Feasting On The Word, Year B Vo. 2 pg. 403.
 http://frederickbuechner.com/content/weekly-sermon-illustration-seeing-heart, visited on 4.3.2016.
 Walter Brueggemann, in The Clergy Journal, May/June 2001.