When the Doors were Shut / Second Sunday of Easter

John 20:19-31

But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.

A British pastor was talking about the first time he worked in India, which was more than 20 years ago. He 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 time, he worked in a place, along with a group of other Christians, that was basically just a clearing in the jungle. This mission consisted of a collection of wooden huts with porches set out into a square with a cleared, sandy area in the middle.

The first night he was there, they were all told to go to bed as soon as it was dusk. He asked why. He wished he hadn’t asked, because he learned that, as dusk settled, dozens of cobras and other dangerous animals would come out of the jungle undergrowth and make their way through the clearing. He imagined that they were looking for food or whatever cobras do at night. And they were all told to make sure that they closed their windows tight and put the plugs in their sinks, to stop spiders and scorpions coming in.

When asked, how well do you sleep that night? He said he didn’t sleep a wink . . . he had the windows closed, the sink covered, towels by the door, paper in the door lock, the light on and he was huddled up in the bed scared by every noise. Outside, he could hear the wildlife slithering past his door. He says he had never felt so scared in all his life and couldn’t wait for the night to end . . . He felt immense fear! I’m not sure most of us would ever experience fear under those circumstances.

Now imagine the disciples. It was Easter Sunday evening. Two days before, their Master had been brutally crucified. The disciples of Jesus were only beginning to process what happened, on this third day after His crucifixion. Mary Magdalene had gone to Christ’s tomb early that morning and found it empty. Where was His body? Had one of His enemies stolen it? She ran to where Simon Peter and John were staying, and said, they have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put Him!

Obviously, this was upsetting news to anyone who loved Jesus. Who had taken His body and why? Peter and John ran to the tomb to see for themselves. Finding the tomb just as Mary said, Peter and John returned to their hiding place. Mary was left alone at the tomb where the risen Christ Himself appeared to her and called her by name. At first, she didn’t recognize Him. When He spoke to her and revealed Himself to her, she blurted out “Rabboni,” which means teacher.

Afterward, Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: I have seen the Lord! And she told them that He had said these things to her. And here is where we pick up the story again.

It was evening now on that first Easter day and the disciples were cowering nervously in the Upper Room. The doors were shut, and John’s Gospel says, “for fear of the Jews.”

How tragic it is anytime the doors of the church are shut because of fear. There was a time when many churches in the world were never locked. Few churches would risk that today. We fear that someone would carry the church away. There were other doors that were shut, however, in those golden days of old. There were doors, for example, that were shut against people of other races. How tragic it is when fear shuts the doors of a church.

How tragic it is when fear shuts the door of a person’s heart. That happens to individual people as well. They draw into their own private worlds because something “out there” is just too threatening. How about you? Are you living behind closed doors because of fear?

One reason the disciples were hiding behind closed doors may have been the spread of rumors in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. I’ve dealt with this before, but it’s so important for our day and time, I want to emphasize it again.

John says that the disciples were behind closed doors because of “fear of the Jews.” There’s no indication in Scripture that those fears were justified. There’s no evidence that the terrible violence of that weekend went beyond the torture and crucifixion of Jesus. But probably there were rumors. At least it always seems that way. Whenever there’s conflict between rival groups, rumors fly. Fear seems to intensify. Reason is thrown out the door.

There’s so much fear in our society, even today. That fear is often fed by rumor. Of course, we have perfected the rumor mill in our time. We have the news media to thank for this misinformation. Even worse, we have social media which feeds us a steady stream of hateful misinformation.

If the disciples had taken to heart the rumors that were circulating around Jerusalem about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the Christian message wouldn’t have gotten off the ground. Satan would’ve won for sure. But thanks to the dedication of that small band of believers, the word got out, He is risen from the grave. Of course, it cost most of them their lives.

One of those who gave their lives was a man name Thomas. Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the other disciples on that Easter Sunday evening when Jesus made His first post-resurrection appearance. So, the other disciples told him, we have seen the Lord! But he said, Unless I see the nail marks in His hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into His side, I won’t believe.

You know, there’s a bit of Thomas in me. There are so many scam artists around today. Who can you believe? Remember, most of Thomas’ friends were fishermen. You know the tales that fishermen tell. Just kidding, of course. Besides, common sense will tell you, people don’t rise from the grave except in vampire movies. Who could blame Thomas for his reluctance to believe?

Religious faith is based on trust but there will always be those twisted individuals who will seek to take advantage of unsophisticated believers in order to line their own pockets. At the same time, little attention is paid to the hundreds of thousands of pastors who faithfully serve Christ every day . . . sometimes under most difficult circumstances.

Unless I see the nail marks in His hands, and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe. We can appreciate Thomas’ reluctance.

A week later the disciples were together again. This time Thomas was with them. Again, the doors were locked, yet somehow Jesus came and stood among them and once more said, Peace be with you! Then he turned to Thomas and said, put your finger here; see My hands. Reach out your hand and put it into My side. Stop doubting and believe. Thomas said to Him, my Lord and my God!

Then Jesus told him, because you have seen Me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. He’s talking about us. We weren’t there to witness Christ’s resurrection, but one of the reasons we believe is the testimony of people like Thomas who, like the other disciples, gave his life for his belief in Christ’s resurrection.

Do you know how Thomas’ story ends? Do you know where he died? He died in India, of all places. He became the apostle to the people of India. He brought the gospel of Christ to that land that was so culturally different from northern Israel where Thomas grew up. It’s said that Thomas died a martyr after he was run through with five spears by five soldiers.

My Lord and my God! Thomas said those words after his encounter with the risen Christ. He was no longer doubting Thomas. He was the Apostle Thomas, willing to give his life to proclaim that Christ is alive, and life is eternal. And that’s why we’re here in this place today, because seeing through the eyes of followers like Thomas for ourselves, we also believe.

An old farmer in South Carolina thought the existence of Europe was fictional. Did you catch that? He believed there was no such place as the continent of Europe. He found it hard to believe that anything existed past the Atlantic Ocean on the other side. Nevertheless, in 1918, this farmer received his papers from Uncle Sam, was drafted into the army and had the opportunity to experience Europe as a fact.

You wouldn’t believe what lies over there, he said.

That’s how we feel about life beyond the grave. You wouldn’t believe what lies over there. We believe because men and women like doubting Thomas gave their lives to get the word out. “Christ is alive!” He is risen.