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While we have a different reason to fear today than the disciples did locked in that room on the Second Sunday of Easter so long ago, John 20:19-31 speaks to us in a fresh way today that perhaps we may never have appreciated before. Below you will find the Berkeley Springs Presbyterian Church YouTube video as a way to aid you as you worship in your homes this morning or whenever you avail yourself of it. It includes some of the common liturgical elements of an ordinary service of worship for that congregation’s usual Sunday morning worship. I wrote the Prayer of Confession used therein to complement the sermon. I’m scheduled to assist you to worship again on Mother’s Day. But I appreciate that this is not quite the same thing as a worship service. Hopefully it won’t be much longer after that when we will be able to worship together in person without this present fear.

Our passage today is the same Gospel reading that the Lectionary uses every year for the second Sunday of Easter. Indeed, it is a well-known passage even among those who don’t follow the Lectionary. There are few American Christians who have never heard of “Doubting Thomas” who said that he would not believe unless he saw the nail-marks in Jesus’ hands and put his finger into those marks and his hand into Jesus’ side. Thomas was with the rest of the disciples when Jesus came to them again on the Sunday after He rose from the dead. But I’m recording this message today up here in New York State for the congregation of Berkeley Springs Presbyterian Church who like most Americans are largely shut in their homes for fear of the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, there are a few things in this familiar passage that may strike you differently than they ever did before. Now John tells us that the reason the doors were locked that evening of the resurrection of Jesus was that the disciples were afraid of the Jews – meaning the Jewish authorities and their associates. They were afraid because now that Jesus had been crucified, they might be next. We find the same description the next time that Jesus appeared to them. The text says, “Eight days later, his disciples were inside again” and the text mentions the doors being locked again. And both times Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Shalom be with you.” The translation says, “Peace be with you.” But Jesus would’ve used the Hebrew word, “Shalom,” which means more than the negation of conflict signified by the English word “peace.” Shalom is a positive word that includes the ideas of health and wholeness. Thus as you find yourselves inside your homes again this Sunday for fear of COVID-19, I invite you to say “and also with you” whenever you hear me say, “The Shalom or the peace of Christ be with you” (and also with you). But before we do that responsively several more times, hear the word of God.

John 20:19-31

This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

  1. Jesus says, “Shalom be with you” (and also with you).
    1. The disciples had locked the door for fear of persecution but the simple greeting of Jesus not only answered that fear but the one that matters – being afraid of God.
      1. We can easily understand why the disciples felt like they were in danger. From where they were sitting, they had good reason to be afraid of the Jewish authorities. Jesus had kept them from being arrested before, but now that Jesus was gone the authorities might just move against them – especially if they are all gathered together in one place. So they practiced “social distancing” from the Jewish authorities, quarantined themselves together, and they locked the door. I probably would have done the same thing if I were in their shoes. It seems like they took logical precautions. Thus Jesus came and stood among them and said to the troubled and anxious disciples, “Shalom be with you” (and also with you). Jesus was not gone – He still had everything under His control. They had no reason to be afraid of the Jewish authorities and what man could do to them.
      2. But neither did they have a reason to be afraid of God’s judgment and wrath. The death of Jesus brought peace with God. According to Scripture, peace is more than the absence of conflict. True peace comes after the battle has been won. True peace is a positive vision of wholeness and health. Those who belong to Jesus have been reconciled to God through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is highly significant that the risen Jesus was showing them his hands and side – the marks of His crucifixion. The death of Christ does not bring peace without the resurrection and the resurrection would not bring peace without the death of Christ. Thus on the first day of Easter Jesus came and stood among the disciples and twice said – “Shalom be with you” (and also with you). (“Eight days later” (v.26) they were inside again and the doors were locked. The Jewish people counted days inclusively – thus eight days later is the next Sunday. Another reason for stressing that it was “eight days later” is that there were seven days of creation and the eighth day is the day of new creation. Early Christians thought of Sundays as both the first day of the week, as in the first verse of our passage, and as the eighth day of the week because we still live in the old age but the new creation has begun with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. In any case, Jesus again came on the Second Sunday of Easter and stood among them and said to them, “Shalom be with you” (and also with you).)
    2. Jesus still comes to us and tells us, “Shalom be with you” (and also with you). Now He doesn’t come to us today in His resurrection body that could go through the walls of homes with locked doors. If He did that today, He could only be in one place at a time. No, today He comes to each one of you in each of your houses even if your doors are locked by His Spirit speaking in His word: “The peace of Christ be with you” (and also with you). Thankfully we live in a nation where suffering persecution for the sake of Christ’s name is rare. Even so, fears and anxieties abound—especially during this pandemic—and you also figuratively lock the doors to your lives out of fear of man. We Christians are called to be a less anxious presence in the midst of the world today. You may have to stay at home because of the COVID-19 outbreak. But you don’t have to live in fear and completely lock other people out of your lives. We Americans are very private people and we lock other people out of our lives because we are afraid to share our struggles – afraid of what others might think about us. Maybe you did let someone in once and were betrayed so now the safe thing is to stay silent. This is why sharing the gospel with unbelievers is so difficult too, we might share the basic facts about the death and resurrection of Jesus and our future hope but we hesitate to share how God is working in us now. We lock the door.
  2. (But still) Jesus says, “I am sending you” and He equips you for the mission.
    1. Jesus sent out the disciples just as the Father had sent Him, with the Holy Spirit and the keys to the only door that really matters. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (v.21). And when He said this Jesus breathed on them and told them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (v.22). Then He gave them the keys. In Matthew 16:19 Jesus said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Compare that to John 20:23, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any it is withheld.” Jesus gave the disciples in that locked room the Holy Spirit and the keys to the kingdom of heaven – keys to the only door that matters.
    2. And so even when you lock the door today, Jesus says, “I am sending you,” and He equips you for the mission through the Holy Spirit and the church’s ministry.
      1. The Holy Spirit has been poured out on everyone who believes in Jesus. This is the Spirit who empowers you to fulfill your call from God to go make disciples. This is the same Spirit who will give you the words to speak when you do not know what to say. It is worth adding, given our circumstances today, that when Jesus says to go make disciples the “going” is not separate from the making disciples. Here’s a short grammatical lesson: this is a pleonastic use of the verb to go. Jesus isn’t saying that you need to go somewhere—He is adding urgency to the call to make disciples. Thus even if you are unable to leave your homes, you can still “go make disciples.” You don’t have to go somewhere else to make disciples, you are a sent people.
      2. The other aspect of being equipped that Jesus mentions is the keys to the kingdom of heaven. The church still holds these keys – the pronouncement of pardon in a church service actually sets you free. You might lock the door out of fear of man, but you are forgiven and set free to “go” share the good news. And as forgiven people we say, “The peace of Christ be with you” (and also with you). (So Jesus has said “Peace be with you,” (and also with you) and Jesus has commissioned you to the task at hand – “I am sending you” – and Jesus has equipped you for it – “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” But Jesus has another word for you in this passage.)
  3. Jesus blesses you who believe though you have not seen.
    1. Thomas was not just a doubter, his response to the other ten disciples was the response of an unbeliever. First, he was “social distancing” from the other ten disciples on the night of the resurrection. And then they told Thomas that they had seen the Lord, but Thomas shows us that his heart was locked – “Unless I see…I will NEVER believe.” A few short verses later, the longest week of Thomas’ life, Jesus is telling Thomas in that locked room, “Do not disbelieve, but believe.” And Thomas professed his faith, exclaiming, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas believed because he had seen the risen Jesus. Indeed, lest we be too hard on Thomas—all of these disciples believed because they had seen the risen Jesus. Thus Jesus said the beatitude, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
    2. Jesus blesses you for believing. None of us have seen the risen Jesus face to face or had the opportunity to touch His hands or side like the disciples who were eyewitnesses to these things. But Jesus goes through walls, enters locked hearts, says “Peace be with you” (and also with you), tells us, “I am sending you,” gives us His Spirit, and puts us in a local church that can use the keys to set us free. Jesus calls us blessed. Indeed we are. The shalom of Christ be with you (and also with you).

keyword: fear

Bonus points for noticing how this artwork (The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio c.1602) compares to what happened in the Scripture reading…because of a different kind of fear
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