‘The doors were locked for fear of the Jews’. ‘The doors were locked for fear…’
Our gospel narrative today comes from John the evangelist, one of our patron saints, and traditionally identified with the disciple described as the one whom Jesus loved. Two resurrection appearances are described here, and only in John. Firstly, to a group of unspecified disciples and then to Thomas, one of the twelve. In setting down these encounters, the gospel writer addresses those disciples coming after that group huddled in the room with the locked doors – he’s addressing us. He’s offering resurrection hope.
Having doors locked because of fear can be understood metaphorically as well as literally. We sometimes say of someone, ‘They’ve shut down’, or ‘She’s withdrawn into herself’; whoever it is has disappeared behind locked doors. Ian alerted us to a programme about a group of people making a pilgrimage to Rome – a mixed group, not all Christians, and with a variety of feelings about the church, the RC church in particular. They were pretty overwhelmed when they saw St Peter’s square and then the Vatican, but the biggest surprise was being invited to an audience with the pope. We saw them gathered round a table the night before, talking about what they might want to say to him. One pilgrim, an African man who was gay, wanted to express anger and disappointment about how the church treats gay people. Another wanted to make sense of why his mother, a convinced RC, had stopped attending church after having a child out of wedlock as it was described then. For both these men there was something like a locked door in their lives. Part of them wanted it opened, whilst another part seemed fearful of what might happen if they did. It was very moving to see how Pope Francis approached these locked doors. His easy, open manner generated confidence in his willingness to listen, so both men felt able to speak. In replying to the African pilgrim Francis, speaking slowly and clearly, said that gay was an adjective and that the most important word was the noun, ‘man’. That came with an unassailable dignity conferred on us by God, a dignity that cannot be erased by an adjective. We saw the man visibly moved. A door was unlocked.
I suspect that those friends of Jesus had been applying adjectives to themselves, like cowardly, failed, useless, disloyal, etc – all true, given how they had all abandoned Jesus in his hour of need. And here they are, hiding away behind locked doors, and suddenly faced with the person they had let down. Perhaps, too, they felt that he had let them down (?). After all, they’d been expecting to sit on 12 thrones ruling the 12 tribes of Israel in Jesus’ new kingdom and here they were huddled together in a room somewhere in Jerusalem. Jesus immediately restores relationship by addressing them as his friends, not only by a greeting of peace, but also by reminding them that they are still one with him and can therefore continue his mission, one that is even more clearly seen in this encounter as being about forgiveness and acceptance, both key gifts that a church offers to others. Also key gifts on offer to us and of which we are reminded during this season of resurrection. As has been said many times before, we can only pass on to others what we have received ourselves.
We all have some locked door in our lives and one of the challenges of following Christ is that he seeks access to all the spaces in our lives. If our life was like a house with lots of rooms, he’d like to be at home in all of them, whilst we prefer to keep some of them locked away perhaps because we fear they might not be acceptable, or because it’s too painful for us to look inside that particular room…or, well, for hosts of other reasons. Sometimes our locked doors are corporate, not only individual; but in a community, or nationally. Perhaps the difficulty we have in responding to climate change or the build up of plastic in our oceans is an example of that.
Jesus doesn’t force open locked doors, but what seems to happen is rather what I saw in a more speeded up version of the process as Pope Francis interacted with the pilgrims; As we become more drawn towards Christ in our discipleship, we realise more and more that he comes to us in peace, accepting us as we are, rather than passing judgement or condemning us. Then we may hesitantly turn the key in the lock.
Forgiveness and acceptance unlock many doors. The pilgrim’s mother who’d had a child out of wedlock had not experienced this in her dealings with the church. She had felt judged, condemned, not welcome. We exchange what we call the peace every time we celebrate the Eucharist, to remind us of the invitation to forgive and accept one another. At the very end of the Eucharist we, like those disciples in our gospel narrative, are sent out. Locked doors or not, we have to get out there to offer to others what we have received ourselves. Regardless of our failures, fears, flakiness and all those other things we are still Christ’s disciples and we are on a mission.
The second appearance, this time including Thomas, highlights something different. For Thomas a locked door, was definitely locked. He was not a bluebell woods kind of person. More a nuts and bolts kind of man. So Jesus offers him a nuts and bolts kind of encounter. ‘Touch me’, he says. ‘I am real. Not simply a figment of someone’s airy fairy imagination’. Now, we can’t do that in the same way. We know that Christ will not be appearing this morning in the way he did in the weeks immediately following his crucifixion. Those appearances stopped and those early Christians understood that as meaning that Jesus had now rejoined the Father. He was no longer limited by his humanity. He had ascended – the next festival we celebrate in church is the Ascension. So that means that, unlike Thomas, we can’t actually touch Jesus. Or can we? Surely Jesus anticipated this need of ours to experience physical closeness to him when he shared that last meal with his friends and said of the bread and wine, ‘This is my body and my blood’? We have our own individual and corporate resurrection appearance each time we share Communion. We are invited to touch him, but more than that, to absorb into our lives his death and resurrection, so that his death becomes our death, his resurrection, our resurrection. It’s not imaginary. We touch it with the bread and taste it with the wine. We can say with Thomas, ‘My Lord and my God’. The locked doors in our lives can open.
Image – Nathan Simpson, “Large Resurrection,” 1999.