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The first time I worked in India was about 22 years ago. I was there for just over 3 months and worked in lots of different areas: some urban, like Delhi, and others very rural. And, for a short period of time, I was working in a place with a group of Christians that was basically a clearing in the jungle; a collection of wooden huts with verandas set out into a square with a cleared, sandy area in the middle.
And the first night I was there, we were all told to go to bed as soon as it was dusk. I asked why: and wished I hadn’t.
Because, as dusk settled, dozens of cobras and other dangerous animals would come out of the jungle undergrowth and make their way through the clearing, I guess, to look for food or whatever cobras do at night. And we were all told to make sure that we closed our windows tight and put the plugs in our sinks, to stop spiders and scorpions coming in.
Well, how well do you think I slept that night? You’ve got it – I did not sleep a wink…
I had the windows closed, the sink covered, towels by the door, paper in the door lock, the light on – and I was huddled up in the bed scared by every noise. And outside, you could hear the wildlife slithering past the door
I have never felt so anxious in all my life and could not wait for the night to end…I just felt abject fear!
The story we have from our Gospel reading today begins with the disciples experiencing abject fear too. The reading starts: “It was evening on the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked…”
The big question is: Who were they afraid of? And why?
In John’s Gospel, as we heard last week, Mary Magdalene had been to the tomb and seen it empty. She had run and told the disciples and Peter and John had gone back with her to check it out. The disciples then went back home – but Mary stayed at the tomb crying and that’s when she met the Risen Christ And the verse before the one we start with this morning says: “So Mary Magdalene went and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord and related to them what he had told her”.
So why didn’t they go looking for him? Wouldn’t you have gone looking for him? I think I would.
But they didn’t. They stayed behind locked doors…
Well, John says in this reading that they had locked the door “for fear of the Jews” – but that isn’t a very credible excuse. First off, there is no sense in which the Jews had arranged a posse to hunt down the disciples, so there really was nothing for them to be afraid of. And besides, when Mary said that the tomb was empty, Peter and John had rushed straight there. Now, if they were really afraid of the Jews – or the Romans for that matter – they wouldn’t have gone back to the tomb because that is the one place where the authorities would have been hoping to capture them. They couldn’t have been too afraid of the Jews…
So what was really making them afraid? What were they really running from? Who were they really hiding from?
Perhaps they were actually afraid of running into Jesus!
What if Mary was right? What if Jesus had been raised from the dead? What would he say if they bumped into him? They had every reason to be afraid…
The last time he had seen the disciples was when they were deserting him at his arrest in Gethsemane. Sure, Peter had stayed with him: but then he had denied knowing him at all. The guilt had been so bad that Judas Iscariot had killed himself. How must the rest of them have been feeling? They were desperately ashamed of themselves…
And what would Jesus say if he saw them again? How would he react? Would he be bearing a grudge? Would he be angry with them? Perhaps he would be out for revenge!
No, rather than going out searching for Jesus, it would be far safer to lock the door and hope the whole problem will go away!
Perhaps we are more like the disciples than we want to admit! How often have you – how often have I – locked the door to keep Jesus out? Maybe some part of my past: something I am particularly ashamed of. Maybe some fear for the future…Sometimes, we are frightened of what Jesus might think, what Jesus might do. So we lock up our heart, try to keep Jesus out…Locking ourselves in, for fear of what might happen.
And sometimes, we are not even honest with ourselves about why we are hiding or what we are hiding from. Maybe the disciples weren’t keeping the Jews out, they were keeping themselves in.
But what does Jesus do? He does what he always does when we try to hide from him: “Jesus came and stood among them…” He enters the room – and breaks into their shame…
Jesus takes the initiative. He enters the room and he says to them, “Peace be with you”. These words are the exact opposite of fear and shame and anxiety.
Jesus says to the disciples, as he says to us, “It’s OK…” He’s not out to settle old scores. He’s not angry with us. He knows our failures, he knows our weaknesses, he knows everything we have every done wrong. And he says, “It’s OK…let’s move on…”
Do you notice, he doesn’t even say to the disciples, “I forgive you”? There is absolutely no mention of the past. It’s done – it’s finished: it’s not even remembered anymore…We just get this amazing verse of Scripture: “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’”.
Why is this so amazing? Because Jesus is inviting us to start completely afresh and go right back to the beginning with him. In fact, what he is doing is taking us right back to the Garden of Eden, for two reasons:
First, it is in the Garden of Eden that humanity first hides from God. Do you remember? Genesis 3:8: “That evening, they heard the Lord God walking in the garden, and they hid from him among the trees”. Adam and Eve hid from God among the trees. The disciples were hiding from God behind closed doors.
Second, we go back to Genesis 2:7: “Then the Lord God took some soil from the ground and formed a man out of it; he breathed life-giving breath into his nostrils and the man began to live.” God breathed on Adam and he began to live. In John 20, Jesus breathes on his disciples and, in the power of the Holy Spirit, they are re-born.
And here is the incredible truth of the Gospel. That we can hide from God because of our shame, we can hide from him out of shame for our past, we can hide from him because of our bad habits and failures and weakness. But because he loves us so, so much, God will come and seek us out and find us. And he will not bring up the past, he will not make us wallow in shame or guilt, he won’t humiliate us. He will seek us out and he will find us, and he will say, “Peace be with you”. “It’s OK. I know. And it’s OK”
The Easter story is an act of re-creation. It’s like he takes us back to Eden and says, “It’s OK. Let’s begin again”. It’s not too late – it’s OK – we can start again.
One of the most amazing passages in Scripture is Revelation 3:20 where the Risen Christ says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” And Jesus knocks at the door of each of our hearts. Perhaps because of what we know about ourselves, we don’t want to open the door to Jesus. Perhaps, like the disciples in this passage, we want to hide away and keep the door firmly locked. But that will not prevent the love of God reaching out to us.
More than anything else in the world, Jesus wants to stand before you and say, “Peace be with you”, and to breathe the Holy Spirit on you and bring you to new life to give us a fresh start, a new beginning.
Easter is all about new beginnings. Perhaps, this morning, you or I need a new beginning with Jesus. As we come to receive the Eucharist in a few minutes time, that is the ultimate symbol of forgiveness and a new beginning. Let this be the moment when we put it all behind us and we allow Jesus to breathe his Spirit on us and say to each one of us, “Peace be with you…Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
As we prepare to receive the Eucharist, let us return together to the Garden of Eden and be re-created in the image of God and become the people God longs for us to be. This is the moment. This is our moment. Let this be the time for new birth for each one of us…to the glory of God. Amen.