John 20:1-31 â€“ Second Sunday of Easter â€“ for Sunday, April 23, 2017
â€œJesus replied, â€˜Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who donâ€™t see and yet believe.â€™â€ (John 20:29)
The Sunday after Easter will dawn. Itâ€™s quieter in the sanctuary. Most of the smiling strangers that crowded through the doors last week won’t return. You hadnâ€™t seen some since Christmas; some youâ€™d never seen.
Folded, wrinkled orders of worship touting the resurrection are tucked in the back of the pews. Last week, the ushers that usually tidied up after the service had hurried home for ham dinners or family picnics. The sanctuary looks a bit shabby.
Many of the store-bought lilies that had surrounded the altar like a flowery White Cliffs of Dover were gone. Volunteers had scooped up the plants and taken them to the churchâ€™s shut-ins. But a few lilies remained, shoved in the corners of the chancel area. Leaves drooped. The once bright ivory petals were streaked with brown. The custodian forgot to chuck them in the garbage bin.
Banners honoring Lentâ€™s journey and the hubbub of Holy Week billowed from the ceilings. If examined closely, odd twists of wires and duct tape kept them attached to the beams. One banner, which had hung during Easter for decadesâ€”though none recalled who made itâ€”was missing a consonant in its gold-lettered The Lamb of God. There was an outline of the â€œbâ€ in Lamb where the alphabetâ€™s second letter had once been attached. Each year, someone vowed to fix it, and each year it was stored before the promise was kept.
The preacher knew the banner should be retired. But it was comforting and familiar, like a beloved great aunt, andâ€”truth be toldâ€”its width fit the space perfectly.
And so each year it seemed to say, The Lam of God.
If God wasnâ€™t on the lam, most worshippers had certainly skedaddled after the Alleluia benediction was sung last Sunday.
Now, early on the Sunday after Easter, the preacher waited in the still, silent sanctuary. Every next Sunday arrived so quickly, as if a week had two or three days instead of seven.
The room felt so empty. The preacher sighed.
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According to Scripture, how many rooms did Jesus visit?
- A cave with a manger.
- Joseph and Maryâ€™s home (or homes).
- Peterâ€™s home.
- Mary and Marthaâ€™s home.
- Had he met with Nicodemus in a room?
- Though not described, Jesus dined at Zacchaeusâ€™ house.
- A rich man had a dinner party and invited Jesus.
- There must have been a rented room or a borrowed hovel in Capernaum, where much of Jesusâ€™ ministry was centered.
- He was chased from a synagogue . . . and probably more than one! (Jesus surely had bruises from other tough Friday nights.)
- He hung around the Temple in Jerusalem as a youth and adult. As a man, he could at least venture inside.
- There was the famous â€œupper room.â€ You can see that space in da Vinciâ€™s painting. Did it only have three walls?
- The Jewish authorities, and later Pilate and his minions, certainly dragged Jesus through several grim rooms for the questioning that lead to the torture that led to the cross.
What rooms did I forget?
Were they hiding? Were they fearful? Why else would the doors be shut and secured?
Behind those doors, in that room, the ragtag disciples huddled together. They may or may not have been waiting for Jesus, but he appeared anyway. Judas, of course, was permanently absent because of his deceit and demise. Thomas was also missing, though no reasons were offered.
Cowardly or cautious or courageous Thomas (depending on the role the preacher needs him to play in this Sundayâ€™s sermon) later declared his lack of belief if he didnâ€™t see Jesus.
There would be, in the four Gospels’ various and varied tales, one final room with Jesus: a greasy spoon in Emmaus where the writer of Luke told about two followers glimpsing the risen Christ. Their hearts were strangely warmed by his presence, but then he vanished, and they scurried back to Jerusalem.
But thatâ€™s next weekâ€™s story.
And so letâ€™s return to this week and the second to last room with Jesus: After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them . . .
In that house, Thomas finally saw and finally believed.
We will see Thomas no more.
Soon, all the disciples, those present neâ€™er-do-wells and future saints, will be on their own.
What was it like to be the last one out of that room where Thomas finally got the message?
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I picture Jesus as mostly an outdoorsy type. He admired the lilies of the field and observed birds swooping and soaring. He witnessed grain growing and shepherds herding flocks. While fields were plowed, Jesus noted how the farmer wisely kept his eyes on the ground in front and on the future. I relish the outdoor setting of the baptism by John and the windswept mount (or the plain, if you prefer Luke) where that sermon with its beatitudes and blessings was delivered.
The transfiguration was literally a peak experience. The Garden of Gethsemane was not in a greenhouse setting. Yes, throughout his ministry, Jesus strode across wild and wide-open places.
And yet Jesus occupied all those rooms.
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Whether faithful, or barely faithful, todayâ€™s folks enter the sanctuaries seeking the truth. They are like doubtful Thomas and garrulous Peter; some are brave and most are not. They walk through the churchâ€™s doors for spiritual nourishment, or to get out of the rain, or to set a good example for the kids.
Soon they’ll arrive, fewer in number, on this Sunday after Easter: waiting, wondering, wanting.
And Jesus, nearly gone, in a nearly last room, will say to the disciples of long ago and to those filled with longing today, Peace be with you.
And then Jesus leaves. And yet not.
Is there room for Christ in my life? In your life? Such a hurting world this is. We are the walking wounded, too often only disciples when itâ€™s convenient. Jesus couldâ€™ve said, given the miserable state of things, Pieces be with you. Whether living in the first or twenty-first centuries, we are fractured and fractious, with our hearts like closed doors and fear filling our souls. Is there any room left for love?
Again I read this Gospel, about this room where not even a locked door could keep Jesus out. Or in.
What will the preacher preach? The banner with the missing letter billows overhead. The lilies droop and wilt. The pews, at best, will soon be half empty.
The believers who doubt are waiting; the doubters who believe are waiting. Always, it is the Sunday after Easter . . .