(a message shared with the people of Friendship Church, April 3, 2005)
My family and I lived in rural northwestern Ohio for six years. In that time, we city people developed a very rural habit: We never locked the doors of our house unless we were planning on being away for a week or so.
I remember precisely when I realized how rural we had become. We were getting ready for vacation and I had to search the house high and low for a door key to lock the place. It had been months since I had even seen it!
Why do we lock our doors here in the suburbs? Common sense would be a good answer.
But the answer behind that one is the real answer, I think. We lock our doors out of fear. Legitimately, we’re afraid that people might steal our property or worse yet, come into our homes and do us harm. We lock our doors out of fear. I know that’s why I do.
Sometimes, we not only lock the doors of our houses, we also lock the doors of our hearts. And for the same reason: fear.
A man I know has been through the wrenching ends of two marriages and several serious relationships. He made a vow after those two experiences. Never again, he told me, would he let himself be hurt by letting another woman into his heart and his life. “If you don’t let them in, they can’t leave you,” he said. He stuck to his vow for many years. But then he met Susan. It took some patience on her part, but eventually my friend let her in. They’ve been married many years now.
Sometimes, in order to live, a person has to let down their guard and unlock their doors, fear and safety be hanged!
Our Bible lesson today is set on the evening of Jesus’ resurrection, the first Easter. His closest followers have received word that Jesus has risen. But they’re not sure. So, they've gathered to pray in a locked room.
The story’s told of a missionary and a professional man he befriended. After their friendship had deepened, the businessman asked what it was that allowed the missionary to face his life with such hope and equanimity. The missionary told him the Good News of Jesus Christ. He told the man that Jesus was both God and Human, that Jesus died on a cross and rose from the dead to give all with faith in Him the erasure of all their shame and second chances at life forever with God. “That can’t be,” the professional man replied, shaking his head in disbelief. “I would have heard wonderful news like that before now.”
That was how Jesus’ closest followers—the disciples—felt as they huddled behind locked doors on Easter Sunday evening. There had been reports of people brought back from the dead. It had happened in the Old Testament. Some of these disciples themselves had seen Jesus bring Lazarus out of his tomb, days after Lazarus’ body had started to rot. But who besides Jesus or some Old Testament prophet could pull off a resurrection? And with Jesus dead, the disciples reasoned, who would bring Him back to life?
And so, our Bible lesson tells us that the disciples sat behind these locked doors afraid that their fellow Jews would kill them as they, along with the Roman Empire, had killed Jesus.
A really wonderful Presbyterian preacher, M. Craig Barnes, suggests that there was some other reason behind the disciples’ fear of the Jews. It wasn’t just a fear of being killed. They were, he says, ashamed.
They were ashamed that for all their brave talk, they had been unable to protect Jesus.
They were ashamed that at the moment Jesus was arrested, they had—at least the men had—scattered to the four winds.
They were ashamed that the Man they had acclaimed as the Messiah had been the victim of execution reserved for the lowest of the lowlives of that society.
They were ashamed and so, they were afraid to show their faces in public. That’s why they locked the doors.
The fear of being shamed can cause us to lock our doors, too. In his book Whatever Became of Sin?, the late eminent psychiatrist Karl Menninger tells the story of two men walking down a street in the Chicago Loop and seeing a plainly-dressed man who pointed at passing pedestrians and said softly, “Guilty.” One of the pedestrians to whom the man pointed, a businessman, turned to his lunch companion and asked, “How did he know?”
You see, we can become quite facile in wearing masks, facades so effective that we sometimes even fool ourselves.
We pretend to be confident when we’re not,
humble when we’re arrogant,
innocent when we’re sinful,
loving when we teem with resentments.
Truth be told, you and I suffer from the same fear that caused the disciples to lock themselves in that room. We’re afraid that we might be found out. Craig Barnes, in a message on this Bible passage, quotes humorist Garrison Keillor: “We always have a backstage view of ourselves.” And it’s a view we don’t want anyone else to see.
Sometimes, I apologize to people for something I've said and they'll look at me with mystification. "You don't need to apologize," they'll tell me, "you didn't say anything hurtful." I'll reply, "You just say that because you don't know what I know. I know the nastiness that lay behind my supposedly innocent statement." (We passive-aggressives are so good at hiding our unkindnesses behind a veneer of conviviality that sometimes people can't detect the cruelty in our words. We can get so good at it that sometimes, we're not aware of it ourselves!)
So, what’s the answer? Should we book ourselves on The Maury Povich Show and do an hour-long program on all our faults and wrongdoing, all our evil thoughts and sinful actions?
No, God has no desire for us to be humiliated. Through Jesus, we know the God described in the Old Testament is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
And God doesn’t want us to do penance, either. God isn’t a heavenly Santa Claus, “making a list, checking it twice,” demanding that we say five Hail Marys or clean the neighbor’s toilet in order to earn His forgiveness. We can’t earn forgiveness, release from our shame. That is a gift from a God Who went to a cross and rose from a tomb long before we knew that we were sinners earmarked for hell without His loving intervention. Your sins and my sins may require us to repair relationships we’ve torn or harmed by our sin. Our sins may have done damage to our bodies or our souls which will need attending. But whatever our sins, the God we know through Jesus Christ, wants to forgive them and destroy their power to block His love from your life right this very instant!
On that first Easter Sunday evening, Jesus just showed up in that locked room. He showed up because however haltingly or incompletely, these disciples were the people who wanted to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, that He really was the Master of eternity. Christ is so charitable to us that He even counts our desire to believe as true belief in Him!
John, the writer of our Bible lesson, doesn't bother taking the time to describe how Jesus showed up despite the locks, any more than He bothered describing the mechanics of Jesus' resurrection. Jesus didn’t pick the locks, crash through the doors, or climb in through the windows. He simply came to those fearful, shame-plagued disciples who had been calling out to heaven and said (in the Daniels paraphrase for this morning):
“Peace. I give you peace. You don’t need to wallow here in fear or shame anymore. I need for you to go out into the world and tell the world my Good News, that I give forgiven sin and fresh starts and forever sunrises to all with faith in Me. Now, get out of here and let everyone else know about this new life free of fear and full of hope!”Have there been rooms of your soul that you’ve locked, hoping that Jesus couldn’t see? Could you be in need of the freedom from fear that Jesus wants us all to have?
Yesterday, the world lost and heaven gained a great saint, Pope John Paul II. Several commentators have pointed out that the Pope's first words to the world on his ascendancy to the papacy were these: "Do not be afraid." Throughout his twenty-six year pontificate, John Paul lived those words. Undeterred by assassin's bullets, Parkinson's Disease, or growing frailty, he faced life and death not with fear, but with the peace that is God's gift to every follower of Jesus Christ!
I want to invite you this morning to let Jesus into every part of your life. Maybe you can use the Forty Days of Purpose campaign which begins next Sunday to do that.
Use this special time of spiritual renewal to tell Jesus, “I’m tired of being afraid, Lord. I’m opening up the doors of every room in my heart and life. Come and sweep them clean. Take away my shame. Take away my fear. Let me live in your peace today and always!”
Let Jesus in and then, get out of the locked rooms of your life and live in His peace with everyone you meet! It can happen. Just call out to God the way the disciples did. When we do that, the risen Jesus will show up in our lives.
NOTE: Today's edition of Daily Dig from Bruderhof, has this quote from Martin Buber:
“Where is the dwelling of God?” This was the question with which the Rabbi of Kotzk surprised a number of learned men who happened to be visiting him. They laughed at him: “What a thing to ask! Is not the whole world full of his glory?” Then he answered his own question: “God dwells wherever people let him in.”ANOTHER NOTE: Check out the words of the song composed and performed by Lost and Found, Cling to the Cross, here.