“When it was evening on that
day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples
had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and
said, “Peace be with you.” After he said
this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when
they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father
has sent me, so I send you.” When he had
said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are
forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
But Thomas (who was called
the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have
seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his
hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I
will not believe.”
A week later his disciples
were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were
shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here
and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but
believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord
and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have
you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and
yet have come to believe.”
Now Jesus did many other
signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this
book. But these are written so that you
may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through
believing you may have life in his name.”
– John 20: 19 – 31, The New
Revised Standard Version
Throughout my life I have
been privileged to experience worship in many kinds of churches: Native American
church, small town churches, neighborhood churches, Little country churches
with a handful of people. Mega churches like the church of the Resurrection in
KC, inner city churches, College campus churches. Most of these churches,
though different, were alike. Most had pews, stained glass windows, choirs,
organs, pastors. Some even had parking lots. Yet all these churches are in
sharp contrast to the church portrayed in today’s gospel.
This passage gives us a
picture of a church which had no pipe organ, not even an old upright piano. No
parking lot. No choir. No pastor. In fact, it’s a picture of church at its
worst, the most miserable little gathering ever to take upon itself the name of
“church.” It’s the assembling of the disciples of Jesus, gathered on the
evening of Jesus’ resurrection. And look at them!
For many chapters in John’s
gospel, Jesus has been preparing his disciples for his departure. He has gone
over and over again, his commandments to love one another, to be bold, to trust
him, to be the branches to his vine, to feed on the Bread of Life, to follow
him at all costs. But somebody wasn’t paying attention. Here they are now,
cowering like frightened rabbits behind closed and bolted doors! You call this
This is the church at its
worst — “scarred, disheartened, and defensive“ a church with nothing. No plan,
no promise, no program, nothing. A terrified little band huddled in the corner
of the room with the chair braced against the door.” “What kind of
advertisement might this church put in the Saturday paper to attract members?
‘The friendly church where all are welcome’? Hardly. Locked doors are not a
sign of hospitality. ‘The church with a warm heart and a bold mission?’” Nope.
This is the church of sweaty palms and shaky knees and a firmly bolted front
door.” Could it even be called a church? Not only has it got no sanctuary, no
pulpit, no choir, no pastor. It has no
plan, no mission, no conviction, no nothing, except that, when it gathered, the
Risen Christ pushed through the locked door, threw back the bolt, and stood
among them. And they experienced the
presence of the Risen Christ. Maybe that’s as close as any church ever gets to
being Church. Whether it’s the Church of the Resurrection, Or Holy Name
Cathedral, or the United Church of Two Harbors — left solely to our own
devices, how good are we at living out the command to “Follow Jesus?”
I know you know this, but
sometimes we forget it: the church is not the building. It may add identity to
us, just as our bodies add identity to our personalities, but our building does
not make us “church.” You might not
believe this, but — God forbid — if this building burned down tonight — next
Sunday we could meet in the high school, and be just as much the church as we
are today. Because the determining
factor is not the building, but the fellowship, and whether Christ is present
in our midst.
Whether we are the church is
not our form of worship. I work hard each week, along with Al and Karen and
many others, to craft a worship service and a sermon. We get it all lined out
in the bulletin, all themed and planned; Which, even though we put in all that
effort, may fall flat…On the other hand, sometimes, by the grace of God, it
comes together, and the Spirit slips through our closed doors, our plodding
through the service, our respectable reverence, and worship happens, not of our
own making, but as a gift. And we bow in awed wonder, because that’s when we
You see, Church isn’t the
programs we offer. Or how beautiful we make the building, Or how extensive is
our books in the library…How are we doing at being church, the place of the
presence of Christ? If you want to see the church, then look here at that group
of scared individuals we read about in this morning’s gospel passage…those
timid souls hanging on to one another behind locked doors. Without this holy presence which makes our
gatherings the church of Jesus Christ, this is all we are. But the good news is
that it was to this church, which was hardly a church, that the Risen Christ
came saying, “Peace be with you”, showing them his pierced hands and feet.
Then he breathes on them,
giving them the Holy Spirit, bestowing upon them the power to forgive sins,
saying, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” We are church, not because
of the building we’ve built, not because of the choir, the preaching, or the
activities we offer here. We are church
because to us, even to us, Christ has come and given us his gifts of Spirit,
forgiveness, and mission, commissioning us to give them to the world in his
How and how well we succeed
in this, will be the sole indicator of our success. Even if we see ourselves as
tentative, as fearful and doubtful as that ragged group of Jesus’ first
disciples, there is hope for what Christ can and will yet do through us,
sometimes in surprising, even amazing ways.
Rev. William G. Willimon,
tells such a story about his first church:
My first church was in rural Georgia. I was fresh out of seminary, eager to be a good pastor in my first parish. I was in graduate school at the time, commuting out to the hinterland on the weekends. Most Sunday mornings at dawn, it was a tough trip out there from Atlanta. I used to say, “This trip only takes thirty minutes but takes us back thirty centuries.” It was a long way from Atlanta to Suwanee, Georgia.
My first visit to one of the churches, I found a large chain and padlock on the front door, put there, I was told, by the local Sheriff. “The Sheriff, why?” I asked.
“Well, things got out of hand at the board meeting last month, folks started ripping up carpet, dragging out the pews they had given in memory of their mothers. It got bad. The Sheriff come out here and put that there lock on the door until our new preacher could come and settle things down.”
That rather typified my time at that church. I would drive out there each Sunday, just praying for a miraculous snowstorm in October which would save me from another Sunday at that so-called church.
I spent a year there that lasted a lifetime. I tried everything. I worked, I planned, I taught, I pled but the response was always disappointing. The arguments, the pettiness, the fights in the parking lot after the board meeting were more than I could take. It was tough and I was glad to be leaving them behind.
“You call yourself a church!” I muttered as my tires kicked gravel up in the parking lot on my last Sunday among them.
A couple of years later, while visiting at Emory, I ran into a young man who told me that he was now serving that church. My heart went out to him. Such a dear young man, and only twenty-three!
“They still remember you out there,” he said.
“Yea,” I said glumly, “I remember them too.”
“Remarkable bunch of people,” he said.
“Remarkable,” I said.
“Their ministry to the community has been a wonder,” he continued. “That little church is now supporting, in one way or another, more than a dozen of the troubled families around the church. The free day care center is going great. Not too many interracial congregations like them in North Georgia.”
I could hardly believe what he was telling me. What happened? I asked.
“I don’t know. One Sunday, things just sort of came together. It wasn’t anything in particular. It’s just that, when the service was done, and we were on our way out, we knew that Jesus loved us and had plans for us. Things fairly much took off after that.”
I tell you what I think happened. I believe that church got intruded upon. I think someone greater than I knocked the lock off that door, kicked it open and offered them peace, the Holy Spirit, mission and forgiveness. And now, they are called “church.”
Here’s what I want to leave you with…Church isn’t my hard work, OR your earnest effort, OR our long range planning OR our heavy duty giving. Church is a gift, a visitation, the intrusion and presence of the Living Christ among us. Let that be what we call “Church.” May it be so….AMEN!