The story begins with:
A locked room.
Across the eons—how many locked rooms?
People gathered in fear. Alone. In fear.
Grief. Pain. Panic. Anger. Shame. Guilt.
Last week, on Easter morning, we encountered Mary Magdalene in her own moment of grief. Her need to immerse herself in the horrific loss she had witnessed. In the darkness of the early morning, she needed to be there. At the grave. With the death. There, as other disciples peaked in and saw emptiness, she wept. And then-the unexpected-Jesus shows up. There, Mary saw… Jesus. There, she talked… with Jesus. There… she couldn’t contain the good news! She ran off proclaiming “I have seen the Lord!”
Writing about grief following death, Rev. Dr. Dow Edgerton notes, “there are gashes in our understanding of this world…” and that “we need to listen to grief” because “this person speaking grief is the human face and voice of the grieving God. Because Christ went down to the hell of grief and grief of hell. Because if we do not grieve with those who grieve we cannot rejoice with those who rejoice. Because if we do not listen we will not know how to attend, to mourn, to comfort, to console (and even if such a thing is possible at all), or simply keep the faith.”
How many locked rooms?
People gathered in fear. Alone. Alone in their fear.
Grief. Pain. Panic. Anger. Shame. Guilt.
Today we gather with the disciples in a secret location, cowering in fear. What if they were going to be next? What if what happened to Jesus was going to happen to them? What if they were to be arrested by, and killed by, the Empire for being Jesus followers? Their grief. Their pain. Their panic. Their anger. Their shame. Their guilt. And there, in the unexpected. Jesus shows up. There, the disciples unexpectedly saw… Jesus. Talked with… Jesus. There… they couldn’t contain the good news. They proclaim to Thomas “We have seen the Lord!”
Where are we locked in fear?
What doors in our midst are locked?
In his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree published in 2011, James Cone, a black theologian, draws parallels between Jesus’ death on the cross to the lynchings of men, women, and children who were black that occurred in the United States from approximately 1877 to 1950. Cone writes, “The cross and the lynching tree are separated by nearly 2,000 years. One is the universal symbol of Christian faith; the other is the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America. Though both are symbols of death, one represents a message of hope and salvation, while the other signifies the negation of that message by white supremacy.” He suggests that, “the challenge we must face” is an exploration of “the symbolic connections…What is at stake is the credibility and promise of the Christian gospel and the hope that we may heal the wounds of racial violence that continue to divide our churches and our society.”
Here… Thomas shows up. With his own grief. Loss. Anger. Shame. Guilt. Jesus is dead. It is finished. Yet Thomas hears friend after friend that proclaims, “I have seen the Lord!” Personally, I push back on the idea that Thomas’ doubts are the primary lesson in this passage. When we have loss in our lives, when a loved one has died, how many of us wouldn’t want that same experience? To see our loved one. One more encounter with Jesus. One more conversation. One more embrace. One… more…
All Thomas is asking for is what Mary and the other disciples have already received: The living Christ in their midst. But how is this possible? What is going on here?
“Unless I see,” unless I touch… Thomas has a deep need to experience the revelation and joy Mary is proclaiming. The confidence with which his other friends, the other disciples, have in their declaration that “We have seen the Lord.” But how can this be?
And there, in the midst of the fear. Grief. Pain. Panic. Anger. Shame. Guilt. He stood. The one who should be dead.
“Peace be with you.”
How can this be?
How did those words, how do those words, that peace, fall on the ears of people racked with emotion?
Peace be with you.
He holds out his hands.
He too has been wounded.
The bells tolled—39 times. This week marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. April 4, 1968. At Memorial UCC, we observed the day by participating in an international response to the Day of Remembrance hosted by the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. We rang the church bells 39 times, one toll for each year of King’s life. This was “an international moment of reflection (of) the time when the fatal shot was fired. (And) just as news of King’s death was first known in Memphis and then rippled throughout the country and across the globe, the first bell chimes… began at the King Center at 6:01 p.m., with local, national, and international chimes to follow(ing) at… 6:05 p.m. CDT.” James Cone points to “King’s own experiences of segregation and injustice as a child and a teenager (which) disgusted him. Forced to sit behind a curtain on a train, (King) said, ‘I felt as though that curtain had dropped on my personhood.’ In those formative years the Klan was as active as ever, striking fear with their hooded night marches and burning crosses, a powerful reminder that not all crosses were liberating and loving, even when Jesus’ name was invoked.”
Cone goes on to say that “No theme was more important in King’s thinking about the cross than the hope that emerges out of terrible circumstances. Even when he saw his dream turned into a nightmare—cities burning in America, war raging in Asia, government and the media highly critical of him, and rejected by many black leaders in the civil rights movement as either too militant or too conservative—King refused to lose hope… He focused his hope on Jesus’ cross and resurrection. (King said) “Christ came to show us the way. Men love darkness rather than light, and they crucified Him, there on Good Friday on the Cross it was still dark, but then Easter came, and Easter is the eternal reminder of the fact that the truth-crushed earth will rise again.’”
What is “beloved community” to look like?
Our bible passages today tell us that it is not people secluded behind locked doors. It is not people cowering in fear.
It IS Jesus standing before us saying, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” It IS the Spirit blown upon us, sending us out. A Spirit that encourages us to take risks, to live in community altogether differently.
New Testament Professor, Matt Skinner, points to the early faith community in Acts that has “a way of expanding our imaginations. The story is big and bold because the book celebrates the new possibilities that spring into being as the people of God start coming to grips with the wonder of an empty tomb and the prophetic initiative of God’s Spirit. Acts is a book about daring — not necessarily heroic — communities of faith. They are daring because they, led by the Spirit, open themselves up to defying or surpassing the limits imposed by the status quo.”
Cone then draws us back to, “The church’s most vexing problem today is how to define itself by the gospel of Jesus’ cross. Where is the gospel of Jesus’ cross revealed today? The lynching of black America is taking place in the criminal justice system where nearly one-third of black men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight are in prisons, jails, on parole, or waiting for their day in court. Nearly one-half of the more than two million people in prisons are black… Through private prisons and the ‘war against drugs,’ whites have turned the brutality of their racist legal system into a profit-making venture for dying white towns and cities throughout America.” He concludes by saying, “If America has the courage to confront the great sin and ongoing legacy of white supremacy with repentance and reparation there is hope ‘beyond tragedy.’”
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you,”
For Jesus shows up once again.
Here. With us. And says, “Peace be with you.”
Look: He holds out his hands.
He too has been wounded.
May we respond—becoming a part of “the story (that) is big and bold.”
Let us “celebrate the new possibilities” emerging in our midst.
Let us “come to grips with the wonder of an empty tomb.”
Let us be prophetic.
Let us dare.
And… “as the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Reflection offered on April 8, 2018, on Acts 4:32-35 and John 20:19-31.
 Cone, James H. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016. 76.
 Cone, James H. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016. 91.
 Ibid, 163.
 Ibid, 166.