I probably haven’t been in Las Vegas to generalize about it, but that’s never stopped me before! I am struck by the number of gated communities here. I understand the need for security and have no objection to it, but it is sad to think that we need it. It is even sadder to think of the fear that prompts our need for security.
Fear causes us to build walls not only around our homes but also around our hearts. Every hurt, every harsh word, every assault on our pride and self-image adds another brick to that wall.
Fear is not the only reason that we build walls. We also build walls of shame around our lives. Shame is the feeling that not only have done something wrong but we ARE something wrong. We fear that we are defective, damaged goods that need to be returned to the store for a refund or traded in for a new model.
Another wall we build is the wall of grief. Do you remember Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations? Miss Havisham lives her life behind a wall of grief, wearing the wedding dress she wore on the day her fiancé jilted her. Who else do you know who still lives their life dressed in the rags of mourning behind the walls that grief builds?
One of the strongest walls we build is the wall of anger. I know a lot about the wall of anger. It takes a lot to make me angry, but when I get angry, I tend to stay angry. Theologian Frederick Buechner says that of all the seven deadly sins, angry is possibly the most fun. Anger can give us that delicious sense of self-righteousnessness. I’m right and you’re wrong or sometimes even the whole world is wrong. Don’t misunderstand me: there is a time and place for anger, and I believe it is just as dangerous to deny our anger as it is to hang on to it too long. But anger is terribly dangerous. The wall of anger can be almost impossible to penetrate.
Today’s gospel reading says, “On the evening of the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." In other words, the disciples had built a wall of fear between themselves and the world that could only be penetrated by the Risen Christ.
When the women came to the tomb on Easter morning, they wondered who would roll the stone away, but the disciples were hiding behind an even bigger stone - the stone of fear.
The gospel of Easter Day is great, good news, indeed: Jesus rose from the dead. If you will, he escaped from the prison of death that awaits each of us. The great hymns of Easter celebrate this: “He is risen, he is risen! Tell it out with joyful voice: he has burst his three days’ prison; let the whole wide earth rejoice.”
But today’s gospel is even better news: No sooner had Christ broken out of the prison of death than he broke into the prison of fear in which his followers were still trapped.
Another hymn by Charles Wesley celebrates the power of the Risen Christ to free us from the prisons of sin, fear, grief, and anger:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free.
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
Not only did Jesus break out the prison of death and break into the disciples’ prison of fear, he also gave us the key to the prisons of fear, grief, and anger that entrap us.
“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven… if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” In other words, the power to unlock the prisons of fear, grief, and anger are in our hands.
Think about the enormous power that the Risen Christ gave to the disciples in that locked room. He gave them the power to release themselves and others from sin, from the power of fear, grief, and anger, from everything that binds and imprisons us and prevents us from reaching our full potential.
In other words, Jesus called his disciples in that and every age to exercise the power of priests to bind and loose. He gave us the key to open the doors to the prisons of sin, anger, fear, and grief. The alternative is to choose to be victims. We can stay locked in our dark, airless cells. We can luxuriate in the self-righteousness of anger; we can wear the tattered rags of grief; we can pull the covers of fear over our head.
What are the prison doors you need to unlock? What are the offenses that you just can’t forgive? What is the shame that you can barely admit to yourself, much less to anyone else? How long have you been holding on to grief? Jesus has given you the key.
“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” Jesus’ followers had not yet grasped the reality of the resurrection; they had not yet begun to live into the meaning of Easter.
Easter is about Christ’s escape from the tomb, but it is not about his escape from his humanity. The heart of the Christian faith is the idea of incarnation, the idea that God came among us as one of us, that God took on flesh and blood and bone and lived a fully human life, that God sanctifies all of human life, even our wounds. In Christ, God gathers up all it means to be human and brings it into the divine presence. And to be human is to carry many scars.
The Risen Christ offers to let Thomas touch his wounds. That tells me that our wounds can be sources of strength, that our wounds are not things to be ashamed of, but things to wear with pride, if only we will offer them to God. It is only when we let our wounds separate us from each other and from God that they become toxic and sinful.
There is a wonderful Buddhist parable. It is said that a certain woman lost her son, her only child. In her grief she went to the Buddha. “Master,” she said, “I know that you can work miracles. I pray that you would restore my son to life.” The Buddha said to her, “I will do this for you. All I ask is that you bring me a single grain of mustard seed.” The woman’s heart leapt with joy, but the Buddha added, “But it must come from a house that has never known sorrow.” And with that, she was plunged into grief again. She knocked on the door of every house and asked if they had known sorrow and listened to their tales of anger, fear, and grief. But she went on from house to house and village to village. Finally at the end of the day she sat on the hillside overlooking the town. And as the sun went down and the lights went on she realized that every one of us knows anger, fear, and grief. Every one of us knows sorrow and suffering and that redemption is found not in escaping our suffering but in embracing it.
The miracle of Easter is not so much that Christ rose from the dead; if he was the Son of God, that is what one would expect. The miracle is that he remains bound by love to his followers, and comes to be with us in the trials, hardships, and fears of human life.
What are the prison doors that you need to unlock? Prison? Fear? Anger? Don’t let them separate you from God and from others. Even now we can begin to live the reality of the Resurrection. Take hold of the promise of the Risen Christ: “Peace be with you”. In spite of the walls we have built around our hearts, the Risen Christ comes to speak peace. But he gives us more than a word; he gives us himself. Just as the Risen Christ stretched out his wounded hands to Thomas, he stretches them out to us. Reach out and take his hand. And then stretch out your hands to others.