‘The doors were locked for fear…’ and Jesus said: ‘Peace be with you.’ (John 20:19)
Fear has gripped many parts of the world over the last few weeks, and understandably so with the unknown nature of the Covid-19 pandemic, its disregard for human life, the swiftness of the changes in our social and economic lives and the terror of death as we hear stories from survivors and from the bereaved. Images of empty streets and closed shops, animals reclaiming uninhabited places, birdsong heard in the quietness of the earth as it is no longer drowned out by machines and loud humanity, have all invaded our living rooms and taken over our screens. And while the quietness of the surroundings is welcome for some, it is terrifying for others.
The doors were locked for fear…
It was the first day of the week, it was the first day of the new creation in God’s Kingdom and nobody noticed (John 20:19-31).
The disciples were gathered behind locked doors, frightened by the suddenness and manner of Jesus’ death and the implications for their own safety and for their families from the authorities, both religious and civil, and what they might do in retribution. They had not listened to Mary Magdalene who had seen the angels and had met and spoken to Jesus and given them Jesus’ instruction. They had refused to be reassured. The absence of Mary in this story and the silence of Peter and the other disciples is notable. They are overwhelmed by fear.
Our understanding and our own experiences of fear and terror can help us to imagine the behaviour and reasons the disciples were behaving as they were in the evening of that first day of the week. But its worth reflecting on the next part of the story.
Neither the door nor the disciples fear, prove to be a barrier to Jesus.
Jesus’ first words are: ‘Peace be with you’. He repeats these words three times during this reading of John’s Gospel 20:19-31, at v19, v21; and v26.
Initially Jesus spoke to the group of disciples gathered on that first day; and then, a week later, this time including Thomas.
In response to terror and fear, Jesus bestows peace. Let us treasure that fact.
In the Farewell Discourse, (John 14:27) Jesus refers to peace:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
The word peace can mean simply ‘hello’, although in this context we can see and hear it is a blessing carrying the very shalom of God. The disciples rejoice when they see Jesus and hear his greeting of peace. We can hear and see Jesus’ peace casts out fear.
We can also be very clear the peace Jesus offers has nothing to do with tranquillity, harmony or politeness. Instead, Jesus is inviting his disciples into the same work of peacemaking which characterised his own life and mission, the work that led him to the cross, and which is also asked of us. Such work is made possible through the gift of the Holy Spirit which Jesus breathed onto his disciples and now breathes onto us.
God did not send God’s Son into the world merely to confirm the status quo. Instead, Jesus’ peace brings back the marginalised and outcast into the fold; it turns social norms upside down with the conventions of the first and the last, blessed and cursed, rich and poor. Jesus’ peace brings together the lamb and the lion as neighbours; Jews and Samaritans, tax collectors and pharisees. No wonder people were frightened, just as we are today. What is the world coming to?
As Christians we view all this through very different eyes as we contemplate Jesus’ peace and think about the upside down nature of what is happening now and how clearly we can see the inequities and exclusions.
It was peacemaking work that got Jesus killed. The work of reconciliation, renewal, feeding and healing, transforming society, was due to his peacemaking.
As disciples we are invited to do the same; we need to be willing to commit ourselves to the same type of peacemaking, a costly and challenging work. Those who work for the inclusion of the outcast, love of our enemies and justice for the oppressed should be prepared for rejection and harassment.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer summed it up: ‘When Christ calls a person, he bids him come and die’.
When we think of Jesus’ peace and his sending out of the disciples, we realise the good news of Easter is never simply the assurance God has conquered death. It is a statement about Jesus’ mission to us which we share. Jesus’ resurrection draws us into God’s mission, into the inclusiveness of God’s love for the world, and empowers us by the Holy Spirit to love as God loves.
The first assurance of peace offers us Christ’s presence with us and for us. The second experience of peace introduces us and grounds us in Jesus’ challenging words:
As the Father has sent me, so I send you. (John 20:21)
We can reflect on the fact the disciples were cowering in fear and terror behind closed doors wondering what was going to happen next. They had ignored the words of those who had come with reassurance. And now Jesus is telling them, they are no longer to be a secret group, but are to become public witnesses to Christ now risen, to the good news of peace and the love of God for all. This is not a passive acceptance.
The disciples are to do this with the help and gift of the Holy Spirit, breathed on them by Jesus (v22). This recalls the first creative action of God in breathing into the first human being the breath of life (Gen.2:7).
As we respond to the call of Jesus like the first disciples, the Holy Spirit transformed them from a odd collection of men and women, to people sharing the good news and where the Spirit abided with them, making the impossible possible with the power of God. We can stand with the disciples feeling the gift of the Holy Spirit too.
The gift of the Holy Spirit who is the presence of Christ after Christ departs is both the guide to truth and the guarantor of peace. Both were essential for the disciples and also for us.
The whole story shows us Jesus rising into the life of the community. Into their fear and trembling Jesus enters. Their fear gives way to peace. In them, his joy rises. Jesus’ arrival now lives in their lives as they go out to share the good news. His breath is now breathing in them as it does in you and me.
The third assurance of peace comes with Thomas, one of the most discerning disciples in the group, who reflects on his determination to make sure this is not ‘fake news’ and no-one is being taken in. He witnesses to the real Christ, the risen Jesus present with his tortured body bearing witness to God’s love. Jesus’ forgiveness and peace are offered to the disciples who betrayed, abandoned and denied Jesus and we hear the three-fold offering:
Peace be with you.
We hear clearly Jesus has not forgotten; however, he has forgiven. Heaven is not a place of forgetfulness, but of remembrance as witnessed in his physical body and in his mind. The terrible memories and experiences have been taken up and transformed in the resurrection. As it was for Jesus, so it is for us. The one who was killed is truly the one who was raised.
This means it is Jesus who sends us out into the world, to give ourselves for the world as Jesus did for us. The world is waiting to see us bear those marks to them, personally knowing his death and resurrection mean something to us too, particularly in this time of suffering. If we do not see Jesus on the cross as well as in resurrected glory, we will not see him at all.
We can echo Thomas’ heartfelt words (John 20:28):
My Lord and my God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 1937; New York, Touchstone, 1995.