05 May 2011

Opening Doors

John 20: 19-31

Second Sunday of Easter/ 1st May 2011

When reading John’s gospel we have to pay attention to everything.  He’s a stickler for detail. Every word is there for a reason and at times with multiple levels of meaning.  For example, in John 21, we find Jesus along the Sea of Galilee having breakfast with his disciples around a charcoal fire.  Why is John being so specific? Why does he mention charcoal?  Yes, he’s trying to paint a picture for us. But the charcoal has meaning.  So, do a word search and see if “charcoal” is used any other time in John.  You’ll discover quickly that the last time a charcoal fire was mentioned was on the evening of Jesus’ crucifixion.  Peter three times denied he knew the Lord sitting around a charcoal; now, post-resurrection, they are at another charcoal fire and Jesus asks Peter – three times – “Do you love me?”

            Similarly in John 20, in today’s lection we find two references to doors, doors that are locked and doors that are shut.  Twice in this text John is explicitly clear. Again, on the one hand he’s offering the kind of detail that allows us to paint a picture in our mind’s eye.  But the doors have meaning, too.  The word is found only twice in John, both times here.  In both situations the doors are shut, closed off in fear of the threat perceived beyond the doors. 

            It’s striking that Jesus’ first two post-resurrection experiences, one on Easter evening and the other a week later, have to do with doors.  Jesus emerges behind closed doors.  I think the point is obvious: nothing can bar the presence of the Resurrected One.  Otherwise, John would not have stressed this point as much.  Nothing can hinder the presence of the Resurrected One – neither stones covering the entrances of tombs, nor rooms that become tomb-like shutting Jesus’ followers off from their world, their community, their purpose.  Nothing can hinder the presence of the Resurrected One.

            John paints a powerful image for us because it’s not just Jesus’ first disciples who shut themselves off in fear behind locked doors.  Every disciple in every age does the same. There’s something deep within us that resists resurrection, that doesn’t want God to burst onto the scene of our lives.  There’s something within us that really doesn’t want God showing up unannounced, getting caught up in the plans we make for our lives.  There’s something within us that is particularly adept at pushing God to the periphery.  We build up walls against God, we cordon off the Holy.  We turn inward – whether through selfishness or narcissism, often in fear – and we keep people at bay, the needs of our neighbor at a distance.  We shut off and we shut down.  We resist the power of love to form and reform us.

            In fear, the disciples lock the doors.  In fear. Fear is ruling and dictating their lives, influencing their choices.  Not faith, not trust, not confidence, but fear.  People generally assume that the opposite of love is hate.  But what we find in scripture is a deeper, more profound truth:  The opposite of love is not hate, it is fear.  “For perfect love casts out fear,” (1 John 4:18) as we find in John’s epistle.  Love is not dictating their lives; love isn’t influencing their choices; love isn’t ruling their hearts.  It’s fear:  it’s fear that locks doors, it’s fear that shuts people out or shuts people down, it’s fear that’s unwilling to welcome the presence of God, it’s fear that refuses to step out in freedom from behind closed doors, it’s fear that hinders us for reaching after and living into the resurrection life of Christ.

            However, Jesus loves to show up behind our walls and closed doors.  If the doors of fear shut him out, then in love he emerge in the place of fear, he will appear within our defenses.  Jesus comes in the spirit of God who is not particularly fond of prisons, especially the self-inflicted kind caused by fear.  God loves to break open tombs and open prison doors.  We find this in Acts 5: 19. The apostles had been arrested by the Temple police in Jerusalem, when “during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, brought them out, and said, ‘Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life,” meaning one’s new life in Christ.  God freed Peter from prison (Acts 12:6).  In the early church, the Spirit moved among them and opened doors, doors of opportunity to preach the gospel and spread the news about Jesus.  Acts 14: 27:  “When they arrived, they called the church together and related all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles.” Earthquakes strike and prison doors break open and prisoners lose their chains (Acts 16:26). Paul writes to the Corinthians, “When I came to Troas to proclaim the good news of Christ, a door was opened for me in the Lord” (2 Cor. 2:12).  Finally, in Revelation, hear what the angel says to the church in the wealthy, prosperous city of Philadelphia:  “I know your works.  Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.  I know that you have little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name” (Rev. 3:8).  And to the church in Laodicea, the angel says, “Listen!  I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Rev. 3:20). And at the very end of Revelation we’re given a glorious vision of the New Jerusalem coming down out of heavens, 1500 miles square, with a low wall all around it and four gates, one on each side:  and the text is very clear – the gates are never closed, never locked, always open because there is no threat to the people of God, the people of God will not live in fear, behind closed walls or closed doors.

            The presence of Christ, you see, has this marvelously gracious way of showing up in the very places and people – sometimes even churches – which are forever trying to bar themselves off from embracing resurrection.  If the doors are locked, then he will show up within the fear, in the prisons, in the dead places, bringing liberation and life.  But then Jesus never leaves us there, he has a wonderful way of then opening up the doors of our lives and our churches, in order to turn us outward toward life, moving us from beyond the limiting confines of fear into a world of new-found faith, confidence, and hope.  He arrives in our fear and says, “Peace be with you,” and then doors fly open and he sends them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And they go because nothing is barring them.  Here in John we find his version of Pentecost (it doesn’t agree with what we find in Acts).  “Receive the Holy Spirit –and now go out and become an agent of peace and forgiveness and mercy in the world.

            The American mythologist, Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), who became well-known  in the 1980s through the PBS series, Mythology, hosted by Bill Moyers, was often associated with this quote:  “Follow your bliss.”  But the rest of sentence went like this:  “Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.”  By bliss, Campbell didn’t mean, whatever makes you happy in the moment; instead, it refers to a kind of deep, existential joy and delight, a joy and a delight that possess a kind of wisdom with enormous power.  While this statement might sound a little too New Age for us –and I have some reservations about even referencing it because it’s often misunderstood as a permission to be selfish—there is truth here that resonates with Jesus’ view of the kingdom.  If bliss is another word for God’s kingdom of justice and peace and mercy and love, if these are the deepest desires of every human heart and the summation of God’s vision for creation, then if we align ourselves with this vision, this deep purpose then the universe will yield, doors will open where there were only walls, possibility replaces impossibility, hope replaces despair, love replaces fear, resurrection replaces death. Follow the path of love and peace and the universe will bend, the world will change, and our lives will change as a result. Doors will open.

            When I look back upon our “Growing in God’s Grace” campaign from several years ago, it was in many ways about opening doors.  Our word for it was hospitality, becoming more accessible.  We knew that God was calling us to open up.  It was exceptionally difficult getting into this building if you were immobile or had difficulty managing stairs.  Unintentionally, the former structure was shutting people out, keeping people from coming to worship and taking part in the life of the church.  Over the years I have heard stories of people, who wanted to come to church, but couldn’t get in without a lot of effort, and refused to come in the back door using the lift, because of how it made them feel. The renovations of this building – the creation of the new vestibule and the removal of the old staircase, the construction of a new porch, handicap accessible ramp, and driveway allowed us to open ourselves up in a variety of ways.  One of the first persons to use the ramp was Ted Heun who arrived for the candlelight service on Christmas Eve in 2009 in his motorized wheelchair – and for many Sundays after that.  Worship was an integral part of Ted’s life and the new ramp allowed him to worship here in this space with us.  Without the renovations, he would have been completely isolated from the worship life of the church, unable to get into the sanctuary.  It is a joy that Phil Colston can get into the sanctuary more easily, can help pass out bulletins in the vestibule, take up the offering; and last Sunday Phil could come down the aisle to receive the elements in Communion like the majority of us could and can.

            There’s also the story that David Hutton shared with me of a person who is able to attend our concert series on Sunday afternoons because of the ramp.  She doesn’t get outside her house that often and cherishes the opportunity to be here for good music.  After one concert she lingered in the sanctuary as the people left. She was all alone.  Dave noticed her and asked if everything was okay.  She said yes, she said it’s such a joy to be able to come into this building; she loves this worship space and she just wanted a quiet moment to appreciate it and dwell in it.

            When doors open, there are more opportunities for ministry, more opportunities for service, by opening our doors more are able to come in; but we’re also reaching out to the wider community and eager to do so.  That’s what our last campaign and the renovations achieved – the current campaign – Embracing the Vision – is about retiring the debt from that campaign.  Yes, it’s about getting rid of the debt, but it’s about more than this.  It’s about the future ministry of this church, as we continue to open our doors to the community, discovering new possibilities for ministry within these walls and beyond these walls.  When we follow the bliss that is the kingdom, more doors will fly open for us.  We don’t want anything, such as our debt, from hindering our ability, hampering new possibilities of opening the doors of this ministry – that’s why it needs to go away.  It was good debt for a time, it allowed us to make these long-overdue changes, but now it’s bad debt and it needs to go away. 
            We have to be honest that this is an enormous challenge before us, especially in this economy.  But remember what we’ve been able to accomplish together.  The initial loan amounts of $900,000 has been paid down to under $650,000.  This is amazing, thanks to our fiscal management and the generous support of the congregation.  And we’ve been able to do all of this without impacting the operating budget.  It speaks volumes about the financial strength and health of this congregation and the level of commitment to the ministry of CPC and confident about its future. By retiring this debt we are preparing for the future God is preparing for us. We can only do this by working together and discerning together and individually what our part will be in this campaign.  That’s why we call this a season of prayerful discernment.

            As I prayerfully discern what my pledge to the campaign will be and determine my expression of gratitude and what sacrifices I might be able to make to this campaign, I think  of Ted and Phil, and thanks to the vision of this congregation,  I imagine the countless others who can now worship here and will worship here and experience something of the presence and peace of the Resurrected Christ who loves to open doors.