Sample Sermon: Why didn’t they go looking for him?
Today we pick up right where we left off last week on Easter here in John 20. When last we saw the disciples, Mary Magdalene had just burst in with the excited and exciting news, “I have seen the Lord!” Earlier that day, when Mary told these same disciples that the stone had been rolled away, Peter and John bolted out of their chairs and sprinted to the tomb. But near as we can tell, once Mary tells them the far better news that Jesus the Lord is once again up and about and quite undeniably alive, it looks as though no one moved.
Why didn’t they go looking for him?
Why was an apparent grave robbery seemingly more intriguing to at least some of the disciples than an apparent resurrection from the grave? You would not guess it would be this way. If I told one of you that I just saw your long-lost child at the local mall, whether or not you initially believe me, my hunch is that it would not take too long before you’d hop in your car and buzz over there with only a casual relationship to the speed limit signs you’d pass.
Did the disciples simply not believe Mary? Did they, in typical male fashion, chalk up her story to the ranting of an hysterical woman? Was it finally too wild to believe? Is the reason they stayed put because they had rolled their eyes, winked at each other, and suppressed a smirk over what this woman had said to them? Or is something else going on?
Why didn’t they go looking for him?
Did they believe Mary’s story just fine but were not at all sure where to start? Or did they think that maybe Jesus was, as a matter of fact, nowhere to be found? After all, the last thing Jesus said to Mary, and which Mary no doubt reported to the disciples, is that he was ascending to his Father. Did they conclude that this would happen that very day? Did they think he was already back in heaven (wherever that was) and so it would be fruitless to go hunting for Jesus? That seems a little unlikely. And even if they did hold out for that as one possibility, you’d think they still would have split up, maybe into teams of two, and done a systematic search in and around the city.
Why didn’t they go looking for him?
Did they disbelieve Mary? Did they believe her just fine but still were so stunned as to be paralyzed? Did they think Jesus was nowhere to be found even if they did send out a search party? Or is something else going on? It’s difficult to answer this question, but I think John gives us a major clue when he tells us that on the evening of that Easter day, the disciples were behind a locked door.
The door was locked.
The door was locked because they were afraid.
Afraid. They were afraid of the Jews, John said. But as Craig Barnes has said, that doesn’t seem a terribly credible fear. There was no evidence that anyone was planning to hunt down Jesus’ erstwhile followers. And anyway, earlier that same day, any lingering fears of arrest the disciples may have had didn’t prevent at least a couple of them from running straight toward Jesus’ tomb. If ever there were a location where they very well could have run into some Roman soldiers or Jewish leaders, the tomb was it. But still they went. Fear didn’t stop them when they thought a grave robbery had happened. So why did fear lock them up in a room when resurrection was in the air? Of whom or what were the disciples really afraid? Whom were really afraid of running into in case they went out?
Could it have been that they were afraid of running into . . . Jesus himself? Certainly at least Peter would have had reason to avert his eyes from the Lord in case he ran into him. The last time Peter had spoken to Jesus, his words had been full of confident bluster. But then some hours later a rooster crowed off in the distance, and Peter seriously considered following Judas down a path that had a noose at the end of it. But it wasn’t just Peter. The gospels tell us that Peter had said, “Never will I deny you! I will die with you first!” And after Peter had said that, we read that “all of the other disciples said the same.” But all of the other disciples had fled Gethsemane like frightened children.
John is honest throughout his gospel about how clueless the disciples often were. Earlier in this very chapter, in verse 9, John admits that they did not understand that Jesus had to be raised from the dead. But if they did not understand that Jesus was to be raised, it’s a cinch they also didn’t understand why he had to be raised, either. After all, they had abandoned their Lord in his most dire hour of need. And it’s not as though the end-result of that abandonment had been something minor like Jesus getting booked on a misdemeanor charge, fined $500, and sentenced to 90 days in the hoosegow. The penalty Jesus got was on the stiff side. They had watched the crucifixion from afar, and to a man they knew they were somehow complicit in what happened.
And so Mary says Jesus is alive, but what if he is bearing a grudge? Suppose his first order of post-resurrection business was settling some old scores? Have you ever said some really nasty things about someone behind his or her back, only to discover a short time later that so-and-so had gotten wind of what you had said? Are you real eager to run into that person again? Or, if you know as a fact that a certain person hates your guts, blames you for something bad that happened, and so henceforth refuses to be civil to you, do you go out of your way to make sure you sit near his or her table at a local restaurant some evening?
Why didn’t they go looking for him? Because they were just possibly afraid to find him. And so on that first Easter–a day John 20 makes clear began with weeping and lamenting–the day ends with locked doors and great fear.
As Craig Barnes has noted, that state of being all locked-up is emblematic of so much of our lives even to this day. Fear of this or that, anxiety over some aspect of life, makes us lock up the door of our hearts. All of us are familiar with locks. Every door of our houses has a lock. At our house the service door to the garage is locked and, on top of that, the door leading from the back room into the garage has yet another lock. We put sticks in the tracks of our sliding doors so as to make double-sure no one can outwit the door’s normal lock. Our front door may have a deadbolt lock and, on top of that, a chain. So every day, and certainly every evening, we click these locks and cinch up these chains and double-check that the lower level windows are also locked. We do this, we think, to keep the world out but we all know that sometimes it is also possible to lock ourselves in.
We have lots of ways to lock ourselves in. We refuse to go out because we’re too ashamed, too blue, or too afraid we will run into so-and-so and, frankly, we can’t stand the thought. Sometimes we stay away from even church for the same reason. I know as a fact that there are some people in this city, former members of this church or people who were never members, who won’t come here ever if they know I’m preaching. We get Caller I.D. on our phones so we can see, well before picking up the receiver, who is calling. And if it’s someone we don’t want to talk to or can’t bear talking to out of shame or fear or whatever, we just don’t answer. Again, we lock ourselves in just as often as we lock the world out.
Shame and fear are cousins. First cousins. If you are ashamed of something that is known already, you are afraid of being seen by people in whose eyes you will catch flickers of disapproval. If you are ashamed of something people do not yet know about, you are afraid that just by being out and about in public, someone will discover it, and it scares you half to death. For every last one of us, there are things we have done whose discovery we fear. For every last one of us, there are things that we simply are that we fear make us unworthy.
But there comes a point where eventually we discover that we have locked up so much in the closets of our hearts that, as it turns out, most of our very selves are in there. And when we reach that point, we live with fear indeed. Not the fear that this or that aspect of our lives will be discovered but that we ourselves, the totality of who we are, will be outted, and so our unworthiness will be on full display and we will not have a friend left in the world. And if you want to talk about a crippling fear, this is it: the fear of yourself.
If that first Easter began with the lamentable sadness of death’s reality in our world—as we noted from John 20 last week—then that same day ended with the lamentable sadness of shame. The disciples were ashamed of what they had done, they were ashamed of what their cowardice revealed about who they simply were as men. So they locked the door, telling themselves they were keeping the Jews out when really they were maybe keeping themselves locked in. But then Jesus did what he always does for anyone locked up in his own shame: he comes in anyway. He enters the room, he enters the heart, he breaks into the shame.
John records for us no reaction of the disciples, not initially at least. But he does make clear that Jesus leaves no quarter for fear because he no sooner pops in on them and he says, “Peace to you!” He says it immediately the way he always does. He says “Peace.” He says “Shalom.” He says it’s all right. He speaks a word that is the opposite of fear and so squelches shame, puts away and banishes any thoughts the disciples may have had about Jesus’ bearing a grudge. He was not out to settle any old scores but to create a whole new situation. In what some call John’s mini-Pentecost, Jesus breathes on them the sweetness of the Holy Spirit. And like that first breath of life that the Almighty Creator God breathed into Adam’s nostrils at the dawn of creation, so this was a life-giving breath that made all things new.
Jesus never says a word about their past actions, their betrayals and denials. He does not even overtly say, “Forget about it” or “I forgive you.” Instead he gives them a Spirit that tells them, in a way more compelling than words alone, that of course all is forgiven. He even sends them out into the world with a mission of forgiveness. Did you catch that, by the way? By telling them they now had a mission to announce the forgiveness of sins, Jesus was as much as telling them to unlock that door and get out of there. The cause of the Lord cannot go forward so long as any of his people insist on staying behind locked doors.
Peace. We think that having a sense of peace means a lack of conflict. But more than that, peace in the sense of “shalom” is that settled sense that everything is in plumb, everything is in its proper place as we are all together webbed into relationships that are mutually edifying and up-building. We no longer live with the fear that someone will open up our secret closet only to have our hidden lives come tumbling out in one utter, embarrassing, despicable mess. Instead we live with the sense that the things that were once in the closet have either been put away by the grace of Christ’s forgiveness or they have been put back into their proper place somewhere else in life.
Mostly, though, many of us would have to confess that we’re not quite there yet. We would not question that this is the goal toward which Easter is aiming us. We would not deny that among the items of good news that this holy day is all about, a restoration of shalom is a key such item. But when this sermon is done and Ken has played the last note on the organ, we will go home and still, in the quietness of those first few minutes of lying on bed in the dark, we still will be able to glance in the direction of that closeted part of our heart, still fretting that what is inside there is so bad that even Jesus can’t deal with it; still fretting that, therefore, we’d be finished if anyone else ever spied it, too.
If having the hope of life beyond the grave is part of what Easter is all about, then having peace already in the here and now is another vital part of Easter. You have to die in order to enter the new life of resurrection that Jesus made possible. What do you have to do to enter the peace Jesus made possible and that he proffered to his disciples that first Easter evening? Maybe this also requires a death, a denial of self and a taking up of the cross so as to remind yourself that you are being quite simply too self-important if you really believe that Jesus can’t handle the real you. Who do you think you are if you conclude that you need to keep your heart locked up against even Jesus?
One of the more famous images of Scripture comes from that line in Revelation when Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” Ordinarily when someone knocks at a locked door at your house, you know that it’s up to you to get up and unlock the door and open it. The good news of Easter is that even if you are too afraid to do that, too ashamed or too paralyzed by this or that feature of your own life, the lock won’t stop Jesus. He will appear right in the middle of your locked-up heart and before you even have the chance to say or do a blessed thing, he will say “Peace to you!” When he does, all I can plead is that you will take him seriously. He will show you the holes in his hands and the slit in his side, not so much to prove to you that he really is Jesus. He shows you those sacred signs as proof that when he grants peace to your heart, it’s the genuine article and the real deal. Given what he went through to secure that shalom for you, all you can say in response is what Thomas said a week later, “My Lord and my God!”
Why didn’t they go looking for him?
It’s hard to know but in the end neither does it matter. Jesus always comes looking for us, starting in those locked-up places of our hearts. Sisters and brothers, peace to you. There is no better a parting word for Easter than that.
It’s all right. You are all right.
Peace. Shalom. Amen.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 28, 2019
John 20:19-31 Commentary