|Getting to Church|
How do you get to church? From what direction do you come to get there? I think that’s what our gospel lesson is asking today. And I think that’s a really important question. Some of us live very close—maybe a five-minute drive—so getting there is as easy as apple pie. On the other hand, some of the folks who attend St. David’s will travel and hour or more to get this church. But whether you are miles away or just around the corner, getting to church is the most important journey any of us will ever make.
I’m a long-distance cyclist. I pedal top to bottom and coast to coast. During these long tours I try to stay in churches. Church is safe, cost effective, and best of all, you can wash the day’s salt and sweat away in the big kitchen sink because no one’s around. And the accommodations would rival Motel 6. You get to pick your sleeping accommodations. Sometimes it’s the church library; other times it’s down in a dank basement or up in the choir loft. And come Sunday morning at 10 am, I just sit up in my pew and I’m ready to sing the first hymn. For me, I come straight to Church from wherever I’m at because when I’m in church, I’m home. The Church is my safe place as I down long, dusty roads.
But not everybody rides a bike nor finds wooden pews their cup of tea. For some, getting to the Church takes nearly a lifetime. And I think that is the purpose of the story in today’s Gospel lesson. John includes an intriguing story that you won’t find in any other gospel. The story suggests that he is writing much later than the other gospel writers. In fact, tradition says that John was the last of Jesus’ original Twelve. Can you imagine that? One by one he’d seen the very guys he’d broken bread with, executed. So, by the time he finally records his stories, Peter had been executed in Rome, James had been beheaded in Jerusalem. And all the rest of his twelve friends had followed their Lord through ignoble deaths to a better world.
But not John. He’d kept living through the decades; lived to be an old man. And over the years, he’d watched Christ’s Church mushroom from Jesus’ original Twelve to maybe fifty thousand believers or more. He’d also taken note about how folks found their way to the Church. He knew that, for some, Church was just around the corner—getting to Church was as easy as apple pie. But sadly, for others, he knew that the Church seemed like a universe away. And above all else, John wanted everyone far and near to find Jesus and his beloved Church.
So, let’s walk through this story and take a closer look John’s story. It’s now Sunday evening; maybe around the supper hour. John tells us that the disciples are in hiding. They must have felt a lot like the Jewish people in Schindler’s List. As Nazi soldiers round up Jews for extermination, if you look closely, you’ll feel the kind of emotion that comes from hiding under stairwells and in attics and under beds. It is a gnawing fear that you’ll get caught and killed. So, you hold your breath as evil walks from room to room searching for you. John says that Sunday evening the doors were locked “for fear of the Jews.” In John’s time it wasn’t the Nazis, it was probably the elite Sanhedrin looking to arrest them. So, they sit in fear around a table in a locked, secret place to await their fate.
However, I’m afraid they’re going to need more than hiding places and locked doors to keep Jesus out. Suddenly there he is, right in middle of their fear and confusion. And did you notice how he makes his presence known? Peace be with you, he says to them. Where have we heard those words before? If you didn’t know the story, you’d think they were coming from inside a Church. When I say The Peace of the Lord be with you, the knee-jerk reaction is to say, and with your Spirit. These words might have been said in a locked room once, but we hear our Lord’s greeting of peace proclaimed every Sunday in the Church.
In John’s day, Christians were already gathering in small house churches and every time they gathered, they heard our Lord’s, Peace be with you. He speaks peace to these fearful disciples not once, but twice. That one word must have lifted them to heaven. That exact word would have transported them back to a boat that was about to sink. The waves are splashing and the wind is howling and in seconds they will be no more. And these seasoned fishermen yell in terror. And from the chaos and fear and waves and wind, they hear that unmistakable word. Jesus stands in their midst and says, Peace! and the waves and wind whimper off like a whipped dog. When Jesus is with us, there will be peace even in the midst of our fear and chaos. In this short appearance all our church words show up—Holy Spirit, forgiveness and absolution, authority and empowerment. That’s the Church, the Body of Christ!
Some of us have lived so close to the Church, its never really been out of our sight. Maybe you’ve breathed in the atmosphere of a god-fearing grandmother or a praying dad. Maybe you have a long line of Christ’s disciples who have made your trip to church just around the corner. I was raised in a Christian home; I saw Jesus in a mom and dad who proclaimed faith, lived faith, and sang their faith in Christ. It wasn’t such a big step for me hear those words one afternoon in Sedan, Minnesota: Peace be with you, Tom. Some of you have come into the Church through baptism and confirmation and somewhere along the line you too, have heard Jesus whisper, “Peace be unto you.”
So, John is reminding some of us to remember our own heritage, a faith that has been nurtured and cultivated by others. And so today, we are in the Church. But John knows that that’s not everybody’s experience. Some folks live far, far away from the Church. And they might have once had a strong faith that thrived in their home. But somewhere along the line, they moved. Other interests. Whatever. And eventually they found themselves on the other side of the universe.
That’s Thomas. He wasn’t around when Jesus came to the disciples that day. Maybe he was out getting a carry-out lunch for the bunch to munch. But he gets an earful when he returns with the grocery bags! We have seen the Lord. That’s the same thing that Mary Magdalene had said to them earlier that the day. In essence, Thomas responds, “I don’t believe it!” I think he’d seen too much on Good Friday drama to have any Easter Sunday faith. He’s almost defiant in his resistance. Apparently, over the years, John had run into folks like Thomas. We might call them realists or materialists. I think I’d call them profoundly sad people. John never meant for this story to be an us versus them argument nor a science-versus-faith debate. He’s just telling us what he knows.
Thomas may be living far, far, away from hearing Jesus speak those words of Peace. But the story reminds us that God will go to great lengths to meet us. And though the door to faith may be closed, it’s never a problem for Christ. He’ll show up when you least expect it. So, about a week later we have a virtual déjà vu. Locked doors. Same hiding place. Everyone huddled together. Suddenly there he is, right in middle of Thomas’ rationalism and demand for empirical evidence. Apparently, Jesus had seen Thomas’ broken heart and heard his defiant disbelief. So, he repeats Thomas words almost verbatim.
In the end, Thomas too, finds his faith in Christ. And his words turn from bitterness to delirious joy: My Lord and my God! Do you hear what John is saying? Never, never, never give up on those who do not, or feel they cannot, accept Jesus’ peace. So, we pray our beloved Thomas and his friends knowing that God is working in locked places.
Hear the Good News! If you who have lived close to the Church and found in Jesus safety and comfort and forgiveness, then thank him. And live a life worthy of your calling. On the other hand, if you find yourself a universe away from Church, do not despair. God has His own way of entering into our locked lives and closed minds. And He will graciously meet you somewhere in the middle of that universe so that one day you may be able to join Thomas, and billions of others in saying, My Lord and My God!
O God, you have made of one blood all the people’s of the earth, and sent your bless-ed Son to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near: Grant that people everywhere may seek after you and find you; bring the nations into your fold; pour out your Spirit upon all flesh; and hasten the coming of your kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. [Book of Common Prayer p. 24]