Unlocked Doors

A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

Year B – 15 April 2012

David Hathaway Knight, Priest Associate

In the Name of God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear …., Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again,’ Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

 On this Second Sunday of Easter, it is important to remember that last Sunday, the Sunday of the Resurrection, was only the beginning of the seven weeks, the great fifty days of the Easter season. We refer to these Sundays not as the Sundays after Easter, but rather the Sundays of Easter. For these fifty days the emphasis of our worship centers upon what it means to be a community that is shaped by the death and resurrection of Jesus. For these fifty days our focus is on the reality of life that is victorious over death. All too often in our culture, we think of Easter as what we celebrated last Sunday alone, and then all is back to the way it was, but not so. But even on that first Easter Day, the impact of Jesus’ resurrection upon the disciples could not be sustained even until that night, or until the following week. In today’s gospel reading we find the disciples huddled in fear behind doors that they had closed and locked. We remember that only that morning they had heard from the women who had discovered the stone rolled away from the entrance to the tomb that was now empty, but it had not sunk in and still they were in fear. That first Easter hardly sounds like the brass, the drums, the organ and voices that broke out last Sunday across the landscape of Christianity in joyful “Alleluias!” for the lives of the disciples were attended by doubt and uncertainty.  Like the disciples, for most of us in one way or another, our lives so often are also attended by doubt and uncertainty. We live each day wanting to have hope. We want to walk as children of light, but the path ahead for us is often unclear. We, like the women at the empty tomb, and like the disciples, have our doubts and our fears.

 In last week’s sermon, you recall that John spoke of the stone that in the Gospel was rolled away from the entrance to the empty tomb. He then spoke of the stones in our lives that are rolled away, stones, he said, that imprison, stones that limit our freedom, stones that entomb, blocking out light and life. Some things, he reminded us, are just too big and weigh too much for us to move by ourselves. It is in the presence of these huge stones, that the risen Jesus meets us just as he met the women at the empty tomb, and how he removes our fear, just as he removed their fear. When he meets us, and when he removes those heavy stones, you and I can experience how light and life can dawn upon us and we can have glimpses of hope once again.

 In this week’s gospel, we see that even the locked doors could not and did not keep Jesus out. When he came and stood among them they heard his familiar voice and that greeting they had heard so often when he said to them, “Peace be with you.” They could not wait to tell Thomas who was not with them that first night. But then, yet a week later we find them still huddled in that same room. It all still had not sunk in. The gospel does not say that the doors were locked; why, we can only guess, but Jesus appeared again and this time Thomas was there. Jesus, sensing his doubt, reached out to him with compassion and met him where he was in his journey of doubt. What Jesus did empowered Thomas to believe once again. Thomas, with great relief exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” His faith and we can only imagine, his hope, returned.

 It is the power of the risen Lord that removes heavy stones from our path and lights our way forward once again. It is the power of the risen Lord that comes to us even when we are locked behind the doors of doubt and grief and despair.

It is power of the risen Lord who comes to us even at times we least expect, times when most we need to have hope once again.

 As I was thinking once again about how Jesus appeared to his disciples, and especially to Thomas behind those locked doors, and how he gave them hope, what came to me was something that has been etched forever in my memory. It is a conversation I had with our oldest son, David, some years ago in which he told me about something that happened to him in the weeks after his brother Jamie had been killed. I asked David if I could share with you this morning the experience he had. He said I could. At the time, David was working as a teacher at the Grafton School in Maryland. He had been working out of another Grafton office here in Chesterfield while spending time down in Richmond. It was during those days in 1997 when he lived virtually every waking hour in despair over the loss of his brother. I think we often do not fully comprehend the devastation that a sibling experiences upon the death of a brother or sister. He told me that on that day after leaving the office in Chesterfield he was beginning his drive home and feeling very low, wondering, even, if he could go on. He was approaching a bridge about to cross the James. There was still afternoon sunlight, yet he was in the deepest and darkest of despair. As he began to drive across the bridge, he suddenly became acutely aware of something he had not felt since his brother died. It was, as he was later able to realize upon reflection, the dawning of a realization. It was the realization that he could either live the rest of his life in despair and bitterness, or, he could go on trying to live again knowing full well that life would forever be changed, but that it would be possible somehow to go on. As that realization began to dawn upon him, did his grief leave? No, of course not. Did his bitterness leave? No, not immediately, but later and in time, it would. But what did happen at that moment on the bridge as he was crossing the James River, was that he began to have a glimpse, if only a glimpse, of hope for the very first time. It was as if that stone blocking his path was beginning to move aside. It was as if living behind a locked door in despair, that door was beginning to open a bit ever so slightly and he could see a ray of light ahead along his path once again. It would be a long journey and continues to be for him, yet something happened that afternoon crossing that bridge over which he probably had little or no control. What happened crossing the bridge over the James was the dawning of hope.  To this day he remembers that bridge crossing as one of the turning points in his journey. It was a gift to David. Was that not the power of the risen Lord who came to him as it did to the women at the empty tomb and to the disciples in that room behind locked doors? Was that not the power of the risen Lord who comes to you and to me in our despair and in our doubts? Was that not the power of the risen Lord that lights our way once again and, most of all that gives us a ray of hope we need on order to live again?

 In the gospel, we see yet another dimension of the power of the risen Jesus. We note that it is in the company of  the other disciples that Jesus meets Thomas in his grief. When Jesus appears behind the closed doors once again Thomas is surrounded by his friends. Surrounded by them he is uplifted and given hope once again. That experience gives testimony to the fact that when we are surrounded by love and support, we can experience hope once again. I remember once reading what William Sloane Coffin, the famous preacher, chaplain at Yale, and then Senior Minister at the famous Riverside Church in New York City once told about what happened to him on a Sunday morning. It was some time after his son Alex had died in a car crash. Even as a preacher, his struggles were no different from the struggles of others. At one point in his despair he found that the ancient words of the Creed confirming the beliefs of Christians throughout the ages had become for him difficult to recite.  Somehow they had become so remote after his son’s death. He would find himself standing there before his huge congregation with the words sticking in his throat. For some weeks this is how it was. Then, one Sunday, something happened. As he stood there with the words caught in his throat, suddenly he became aware of several hundred voices in unison saying the ancient words, words such as “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven…” and then he heard the words, “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. As he heard those voices around him, began to have the powerful sense that he was being uplifted by those around him. These words he had so long spoken and believed, but that, in his despair had lost their power, once again came alive as he stood there in the presence of others who believed and who also loved and were supporting him. He would once again be able to recite these words himself. That moment for William Sloane Coffin was a gift. Was that not the power of the risen Lord moving the stone in his path to hope, unlocking the door that was keeping him in despair? Was that not the power of the risen Lord bringing yet some light to the path before him?

 Each of you has your own stories to tell. Has not the power of the risen Lord at some time moved a stone that was in your path” Has not the power of the risen Lord come and stood in your midst and said to you, “Peace be with you?” The truth of it all is that the power of the risen Lord is a reality. The risen Jesus brings to each of us, and to those we love, and to the world, hope in the midst of all that life brings. The risen Jesus lights the path that lies before us as we heard in the First Letter of John a few moments ago.

 There is that powerful service, the Great Vigil of Easter, which in many places is the first service celebrated at the beginning of the Great Fifty Days of Easter. As the Easter fire is lighted and the procession enters the dark church, the cantor sings three times, “The light of Christ.” And the people respond by singing, “Thanks be to God.” Then follow the words contained in what is called the Exsultet, words that ring out in the darkness, “This is the night when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave… How holy is this night, when wickedness is put to flight and sin is washed away. It restores innocence to the fallen and joy to those who mourn…” How Holy is this night. Then Easter breaks and the Easter hymns resound in great joy as the First Eucharist of Easter is then celebrated.

 It is in that spirit that we celebrate the power of the risen Lord during these Great Fifty Days of Easter. It is the light of the risen Christ that illuminates our path and gives us hope once again, for as in the words of the hymn we sang a few moments ago,

              In him there is no darkness at all.
             The night and the day are both alike.
            The Lamb is the light of the city of God. 
            Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.

It is appropriate that in this Easter season today that we celebrate the sacrament of Baptism of James Russell Parker, V and Noah Charles Perry Greenbaum, Jr., for through the Paschal mystery we and they, their sisters and their families, and all of us, are buried with Christ by Baptism into his death, and raised with him to the newness of life. May they be filled with your holy and life-giving Spirit.

 May this Easter season for you be a time of blessing. Let us all find hope in that love which never dies, and may we find peace in the grace that is around us,  and always will be. Amen.