In the Gospel reading, we meet the first disciples gathered together in a familiar room. They had been in that very room only days before sharing a meal with Jesus when he had astounded them by rising from the table taking up a towel and a basin of water and kneeling to wash their feet.
They had been startled by his actions. In fact, Peter objected saying, "You will not wash my feet."
This act was too lowly, too humiliating for the one they called teacher and Lord. What they did not yet see was that Jesus was giving them a glimpse into their own future, modeling the shape of their discipleship and granting them a foretaste of the inbreaking reign of God, the reign in which the teacher bends to serve the student, the powerful lay aside their strength to learn from the weak, and the rich release what they had held tightly in order that all of God's beloved children might share in God's common wealth.
That evening Jesus had welcomed them into the community of servant-friends, saying, "Love one another as I have loved you. Serve one another as I have served you. Unbind one another from the death-bands of sin and let my love bind you to me and to one another deep in the heart of God." The disciples had left the room that night bound to one another by a common vision of God's astonishing and uncommon future.
No wonder Jesus' friends returned to that place after Jesus was crucified. The shared memories and familiarity of that room must have comforted them in their grief. How good it is to be in a safe and familiar place when grief comes pounding against us like relentless waves. How good it is to be in the company of those with whom we are at ease when our worlds are crumbling and our hearts are breaking.
Earlier that day Mary Magdalene had met the disciples, fresh from her encounter at dawn in the garden with Jesus. She had come rushing to them, bursting into their sorrow, breathless with joy and amazement, exclaiming, "I have seen the Lord.
Jesus is alive!"
You would have expected a great party to break out at such an announcement. You would have thought the disciples would run into the streets to shout out the good news:
"Jesus is alive!" And yet, we do not meet them singing, "Alleluia, Christ is risen!" or dancing L'Chaim: "To life. To life."
No, instead, we meet them huddled together in that familiar room, with the doors shut and locked out of fear. They are afraid of everything on the other side of those doors: afraid of the forces that had killed Jesus, afraid of the world outside, afraid of their uncertain future, afraid for their lives, perhaps, or, maybe, simply afraid of living.
Suddenly that fond and familiar room --once filled with comforting memories-- is an airless tomb. The disciples can barely breathe, their hearts are racing, their minds spinning. They are breathless, not with joy and amazement, but winded by fear and full of questions:
What will happen to us now?
Where will we go? How will we live?
Who will stand beside us?
Why don't we feel God's loving presence the way we used to?
Why do things have to change?
It isn't hard for us to imagine ourselves in that room. We, like the first disciples, often lock ourselves in and the world out when we are threatened or wounded or grieving.
When my friend's son died after a long and valiant battle against cancer, she literally locked the doors of her home, drew her drapes, and unplugged the telephone. She would not open the cards of condolence from her friends nor accept the gifts of food or conversation they offered.
"I crawled into my grief," she later said, "like a child crawls under the blankets during a thunderstorm. I pulled my sorrow up over my head and curled into a ball hoping I, too, would wither away from the pain."
The rising of the sun each dawn seemed to mock her, as if it were declaring that life was going on in spite of her son's death. "Eventually I fell in love with my grief," she said. "I worked as hard to keep my grief alive as I had once worked to save my son. I was afraid to let it go. It seemed to be the only thing I had left. I was much more afraid of discovering I could live without him than I was of my own death."
I imagine that you, too, could tell a story about a grief you could not let go; about a pain that you kept alive, an anger you fueled, or a grudge you nursed because it seemed to be the only thing you had left. Perhaps, like my friend, you also locked out the world, blocked out the tender compassion of friends and drew your drapes against the dawn, making the room of your life a tomb. Perhaps, as it was with her, so it was with you: it is not dying you feared so much as living.
But it was not simply the death of Jesus that drew the disciples together that evening, for they already had heard from Mary Magdalene that she had seen him alive, that he had called her by name and turned her toward the new dawn of the empty tomb. Mary's news of his resurrection filled their hearts with fear. This was something they had not anticipated, something they couldn't understand. It was more startling and astonishing even than the night Jesus had knelt and washed their feet. How does one live in a world charged by resurrection? Do the old rules still apply? Is what they once held as true still reliable? In fact, Jesus alive among them again was more frightening than Jesus crucified and buried.
Again, you and I could imagine ourselves in such a room, for we, like the first disciples, tend to gather with like-minded people when we are faced with sudden change and are uncertain about what comes next. The world is moving so fast that it takes our breath away. Pressures mount. Expectations are high. The rules seem to shift faster than we can learn them. Sometimes it seems as if the life we have known is passing away, that what we hoped to hand on to our children either won't be there to give, or won't be wanted when we offer it.
Our communities change. Strangers come who are not like us. They don't sing our songs or tell our stories. They don't understand our history, our hopes, our customs. Nor do we know theirs.
They can be threatening, these newcomers, because we feel insecure in our jobs, or our way of life. Suddenly we turn the stranger into the enemy and close our doors and lock them for fear.
Or perhaps you are the stranger trying to make a new life in a strange land, learning a new language, new customs and ways, and everywhere you go doors seemed to be closed to you, hearts shut against you. You are afraid and lonely.
And so, like the first disciples, faced with life we hadn't expected, we huddle together, afraid. Sometimes we even make the Church into a shut-door room. We gather with people like us and close the door to the stranger. We cling to familiar patterns and comforting words and hold on to one another as if for dear life. But when we do this we make of the Church an airless, lifeless tomb. And we begin to die.
But death is no barrier to Jesus, a tomb is not the end, but a doorway to new life. So Jesus comes to us as Jesus came to those first disciples, unhindered by the walls we build around ourselves to keep others away and ourselves safe, unstopped by the doors we lock out of anger or anxiety, unimpeded by the grief or fear that takes our breath away.
Jesus comes as Jesus always comes, into our closed communities and our fearful hearts, into the tombs in which we dwell. He comes speaking peace. More than that-- he comes breathing peace into our anxious hearts. It is the breath of the Holy Spirit. It is our second wind, the deep breathing we need in order to take up the towel and basin and bend our knees to serve our friends and neighbors, our betrayers and our enemies.
Jesus comes to us as he always comes, bearing the marks of suffering and death. Upon his hands, within his own body, he bears the wounds of all the world, our grief and suffering and sin. Wounds ever present, but transformed now by Life, Life that even death cannot take away.
After showing them his wounds, Jesus once again says, "Peace be with you." Twice Jesus blesses them with peace. This double benediction embraces the moment when he shows the disciples his hands and his side, the wounds of his crucifixion. He shows them his wounds to prove to them that it is he, the crucified one, alive and with them. But he also shows them his wounds because they reveal the startling truth of the disciples' future. The body of Christ, though risen, always is wounded. Always the Body bears the marks of suffering and death. What is true of Jesus will be true of those who bear his name, they too will be wounded and will bear the violence and pain of the world in their body, the Body of Christ, the community of faith, the Church.
Jesus comes as Jesus always comes when we are full of doubt and disbelief as Thomas was. He does not push us away, but bids us draw closer still, to know his suffering and to receive his peace.
Jesus comes as Jesus always comes, with a word of forgiveness, the grace that unbinds the knotted heart, the love that loosens the bonds of death, the gentle power that unbars the doors we shut and swings them wide open, revealing God's startling, in-breaking future.
The disciples could not stay in that room safe and familiar though it was. They would suffocate there if they stayed and Jesus knew that and opened the doors. Jesus sent them out into the very world they feared, into the fresh air of the future they could not see, saying: "As the Father has sent me, so I send you."
Just so, Jesus sends you and me today. He breathes into us the deep peace of the Holy Spirit. Jesus unbinds us from the fear that haunts us, the pain and grief we have fallen in love with, the shame and guilt that holds us captive, even the doubt and disbelief that keep us from entering God's future with hope. Jesus frees us in order that we might forgive and free others in his name.
As Jesus bent to wash the feet of his disciples, astonishing them with the sign of the in-breaking reign of God, so Jesus stoops to serve us, to receive and feed us with the bread and wine of Holy Communion. He bends to wash and heal us, renewing each day the grace of our baptismal bath. He speaks our name as he spoke Mary's name, calling us to turn from grief and turn again toward the dawn that we might proclaim with her, "Christ is alive. We have seen the Lord!" And he sends us out of our safe and familiar rooms with towel and basin in hand to live as servant-friends, pouring out our lives for the world God so loves. May this be so for you today. Amen.
Let us pray.
Come to us, risen Lord Jesus,
and grant us faith enough to share the good news of Easter.
Send us, filled with the breath of your Holy Spirit,
to breathe peace into fearful lives,
to love one another as we have been loved,
to welcome the stranger and make friends of enemies,
to forgive the sins that bind others to the past;
to serve, on bended knee, all in need of care;
to be Your wounded and risen Body in the world
and to enter with joy God's in-breaking, startling future.