SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER, April 24th, 2022 JOHN 20:19-31
“What if?” It’s a common enough question. It’s a favorite of historians, who look back at important events and speculate how life would be different if that event hadn’t happened. For example, what if Henry VIII had had a son with his first wife? Well, he wouldn’t have wanted to divorce her, so he wouldn’t have had a big fight with the Pope, which means he wouldn’t have broken with the Church of Rome and establish the Church of England, which means there’d be no Episcopal Church in the US, which means right now we’d all be enjoying a lie-in or eating brunch or playing golf. Henry has a lot to answer for.
Scientists also ask, ‘what if?’ questions. Like, “What if there were no moon?” Well, apparently if there were no moon earth days would last just 8-hours, which means you would be three times your age but still look as good as you do now. And more good news is that instead of working nine to five we’d only have to work from 1-3.40. In case you’re warming to the idea of a moonless earth let me tell you that we’d all be living in underground cities because we’d have non-stop winds of 100 miles per hour.
There were probably some ‘what ifs’ being asked in that upper room at the start of this morning’s Gospel reading. It’s now the evening of the Day of the Resurrection. At this moment the Eleven disciples had not met the risen Christ. That honor had been reserved only for Mary Magdalene at this point in John’s Gospel. Peter and John had visited the tomb, had seen it was empty and had run back to tell the others, but they hadn’t actually met the Risen Jesus. Mary, though, stayed at the tomb to mourn, she saw a man she assumed was the gardener; he simply spoke her name, and she realized it was her risen Master. Then she ran back to tell the Eleven. So, the Eleven had not actually met the risen Jesus; and it showed. Because here they are, as the reading begins, locked inside the house where they were staying, out of fear that the religious leaders would find them and harm them.
You can hear the ‘what ifs’ can’t you? “What if I’d not denied knowing him”, thinks Peter. “What if we’d not run away but defended him in the Garden when he was arrested”, some others think. “What if he’d been smarter and not had those conflicts with the religious leaders”, another disciple ponders. “What if we’d just never gone to Jerusalem in the first place, but stayed out in the towns and villages?”, wonders another. But I’m guessing there was also “What if it’s true? What if he really is alive? What if Mary really has met him?” They were confused and bewildered. What just happened, what does it mean, and what now?
But locked doors are nothing when you have a resurrected and transformed body, like the one the risen Jesus now had. And suddenly, in the middle of their trauma, there stands Jesus.
What was the first word you heard this morning? I hope it was a happy word – a greeting from someone you love, a feel-good song on the radio. Or maybe it was a distressing word from a news bulletin, an anxious or angry word from a family member. A word of joy, of gratitude? Or a word of complaint or conflict. The first words you hear set the tone for the day, don’t they? They can get you out of bed with a lightness in your soul, or they can put you in a bad mood. They may provoke such feelings in you that all you want to do is get back into bed and hide under the covers.
So, how reassuring is it to hear Jesus’ first word to the confused and anxious Eleven (actually it is only Ten because Thomas wasn’t there)? Don’t forget – this is the very first word he utters to them since his death and resurrection. It’s this. “Peace”. How great is that? It’s personal, reassuring, intimate, soothing. What more compassionate a greeting can there be than ‘peace be with you’? In fact, ‘peace be with you’ is not just the first thing he says to them, it’s also the second thing he says to them. Maybe they were so freaked out that didn’t hear the first time. Or maybe they needed to hear it twice because Jesus goes on to tell them that he is sending them out to do a job. If Jesus says ‘Peace be with you’ twice there’s probably a good reason to be worried.
Now like going to get a hotdog at the ballpark and missing the only run of the game, Thomas happened to be somewhere else when Jesus appeared that Sunday evening. And we all know his response. History can be cruel, and Thomas’s nickname is harsh. And now, a week later, Jesus shows up again in the same locked room, this time for a special revelation for Thomas. And did you spot how Jesus begins his conversation with him? “Peace be with you.”
Can you see a pattern here? Now, frankly, if I’d been Jesus I might have begun with a different greeting. ‘Hey Thomas – I’m back, stop your doubting.’ But not Jesus. “Peace be with you, Thomas.” I’d have said, ‘How dare you not believe the testimony of your sisters and brothers. Shame on you. From now on you’re going to be called Doubting Thomas for the rest of history, and you deserve it, so suck it up. Now I know you’re going to go to India and establish the Christian Church in South Asia, but people won’t remember you for that – it’s your skepticism you’ll be remembered for.’ But no. “Peace be with you, Thomas.”
Peace. In the New Testament it is ‘eirene’. If there’s someone in your life called ‘Irene’, she bears a noble name, a peaceful name. Eirene or Shalom in the Hebrew Testament is not just the absence of conflict, it is a personal sense of all-round well-being, safety, salvation, fulfilment. You could call it “the silence of the soul”. How’s your soul this morning? Is it noisy in there? Are there concerns and worries shouting for attention and drowning out God‘s voice of love and assurance? Are there hurts and bad memories throbbing in the background to your life, like the hum of a jet engine or the whirr of a fridge? Is the soundtrack to your life “you’re not good enough, no-one loves you, God remembers what you did, your mistakes have ruined your life and you’ll never recover?” Elsewhere, Paul says that this peace “passes all understanding”. It is beyond human comprehension because it can rule hearts that have every reason to worry, every reason to feel guilty, every reason to feel like God does not love them.
It’s the peace of St Julian of Norwich. She lived in England in the 14th century. Now, this was a time of chaos and disaster for the English people – economic hardship, the effects of war, and the Great Plague that killed 60% of the population of Europe. But surrounded by calamitous suffering Julian wrote this, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”. 300 years later a pastor named Martin Rinkart ministered in the plague-ravaged city of Leipzig. In just one year, 1637, he performed 4,000 funerals, including that of his wife. The suffering was so bad that a writer at the time reported that up to forty people could be seen fighting in the street over a dead crow. And yet this Martin Rinkart will forever be remembered for these words, “Now thank we all our God, with hearts and hands and voices. Who wondrous things hath done, in whom his world rejoices… O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us, with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us; and keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed, and free us from all ills in this world and the next.” He wrote number 396 in our hymnal at the height of this disaster. Money, health, and even relationships can’t give that peace.
The peace of Christ – the peace that is beyond understanding and which the world cannot give – doesn’t depend on tranquil circumstances. True serenity is often produced in the middle of turmoil. In just the same way God grows in us patience when we experience testing events, endurance when we suffer, and contentment when we lose things we used to rely on to make us happy. That is God’s infuriating but genius strategy. And so the Risen Christ meets us behind our locked doors, in our turmoil, and he calls us to stop and be still and see him as he is, and speaks his peace to us, and he breathes his Holy Spirit into us.
Sometimes we try to keep God out of our lives. We hide behind locked doors, like the Eleven – afraid of what might happen if we open up the doors of our hearts or minds. But even when we pull down the blinds, board up the windows, lock all the doors and install metal bars, we are not beyond the reach of God. Locked doors are not a problem for the Risen Christ. The poet asks, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”
What if? What if, instead of trying to keep God at arm’s length I accepted the inevitable fact that his love is too big to resist. What if instead of running form God, hiding from God, or placing walls around myself so that God can come so far and no further, I flung open the windows, tore down the doors and welcomed Christ into the very center of my life? What if I invited him to be the priority, and made his kingdom the purpose for why I get up in the morning? What if we, the parish of Paul’s, allowed the truths we sing and recite each Sunday to change our hearts. What if we truly engaged with each other and with God and went forward into uncertain times with the peace of God filling our hearts?
Well, I think we’d notice a difference, and so would our communities. What if. What if we dream, and trust, and encounter the Risen Christ?