After living and ministering alongside Jesus for three years, it’s hard to believe that even on Easter evening, after Mary Magdalene told them that she had seen the Risen Lord, the disciples were gathered in the Upper Room—behind a locked door, in fear. Why did they doubt? Yet, as we look at our own lives, are we really so different?
Sermon Text: John 20:19-31
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
It was during my junior year in high school. I had a class with a girl named Estelle Long. During the class, we had some down time, and Estelle wanted to show us something really cool. It was kind of like an experiment. It required five people, and she asked for volunteers. I liked Estelle, so naturally I volunteered. Anyway, here’s what happened: One person sat in a chair. Two people stood on opposite sides of the chair. Estelle asked the four of us standing on opposite sides to place a finger—a single finger—underneath each corner of the chair and try to lift the person off the ground in the chair.
Impossible, right? We tried. We couldn’t do it…
But then she explained that if we take turns stacking all eight of our arms over the head of the person sitting in the chair, one arm above another arm, something scientific would happen—I don’t remember exactly how she explained it. We would reduce air resistance or create a temporary vacuum or something… so we did that. And then, she had us unstack our arms, and repeat the experiment. And now… voila! What had been impossible before now was easy. We lifted the person in the chair off the ground with no problem. Light as a feather! At least that’s how I remembered it.
Almost thirty years later, on the other side of a high school diploma, a few college degrees, and a whole lot of life experience, I happened to remember Estelle’s demonstration. I remembered it out of the blue, and I thought, “That’s impossible!” I mean, I know I experienced it—I know that we couldn’t lift the person off the ground the first time, and then we did this thing with our arms, and then we could lift them off the ground. But Estelle’s so-called “scientific” reason for it—that we had eliminated air resistance couldn’t have explained it.
Fortunately, through the magic of Google, you can find out why that experiment works. There’s even a Wikipedia entry on it: It’s a parlor trick often referred to as “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board.”
My point is this: in spite of my own experience, I still didn’t believe her! I saw it with my own eyes, and I still didn’t believe her. I participated in it, and I still didn’t believe her! It didn’t make sense.
All that to say, we should probably be at least a little sympathetic with nine of these ten disciples gathered in that upper room on Easter evening who still didn’t believe that Jesus had been resurrected. John, you may recall from last week, believed it earlier when he saw the empty tomb—but the other nine, and Thomas, who isn’t there on this particular night, the other nine still didn’t believe. After all they experienced for three years, living and ministering alongside Jesus, they still didn’t believe that Jesus was resurrected. After seeing Jesus give eyesight to the blind, make the lame walk, cleanse the lepers, restore hearing to the deaf, and even raise the dead—more than once—they still didn’t believe that Jesus was resurrected. After hearing a firsthand report that morning from Mary Magdalene, a trusted fellow disciple, they still didn’t believe that Jesus was resurrected.
Not to mention that Jesus had told them repeatedly that he had to be killed and then on the third day he would be raised… They still didn’t believe that Jesus was resurrected.
Instead, what are they doing? John tells us that they’re hiding behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews.” Don’t they ever learn? Don’t they remember that night on the Sea of Galilee, when the wind and waves were battering their little fishing boat. They were bailing water. They were afraid for their lives. And they wake up Jesus, who’s somehow sleeping through the storm, in the stern if the boat: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And Jesus wakes up and announces to the wind and the waves the same thing he announces to the disciples in this upper room: “Peace!” And he says, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”
And couldn’t he ask the same question of these same disciples in this upper room: “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” It almost seems as if fear and a lack of faith go hand in hand, doesn’t it? Fear…
I am, for whatever reason, a naturally fearful person. I get scared easily.
I’ll never forget four years ago, when I was preparing to go to Kenya for the first time on a mission trip. I went to teach Wesleyan theology and doctrine and church history to a group of indigenous United Methodist pastors there. Our United Methodist Church is growing explosively in that part of the world. We can’t start churches fast enough. We can’t train and equip pastors there fast enough. So I was going to be part of that training effort. I was excited to go… I’m not the handiest person in the world, and let’s face it: mission trips often involve building things or repairing things, which people like me have to pay other people to do! So I was exited… at least at first.
My friend and seminary classmate Leslie talked me into doing it. She was a minister at the church that sponsored the trip. And when Leslie signed me up to do it, she hadn’t yet been to Kenya herself. But she was leaving in a couple of weeks to go and teach the same classes that I would be teaching. And then I was scheduled to go six months after her.
So when Leslie got back from the trip, I called her up, anxious to find out how it went. To my surprise she described being afraid for her life—for example, when her entourage visited one of the world’s largest slums. And a large group of desperately poor people surrounded her and her friends. She said, “I was afraid I would never see my children again!” But she wasn’t only afraid for her physical safety; she was afraid for her health: she worried that she would get some exotic, life-threatening illness. She warned me about how easy it is to get a water-borne or food-borne illness. She said, “Oh my gosh, Brent. It was terrifying. I will never go back again… By the way, we got your plane ticket, and you’re scheduled to leave in September.” I promise I’m not making that up!
Now, keep in mind: I’m ever so slightly a hypochondriac already. I’ve told you this before. I worry about stuff. So when Leslie told me this, I was already wondering what my obituary would say. To make matters worse, you have to fill out paperwork that asks you for the name of the funeral home where you want your remains sent if worse comes to worse.
None of these things helped ease my anxiety, to say the least.
Then I went to Emory Midtown Hospital to get all these shots and prescriptions in preparation for the trip. The doctor recommended that I get a yellow fever vaccine. It was optional, he said, since there were currently no active cases of yellow fever in Kenya. I said, “Are there any side-effects I should be concerned about?” I expected him to say, “Nothing to worry about.” Instead he said, “Oh, sure… It’s a live virus vaccine, which means there’s a very small risk that you could contract yellow fever from the vaccine itself.”
So in my mind, I was already planning on getting yellow fever. “Oh, well… Why don’t we just save money on gas and just check me into the hospital now!” Because in my mind I had already gotten yellow fever!
I was afraid!
But brothers and sisters, I’ve been living this Christian life long enough to know that being afraid sometimes is really good for me! Because, just as he does in today’s scripture, Jesus has a way of meeting me in my place of fear—comforting me, reassuring me, challenging me, forcing me to trust in him, forcing me outside of my comfort zone, stretching my faith… If it takes fear to get me to do those things, that’s a good thing!
When I was a child, my mother collected Lladró porcelain figurines. They were these beautiful, delicate knickknacks that she put on a shelf behind glass in a hutch in the “living room”—which was a strange name for it, since no one lived in the living room. No one was allowed in to the living room unless we were entertaining Queen Elizabeth or Prince Charles, which didn’t happen very often.
My point is, these figurines were for decoration only; they weren’t action figures. Even though, to a four- or five-year-old kid, they looked deceptively like action figures. And if I played with them—which is to say, if I actually used them—I got into big trouble. They were not to be used; they were to be put on a shelf, where they looked pretty… and collected dust.
I confess that I want my Christian faith to be like these Lladró figurines. I want to possess faith—like my mom possessed these figurines. But I only ever want to have to use it on rare occasions. Otherwise, I’m happy to leave it on the shelf, where it looks good, collecting dust.
Fortunately for us, we can’t be serious disciples of Jesus for very long without needing to take our faith off the shelf and put it into action—and that’s often what fear motivates us to do!
Because when we’re afraid it’s because we realize that we’re not in control. We can’t depend on ourselves to solve a problem. We can’t trust in ourselves to solve the problem. Our plan—whatever our plan was—goes out the window. If we’re going to get through this, we’re going to have to follow his plan. Again, that’s a really good place to be, spiritually speaking. Don’t you do some of your best praying when you’re afraid. Don’t you often feel closest to God when you’re afraid. And in this vulnerable place, we’re often very open to our Lord’s guidance and direction.
And on the other side of all that fear, we learn to trust in him more. That happened to me in Kenya, that’s for sure. Those two trips were among the greatest things I’ve ever done in my life—but in order to experience it, I had to live for a while with fear. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying it was an “I’m going to get beheaded by ISIS” kind of fear. Or a “I’m going to be imprisoned by the North Koreans” kind of fear. Or “I got this really scary diagnosis from the doctor, now what am I going to do?” kind of fear. But it was fear enough for me… And it was good for me. Because I learned to trust in Jesus more—just as these disciples in this upper room would.
Which is not to say that Jesus wants us to stay in a place of fear for very long. He came into this locked door, after all, because he wanted to give the disciples peace—he says it to them twice here, in verses 19 and 21: “Peace be with you.” He wants to take away our fear.
Today is opening day in Major League Baseball. Last time I checked the Atlanta Braves had the worst record in the pre-season. I hope that doesn’t carry over into the new season. But I saw a couple of weeks ago that the Braves released veteran outfielder Nick Swisher. They needed to free up a spot on the roster for someone else—for someone better. Here’s the thing, though: they still owe him $15 million in 2016—the final year of his contract. So the Braves have decided that Nick Swisher is so bad that they’re paying him $15 million to not play, to stay home and do nothing. Nice work if you can get it!
To be fair, Swisher used to be a good a player; he just never bounced back from some knee injuries that he suffered. Still… $15 million for doing nothing. It seems crazy…
But not so fast. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we receive something that’s infinitely more valuable than $15 million or any amount of money: we receive forgiveness of sin; we receive eternal life; we receive future resurrection on the other side of eternity, and guess what? Like Nick Swisher, we don’t do anything to earn it, to deserve it, to pay for it, to pay it back. It’s a completely free gift of God, which we receive by faith alone!
This is why Christianity is different from every other religion in the world. Although the details vary, religion says, “You must do these things and avoid doing these other things; you must follow these rules; you must obey these laws in order to be accepted by God. Don’t mess up or else!”
I’m thinking, for example, of my trip to the Holy Land back in 2011. During the first leg of the trip, we stayed in Tiberias, which is on the Sea of Galilee. There was a sign in the front lobby that said that the hotel featured something called “Sabbath elevators.” I had no idea what Sabbath elevators were. But I found out at sundown on Friday. I was on the sixth floor of the hotel, and I wanted to go down to the lobby. I pushed the call button on the elevator and after a long wait, the elevator doors finally opened. No one was in the elevator. I pressed the button marked “1.” The doors closed, and then the elevator stopped at the fifth floor—even though I hadn’t pushed that button. Then the elevator stopped at the fourth, then the third. “What’s going on?” I thought.
Then I figured out what “Sabbath elevators” are. If you are an orthodox Jew, and it’s the Sabbath, even pushing an elevator button is considered illegal “work.” Sabbath elevators enable people to ride the elevator without having to do “work.” You might have to wait a long time, but you’ll eventually get where you need to be.
Think about that for a moment. How can you have peace in your life if you sin against by pushing a button at the wrong time? But that’s what every religion besides Christianity says: “Do these things; don’t do these other things; and after all that, then you will be accepted by God. Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, Christianity says, “Because you have been accepted by God, do these things.” Do you see the difference? Because if that’s not a reason to experience peace—to be free from fear—then I don’t know of one!
So, sure, Nick Swisher has to endure a small wound to his pride in order to stay home and collect his completely free and guaranteed $15 million. What are we disciples of Jesus willing to endure for our completely free and guaranteed place in heaven? Because as you probably know, most of these disciples gathered in this upper room on this Easter Sunday evening would go on to endure anything, suffer anything, for the sake of the One who saved their souls.
Before I close, I want to say of word in defense of poor “Doubting Thomas.” I am sorry that he has gotten that nickname throughout the centuries. Not because he wasn’t a doubter… He was. But why is he being singled out for his doubts? The other ten disciples who were sitting in fear behind that locked door—they doubted Jesus’ own words about his death and resurrection; they doubted Mary Magdalene’s witness when she told them that she encountered the Risen Lord.
So maybe, unlike Thomas, they never voiced their doubts. So what? They were proving that they were doubters by their behavior! They weren’t living their lives as if they believed Jesus was resurrected!
What about us? If there was a single word to describe what it is that prevents us from living as if we believe in the resurrection, what is that word if not “doubt”?
Brothers and sisters, if this describes you, hear our Lord’s words: “Stop doubting and believe.”
 See Mark 4:35-41.