Sermon from April 8, 2018

Through the Locked Door
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
April 8, 2018   Second Sunday of Easter
Psalm 133; Acts 4:32-35; John 20:19-31

The room was crowded and hot.  The windows were shuttered, the door bolted.  Oil lamps flickered.  The scent of human sweat and fear tainted the stagnant air.  Some people were quietly weeping.  Some sat in silence, a look of devastation on their faces.  People spoke in the shadowed corners in low, urgent tones, arguing or looking wildly hopeful and nodding insistently.  The room felt tense, as if a thunderstorm was approaching.

Their wise and holy teacher, a powerful but gentle and loving young man, had just been publicly humiliated, tortured and executed.  All of the men in the room had deserted him when he was arrested, their spokesman had denied him three times and their treasurer had betrayed him and committed suicide.  Now one of the leading women claimed to have seen their teacher alive, and two of the men had confirmed her story of an empty tomb.

They were all expecting a terrifying pound on the door when the authorities came to round them up and torture and execute them, too.  If one of their most trusted leaders could betray their teacher, then anyone might betray the rest of them.  They kept glancing nervously in the direction of the door, but no one had seen it open when suddenly Jesus was standing among them.

Imagine the explosion of emotions. 

Terror that they were seeing a ghost, doubt that they could believe their eyes, shock at the impossibility of him rising from the dead and coming through the locked door and being with them again.

He said, “Peace be with you,” but they were incapable of peace.  He showed them where the nails had punctured his hands and where the spear had pierced his side, and only then were they able to let go of doubt and fear and feel exultant joy.  Jesus repeated, “Peace be with you,” and they began to understand that he was not back to be the Messiah they expected.

Jesus was there for liberation, lifting people out of political and economic oppression, but not by overthrowing the government with an armed rebellion.

He was there to free them from their fear, to free them from the path of violence, to free them and send them out into the world to do what he had done the way he had done it.

He sent them to lead others to healing and peace and to recruit others to join the struggle to establish God’s realm on earth.  He formed them into the first church, breathing the Holy Spirit into them.  He empowered them to organize themselves using forgiveness as a tool for holding the community together.

Jesus came through the locked door and it changed everything from the inside out.  He did not change the outside world first—he did not make it safe to unlock the door.  He came into the place where they were guarded, where they had retreated, and he changed things inside that innermost room.

The authorities were still after them, but they unlocked the door and went out because now they were at peace with whatever would come.  They had a joy and a love and a mission that they were bursting to share.  The Holy Spirit was alive in them, resurrection power was alive in them as a force of nature, and they were no longer stopped by the threat of pain or failure or death.

The good news is that Jesus is still coming through whatever is blocking us from experiencing God’s peace and joy and love.  Jesus comes through doors locked by conflict, by guilt, by doubt, by grief, by fear, by rage.  He comes through the scars of old wounds.  He comes into our prisons of addiction or compulsion.  Christ comes and says “Peace be with you,” and sends us back out through those doors with gifts to share.

I imagine many of us could witness to the truth of this.  Many of us have experienced it ourselves or have seen someone become miraculously resurrected to live anew.  Therapists, mediators, 12 Step Groups, grief support groups and of course churches exist to help liberate people locked in oppressive rooms.

It can happen to whole nations.  Bishop Desmond Tutu’s book, No Future Without Forgiveness, describes how South Africa emerged from the locked prison cell of apartheid.  On April 28th we will watch the film Invictus that shows that miraculous transformation happening from the inside out.

Apartheid ended because of a change that began inside people that enabled them then to change their behavior, to forgive and heal and be reconciled.  The transformation took a long time, and it evolved through much hateful violence and suffering.

Nelson Mandela led and embodied that change.  He spoke in court at his sentencing at age 46, knowing that the penalty for what he had done to resist the oppressive apartheid regime was death.  He gave an eloquent, calm defense, fully expecting the death sentence.  He ended it saying,

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Mandela did not receive the death sentence because the judge did not want to make a martyr of him.  He sentenced him to life in prison.  Mandela was taken to Robben Island by plane along with others who were sentenced with him.  The guards threatened, kicked and beat the prisoners with their rifle butts to force them to run scared across the tarmac.

Nelson Mandela refused to run.  He walked, head held high, taking the blows with dignity.

He did not always feel peace in prison, he struggled, he came close to despair, but he grew through suffering to a deeper spiritual state and a higher developmental stage.  In the end, at age 73, he was able to forgive and embrace as one the people who oppressed his nation and robbed him of 27 years of his life.  He was their prisoner, but he was free.  He suffered their violence, but he had a core of peace they could not reach.

Saint Seraphim of Sarov said, “Have peace in yourself and thousands will find salvation around you.”  Mandela’s inner freedom and peace saved millions of blacks and whites.

Imagine a church filled with that power.  Imagine what it could do to change the world around it.  That is what Jesus came to set in motion.  As G.K. Chesterton said, “It is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried.”  And yet as we heard in the reading from Acts, Christ’s way was tried by the first church with amazing results.  The Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Martin Luther King Jr. tried it, too, and their inner liberation led to all the outer liberation gained by the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement.

Jesus still comes through our locked doors and offers us peace and power, but we need to be receptive and willing to go where the Spirit sends us.  Bill Coffin used to say that courage is the first Christian virtue because it makes all the other virtues possible.  All hope is lost if we stay locked inside our fear and doubt, refusing to see Jesus standing beside us offering to set us free.

Bishop Tutu describes the joy that millions of South Africans felt when the day finally came that they were allowed to vote for the first time, the day they elected Nelson Mandela to be their President.  Tutu could not restrain himself from shouting “yippee” as he cast his ballot.  He joined the dancing in the street.

That joyous transformation is always coming.  Resurrection is always approaching.  Jesus is always on his way, whenever we find ourselves needing him to come through the locked door to set us free as individuals, as a church or as a world.

God has work for us to do.  Christ wants to send us out to use our unique gifts to fulfill our calling and our dream.

Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will give us peace in the midst of struggle, and grant courage for the mission God has in store for us, and fill us with a love that we are bursting to share.  Let us pray in silence that we may feel that Easter joy in our lives and in our church…


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