Behind Locked Doors

We find ourselves today in the twentieth chapter of John. So much has already happened. This is all you need to know: Jesus had died, and Jesus had returned from the dead. We have had two thousand years to process the resurrection; the disciples did not have that luxury. They were forced to accept the resurrection in a few hours.  That was a hard thing to do. According to the text, it is Sunday evening, Easter evening. The disciples were together. They must have felt as if it was them against the world. They really had no one else. They feared the Jewish leaders, who had orchestrated the death of Jesus, may be looking for them. The door is locked for their own protection. The disciples are afraid. Do you know of anyone in your life who is afraid this morning?

In my life I know a young woman who carries a great amount of responsibility. Her name is Candance. She is high energy. She is married and has two teenagers in her home. She is highly involved in both her husbands and children’s lives. She has a responsible job, which forces her to be detail oriented. Her plate is always full, but the pandemic was one too many things on her plate. One day at work she started getting chest pains. She was taken to the emergency room. The good news is Candance did not have a heart attack. The bad news is she is a victim of stress. Her doctor made an appointment with a cardiologist. After all the tests we run, she sat with her cardiologist. She reviewed all her heart tests with her. There was nothing abnormal. Then he asked her about her life. She told him about his husband, children, and job. He enquired about recent changes in her life which were upsetting to her. She confessed the coronavirus did not just bother her, it terrified her. She said, “I am trying to get all the information possible about the pandemic, so I can keep myself and my family safe. My tv is always on 24/7 news.” According to Candance, the cardiologist told her to turn her tv off, because it was causing her stress. She is not the only one. There are many who are locked behind closed doors afraid of the coronavirus.

You really cannot blame them because the numbers are not pretty. Did you know, as of Friday, there have been over 3.2 million confirmed cases of coronavirus in the world. (234,765 have died.) There have been over one million confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States. (55,439 have died.) There have been over 18,000 confirmed causes of coronavirus in Ohio. (975 have died.) There have been 828 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Mahoning County. (80 have died.) How many people do you know have had the coronavirus? Do you know anyone who has died of the coronavirus? Do you know of anyone who is afraid of the coronavirus and is living behind locked doors? I will admit, I was afraid how this church would respond to the coronavirus. I am proud to report, you are much braver than I ever knew. With this in mind, let us look at the Gospel lesson again.

This is the good news for today: Someone unlocked the door and the disciples came out. They did not just come out. They came out different people and transformed their world. Three things happened to the disciples behind that locked door which led to their transformation. Let us briefly look at those three things.

First, the disciples experienced the resurrected Jesus. Look at the text with me. It is important that you look at the timeline. It is not Easter morning; it is Easter evening. The disciples have had all day to wrestle with the women’s account of experiencing the resurrected Jesus. Did you hear what I said? They had heard about the resurrected Jesus, but they had not experienced the resurrected Jesus. Once Jesus appears to them, he shows them his hands and his feet to prove he is genuine. When they are finally convinced it is Jesus, they are overjoyed. There is a world of difference between hearing about the resurrected Jesus and experiencing the resurrected Jesus. Everything changes once you experience the resurrected Jesus!

Second, the disciples experienced the Holy Spirit. Look at the text with me again. When the disciples finally experience the resurrected Jesus, they are overjoyed. Verse 22 says, Jesus breathed on them and they received the Holy Spirit. Why is that line important? Receiving the Holy Spirit means you do not have to do the work of the church alone. The Holy Spirit goes before us and helps us. It is like cutting a tree down in your yard. You have a choice. You can cut it down with a hand saw, or you can cut it down with a chain saw. Which one are you going to use? The Holy Spirit made their divine work easier.

Third, the disciples embraced the mission. Look at the text with me one last time. Once the disciples had experienced the resurrected Jesus and accepted the Holy Spirit, Jesus gave them a job. Verse 23 says, “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”  What does that verse mean? It simply means we are to take the Good News into the world and win souls for Jesus. Only one of the disciples in the room at that moment, John, died an old man. The rest died a martyr’s death. You cannot tell me the disciples did not embrace the mission.

It is not just the story of the disciples over two thousand years ago. It is the story of disciples in every generation. Every generation must experience the resurrected Jesus for themselves. Every generation must experience the Holy Spirit for themselves. Every generation must embrace the mission for themselves because every generation of the church has been entrusted with the Good News of Jesus Christ. If one generation of the church fails to pass on the Good News to the next generation, then the faith itself will fail. With so many churches failing, I feared we would be that generation who let Jesus down. Then, the coronavirus entered our world and God reminded us the church exists not in buildings, programs, and budgets. The church exists in the hearts of men and women who believe.

I got the news of Friday, March 13. I will admit it. It was a shock. East Ohio Resident Bishop Tracy Malone had suspended worship for the foreseeable future due to the coronavirus. Everything was really to go for Sunday, March 15. The sermon was written, the music was selected, and the bulletins were run. On that Sunday morning, I came out late in the morning. I walked around our empty building and thought about what should have been. I was filled with questions because I did not know how the congregation would respond. However, there was one thing I did know. We had to adapt if we were going to survive. Over the past few weeks, we made some changes to adjust to our new normal. We did four things.

Devotions – Several years ago, we began to write a Lenten devotional. This year my wife, Kathryn wrote it. They are not just theologically accurate. They are well written. Every day, a devotion was emailed to the entire congregation. The mailings were scheduled to end on Easter, but due to the pandemic we decided to continue. Writing a daily devotion is a big job and we owe her a great deal. Those devotion are a reminder our church is functional.

Facebook – Every Saturday morning at 10:00, I come to the church and record my message for Facebook. I meet two friends. The first is Doug Price who acts as my camera man, liturgist, and editor. The second is Mark Halls who is an accomplished pianist. I knew Facebook is a power tool, but I never imagined. I email those YouTube links ever Sunday morning for the non-Facebook members. Many have shared those links. More people listen to me now, than ever have in person.

FM Transmitter – The idea of parking lot worship was not original. I first heard about it on the local news. One of our sister churches was doing it and I thought we could do it. We purchased a FM transmitter on Ebay and had to wait several weeks. It was worth the wait. We will remain in the parking lot until the pandemic passes.

Contact – There is nothing high tech about this idea. I knew it was important to stay in touch with everyone, so I started to contact them. I went through the directory, A to Z. Then I went from Z to A. Then I started in the middle and went forward, then backwards. Some I called. Some I texted. Some I emailed. I cannot tell you how much I learned listening to you.

This is the truth. I knew, I could change. I did not know if you would change. After all, the church is not known for changing rapidly. Some churches will never change. However, that is not the case here. This church did change and seemed to be energized by the challenge. I have always believed churches vote in two ways, by attendance and financial support. If people do not like what is happening, then they will not come. If people do not like what is happening, then they will not give. If people do like what is happening in their church, then they will come and give. I did not know if they would come and give with all the changes. I was afraid people would stay at home tight fisted behind locked doors. I am glad to say, “I was wrong!” I had nothing to fear.

People have been coming! On Palm Sunday, we tried something new. We called it, Palms and Prayers. Respecting our social distancing guidelines, everyone who came got a palm and a prayer. For two hours, I talked and prayed with people. In that 120 minutes, there were very few breaks. On Easter, approximately two hundred came to listen to our parking lot to hear about the resurrection of Jesus. Last Sunday, more than one hundred sat in their cars again on a cold wet day to hear the word proclaimed. For years, I have called this church the ultimate non-prophet. This church has next to no financial reserves. We exist on your generosity. In the economic storm we are living in, I was afraid you might forget us, but we have not been forgotten. I am humbled by your generosity and moved by your Christian love. You are hungry for God and concerned about one another. The number of people who have offered to help others is really something.

The coronavirus has brought out the best out in us. I will admit it. I was wrong! You were not like the frightened disciples behind locked doors. You were like the disciples who left that once locked room to face a changing world. Can I be honest with you? I am proud to stand with you not just as your friend or your pastor. I am proud to stand with you as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Do you remember the quote from T.S. Elliot (1888-1965) is considered one of the great poets of the 20th century. He once said, “The True Church will never fail. For it is based upon a rock.”

What Frightens You?

I love this story. Did you know the White House was wired for electricity in 1891? However, it was not necessarily welcomed by the sitting President, Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901) or his wife, Caroline (1832-1892). They refused to touch the light switches because they were afraid of getting shocked. It was rumored they slept with the lights on when no one was around to turn the lights off. They preferred the old oil lantern system. (Because open flames are much safer than electricity 😉) Fear makes us do funny things. So let me ask you the question of the day: What frightens you?  

There is no shortage of fears in our society. Maybe you have one of these. This is a common list that is found on a variety of websites.

  1. Fear of flying
  2. Fear of public speaking
  3. Fear of heights
  4. Fear of the dark
  5. Fear of intimacy
  6. Fear of flowers
  7. Fear of driving
  8. Fear of snakes
  9. Fear of needles
  10. Fear of spiders
  11. Fear of dogs

How many of those things do you fear? Since we are speaking of fears, let me ask you this series of questions.

Do you fear aging? That is a common fear. My goal is to get older. So, why do people fear aging? According to the Huffington Post, people fear aging for five reasons. They are based on stereotypes.

  1. Old people always get sick and have chronic pain.
  2. Old people suffer from memory loss.
  3. Old people lose their attractiveness.
  4. Old people can’t learn new things.
  5. Old people are lonely and grumpy.

This is my opinion: Aging bothers us because it means we are closer to death. Aging is not one of my fears. Does anyone here fear aging? What frightens you?

Do you fear illness or disease? The other day, I did a funeral for a man who was a few years older than I. According to the family, he was completely healthy, until he fell and broke his hip. In the emergency room they noticed something funny. No one laughed, because when the test came back, it showed he was filled with cancer. Over a short six-month period, the man went from the life of the party to terminal. I hope that isn’t my story someday. I will admit it, medical issues frighten me. Have you ever wondered about your cause of death? Does anyone here fear illness or disease? What frightens you?

Do you fear the future? How many churches do you know that are afraid of the future? Perhaps it is a lack of faith or trust? How many people do you know fear the future? I believe, many fear the future because they fear change. Psychologists tell us, we fear the future because we feel a lack of control. I do not fear the future now, but I may in the future. Does anyone here fear the future? What frightens you?

Do you fear for their own security? On Friday night, I was out with friends. We were at a concert when I got the news about the shooting in Virginia Beach. A disgruntled employee opened fire at a municipal building. Now twelve families are mourning the loss of a loved one. I will be honest, when I got the news, I looked around to examine the audience. Everyone looked safe, but who really knows. We live in such a violent society. Does anyone here fear for their own security? What frightens you?

Do you fear loneliness?  On Memorial Day, Kathryn and I celebrated our thirty-first anniversary. We got married in a friend’s backyard. The next day, we went to a Cleveland Indians game, followed by a trip to Florida. It is hard to believe we have been married for thirty-one years. Time is moving fast. I will be the first to admit it: We have good lives. We have big lives. Do you know my greatest fear? My greatest fear in life is not my death. It is her death. I don’t want to live in this world without her. I don’t want to live in this world alone. Is there someone in your life you can’t live without? It would be a horrible thing to outlive your children. Does anyone here fear loneliness? I do. What frightens you?

Do you fear the loss of independence? I try to visit at least one person every day. The other day, I was out visiting. As I walked down the hall of a local nursing home, I noticed an elderly gentleman sitting in his room in a wheelchair with a large bandage on his nose. His eyes were glassy, and I could feel his broken spirit. The depression poured out of the room. One of the aides was helping him to the bathroom. There was no privacy. The door was wide open. I thought about that man with the large bandage on his nose the rest of the day. I hope that is not my future. I like my big independent life. Does anyone fear the loss of independence? What frightens you?That takes us today’s scripture lesson. Does anyone here fear death?

In our scripture lesson for this morning, the Israelites were afraid of the Moabite raiders. The scripture lesson is easier to memorize than it is to understand. It was springtime. We look forward to spring because we have grown tired of the harsh winter weather. In their time and place, they must have dreaded the spring. For it was during the spring that the Moabite raiders came. (The Moabites were mountainous people in that region of the world.) They did not come for a social visit; they came for military action. Their unannounced raids brought death and destruction. The Israelites were preoccupied every spring with these unwanted visitors.

That is what happened in the text. Someone had died and they were placing the body in the community tomb. Normally, the body was treated with respect. When the raiders suddenly appeared, the normal activity of treating the dead with respect was disrupted. According to verse 21, the frightened Israelites threw the corpse in the tomb, or cave, so the living could flee for safety. This is where the story takes an unusual turn. We do not know the identity of the deceased, but it is safe to say he was the luckiest person in the region. He was thrown into the same tomb that held the remains of Elisha. According to verse 20, Elisha had been gone for more than sixty years. There was nothing left of the old prophet but his bones. However, his bones were enough. When the corpse of the recently dead man hit the bones of Elisha, the man was resurrected. It is an odd story, but it does demonstrate for us the power of God. Listen to this next line. The Israelites were afraid, but God was with them the whole time. That is our story. We have our fears, but God is with us; so we really have nothing to fear.

Today, I would encourage you to do two things. First, admit your fears. They are part of the human experience. Second, I would encourage you to look for God. With God all things are possible. Every day, we play the part of the Israelites. We have grown blind to God, who is in our very midst. How much time do you spend looking for God? How much time do you spend examining your human limitations? How much time do you spend worrying about your human fears?

One of the great stories in the Bible is the rich young ruler. It is found in all three of the synoptic Gospels; Matthew, Mark and Luke. You know the story. I have referred to it many times over the years. It seemed like he had everything. He was rich, so he could buy what he desired. He was young, so he had a future. He was a ruler, so he had influence. The only thing he lacked was salvation. He went to Jesus to ask him a question that had been eating away at his soul, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It is an excellent question. The Master answered, “Sell everything and give your money to the poor. Then, follow me.” The rich young ruler didn’t like the answer. He left upset because he couldn’t do it. Jesus says, money is more of a curse to your soul than a blessing. It is harder for a rich man to get into heaven then it is for a camel to get through the eye of a needle. Then, Jesus reminds us of the power of God. He said, “With God, all things are possible.” We have nothing to fear, because with God all things are possible. Then why are you afraid?

One of the great names in western civilization history is Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821). As a French military and political leader, he dominated European affairs for nearly two decades. He feared nothing, except one thing: cats! He wasn’t alone. Hitler, Mussolini and Julius Caesar also feared cats! That leads us back to our question of the day: What frightens you? Do not be afraid. With God, all things are possible. George Patton George Patton (1885-1945) was a General in the United States Army during World War II.  He once said, I never take counsel from my fears.”  What frightens you?