Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Open the Doors
Life after (Death?) Easter, a sermon series on living the new life after Easter, preached Apr 16, 2023 at the 9:30am Worship service
Last week was Easter. We joined with other churches across the globe to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, who was crucified, died, and was buried, then on the third day, he rose again from death and showed God’s promise of life after death is real and true. Some do religion, church, Jesus hoping life after death is true. Theologian Karl Barth suggested that’s why many come to Easter, to ask the question, is it true? Is there really life after death?
Today we’ve come through Easter. We met the risen Jesus. We asked the question, “Is it true,” as we witnessed the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection. We replied, He is risen indeed! We may spend the rest of our lives asking and answering Is it true, and trying to believe, yes, it is, there is life after death.
The Gospel of John doesn’t stop at that. Even with life after death shown to be possible and true, we are given several more stories of Jesus with strangers, and disciples. What is John still trying to teach us?
For the next five weeks of the Easter season, Brobbey, Caitlan and I are going to preach from John on the stories after Jesus’ resurrection. See, we aren’t just waiting for life after death. We are sent to live new and different lives NOW, life after Easter.
Let’s pray and listen for the words of the Lord from…
Prayer for Illumination
Scripture John 20:19-23
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors were locked where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then, the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 As you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; as you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
This too is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
Sermon Open the Doors
Last week, on the morning of that first Easter, the disciples open locked doors and quickly let Mary in. She brought bad news. The tomb was empty. They stole Jesus. Two of them step outside the safety of the closed doors to run and see for themselves. They found the stone rolled away, and the linen wrappings and head cloth lying neatly where Jesus’ body had been. Those two returned, and believed something, but what? I think they believed Mary, that someone had stolen Jesus’ body. Just a few hours after that first Easter moment, the disciples, except for Thomas, are bunched together behind closed doors.
At my very first church one Easter, we had a problem with the church doors on Easter. They kept getting closed. We had sealed the doors on Maundy Thursday as if they were the stone in front of the tomb, but on Easter, we promised those doors would be wide open, like the stone rolled away from the tomb.
When I got to church, nice and early that Easter morning, I opened the front doors all the way. Someone later came behind me and closed them. After the Easter breakfast, I went back upstairs and noticed the doors were closed, so I scooted back down the aisle to open them up again. At some point, someone came behind me and closed them again. I popped out later to check something with our organist and noticed them closed, so I hustled back there to open them up again, and when I came out to start worship, I saw someone had shut them.
The idea was for anyone who comes to church or even just drives by to see church doors wide open. That symbol was supposed to match the stone rolled away from the tomb. It was supposed to say, to us and to everyone, Jesus the Christ is not dead and buried but alive and on the move. But some disciples kept wanting to shut the doors where we were meeting. Should church be a wide open empty tomb with the stone rolled away and a living Jesus on the loose, or a house with only disciples huddled inside behind closed doors?
Mary had stayed at the tomb weeping, needing to find his body. There in the garden, in grief and confusion, she was shown angels of truth that challenged her assumption he had been stolen. She desperately held onto her assumption until the stranger she doesn’t recognize speaks to her, “Mary.” Finally, her dead answer falls away and she asks a living question, “Rabbouni?” as if to ask, “Is it true? Is it you?” Then she runs back to tell the others.
I imagine her knocking on the doors causing some stress inside. The disciples have to risk opening the doors again. With Mary in her frantic state, surely she’s attracted attention as she raced through town. Did she bother to check if she was being followed, as they agreed? They open the doors, hurry her through, and shut and lock the doors behind her before anyone sees.
The gathered disciples, except for Thomas, ask her to lower her voice. Mary says she has seen the Lord. “Great, you found him. Do we need to go rebury him?” “NO! That’s not what I’m saying,” she yells. “SHHHHHH!” they scold. “I saw him, alive, standing there! He recognized me, and said my name, and then I recognized him. I hugged him, and he laughed, but told me to let him go. He told me to come back and tell you what he said, “Go tell my disciples I am first ascending to my God, and to your God.”
Mary is saying Jesus isn’t dead. He’s alive. He is risen. Should that erase their fear of dying, of death? It doesn’t. They are still locked away, asking the question, “Is it true? It would be great if it WAS true! But it can’t be true, can it?”
Why do some churches like to have doors shut? Maybe it’s a practical reason, to save money on heating and air conditioning. Boy, trust me and Caitlan, if you are ever cold in the back of the sanctuary, move upfront. It's always warmer up here. If you’re really cold, be a liturgist or join the choir. These are the warmest spots in the sanctuary.
Or maybe we think the doors should be closed and locked for safety. We’ve been shown in the resurrection, the empty tomb, not to be afraid of death, but we still are. We are afraid enough to close and lock doors, if we could, to protect ourselves and each other rather than risk ourselves and show the world how much we trust and believe Christ is risen indeed, and death has no sting.
Or maybe, churches huddle together behind closed doors because out there is too different. The road that once was dirt and two lanes is expanded and busy. What used to be scattered homes on farmlands are now neighborhoods, strip malls, and liquor stores. Maybe we huddle up here, hoping here things will keep on being like they used to be, the way we remember them being, rather than have to face living in a new and changed world.
That’s when Jesus appears to them, despite the closed and locked doors, Jesus enters and offers, “peace be with you.” I don’t think his offering peace gives them peace. I think they freak out a little. Some are scared. Others are in shock. Others are skeptical. I think that’s why he shows them the marks on his hands and his side. He’s trying to help them see and believe it's really him. “Yes, its really me. Yes, I died. You saw them crucify me. Here are the scars. You saw them bury me. I was dead. But I’m alive. I’m with God and I’m with you, now and always.”
Is that enough to erase our fears? Would that be enough for you and me? If Jesus came through those doors offering us peace, would we be at peace, or would we still be a bit scared, skeptical? Let’s say he read the room and decided, okay, we need to see, so he shows us his scars. Would that help, or would that trigger memories of trauma and violence in our world?
In a staff meeting this week, we shared some of the ways we, your staff, are not yet at peace. How many more mass shootings have there been just in April? Women and doctors can now be arrested and prosecuted for best-practice treatments for early pregnancy complications, or high-risk pregnancies, or miscarriages. Russia’s war on Ukraine continues. We keep building bigger prisons, and filling them with blue collar dark skinned folk, while the white collar white skinned corporate crimials crash banks and misuse campaign funds. Lower and middle-class citizens are paying more taxes this year than ever before, while the wealthiest in our country have lower tax rates than ever. Slavery and segregation’s impact on today is denied, while rebel flag are driven through college and high school campuses. If Jesus showed up, showed me his scars, and told me to be at peace, I think I might fire off a laundry list of how the world is not at peace, and how we need him now more than ever.
I wonder if the disciples did that. I wonder if they told Jesus their fears and worries, about being insulted and rejected, persecuted like he was, arrested, and crucified like he was. I imagine so. Maybe that’s when Jesus breathes into them the courage and confidence of Holy Spirit. Despite all their questions, worries, and fears, he breathes Holy Spirit into them and sends them through their doors into the world to forgive.
That one power Jesus used and it got him in so much trouble, forgiving. When Jesus forgave sins, others hated it and killed him for it, because he had assumed for himself a power they thought of as God’s through God’s law in scripture. They believed the path to forgiveness was faith in God and obedience to God’s laws. Then Jesus says God’s forgiveness can go to those who don’t believe, Gentiles, or those who broke the laws, like Samaritans, or sinners? Still, forgiveness is the first power Jesus gives to disciples, not the power to judge, rule, punish, only to forgive. Jesus sends his disciples back through their closed doors into the world with one power, to forgive as much as we are able, trusting God recognizes the forgiveness they, and we, offer.
Out there in Chestertown and the nearby Eastern Shore, there are many good-hearted children of God who are locked away in homes on Sunday mornings. Some heard of a loving forgiving God but found church to be closed hearted, exclusive. Some would like to imagine a living loving God, but find church to be practicing dead traditions that don’t seem relevant in our world today. Some have only heard of a God who condemns and judges and sends to hell, and they easily find too many closed minded churches who worship that God. Good people, God’s people give up on God and church when they find churches to be tombs of judgmental people, scared of change, locked away behind closed doors. What if church was instead, lively, joyful, forgiving people, with hearts and minds, arms and doors wide open, and happy to out there on the loose with a living loving risen God?
When we, the church, live life after Easter, we try new things, invite new people. We forgive and love each other, and trust forgiveness and love for ourselves. We forgive and love sinners who we once thought didn’t deserve it, and we humbly ask forgiveness and love from the sins we committed, or the ones we didn’t try to stop.
In life after Easter, Jesus comes through closed doors, shows us his wounds, invites us to have enough peace, breathes the confidence and courage of God’s Holy Spirit in to us, and we risk opening up and going out there to forgive and to be forgiven.
Easter isn’t about life after death. Its about life without fear, a life of peace, a life of welcome to strangers, forgiveness of enemies and ourselves, and inclusion of those whom tradition has judged and excluded. May we live life after Easter. May this church be a wide open empty tomb with Jesus on the loose.
To God be all glory and honor, now and forever, amen? Amen.
Now blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow, be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.