Yesterday was a big day for me. Minjing and I attended our first same-gender wedding.
Paul and Bruce had been waiting for this day for a long time. Paul had been waiting even longer than he knew. He didn’t make it publicly known that he was gay until the past couple of years.
Imagine living an entire life trying to be someone other than who God created you to be. Imagine being devout Christians, as Paul and Bruce have been all their lives, and experiencing the shame of judgment from other Christians. Even now, with public opinion—and even our laws—shifting, it still takes great courage to “come out of the closet.”
In some ways what Paul and Bruce—and millions like them—have encountered in their lives might be a taste of what it was like for Jesus’ disciples. In a sense Jesus’ friends were “in the closet”—locked behind closed doors for fear of what others might say and do to them. Following Jesus’ execution they had plenty of reason to be afraid.
I, too, know what it’s like to be locked inside a room out of fear. It wasn’t too many years ago that I, too, was afraid to consider that God’s love might be expressed through the love of committed, same-gender relationships, just as much as in traditional heterosexual relationships. I began to ask myself, “Am I focusing on sex…or on love? Am I focusing on rules and doctrine…or on love? When I began to focus more intentionally on love my perspective began to change.
Something happened to Jesus’ disciples in the locked room. Something happened between those first resurrection appearances and the scene we witness in today’s first reading from Acts, chapter 5. The same group of guys who had hidden behind locked doors is now outside, in public, in front of the authorities, boldly giving glory to God: We must obey God rather than any human authority, they say, and we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.
What’s going on here? How is this possible? Are these really the same disciples who had run, who had denied their Lord, who had earlier betrayed their leader? On the other hand, are these even the best questions to ask? Is this story really about the one who has been called Doubting Thomas? Is this story really about any of the disciples?
When it was evening on that day…Jesus came and stood among them and said “Peace be with you.” Twice more in this story Jesus says to his friends, “Peace be with you.” Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. You see? It’s about choosing between hanging on, or letting go. It’s about choosing Christian freedom.
Notice that eventually all the disciples see the risen Christ. And yet, it’s not the sight of a dead man come back to life that transforms these men. It’s not this miracle that has power in their lives. Instead, what turns the tide is their first-hand experience of mercy, forgiveness, and compassion in the face of grief, fear and guilt. In other words, it’s the first-hand experience of God’s love that transforms the hearts and lives of these men. It’s God’s love and nothing else that transforms the hearts of ordinary people.
There’s good news in this Easter story, my friends. Nothing, not even locked doors, can keep out God’s love. Jesus didn’t require his disciples to change before he met them. God’s love in Christ met these frightened people where they were. God’s love in Christ meets you, also, wherever you are. You might find yourself inside a locked room of your own choosing, locked inside the world you know, afraid of risking a new direction—maybe occasionally, maybe a lot. And inside a locked room there can be no lasting peace. But no matter how mighty the doors of fear that keep you locked in your own world, no matter how sturdy the lock– the risen Christ meets you where you are and says, “Peace be with you.”
Do you have wounds from your own life? He shows you his hands. Do you have scars from the past? He shows you his side. This is a God who not only feels your pain but knows your pain first-hand. You are God’s beloved. But God loves us too much to leave us behind our locked doors.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you, Jesus says. God meets us with compassion for our weakness, mercy for our fear and forgiveness for our instincts toward self-preservation, instead of death that leads to new life.
Out of amazement and gratitude Jesus’ disciples eventually leave their locked room and become living examples of God’s love for the world. Their agenda is no longer shame or guilt or fear or morals or obeying the law. Having experienced first-hand the power of forgiveness and love they commit themselves out of gratitude to lives of proclaiming in word and deed God’s forgiveness and love.
Over the years in hearing their stories this is what I have witnessed among gay and lesbian friends. People who once lived locked in the closet for fear or shame of who they are find the power of God’s love in another person. And suddenly, the fear of what others think goes away, and they dare even to take a public stand to profess the power of love. This is what I saw and experienced again yesterday between Paul and Bruce.
But regardless of who we are, we are left with this Easter question of where we are in the story. To what extent have we experienced the power of Christ’s resurrection in our own lives? Where are the locked rooms where we remain fearful, cautious, unchanging? Where are the locked rooms of dead routines and worn-out habits? There’s no point in denying they exist because we all have them. But—our locked doors are no barrier to the living Christ. Have you heard his voice? Peace be with you…As the Father has sent me, so now I send you.
This space we gather Sunday after Sunday is called a sanctuary. A sanctuary is a safe place that provides protection. But protection from what? If it is where we come in fear to seek protection from the modern world it remains a locked room. If it is where we come in fear to seek protection from change it remains a locked room.
It may be these things at times. But the resurrected Christ was not deterred by locked rooms. He passes right through our defenses and into our hiding places. He appears in the midst of his disciples—even on this day and at this very hour–and says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. God sends us because God can use even us to penetrate the locked doors of others who are stuck in place by fear.
If this sanctuary is where we hear and absorb into every fiber of our being the message of God’s mercy, love and forgiveness, like those frightened men behind locked doors, we cannot help but be changed.