Breaking through the Barriers

(John 20:19-31)

I remember when I was in second grade, Ms. McDonald’s class. We were doing math. Do you remember the bundle of sticks thing they used to teach math, the ones that looked like dynamite? They’d bundle these sticks in bunches of tens, and then they’d have a few loose sticks, and you were supposed to count how many bundles of ten, and then add in the loose sticks?

Do you remember that?

I hated that. I didn’t get what the heck we were spending so much time on sticks for. It felt like a different language to me.

I don’t know why, but even describing those dumb little bundles of dynamite evokes a sense of dread in me. Lord knows, I have all kinds of reasons for feeling inadequate, and it annoys me that that still feels like one.

To be fair, that feeling of dread might have something to do with what happened in Ms. McDonald’s class.

She handed back our worksheets with all these stupid sticks on them, and it looked like Ms. McDonald stood over my paper and opened a vein. There was just so much red.

It made me feel sick to my stomach. But then, after a bout of self-pity, I started getting angry. What did a bunch of sticks have to do with anything?

And why did I have to sit there feeling all inadequate because Ms. McDonald thought I should learn math with sticks?

So, I tried to erase all the checkmarks, tried to get rid of all that ink, the visible sign of my arithmetic incompetence.

Turns out, red ink doesn’t come off with a pencil eraser. In fact, if you try long enough you’ll rub a hole right through the paper—which was not what I wanted to do at all. I made an absolute mess of my worksheet.

But, I mean, what the heck? It was my paper. I’d just throw it away before I got home and my parents saw it.

But then Ms. McDonald pulled a real pedagogical fast one. She said, “After you’ve finished looking at your worksheets, I want you to pass them back up. These are going to go in your folder for Parent-Teacher conferences.

What? You’ve got to be kidding me.

I panicked. I thought, “Man, I’ve got to fix this before Ms. McDonald or my parents see it! I’m going to be in so much trouble.”

But how do you fix smeared red ink and holes in the paper?

I took out the only thing I had, a red crayon, and I started bleeding all over my paper once again. I was trying to redo the whole thing, so that it looked like I’d never started messing with things in the first place. I looked like Lucy and Ethel in the candy factory, trying to redo those check marks.

Well, you can imagine what my torn up worksheet with red crayon looked like. But I had to turn it in.

I knew I would get in huge trouble. I dragged myself home, hardly said anything during dinner. I was miserable, worried that my young life was quickly coming to a close.

By bedtime, my parents could tell something was really wrong. So, they both came to my bedside and asked me what the matter was.

I couldn’t keep it in any longer, and I broke down in tears, recounting my idiot attempt to erase the red marks, and my even more idiot attempt to fix the damage with a red crayon.

I was pretty sure that there was going to be jail time involved—and not Michael Flynn jail-time either, like real Paul Manafort jail-time.

My parents were really sweet about it. They could see how shaken I was. They told me everything would be all right. But I had to come clean with Ms. McDonald. My dad promised he would go with me the next day to school to tell her.

Ms. McDonald was also really sweet about it, when I told her what I’d done.

But the whole thing was traumatic for my seven year-old self.

The feeling was so visceral, I felt like I was going to vomit for 24 hours. I have rarely been that afraid before or since.

I imagine that’s the depth of fear the disciples felt in our Gospel for today. John tells us that the disciples were sitting together, locked in a room, which is interesting because the verse just prior to our text tells us that Mary Magdalene had told the disciples that she’d seen Jesus alive that morning.

Whether they believed her or not, John doesn’t tell us. But at the very least, we know they were afraid that what they’d witnessed two day before—Jesus strung up on a cross—would be coming soon to a theater near them.

They’d tramped around the countryside for three years, following Jesus, watching him heal people, listening to him tell his stories, ducking when he’d gotten cross-ways with the religious and political authorities.

Just one week before, the disciples had been part of an imperial parade, triumphantly entering Jerusalem. A few days later, they’d scattered to the four winds as they’d seen their messiah humiliated and executed as a political revolutionary.

So, notwithstanding that wild tale about seeing Jesus that Mary Magdalene kept talking about, when the Sunday we call Easter rolled around they were tired, alone, and terrified.

“What do we do now?”

Who’s going to be the first one to raise a hand and volunteer to lead this bedraggled group of broken-hearted revolutionaries?

Nothing. Crickets. Heck, they can’t even find anyone brave enough to poke a head out of the hidey-hole and make a run to 7/11 for Cokes, a box of Twinkies, and some cigarettes. They’re locked up tight against a hostile world they’re sure will break down the door any minute and drag them off to see God up close and personal.

And they do get a visit. But it’s not the one they’re expecting. They were pretty sure they’d hear the black boots stomping up the stairs any minute. Instead, after the thirteenth nervous hand of Pinochle, someone gets up to get what’s left of the last bag of Funyuns, and lo and behold, Jesus is standing right there in their midst.

Tired, scared, alone, and Jesus drops by.

Now, if you’re the disciples and all this craziness has gone on around you, and you’re afraid you may not see next Sunday, and then Jesus shows up—what do you want him to say? What are the words you most long to hear in the middle of the longest storm of your life?

Remember that story about the disciples being out on the boat when a storm whipped up? It’s in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Jesus was asleep below deck, and the disciples were afraid? They thought they were going to capsize and be swallowed up, dragged down to a watery grave?

Remember that?

Remember what Jesus did? He got up and rebuked the storm—gave it a good stern talking-to. And what did he say? Well, Mark’s the only one who records it. Jesus said, “Peace, be still.”

Almost the exact same words Jesus uses in our text. In John, Jesus appears in the midst of a different tempest—one no less threatening for being on dry land—and says to the frightened disciples, this time instead of the wind: “Peace be with you.”

All the Gospels include the story of Jesus calming the storm at sea, except John’s Gospel. John does, however, tell the story of Jesus calming another storm, one that takes place in the upper room.

Except in John’s telling of it, Jesus—in the act of calming the storm of fear among the disciples—stirs up a storm of fresh wind, the very breath of God … the Holy Spirit. Because as soon as the Holy Spirit shows up, things can never be the same.

It’s telling, I think, that the first word Jesus speaks to the gathered disciples after the resurrection is “Peace.”

Shalom. Peace be with you. In Hebrew the word shalom is a hugely important word. The peace of shalom transcends just the absence of hostilities—Jesus isn’t calling for some kind of cease-fire.

Shalom isn’t just overcoming death and violence. Instead, shalom names a quality of life. Shalom names another kind of storm, one in which the Holy Spirit shows up on the scene, breaking through the barriers that have kept the fearful and powerless … fearful and powerless.

Shalom, when the Holy Spirit shows up, foresees a world in which violence is no longer the controlling reality, to be sure. But shalom offers a vision of a world in which just systems ensure that everyone has enough—enough food, enough to care for their families—where all people, have access to the goodness of God’s blessings; in other words, a world in which the need for violence has been obviated.

Having shalom be the first words uttered to the disciples in the locked room puts a name to the kind of reign God said “yes” to on Easter.

Having Jesus unleash the breath of God in the midst of the terrified disciples, demonstrates the kind of world God is busy creating … one in which the structures that have kept us apart are torn down, and those who’ve lived life on the sidelines are ushered into the center of the kingdom God, one in which the first shall be last, and the last will finally take their place in the sun.

You want to know what God desires for creation? Jesus announces it to the disciples right off the bat. Shalom. “Peace, be with you.”

That should be it, shouldn’t it? Jesus appears, proclaims the character of the reign of God, a reign meant not only to stem the fear the disciples experience, but to prompt the disciples to take that message of shalom back out to the world.

And of course they get it, right? Let’s just say the benediction and go home. Like my students on the last day before break, I should have mercy on you, and just let you all get a head start on your Sunday afternoon.

But before I send you out to battle the Methodists down at the Applebee’s, let me ask you one thing: What did the disciples do after Jesus pronounced peace, after the Holy Spirit blew into town?

Keep reading. It says that “a week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them.”

And what about the doors? Shut again.

Seriously? You locked the doors back up?

“Well, you can’t be too careful.”

Again, Jesus shows up in their presence and says, “Peace be with you”—as if to say, “I already threw open the doors once. I already calmed the storm. I already conquered death. I already breathed on you the breath of Heaven. So, what are you waiting for? Throw open the doors and get to work.”

But we understand the disciples’ reluctance to throw open the doors, don’t we? We know what it’s like to be tired, scared, and alone—worried that what’s outside might undo us. It’s tough.

The idea of breaking down the barriers sounds like a good thing in theory, right?

But we’re not always sure what awaits us on the other side of the door. There may be those on the other side of the door who want to do us harm, who’d like nothing better than to grease the skids for our trip to the beyond. It’s just a lot easier to sit behind locked doors and wait for the storms to pass.

But the problem is … the peace Jesus brings us isn’t just a private peace, a kind of tranquility during difficult times.

The most tempting thing to do is to hunker down, and wait for Jesus to show up and calm the storm, re-order our worlds, take the heat off, make everything all right.

But while the peace Jesus breaks in to bring us offers us something, it also requires of us that we unlock the doors, and bear that peace back to a world yearning for the same shalom we’ve been offered.

This is the peace of the Holy Spirit, which is its own kind of storm, unleashed on a world that keeps women afraid and scrambling to make the same kind of life for those they love as men have always been able to create. A peace that disrupts the current power structures that force African Americans always to look over their shoulder when the folks in power show up. A peace that refuses to stand silently by while our sisters and brothers, our friends and neighbors, are gunned down in their synagogues and mosques with the name of God still on their lips.

Jesus asks us to throw open the doors and announce a new world not only absent violence and hatred, but filled with the goodness of God’s blessings—a world in which the poor have enough to eat, enough to care for the health of their children and their aged; a world in which those who’ve been turned out, sent away, shuffled off because they don’t look right, don’t love right, don’t have the right papers—so that everyone might finally find a place at the table, finally find the outstretched arms of embrace, finally find a home.

This table we gather around is God’s table, not ours. Our job isn’t to figure out who should be allowed to sit there. Our only job is to make sure there are enough seats to make room for everyone who shows up.

We are, in a very real sense, the peace God seeks to send out those doors—our words, our actions, our lives. And, Lord knows, there’s a world dying to taste the peace of Christ, to feel the breath of God.

You and me. Together. God is throwing open the doors, breaking down the barriers.

The question put to us is . . . will we follow Jesus back out those doors and face the storm?

Will we be the peace the world is waiting for, the storm that unleashes the Holy Spirit?

Well?

—Amen.

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