Today, Grace Church is participating again in the second annual Doors Open Madison, a city-wide open house that offers the community the opportunity to explore some of Madison’s signature buildings. It’s a great opportunity for us at Grace—free publicity. It’s likely that including today, last Sunday, which was Easter, and services this week that included a funeral and a wedding, we could expect to have 1500 people enter our space in that time.
That does not include the men who stay each night in our homeless shelter, or the families that come to our pantry each week. That’s a lot of people whose lives intersected with this church at the corner of W. Washington and N. Carroll, and evidence of the ways in which our space can help to advance our ministry and mission. We’ve often used photos and images of our open doors in publicity, and I was amused to see that our red doors are featured on the home page of Doors Open Madison.
What we’re doing today is worlds away from the scene depicted at the beginning of today’s gospel reading. It’s the evening of the first Easter, the day Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and the disciples are huddled together behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews.” Again, we have to take note of this gospel’s persistent anti-Judaism, reflective of a later period in the history of this little community of Jesus followers within which and for whom this gospel was written. They were living 60 or 70 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, in a period when Judaism and Christianity were beginning to demarcate clear boundaries between these groups, and their developing claims about who Jesus was, not just that he was the Son of God but that he was equal with God, presented grave challenges to Jewish theology.
So language like “behind locked doors” and “for fear of the Jews” is reflective of the lived experience of this small group of Christians around the end of the first century. Still, it’s quite likely that the disciples gathered in the evening of that first Easter were huddled behind locked doors, and were fearful of what might happen next. Surely, they were more afraid of a crackdown on their movement from the Imperial Roman overlords.
Into this room, the risen Christ suddenly appears. We aren’t told what the disciples’ immediate reaction was upon seeing him. They knew of the empty tomb and that the Risen Christ had appeared to Mary Magdalene, but undoubtedly, they were still processing that information, trying to make ense of it, and likely more than a little skeptical of Mary’s news.
In any case, Jesus greets them with reassurance, “Peace be with you” and shows them his hands and feet. It’s interesting that John emphasizes the presence of the wounds on the body of the Risen Christ. It’s a way of underscoring the continuity between the body of the Jesus who walked among the disciples in Galilee and Judea, and the body of the Risen Christ that stood before them. It was the same person, the same body that stood before them now, even if it was completely transformed.
In this first episode of today’s gospel reading,/ the gospel writer is not primarily interested in the resurrection. He has other business to take care of, too. While the disciples rejoiced at seeing the Risen Christ, Jesus also empowered them and sent them out beyond the locked doors. He gave them power to forgive sins. He also commissioned them, sending them out as he had been sent out. And finally, he gave them the Holy Spirit. This is John’s version of Matthew’s Great Commission and also John’s version of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples.
We don’t know what they did next. We do know that they shared their good news with the one who hadn’t been with them that evening, with Thomas, so we might conclude that they began to share their good news more widely. Thomas hasn’t enjoyed a particularly good reputation in the history of Christianity. He’s come down to us as “Doubting Thomas” as a an example of someone we shouldn’t emulate. He refused to take the disciples’ word for it and demanded, not only to see the risen Christ, but to put his fingers in the wounds. So you have the sort of images as the one reproduced on the cover of our service bulletin, which focuses our attention on the drama and materiality of Thomas’ demand and might not be an image the faint of heart are comfortable viewing.
Let me point out, then, that the gospel makes no reference to Thomas actually following through with his demand to touch Jesus’ wounds, that’s artistic and theological license. Instead, it’s enough for him to see the Risen Christ, as that sight sufficed for the other disciples. But he goes a step further than the other disciples. When he comprehends who is standing before him, he cries out the most extreme and powerful confession of faith expressed anywhere in the gospel: “My Lord and my God!” In an instant, in this instant, he understands everything that Jesus had said earlier in the gospel, things like, “I and the Father are one” or “whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” In the end, he shouldn’t be known as “Doubting Thomas” but as “Believing Thomas” or “Confessing Thomas.”
But there’s one other little detail that distinguishes this second episode, occurring a week after Easter, from the events of Easter evening. The first time, the disciples were gathered behind locked doors for fear of the Jews. This time, the doors aren’t locked, they’re merely shut, and there is no mention of fear. Are we meant to believe that they have overcome their fear, that they have accepted the power and mission given them by the Risen Christ, that they have begun to share their good news with those around them?
I’m reminded of those images of Coptic Christians in Egypt you may have seen over the last weeks. Two weeks ago, Islamic militants attacked Christians in Egypt as they gathered for worship on Palm Sunday. Dozens were killed and wounded in the blasts. But a week later, Christians gathered in those same cities to celebrate Easter. Their fear, and the threat of more attacks did not deter them. In fact, in many places they were joined by Muslims who sought to protect them and express solidarity with them.
We can’t imagine what it is like for Christians in places like Egypt, Syria, or anywhere else where they are a persecuted minority. In spite of increasing secularism here in the US, Christians, even progressive ones like Episcopalians have enormous privilege. We can open our doors to the community without fear of attack or ridicule.
But many of us fear nonetheless. We are reluctant to share our faith with our neighbors or coworkers. We hesitate to proclaim to the world like Thomas, “My Lord and My God!” We worry that if we identify ourselves as Christians, others might lump us in with conservative Christians who reject science or LGBT equality, or equality for women. We must overcome our fear.
Yes, we must open our doors to the city and to the world. We cannot gather behind closed, or locked doors. But we must also go out onto the sidewalks and the streets, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, sharing the love that reconcile, love that forgives sins, sharing the new life we have in the Risen Christ. Let us take advantage of the opportunity we have today but let us also be that people everyday, sent out by the Risen Christ, to share his peace, to forgive sins, to proclaim, My Lord and My God!