His actions then had startled and shamed them. But Jesus had given them a lesson to learn, and a glimpse into their own future. He’d showed them just how they must take his message of love into the world. As their Servant-King he’d invited them to join him in the community of service. "This is my new commandment,” he said; “love one another as I have loved you.”
So perhaps they did return to that place after their Lord had been crucified. It was a secret location and therefore safe, and the shared memories of that last supper eaten with him might have been some comfort in their grief, a fragment to hold on to as their world fell apart.
John’s account of Easter begins with the visit of John himself and Peter to the tomb, how they found it empty and the grave clothes still there. Then comes the story of Mary Magdalene meeting with Jesus in the garden, and being given a message for the disciples. Imagine her rushing to them, bursting in on their fear and sorrow to exclaim, "I have seen the Lord.”
But their immediate reaction is confusion and uncertainty, not delight. They remain huddled together with the doors shut and locked, afraid of everything on the other side. They’re yet unable to understand the cross as anything other than defeat and the snatching away of all that they had dreamed of and hoped for; so of course they remain afraid of the forces that had killed Jesus, they remain afraid for their own lives, they still wonder how things could all have gone so wrong.
I don’t find it hard to imagine how the disciples felt. I’ve often enough done the same, locked myself in and the world out when I’ve felt sad or confused or threatened, when things have gone wrong, when something done or said has wounded me. And I’ve seen too many situations where grief hasn’t be set aside, where anger’s fuelled bitterness, where slights and grudges are allowed to fester. Times when we shut out even those who want to care and offer help, when friends can’t reach us.
Mary Magdalene’s words probably only added to the confusion the disciples felt. It was more than they could take. “Just what is going on?” they must have thought. Again, I can understand. The world around us often changes so fast it takes our breath away. We don’t understand, we can’t keep up; we’re tempted to hide away somewhere safe with our own little group, and not think too much about what’s going on outside. Was that where the disciples were on that Sunday evening?
Churches can themselves become safe havens. To a degree that’s fine. People should be able to find refuge in a church, after all. But I’ve known churches shut their doors a little too firmly. Let’s keep the world at bay, we’re tempted to think: the stuff we don’t like, the stuff we can’t process, the stuff that scares us. Churches like that tend to restrict their membership to people of like mind, with doors closed to anyone or anything that might challenge their doctrines. The doors were locked where the disciples were, but Jesus still joined them; hear what he said to them: “Peace be with you; as the Father sent me, so I send you.”
And he breathed his Spirit upon them. Jesus comes to us as he came to those first disciples. He’s unhindered by the walls we build around ourselves to keep others away and ourselves safe, he bypasses the doors we lock out of anger or anxiety, he breaks through our grief, our fear, our uncertainty.
And he does so as he did then, so he can speak peace to us and breathe peace into our anxious hearts. He comes bearing the marks of his suffering and death, bearing the wounds of the world, the wounds of our own grief and pain and sin. He is the one who died, the wounds are there for all to see, and yet these wounds are now transformed into new life.
Jesus shows the disciples the wounds in his hands and side, then repeats the words "Peace be with you." So they are twice blessed. And they saw - and we see with them - that the body of Christ, though risen, though alive for ever, still carries its wounds. And if the Church that takes his message into the world is (in Paul’s great image) the Body of Christ, it must also be marked with his wounds, as it engages with the need, the violence, the pain, the suffering of the world.
We are here today because the disciples did not stay in that safe and familiar room. They opened the doors, and Jesus sent them out into the world they feared, assuring them of his life, his strength, his vision, his presence. And so he sends us today, offering us the deep peace of his Holy Spirit, and lifting from us the power of fear, pains and grief, of shame and guilt to disable us and hold us captive. Jesus frees us so that he can send us to make a difference wherever we are, and to bring forgiveness and freedom to others in his name.
So let us pray:
Come to us, risen Lord Jesus, and send us out in faith to live and to share the good news of Easter. Fill us with the breath of your Holy Spirit, that we may breathe peace into fearful lives, love one another as we have been loved, welcome the stranger, make friends of enemies, and forgive the sins that bind others to the past; that we may serve those who need our care, and proclaim with joy the risen life that you offer to us, and through us to all the world. Amen.