In 1972, a 25 year old British man by the name of Tony Wheeler set out on a daring adventure. Wheeler wanted to travel, primarily by land, from London, England to Sydney, Australia which meant that he would see a significant portion of Europe and Asia along the way. What made the trip even more challenging is that Wheeler wanted to make the journey without spending much money and thus he had to work very hard to find inexpensive places to eat and to sleep. In the end, Wheeler’s trip was a success and this was the case on multiple levels.
First, it was successful in that Wheeler made it to his destination in Australia and thus completed the epic journey that he had set off on. Second, it was successful in that Wheeler found good inexpensive places to eat and sleep along the way as well as unique things to see that also were budget friendly. Third, because of the trip, Wheeler created an unintended career for himself.
You see, once he returned home and word got out about what he had accomplished, folks wanted to know more about the secrets of Wheeler’s success so that they could one day make a similar trip of their own.
What Wheeler discovered is that other people wanted to travel too and they wanted to do so cheaply just as he had done. But, rather than being pioneers, they were happy to have a guide. They wanted someone who had already been there to share with them where to go, where to stay, what to eat and what to see. Out of this experience was birthed The Lonely Planet travel series that has now been around for almost 50 years and that to this day publishes all sorts of travel guides while helping people to find their way in their travels to destinations both near and far. (A Lonely Planet Founder Looks Back, Emily Brennan, The New York Times, June 7, 2013)
The vast majority of us like to have trustworthy guides in our lives for all types of situations and experiences. If we are thinking about a new career, we appreciate the chance to talk with someone who works in the industry or who is already employed by the company that we are exploring. If we are focused on a project around the house, we value the chance to talk to someone who has done this type of task before to learn about their approach and the tools they used. And, if we are thinking about booking a trip to the beach and we are considering going to a new spot, we like to be able to discuss with someone who knows the area, has stayed in the place we are considering making a reservation and who has some knowledge of the local restaurants. Again, virtually all of us appreciate knowing and talking to someone who has been where we are headed in life.
This, I think, is a significant part of our text for today that is right in front of us yet that is easy to overlook. John 20 is about Jesus as the one who has been where we are going.
The latter part of John 20 is really the story of the disciples on two successive Sundays – one being Easter Sunday and the other being the following Sunday. They are gathered behind closed door. Our impression is that they have a lot racing through their minds. They are frightened that the Romans may do to them what has been done to Jesus. They are confused in that they don’t know what to do now that Jesus has been put to death. And, they are uncertain as to what their life has in store for them going forward in this time when everything has been turned upside down.
On the first Sunday, again Easter Sunday, Jesus appears in their midst evidently passing right through the locked doors. He basically offers them two things. He offers them words of peace. And, second, he offers them a chance to know for sure that their eyes are not deceiving them by showing them the marks of his crucifixion.
On the following Sunday, according to the text, Jesus appears a second time. This time he comes specifically to see Thomas who had not been there the week before. Despite the way we like to retell this story by emphasizing Thomas’ doubt and lack of faith, those elements never seem to be a major issue for Jesus. Instead, he simply does for Thomas what he had done for the other disciples the week before. He offers Thomas words of peace and then he invites Thomas to bear witness to his wounds. Interestingly the two moments set side by side are almost identical to each other.
I said a moment ago that there are important lessons for us to see here that can be easy to miss. These lessons, I think, revolve around Jesus in essence wanting to say to his disciples that he understands this hard place where they are because he has been there before. Further, Jesus wants them to understand that since he has been where they are that he is eager to walk the path ahead with them through the Holy Spirit as their companion and their guide. Let me flesh this out a bit further.
First, in this story Jesus exhibits strong individual care for and solidarity with the disciples. This is powerful behavior for us to recognize. He wants them to understand that he identifies with them. As I said a moment ago, we like to use this story to beat up on Thomas, but, when we do this what we miss is that Jesus really comes to love on Thomas and all of the disciples for that matter. Jesus appears patient with them. He seems to understand them and their emotions. Jesus gets that they need a calming presence in their lives as much as anything else. I think this is the whole point of what Jesus says and does. He says “peace” which is to say “I have come to bring you peace”. Second, Jesus shows them his wounds. Of course, this is in part to be clear that he is Jesus and he is alive. But, I think it is also a way for Jesus to say “listen, I know how you feel. Have you forgotten that just two days ago, I too was confused and felt abandoned. So, recognize that these feeling you have are feelings I have had too and here are the marks to remind you of my own struggle. I know what this is like from personnel experience.”
Second, in this story, Jesus says these things and does these things so that the disciples will find the energy and the courage to move beyond the locked door and to get on with life. In fact, he says this explicitly in verse 21, “as the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He was there to ease their anxiety and to identify with their feelings because he had been there too but also to reassure them that as a fellow traveler in the twists and turns of life that he was now here to go with them into the next part of their journey through the Holy Spirit.
Isn’t what Jesus brought to the disciples in that locked room what we all need in our own moments that feel very similar? We all know what it is like to want to lock ourselves behind closed doors, to wallow in our feelings and emotions and to want to stay there never to have to interact with real life again. What do we need in those times? We need what Jesus offered to the disciples. We need someone willing to show up in our lives at that very moment and say to us what Jesus said to them, “I want to offer you some peace of mind and I want to help. See my own wounds? I have been where you are. I am here to walk with you as your guide. So, let’s unlock the door together and reengage with life.”
There is a wonderful story told in the days after 9/11 that I think is needed by us today. The story took place around the Pentagon which you will remember was also attacked. A Methodist Bishop was at the Pentagon one of those initial days after the plane crashed simply talking with survivors and offering a listening ear. While there, a Pentagon employee came up to him and said, “Pastor, I feel like I need to be honest and say that I won’t be going back to church any time soon in light of what has happened. The reason is that in my church we say The Lord’s Prayer every week. I already know that when we get to the part where we are to pray “forgive us I trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” that I can’t pray that prayer. There is no way, I can forgive the people who did this.”
“Well,” said the Bishop, “I tell you what you do. You go on to church. You don’t worry about that a bit. When you get to The Lord’s Prayer and those words come about, you just sit quietly and let other’s prayer it for you. Yep, you keep going to church, and let other’s carry you for a while. That’s why they are there. And, when you are able to pray that prayer again, you jump back in.” (As told by Dr. Charles E. Poole in the sermon “For This We Need a Church” Northminister Baptist Church, Jackson, MS, April 7, 2002)
That is what Jesus offers to us. Jesus says to us as Jesus said to the disciples, “I am here because I know what it is like to be you. I know your feet are wobbly. I know you are not sure about what is ahead or where your headed. But, I am here through my spirit to walk with you. And, until you can get your feet completely under you, I can even carry you part of the way. So, let’s unlock the door, walk back out into the world, and resume life.” Amen.