Preached by Rev. George Yando on April 8, 2018.
Acts 4: 32-35
1 John 1: 1-2: 2
John 20: 19-31
Life On Lockdown
It’s a pleasure to see as many folks here this morning as are present, especially those of you who are visitors. Let’s begin by acknowledging how remarkable that truly is.
For those of you who are regulars here at St. Andrew’s and who responded to the invitation to “Bring A Friend” to church with you this morning, you are to be commended for your initiative. It may not have seemed like a big deal to many of you, but for some, there was felt to be an element of risk: the fear about how you might handle the potential embarrassment at asking a friend or neighbour to come as your guest to church this morning, only to have them awkwardly refuse, coupled with the concern for how that might then affect your friendship. On the other hand, some of you may be feeling a little sheepish because some of your friends here invited a guest and you didn’t.
And for those of you who are visitors, perhaps for the first time here at St. Andrew’s there may be some apprehension about what might happen this morning: what kind of reception you might receive, the general unease that often accompanies a new situation.
Regardless, for many of you, those who are visitors, and those who invited others to come with them to church this morning, the fact that you did invite someone, or the fact that as the invited one, you actually said, “Yes” and then actually showed up, the fact that that happened represents a new move on your part. You’ve done something different this morning, either by bringing a friend, or by coming as a friend.
Again, it may seem like I’m making a lot of a little, and perhaps for some of you, I am. For some, this is no big deal. For others, it is. How big a deal it is for you may well be a reflection of how much of a big deal you make of making changes of anysort in your life, how you respond to new opportunities, to changing circumstances.
The fact is, we live in a world that is changing rapidly all around us. Some of us are more flexible and more courageous when it comes to embracing change and the opportunity to move in new directions and try new things, while others are perhaps more fearful and less willing to be open to new possibilities and changing circumstances.
In the Gospel lesson we read this morning, the atmosphere in the upper room where the disciples of Jesus gathered following his arrest and trial and crucifixion, was one of fear. John tells us the disciples of Jesus had gathered behind locked doors in fear.
While Jesus was with them, his disciples had showed a measure of fortitude and flexibility. They had demonstrated often how – while they didn’t quite get it, they were at least willing to try.
When Jesus departed, however, fear took over. Except for a handful who ventured to the tomb, most of the disciples went into hiding. They locked the doors.
So when Jesus breached those doors, there were two reactions. Those present were glad when they recognized Jesus, and rejoiced at the reality of the resurrection. Thomas’ instinct was to lock another door. More about that later.
Let’s come back to the disciples who were present and let’s talk about their fear. Their situation had changed, dramatically and rapidly. Just a week earlier they had arrived in Jerusalem on the heels of their leader as he rode into the city on a donkey, to the shouts and adulation of the crowd, welcoming him as Messiah. They thought he had come to establish his reign, to overthrow Herod, drive out the Romans, and usher in a kingdom that would rival or surpass the grandeur and glory of the kingdom in the days of David. Then, in a matter of days, it all turned to dust. It fell apart, their dreams shattered, their leader and teacher crucified.
Peter no doubt recounted for the others what was for him a narrow brush with death; Peter had faced the real prospect that he too would have followed his Lord to a similar death, but for his denial. The possibility that they were still in danger was paralysing.
Fear is a powerful emotion, a strong influencer of action. We all know of the galvanizing effect that fear can have upon the human body, the flight or fight response to sudden danger. Neural experts tell us that in response to certain stimuli, the brain reacts in milliseconds, a few thousandths of a second, signalling the dumping of adrenalin into the blood stream, the dilation of blood vessels, the rapid increase in oxygenation of the blood so as to ready the body to react to danger, whether that danger is real or perceived. Afterward, the body continues to shake and tremble in response to that inundation of chemicals, before that surge of stimulants eventually washes out of the body and the body is allowed to return to its normal state. Fear can be a powerful stimulus for action.
But equally, fear can have a paralysing influence. And the power of that fear is equally overwhelming. Fear of a manifest enemy, whatever shape or form that might take; fear of the unknown; fear of movement or of change; fear of failure or of success; fear of strangers and confrontation; fear of loneliness and isolation; fear of the possibility of harm or of death. In our fears, we often seek to hide out from that which feeds our fears: we lock one door after another as a means of erecting barriers of protection; we pile up layers of security as a means of enhancing safety from that which threatens, whether those threats are real or imagined. Life is lived out in lockdown.
Life lived in lockdown, however, has a downside: it shuts out the wider world. It screens out broader vistas of what might be. It closes us off to possibilities for life in even greater fullness and abundance.
But such wider, fuller life often involves a measure of risk and trust, trust either in ourselves, or in resources that are available to us, within ourselves, or in others. It’s been said that faith is the flipside of doubt and fear.
Faith says to us, “Fear not.” That’s what Jesus said. But in matters of religious faith, some of the premier door-lockers – those whose “go-to” strategy is to raise barriers – are the religious themselves. What those frightened disciples of Jesus did after the crucifixion became an unalterable way of life, which we sought to dignify by calling it “tradition,” or “God’s will,” or “authority” or “faith.”
That’s the way it went. When the Spirit freed the followers of Jesus on Pentecost, they found other doors to lock. The Jerusalem branch of the church wanted to lock down “The Way” – the way of following Jesus – as a kind of subset of Judaism. The Corinthian church on the other hand, tried to lock out everybody but the charismatics, the Spirit-filled people. Paul wrestled with this locking-down tendency but ended up with his own version of it. And as I read the Gospels, to a disturbing extent, it seems they were written to lock down the Christian movement, by defining orthodoxy.
In time, the bishops locked down the New Testament, as if no further authoritative word could – or would – ever be spoken. Church councils locked down doctrine, as if everything worth knowing were already known. Very early on, women were locked out of leadership, and hierarchical orders of ministry were locked in place.
The Christian movement has changed course countless times, granted, thanks to power shifts, to new knowledge, to fresh insight, to the inbreaking of the Holy Spirit. But the course changes hardly ever entail abandoning the locks and the barriers altogether; sometimes they just substitute one locked door for another. Recall, if you will, the rigidity of the Protestant Reformers, as they threw off Rome’s shackles, only to immediately impose their own.
But every once in a while, Jesus breaches our locked doors and bids us try again. Friends: if only we could respond freely and allow God to do what God has always wanted to do, in each of our lives, and in the life of the Church. If only we could respond freely and allow God to do what God has always wanted to do, which is to lead us out of bondage and into the wild, free, uncharted but life-giving land of grace. Think how abundant such life could be.
Jesus came into the midst of his disciples and the first words he spoke were words of peace. And he breathed his Holy Spirit upon them and immediately issued a challenge: “As I was sent by the Father, so I send you. Forgive the sins of others and they will be forgiven.”
Share with others what has transpired, how God has triumphed over death. Share with others the possibility of life beyond locked doors, the option for life without barriers, the potential for life without limits, the abundance of life without measure of God’s grace or God’s goodness.
Banish fear. Put aside doubt. Be assured of the peace and power and presence of God in your life, which enables you to move beyond the boundaries and the barriers, the locked doors and barricades that circumscribe life and limit our experience of its fullness.
Banish fear, put aside doubt, and experience the fullness of life, enabling you to live in the face of change with flexibility and fortitude, with courage and conviction born of faith and trust in One who came to bestow peace and power and new life. Thanks be to God.