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John 20:19-31—Peace: The First Easter Word—Apr 11-12, 2010
Dr. Jarrett Banks, CBF-LA Spring Conference Sermon

Last Sunday’s lectionary gospel lesson ended with the wonderful good news of Easter:  “Mary Magdalene announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” Now contrast that with the beginning of tomorrow’s gospel lesson:  “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples were locked for fear…”

On Easter Sunday morning, the disciples had received the good news from Mary that Jesus is alive.  But by that evening, they are cowering behind a locked door. It’s nighttime, a dangerous time in any city, but here in the city of Jerusalem, they had some good reasons to lock the door.
           
First of all, their friends may have something to do with their fear.  Here were those who had given up everything to follow Jesus, those who had risked it all, leaving friends and family behind, believing that he was the one who would redeem Israel.  No doubt they were fearful of the mocking scorn of all those who would say, “Some Messiah!  Where’s your Savior now?”

Perhaps the most obvious reason their doors were locked was for fear that the institutional, religious authorities who organized to crucify Jesus would soon be coming after them.  They ones who began plotting from the very beginning to put an end to Jesus and his message were quite possibly even now plotting to put an end to them.

No, who could blame them for locking their doors! And then, of course there, there is another reason, Mary Magdalene has told them, “I have seen the Lord.”  And what do they do?  They locked the doors.
           
After denying that he even knew who Jesus was, I’m sure Peter felt like locking the door.  After fleeing and deserting Jesus, leaving him to die alone between two thieves, I’m sure many of the disciples felt like locking the door.

All of this brings me to ask a question, a question that I believe is imperative for the church to ask: “Why do you suppose so many people today, especially people in their 20’s and 30’s, when it comes to church, also feel like locking the doors?” “Why do so many young people today see the church as a problem rather than a solution?”
           
These questions coupled with the demographics of Broadmoor Baptist Church have prompted me to do a little research.  I decided to get a group together who have given up on the church and simply ask them why?  For over a year I have building relationships with a group people, none of whom attend church.  To my surprise, although they had no desire to come to church on Sunday morning, I discovered they were all very open for gathering regularly for a discussion on theology, philosophy and some meaning to this mystery we call life. 

So I asked them when they wanted to have such a meeting.  You will never guess their response.  Friday night!  In my 24 years of serving with church councils, if someone ever brought up the idea a Bible study to reach the unchurched, Friday night would have never come up as an option.  Talk about a new wineskin!
           
I invited all of them to join another wineskin called a facebook group. I called it “Friday Night Gatherings.” And forty people immediately joined the group.  Fifteen to twenty have been coming to the meetings that we hold at my house.  From these meetings, this is what I have learned about why they have locked the doors to the Church.

            First of all, like the first disciples, who locked the doors because of their friends, peer pressure has a little to do with it.  Because the number of the unchurched is so large today, some say that the population that does not attend church has more than doubled since I have been a pastor, if young people want to be with their friends on the weekend, and they do (the need for community is strong), then church is probably not the place where their friends can be found. So, like the first disciples, some of them have locked the doors to the idea of church because of their friends.
           
Secondly, and perhaps the most obvious reason, they simply have little or no trust in organized, institutional religion.  In fact, they regard the church the same way the disciples cowering behind closed doors regarded the religious system of their day—as a threat to Jesus and everything for which Jesus stood.  And what is important for us to know as Baptists…the designation “Baptist” itself has a lot to do with their distrust.
           
When they were growing up, the controversy, fighting and schism in the Southern Baptist Convention did very little to persuade them otherwise.  Keeping women subordinate in the church and promoting a message of intolerance and in some cases hate, have caused many to put as much distance as they can between themselves and the church, especially a Baptist church.
           
Then they turn on the television and watch church leaders, many of them Baptist, who are on a tirade protesting against such things as equal rights, equitable healthcare, and an evenhanded justice system, and they know just enough about Jesus and his affinity to the poor and the outcasts to know that something is terribly wrong with the church.  

Many young people in no way want to be associated with the words many church leaders proclaim such as: the Haitian earthquake as well as Hurricane Katrina is directly linked to Voodoo.  Or the events of 9-11 and the subsequent deaths in the War on Terror are God’s judgment on feminists, abortionist and homosexuals.  Or it is Christian and very biblical to pray for the death of an American President.  After all, he is a socialist and a Muslim, and he just may be the Anti-Christ! And besides that, he just plays too much basketball!

And they look at Christians, especially some Baptists and think that we are the ones who are anti-Christ.  So, like the disciples distancing themselves from the organized religion of their day by locking the door, young people today find themselves locking their door.
           
And thirdly, as the disciples also hide behind locked doors avoiding Jesus, there are some who are not simply avoiding the church, they are avoiding God. When they lost their grandparents, their parents, or some, their children, the response from the Christian friends, is that God took them. That it was all part of some purpose driven divine plan. So they lock the doors, wanting absolutely nothing to do with a God like that.
           
Whatever the reason for the disciples’ fear, the irony of this gospel lesson is that the organized religious authorities were not trying to get to the disciples to arrest them, the critics among their friends and family were not trying to get to the disciples to ridicule them, and Jesus was not trying to get to them to punish, condemn them and to snatch them away. Jesus was trying to get to the disciples in order to give them the word that they needed more than any other word—the very first word of the Easter story.

On Easter evening, the Risen Christ returns to his disciples, the same fearful followers who betrayed, forsook and abandoned him and pronounced “Peace!”  It was the same word that was proclaimed at his birth by the angels in the beginning of the gospel.  “Glory to the God in the highest and on earth, peace!”  It was one of the last words from the cross when he said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  And here, the first word of Easter to the fearful disciples who have run for cover is “Peace.”  This is what I believe people need to hear from the church, and it needs to be the very first word they hear from us. The first word they hear from the church should never be judgment, condemnation or some loud, angry, hate-filled rant or protest, never be that God took her or snatched him, or is punishing them because of some curse. No, the first word they need to hear from us is “peace.”  They need to hear God say to them, although you may be thugs, hoodlums and sluts, “My peace I give to you. You are my sons. You are my daughters, I have always loved you.  I still love you. I will love you forever. I forgive you.
           
I believe people in our world are starving for this peace. They are thirsting for a word that says, this wine, this new wine, is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. They are starving for a group of Christians that have the audacity to truly live as “little Christs” offering the first word of Easter, the peace of Christ to a fearful world.

Three Easters ago, we went to visit my parents who at the time only lived a couple hours away.  We had a nice dinner, watched the Masters, and then ate some leftovers before heading home.  It was late when we arrived back home, about 11:00.  And guess what?  We were locked out.  In a hurry to leave after church, I had accidentally grabbed the wrong set of keys.

As my wife and daughter sat in the car, my twelve year old son and I checked every window on the first floor.  All locked.  “I guess I’ll break a window.”

“Wait a minute,” my son, who has a lot more patience than me, said. “I think the window in the middle dormer upstairs is unlocked.” I grabbed my extension ladder that was much too short for the job.  I stood it almost straight up and asked my son to hold it at the bottom as I climbed up.  Got myself on the roof in front of the dormer, but before I could reach it, because of the pitch of the roof and the dew that had gathered I began to slide off.  Came down, feet hit the ladder, almost knocking it over.  I put a death grip on my shingles with my hands.  Grabbed the top of the ladder with one foot and straightened it out with the other as my son helped at the bottom.  I don’t know if he was more scared that I was going to fall and kill myself on the brick steps below or fall right on his head.

After one more idiotic try to climb on the roof, it occurred to me, “Maybe I can peel the vinyl ceiling back on my porch just enough to climb up into the attic.  Got my pry bar, and went to work.  Less than five minutes later, I was inside. 
           
Now, was my wife happy?   Was I the hero of the night?  Was she proud of my resourcefulness and my persistence?  No, she was absolutely horrified by how easy it was to get into our securely locked house. “If a preacher can break in, anyone can!” she said.
           
This is the good news of this Easter Season.  Our securely locked doors are not a problem for Jesus.  Here is the promise of Easter for each of us today.  Just as the risen Christ was not stumped by the locked doors behind which the disciples cowered, so I promise you that the risen Christ will not be deterred by any locks that any have put on their doors.  Our God is wonderfully resourceful, imaginative, persistent, and determined to have all of us.  Even in our lostness and clumsiness, even in our betrayals and denials, even when we throw proposals of merging two Christian communities into the trash, even when we try to turn away others due to the color of their skin, even when we have plans to join the Navy or go into Astro Physics, even if we are a female, even amid earthquake and flood and the tragic loss of losing a child, Christ is ever determined to share his peace with us this world.
           
I believe Christ is coming and is ever determined going to get the word out…the very first word of the gospel proclaimed by angels, the last word on the cross and the first word of Easter: peace.  The question is: will he be able to use us?  Will he be able to use the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Louisiana?  

After hearing stories from Haiti to New Orleans, to Baton Rouge and Denham Springs and Walker, to Bogalusa, to Coushatta, to Natchitoches, to Shreveport, to Deridder, to Lake Providence, after hearing your stories, I am confident he will, because he is! 

With you, I have seen the Lord! And the peace, grace and love of the Christ is coming! And nothing is going to stop him.  Hallelujah!