“Seeking Complete Joy”

John 20: 19-20

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.
John 20: 19-20

Those disciples were gathered like players in a football huddle who were losing the game.  Most likely they were whispering to each other, hearing footsteps outside the locked doors, wondering if the authorities were on a manhunt for them, wondering if they would meet the same fate as Jesus did- a terrible crucifixion. They had retreated to an upper room and locked themselves inside. Sometimes we react that way in times of extreme stress. Like one of the characters in Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities- the man who had learned to make shoes in prison would retreat to a dark room in his attic to make shoes whenever stress came his way.

There are many times when life makes us feel as if we are trapped. The disciples felt trapped in the guilt of betraying Jesus. They felt trapped in fear of being caught by the authorities. They felt trapped by their shattered expectations of Jesus. We all know that feeling. It feels like something is right outside the door, so we lock ourselves up.

Christine and I used to live next to a lagoon on Hilton Head Island. Once friends visited, and my friend fed an alligator the hamburger meat we were going to use to grill out. I told him that not only was that a huge monetary fine if he was caught, but that the alligators have a long memory and would probably never leave the hillside. I was right- that alligator waited there in that same spot staring up at the deck for months! Whenever we walked out onto the deck, there was that alligator. Whenever we glanced outside, there he was. It was as if we could feel the alligator’s presence. It was an eerie fear. When he finally went away, it was such a relief. When there is a negative presence in our lives, it affects how we feel on so many levels.

Mark Twain wrote about feeling the negative presence of the telephone. Phones made us feel as if a part of ourselves was attached to them, even when they didn’t ring. Once he wrote, “It is my heart-warming and world-embracing hope,” said Mark Twain, “that all of us – the high, the low, the rich, the poor, the admired, the despised, the loved, the hated, the civilized, and the savage – may eventually be gathered in a heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss, except the inventor of the telephone.” What a beautiful quote with such a bitter ending! Wow, he really didn’t like telephones, did he? Can you imagine how he would react if he saw our modern world? People walking around carrying smart phones and computers and connected to so much outside themselves would give him a lot of material to write about, wouldn’t it?

The disciples were overcome by their guilt, fear, betrayal, and were locked inside. But suddenly they realized the greater presence of Jesus. When Jesus entered the room and said those words, “Peace be with you,” he dismissed the alligator! He dispersed a world of negativity and replaced it with a world view of God’s peace. He rebuilt the foundation of their belief. They had very little to build upon, really no foundation at all, but Jesus replaced their fear with solid courage.

When Frank Lloyd Wright was asked to design a hotel that would survive an earthquake in Tokyo, Japan, he was surprised to find that there was only 8 feet of dirt to build upon. Below that there was mud. Every time he dug a hole, water and mud would fill it. So he somehow designed the foundation to be like a ship. And since earthquakes cause a lot of fires he put a huge pool in the hotel’s courtyard. When Tokyo had its greatest earthquake in history on September 1, 1923, the hotel survived, and the pool provided the water brigade protection against the fires.

I really like that story from Bits and Pieces, an illustration journal, because it shows how Jesus brought a faith that was realistic. Jesus was not telling the disciples that there would be no
suffering, earthquakes, or fire in life. Rather, he let them know that in spite of the suffering, they
would now have a foundation that would not falter. They had a presence, a very real, calming, eternal presence, that would help them get through whatever it was they were facing in life. It was the presence of the Living Christ. It was able to get rid of the alligator waiting outside the door. It was able to pull them together into a focused spiritual core, instead of spreading themselves out thinly like modern communications sometimes make us feel. It was a presence that was able to heal their past and secure their future. It was faith.

I still can’t understand how Jesus walked into that room. Scriptures tell us that he passed through the doors. I don’t know how that worked, and I don’t think that the disciples knew either. The logic of it all is beyond comprehension. So how do we get beyond that logic and access the presence of the risen Christ as they did? It is a real stretch. It defies logic. There was a final exam in a logic class at a university, and the professor said that each student could bring in one help sheet of proofs for the exam, anything that could fit onto one sheet of paper could be brought in and used. One student walked into the final exam of the logic class with a blank sheet of paper. He placed it on the floor, and a graduate student in logic walked in and stood upon the paper. The professor smiled at the graduate student standing on the paper. Then he looked at the student who had placed the blank paper on the floor and said, “You just got an A+!”

It was as if Jesus walked into the room and stood upon the paper. That was all the disicples needed. The answer to the questions they had was a person- the person of Christ. Knowing that there was something more after this life gave them the courage they needed to keep on with a new world view. There was a sultan who wanted a history of the world recorded. A scholar wrote many books and presented them to the sultan in a long row of camels. The sultan kept telling the scholar that it was too much, to decrease the history of the world. Finally, in a desperate attempt to make the history brief, the scholar presented the sultan with one book. When the sultan said that it was still too long, the scholar took one sheet of paper and wrote, “They lived, they suffered, they died.”

When the disciples encountered the Risen Christ, they learned life was more than that. There was something more to life than suffering. There was more to the story, and it was beyond their simple idea of how life and death worked. They learned that Jesus was so real that they were willing to risk everything to follow him. If the Romans were to line up the disciples to be killed one at a time, depending on a choice to proclaim Caesar as Lord or Jesus as Lord, they believed so strongly in Jesus that they would not deny him and would rather be killed. That is why there is not one recorded denial of Jesus in history from those early Christians– not even one early Christian denied Christ to save his or her life. That is a remarkable turnaround from being frightened and trapped in a room. Jesus transformed their lives to an extent that nothing else was more real than the reality of the resurrected Christ, and they could face life with courage. Even if something terrible did happen, they were now equipped with a faith that could get them through it.

In seminary I used to listen to the former chaplain of the Senate, Peter Marshall’s recorded sermons. His deep Scottish accent punctuated his points. I can almost hear his accent when I read his words. In Mr. Jones, Meet the Master, he wrote, “I think the Christian treatment of trouble is splendidly illustrated by the oyster, into whose shell one day there comes a tiny grain of sand. By some strange circumstance, this tiny piece of quartz has entered into the shell of the oyster and there, like an alien thing, an intruder, a cruel, unfeeling catastrophe, it causes pain, distress, and presents a very real problem. What shall the oyster do? There is no point in trying to deny the reality that tortures every nerve, so the oyster doesn’t try. In spite of the denial, nothing can change the fact that the grain of sand is there. Nor would grumbling or rebelling do any good, for after all the protests and complaints, the grain of sand would still be there. No, the oyster recognizes the intruder’s presence, and right away begins to do something. Slowly and patiently, with infinite care, the oyster builds upon the grain of sand–layer upon layer of a plastic, milky substance that covers each sharp corner and coats every cutting edge. . . and gradually, slowly, a pearl is made. A thing of wondrous beauty wrapped around trouble. The oyster has learned, by God’s will, to turn grains of sand into pearls, cruel misfortunes into
blessings, pain and distress into beauty.”

Most churches in America on the Sunday after Easter will hear the story about the fire in the frontier town. It is an old story that really fits this time of the year. A house in a frontier town caught on fire. There wasn’t much of a fire department, so the fire consumed the house, leaving only one person alive and crying for help, a young boy in a room on upper floor. One man, filled with courage, grabbed onto the drainpipe on the house, and even though it was red-hot, he managed to scale the wall, rescue the boy, and bring him to safety. The town gathered to see who would adopt the saved boy. Many hands were raised- a banker, who could provide money for the child’s upbringing; an owner of a store who had plenty of food; a teacher who could provide education; but there was silence when everyone noticed one hand that was raised. It was the burned hand of the man who climbed up to save the boy. “All I have is love,” he said, and the boy, realizing along with the others that it was the man who had saved him, ran through the crowd into the man’s arms. The town had their answer.

When Jesus showed the disciples his hands, they had their answer. He had walked into the room and stood on the paper. They realized that the suffering of life was not the end. There was more. Whatever trouble was bothering them turned from an alligator to a pearl. In your life, when you feel trapped inside an upper room, when you feel as if you don’t have the answers and cannot escape, recall this story of those first disciples and what happened to them. Just as Jesus said to them he also says to me and to you, “Peace be with you,” and that calls us to a new, transformed life.

Amen.