(Sermon for Sunday, May 1, 2011 || Easter 2A || John 20:19-31)
Imagine with me the Apostle Peter, who is in Rome near the end of his life, talking to a friend about the day when Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to the disciples in the locked house.
I wish I could tell you that seeing the empty tomb was enough. I went inside the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there and the cloth that had covered Jesus’ face folded up in a corner. Thinking back now, surely grave robbers would not have folded his ceremonial burial garments while stealing his body! But in the semi-darkness of that early morning, I wasn’t thinking rationally. I wasn’t thinking at all. I was numb on the outside, immune to the sliver of hope that the empty tomb brought.
I was numb on the outside, but on the inside, I was at war. I always thought of myself as his most faithful disciple, but at the time of his greatest need, I abandoned him, I lied about knowing him to save my own skin. In the garden, I had been ready to fight to the death for Jesus. But the moment he took away my sword, I crumbled. I wasn’t strong enough to remain by his side without a weapon in my hand. I wasn’t strong enough to trust him, to trust that his plan included death without fighting. I was at war within myself, and I could not access a single crumb of the peace that Jesus had always radiated.
I saw the empty tomb, but the conflict within kept me blind to what the emptiness might mean. The war inside of me – with fresh reinforcements of guilt – was still raging when I returned to the house we had used a few nights before, on the night when I didn’t want Jesus to wash me feet. Nine of the others were there; they had been locked in the room since the mob had formed three days before. As I was shutting the door, Mary Magdalene rushed up and squeezed her way into the room. “I have seen the Lord,” she shouted.
She was breathing hard. I had left her standing outside the tomb, so she must have raced all the way to the house to catch up with me. I looked at Mary: her face glistened with sweat, her eyes were bright. If the conflict within had not been blinding me, I might have identified the brightness in her eyes as “joy,” but how could there ever be joy again after what had happened? The other disciples barely looked up when she burst in shouting. She looked around the room, then back at me. “He has risen from the dead,” she said, defiantly.
I took a step toward her. “Just because the tomb was empty,” I began, but my voice trailed off. She backed away, and now her voice was very small, small and wounded. “But I did see him,” she said. And I shut the door with Mary on the other side.
Sliding the bolt home, I slumped against the door and slid to the ground. Oblivious to Mary’s pounding on the door, I looked around the room. Judas was gone, of course, but everyone else was there, I was sure. We had escaped the mob and the authorities. Would they be content with the death of our leader or would they be coming after us, too? I counted the others. Nine, and I made ten. Someone else was missing. “Where’s Thomas,” I called out.
Philip looked up for a moment and managed a one-word response. “Gone,” he said, and he put his head back into his hands. I sat with my back to the locked door. Eventually Mary gave up her pounding. I could hear her sobbing, her breath coming in great heaves. She was, no doubt, sitting against the other side of the door. Three inches of wood separated us: three inches of wood and my disbelief and the war raging within me.
Inside the room, we might have been statues. I couldn’t even hear the others breathing. Hours passed and no one noticed. No one spoke. No one ate or drank. We were entombed in the locked house, alive but acting like dead men. And all the while the war raged on while numbness froze my body against the bolted door.
The ten of us were still frozen in place when evening fell. I had been staring at nothing in particular when I began unconsciously counting the others again. “Eight. Nine. Ten.” I counted aloud, and then I put my finger to my own chest. “Eleven.” I counted again. Eleven again. I leapt up and stared at the man in the center of the room. He was slowly spinning in a circle, studying each statue in turn. I looked where he was looking: at the hollow eyes, at the sunken cheeks, at the dried up streams of tears that had washed clean lines on dirty faces.
As far as I could tell, I was the only one who had noticed his presence. Since my rational mind was still turned off, I didn’t even wonder how someone else had entered the room while I was sitting against the locked door. I just stared at him, uncomprehending, but the sliver of hope that lay dormant in me since the tomb was beginning to glow. Then he said, “Peace be with you.”
They were the first words spoken since Philip’s one-word response to my question hours earlier. The words rang out, and the others began to stir. They raised their heads. Some stood up. The man walked over to me, gripped my arm in a firm grasp, and I noticed fresh wounds that cut through both of his wrists. He went around the room clasping the others’ shoulders and lifting their chins with his fingers. “He can’t be,” I said, as the war of guilt and pain and loss continued to rage within me, stronger now that the faint glow of hope was illuminating the battlefield.
The man heard me and turned to face my direction. “Peace be with you,” he said again. We were all standing now. The room, so empty a moment before, seemed full now, but not full enough for him. He gestured to me. I turned, unbolted the lock, and opened the door. Mary, still slumped against the other side, fell into the room. I helped her to her feet. “Is he?” I whispered to her. She looked from the man to me, and she beamed at me through brimming eyes.
“As the Father sent me, so I am sending you,” he continued. With these words, we, who had been as still as statues mere minutes before, all leaned in, like trees bending toward the sunlight. And he exhaled a deep, cleansing breath, then another and another. As he breathed out, I breathed in. I breathed in his breath, the wind of his life. I breathed in the words he had spoken twice since his arrival, the very peace that he proclaimed, that he radiated. This was Jesus, and he was alive, and he was breathing life back into us, into the ones who had entombed ourselves in that locked house.
As we leaned closer, Jesus said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And his breath washed over me, into me, through me. His Spirit brought peace to the war raging within. His breath blew across the faint glow of hope, turning the glow into a spark, and the spark into a flame, and the flame into a fire. And the fire set my heart alight with all the fervor of rekindled belief in this Jesus, this risen Lord, this one who would not abandon me to the grave even after I had abandoned him to die.
I tell you, friend, that in the years since that day, my daydreams have often brought me back to that moment when Jesus breathed his Spirit into me. When I am in distress, when I am in grief, when I forget that I believe that I am with God, I can take a breath. And I will remember that I am breathing in the peace that our Lord has given to each of us, the peace that passes all my ability to understand and lodges where I need that peace the most – in the secret places within where the war still rages from time to time. You see, every time I take a breath, and, for that matter, every time you take a breath, we are not only filling up our lungs with air. We are filling up our souls with the Holy Spirit of God, who continues to breathe into us the new life of the Risen Christ.