A sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter
by congregation member Daniel Sack
1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
It had been a weird week for the disciples. Strike that–it had been a weird three years for the disciples. They were, the gospels suggest, regular guys. None of them were priests or teachers. Most were fishermen and farmers. And they were not, the gospels make clear, particularly smart. The scriptures note how often they miss the point when Jesus is talking.
But each of these regular guys had heard enough from Jesus, or had heard enough about Jesus, that they gave up their regular lives to follow him. In their three years traveling with Jesus they had heard stirring sermons and strange parables. They had seen amazing miracles. They ate together, prayed together, sometimes argued with each other. They hung around with Samaritans, prostitutes, and lots of other strange people. Their regular lives were turned upside down and inside out. But the disciples had come to call Jesus “teacher,” even “lord,” even “messiah.” They had become convinced that Jesus had come to save the people of Israel.
And then things got really weird. Jesus warned them that he would be killed, and then headed directly into danger by going to Jerusalem. Their teacher became the grand marshal of a one-donkey parade. After this mockery of an imperial procession, Jesus chased the money changers out of the Temple. Their lord served them dinner and washed their feet. If all that wasn’t weird enough, they saw their messiah arrested, accused of blasphemy and sedition. They saw him go from a triumphal entry to death on a cross. In less than twenty-four hours, everything they hoped for was dead.
To save their own skins the disciples scattered. For all they knew the authorities, not satisfied with having killed the ringleader, might be out to get the followers too. They skulked around the alleys of Jerusalem, laying low, hoping to get out of town before they were all arrested as revolutionaries.
Three days after Jesus died they got together, maybe for a strategy meeting, maybe just to mourn their lost teacher and the life they had shared. Still afraid, they had the doors locked and lookouts posted. But as they got together their conversa¬tion buzzed with rumor—that morning Peter and John had found Jesus’ tomb empty, and Mary claimed to have seen Jesus alive. As they wondered what all this meant, Jesus himself appeared in the midst of their confusion. He showed them his wounds to prove his identity, and he breathed on them his spirit.
Maybe Thomas had been hiding better than the rest, but he missed that first meeting. When the others found him he refused to believe their news—he had known these men a long time, but after all that had happened, he wasn’t sure how to feel. He had been so hopeful for so long, hoping that Jesus was the messiah, hoping for the salvation of Israel. His hopes had been dashed one awful Friday on Golgotha, and he was afraid of having them dashed again. So when the others told him their news, he demanded empirical veri¬fi¬ca¬¬tion. A week later he got it—they were in the same room at the same time, with the same doors locked, when Jesus appeared among them and wished them peace. When Thomas saw what he needed to see, he believed.
Last week Ellen talked about fear. Fear, she said, “latches on, then makes us uncertain— not open and humble, but cynical, doubting, unable to trust or even hope. Fear cripples. It clips our wings.” And fear can so easily control our lives. We might be afraid of being robbed, afraid of being disturbed, or afraid of being touched. When we’re fearful we keep our eyes fixed on the sidewalk rather than look strangers in the eye. We build up walls of rationalizations and titles and accomplishments to fend off our fears—fears of pain, fears of meaninglessness, fears of loneli¬ness. Like the disciples, like Thomas, our doors are locked for fear of whatever might be on the other side.
“Fear makes us uncertain,” Ellen said, “not open and humble, but cynical, doubting, unable to trust or even hope. Fear cripples. It clips our wings.” And the powers of the world know that. They know how to use that. They know how strong fear can be, how easily it can keep us in line, can keep us from challenging their control. Too often our politics has been focused on fear. Instead of voting our hopes, cynical politicians tempt us to vote our fears. Instead of seeking peace, they tempt us to fear terror. Instead of welcoming the stranger, they tempt us to fear the immigrant or refugee. Instead of generosity, they tempt us to deny health care or food to the needy. Too often our politics focuses on fear, uses our fear, tempts us to lock our doors.
But God doesn’t want us to be afraid. God doesn’t want us to live behind locked doors. God doesn’t want us to protect our¬selves from being hurt, to protect ourselves from being disap¬pointed. God comes into the midst of our locked rooms, and wishes us peace. God comes in the person of Jesus Christ, comes into the midst of our lives, to bring us hope. And when God comes into our lives, nothing else is quite the same again. The good news of the resur¬rection is about leaving our locked rooms, about moving from fear to new life. As Leigh said on Palm Sunday, two weeks ago, the gospel is about hope, about a world where people of faith are known for their love, and not for their fear.
So, for three sermons in a row, Leigh, Ellen, and I have preached about fear. It might look like a conspiracy or maybe just a coincidence. It’s not. True, we did not discuss it ahead of time. I’d like to think of it as providence, three sermons in a row, each proclaiming the power of hope over fear. Three sermons agreeing, that despite the powers of the world, God does not want us to live in fear.
Lest you think that life in my world is all rainbows and bunny rabbits, however, I know that fear is real. I know that there are things in the world to be afraid of. I know that there are things in the world that oppress us, that cause us to lock our doors, that make us less than God created us to be. And I know that these fears are particularly real for people who don’t look like me—for people who are not middle-aged white men in Northwest Washington. Far too many people in our world live within locked rooms constructed by a society that wants to keep them afraid. But the Easter message is that God comes to them in the midst of their fears and wishes them peace. In that peace they find the strength to say, we refuse to be afraid any more.
For decades, well, for centuries, African-Americans have lived in fear. They have seen their fathers lynched, their daughters raped, their sons shot by the police. Black leaders hesitated to speak up, avoided making trouble, backed off from demanding justice. Black parents had The Talk with their sons—not about the birds and the bees, but about how to behave when challenged by a cop. But in a remarkable move of the Spirit, African-Americans all across the country have found the courage to stand up and march and picket and protest, to insist that Black Lives Matter, because they refuse to be afraid any more.
For centuries, well, for millennia, women have lived in fear. They have lived in a society where to be a woman means to be a target. They have gotten used to being objectified in classrooms and offices. They have been abused by fathers and brothers and lovers. Mothers have had The Talk with their daughters—not about the birds and the bees, but about how to avoid dangerous men while still making the boys like you. But in a striking turn of events, women have started saying Me Too, have started telling their stories of abuse and exploitation, because they refuse to be afraid any more.
And for far too long, children, teenagers, adults, really almost everybody, have lived in fear—fear of guns. Schools have lock-down drills, workplaces have metal detectors, and cities have gunfire locators. We’re still afraid, though we’ve kind of gotten used to the mass shootings. But in the last two months, young people from across the country have stood up and said, this is nuts. We don’t have to live this way. We don’t have to die this way. They came together in Washington and in cities across to the country to March for Their Lives, because they refuse to be afraid any more.
My friends, this is the good news for the Sunday after Easter. God doesn’t want us to hide behind locked doors for fear of the authorities—for fear of the racists, or the sexists, or the marksmen, or anybody. God comes into the midst of our lives, into the midst of our locked rooms, and wishes us peace. As Peter wrote almost two thousand years ago, “blessed be the God of our Lord Jesus Christ! By God’s great mercies God has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrec¬tion of Jesus Christ from the dead.” By Christ’s resurrection God calls us out of our fears and calls us to hope. By Christ’s resurrection God calls us to new life.
But what do we do with this new life? It depends on where God finds us. The tradition of the church tells us that after meeting the Risen Christ Thomas went on to become a missionary and carried Christianity to India. For the rest of us, meeting the Risen Christ may mean getting involved in the struggle for racial justice, or standing for women’s rights, or working for gun control.
This past week we marked the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The night before he died he preached the most amazing sermon of his life. He told his audience that he would like to lead a long life. “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” A man who heard Dr. King felt a strange current in the hall that night. He sensed that maybe King “had gone beyond the fear.” Several years earlier King told a group of protesters in Savannah, Georgia, that “we must rise above our fears. There is nothing to be afraid of if you believe and know that the cause for which you stand is right. You are ready to face anything and you face it with a humble smile on your face, because you know that all of eternity stands with you and the angels stand beside you and you know that you are right.” “There is nothing to be afraid of.”
What are you afraid of? What are the forces that keep your doors locked and your blinds drawn? The authorities? The powers of injustice in the land? Your employer or your teacher? Yourself? Whatever you fear, hear the good news for the Second Sunday of Easter. In Christ’s resurrection God comes into our locked rooms, comes into our fears, and wishes us peace. In that peace we find the courage to stand up and say, we refuse to be afraid anymore. And when God comes into our fears and leads us to new life, grace and peace is ours in abundance. So unlock your doors. Truly, for grace, peace, and our risen Lord, thanks be to God, and amen.