This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on June 8, 2014.
A quick glance at many congregations’ prayer life might lead one to think that Christians believe the major goal of life is to get well, to stay well, or to be safe. According to many of our prayers, the goal is to stay out of harm’s way. I imagine that as the disciples sat huddled in that room behind locked doors on that first Easter Sunday (20:19), they offered up similar prayers to ours, “Lord God, keep us safe.” They had reason to pray such prayers. Their leader, Jesus, had been crucified just a few days before. That alone was enough to make them think they might be in danger, too. Now there were other reasons to be afraid. That very morning a handful of the disciples had seen Jesus’ empty tomb. While Mary Magdalene claimed to have seen Jesus alive, the other disciples remain unsure! The talk of resurrection was all about town, and the Jewish leaders were in a huff. They had killed Jesus to quiet the crowds. Now the talk was louder than ever. The disciples could only imagine what the Jewish leaders’ next move would be. Our imaginations often get the best of us. Did the disciples imagine crosses and stonings and all sort of torture and abuse? Is this why the doors were locked and the prayers were fervently offered for safety and deliverance from harm? Notice that the disciples weren’t out looking for Jesus, were they? Their primary concern seemed to be their own necks.
If there is anything the gospel teaches us it is that locked doors are no match for the God who rolls away stones. The story tells us that the resurrected Jesus “came and stood among them” (20:19). The first words out of his mouth to these terrified men and women sought to ease their fear: “Peace be with you!” We should not skip over these words too quickly. It is likely that more than the “fear of the Jewish leaders” gripped these men and women. If Jesus is alive, what does he now think of them? After all, they had all abandoned Jesus. Some had overtly denied him. Maybe the locked doors weren’t to keep the Jewish leaders at bay? “Peace be with you,” Jesus says. And then he shows them his hands. He carries no weapon of judgment or revenge, only the scars on his hands and his side. Relieved, the text informs us that they were overjoyed when they saw the Lord who had come in peace (20:20).
Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t answer their prayers for safety. Though Jesus twice speaks his peace over them, (20:20, 21) the rest of his words reveal that the peace Jesus gives is not the absence of conflict but rather the deepest of assurances in the midst of the harshest of trials. Far from coming to rescue the disciples from danger, Jesus shows up in that locked room in order to unlock the doors and send them into the dangerous world in order that they may carry on his mission of forgiveness and reconciliation: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (20:21). In commissioning them, he filled their lives with a purpose far superior than simply staying safe.
How do Christ’s followers ever get to the point where they can leave the safety of the locked room for the dangerous but abundant life of people on mission for God? We get to that point only through the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. In John’s telling of the story, Jesus breathes on the disciples apparently giving them the Holy Spirit (20:22). This causes some difficulties with the version of events in Luke/Acts. Some scholars view the two versions as incompatible while many others view John’s account as something akin to Jesus’s blessing of disciples in Luke 24:50. The differences should not obscure the main point, it is through the power of God’s Spirit that God’s church carries out God’s mission in the world.
The differences should also not cause us to forget that a few weeks after our story in John 20, some of these same disciples would find themselves in another small room with locked doors. Only, this time, it would be prison doors (Acts 5:17-20). And there they’d pray again. While the Bible doesn’t record the words to their prayer, my guess is they had more to do with getting back to their mission than anything to do with safety. I can imagine Peter holding John’s hand and crying out to God, “God, you promised to send us in the world that we might tell others about your love. There’s nobody in this prison but us. We want to get back to living out our purpose. Please deliver us that we might keep on telling others about you.” The story tells us an angel of the Lord busted them out of jail and sent them right back into the Temple, where they began preaching “the message of this life” (Acts 5:20). What made the difference between their prayers in these two locked rooms? How did they shift from praying for safety to praying for new opportunities to risk everything for Jesus? The Spirit of God had filled their souls.
This passage provides vivid images from which the preacher could draw. The locked doors powerfully represent the temptation to protect oneself from others at the expense of one’s own encounter with the new resurrected works of God. How many churches have installed locks and fences to keep those they fear out? They miss that those locks also keep God’s people in. Jesus never intended for his people to stay inside a safe house. He sends us out just as the Father sent him. If a church encounters the presence of Jesus in worship, the Christ encounter inevitably sends the church out into the world once more to continue Jesus’s mission of redemption.
Pastor, Southland Baptist Church
San Angelo, Texas