Last week in our Easter Sermon, I looked at the fact that the Resurrection is a bit of a mystery. Not all of the facts of the Easter stories line up across the four gospels.
I should just add a correction to last week's sermon. I said that in John’s version, there were no angels. But in re-reading the story on Monday morning, I was reminded that two angels do appear in the story. Unlike the other gospels, where a group of women are met by angels outside the tomb, in John’s Gospel, it is when Mary Magdalene looks into the tomb, she sees two angels dressed in white, one at the head and one at the foot where Jesus body had been.
But that correction from last week doesn’t change the essential thrust of the sermon that the stories don’t all neatly line up. There are anomalies, discrepancies and even one could say some contradictions. It is difficult to know exactly what the facts were. Instead, what we are left with are stories. And stories are often more powerful than facts. Stories move us, inspire us, challenge us, and not just factual stories. How many of you have felt moved, challenged or inspired watching a movie that may have been a work of fiction. Even works of fiction can inspire, move and challenge because they point to a deeper truth about ourselves, or life, or relationships.
The Resurrection Stories don’t all line up. Perhaps their purpose was not primarily giving accurate facts about the Resurrection, but perhaps their true purpose, in the minds of those who were writing them, was about communicating the experience of the Resurrection, and inviting us to enter into the story of Resurrection ourselves. Their purpose was for resurrection to become the dominant story-line and direction of our lives rather than the story line of crucifixion.
A few years ago, Wendy and I were waiting at the Johannesburg International Airport, getting ready for a flight. In the bookshop there was an interesting book. It was a book that invited its readers to write their own biography. And in doing so to write the story as though you are the hero who triumphs over untold odds.
It is an interesting concept, because often the way we live the story-line of our lives is one of defeat. But this book suggested that it is possible to take the same time-line of your life, the same facts and events of your life and interpret them in a completely different way, and to see yourself instead as a hero who has courageously triumphed over a great many struggles, challenges and obstacles to where you find yourself today.
Perhaps the purpose of the Resurrection stories in the Gospel is to invite us to catch a glimpse of the experience of Resurrection. And in glimpsing the experience of Resurrection to read the story lines of our own lives of struggle and difficulty in light of Resurrection and in doing so, to become Resurrection people rather than defeated crucifixion people.
Isn’t interesting that in Mark’s Gospel when the young man dressed in white speaks to the women who have come to the tomb, he says to the women: “You are looking for Jesus… He is not here, he is Risen.” Isn’t it interesting that he doesn’t say: “He has Risen”. Is it possible that what the author of Mark’s Gospel is trying to say is that Resurrection is not primarily about something that happened in the past. Resurrection is something that we are all invited to enter into in the present.
And so today as we explore John 20:19-31, like the Native American Story Tellers when they told their tribes creation stories I would say: I don’t know if it happened exactly like this, but I know this story is true. There is a truth about Resurrection contained in this story that we are invited to enter into in the present.
Firstly by way of background, we have two evening encounters with the Risen Christ in John’s Gospel. The first takes place on the evening of the day of Resurrection. The second a week later. In both encounters, it appears that the disciples are stuck. While Jesus has been liberated from the tomb and is now on the loose, the disciples have retreated behind locked doors. They have retreated into a kind of tomb of their own making. For Jesus the tomb is empty. For the disciples, outwardly they have retreated into the tomb of a locked room. Inwardly their hearts and minds are locked in the tomb of fear.
We read in verse 19: “In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Judeans.”
It makes me think of those powerful words of Neale Donald Walsh who writes: Fear is the energy which contracts, closes down, draws in, runs, hides, hoards, harms. Love is the energy which expands, opens up, sends out, stays, reveals, shares, heals.
While Jesus is living in the story-line of resurrection love that expands, opens up, sends out, reveals, shares and heals, the disciples are still living in the crucifixion story of fear, a fear that has caused them to contract, close down and hide. For Jesus the tomb is empty. For the disciples, they are stuck behind locked doors. They have not believed Mary Magdalene’s words of faith, hope and love, that the Saviour is risen.
But isn’t it fascinating that according to John’s timeline a week later, they are still stuck behind the same closed doors? Hang on a moment? Don’t we read that on the first day of the week, while they were locked behind closed doors for fear of the Jews, the Risen Jesus had stood among them, greeted them with peace, breathed his spirit upon them and commissioned them out with the words “As the father sent me so I am sending you?” Don’t we read that the disciples were filled with joy at seeing the Lord? And yet a week later we find them in exactly the same place they were a week before, still stuck behind closed doors.
Michael Marsh writes that when he was younger and when he read this story, it was with a sense of frustration. He was frustrated by the stuck disciples. Why weren’t they living with boldness and courage in the light of the Resurrection? Why had the Resurrection made no difference in their lives?
He writes looking back at his younger self and realises that beneath his frustration directed towards the disciples was in fact a deeper frustration at his own life. A frustration borne of the fact that he was stuck. Why was he still stuck? Why was he not living the resurrection life of joy, courage and boldness. Why was he still living a life of fear that was holding him back? Why had the Resurrection made no difference in his life?
Perhaps what the story reveals he suggests, is that the resurrection story line is not a once off event, something that happens to us in a moment and then all our problems disappear. Perhaps what this story points to is that Resurrection is a process. Even though, for the disciples, the story of resurrection begins with them gripped in fear and locked behind closed doors, the story doesn’t end there. They do eventually move beyond the closed doors. If you find yourself behind closed doors and you feel like you are stuck, remember, the resurrection story is a process. It doesn’t matter where you begin. What matters is what direction you’re pointing in.
For Thomas too, Resurrection is a process. For Thomas, Resurrection begins in disbelief. Not just ordinary disbelief, but a refusal to believe. When people speak of Thomas the first thing that comes to mind is Thomas the Doubter. He has been labelled by history as the one who doubted. But the story suggests that in fact he was not the only doubter. The fact that the rest of the disciples were still stuck behind the same closed doors a week later, suggests that they too were stuck in a doubt even after meeting the Risen Christ.
Thomas’s story of Resurrection begins in doubt, but it doesn’t end there. History tells us that Thomas the doubter was later to become Thomas the great missionary and confessor. History tells us that Thomas became the earliest missionary to India, where the Mar Thoma Orthodox Church founded in 52 A.D. still bears his name to this day. Tradition also tells us that the once doubting Thomas died as a martyr when he was run through with five spears by five soldiers. As Michael Marsh writes: That doesn’t sound much like a doubter, does it? It sounds like someone who grew and changed, someone for whom the resurrection of Christ was real, someone for whom the story of the empty tomb made a difference. It just took a little time, as it does for most, maybe all of us.
As Michael Marsh goes on he asks: “What is your starting point? Whatever your life is today, that is your starting point. If you’re dealing with deep loneliness, sorrow and loss, that’s your starting point. That is the room that the Risen Christ enters. If you are locked in a house of fear, confusion, or darkness, that’s your starting point and the place where Jesus stands. If illness, old age, disability or uncertainty are the facts of your life, thats your starting point and the place in which Jesus shows up. If you feel lost, betrayed, disappointed, overwhelmed, that’s your starting point and the house that Jesus enters. If, joy, gratitude, and celebration are the facts of your life today, that’s the starting point for your story of resurrection. Whatever it might be for you, it is just the starting point.”
Michael Marsh concludes: “The great tragedy is not that the disciples are in the same house behind the same locked doors. That’s just their starting place. The great tragedy will be if the disciples refuse to unlock the doors, refuse to open the doors, and refuse to get out the house.” Amen.