On bright warm days like today, I remember swinging peacefully on the wooden swing on the wide porch of an old house. This was on the Phillips University campus, my senior year of college, in Enid Oklahoma. My friends, Robin and John, seminary students, had renovated the old farmhouse. They voluntarily served the community as the Disciples’ Peace House. Their front door was always open, literally. They left the key in the door, so that anyone was welcome to come in, share food, study, discuss theology, philosophy or politics and the world. That hot, muggy summer, I lived there, with Ruby and Bindu, two young Hindu women from Bombay. And with communications professor, Bill Randle, who was famous in the mid-50s as a top DJ in the United States, out of Cleveland and Detroit. (He loved to make chocolate milkshakes!) The house was an unconventional arrangement in a very conventional community. It was a Christian community striving to live in a radically welcoming way. Some people called it reckless. I treasured that community as recklessly generous of heart.
An unlocked door, open to whoever may come! Then, and now, and even in Biblical times, it’s a practical challenge: welcoming the stranger and at the same time, being wise stewards of what we have. Really, nothing is a better illustration than our locked church doors. Over a year ago, because of safety issues for our preschool children, members and staff, we installed a system that secures our doors when we aren’t holding worship services. If you come to Westminster during the week, we will buzz you into the locked building. Or, if you have a regular meeting here, you will get a code to punch in, to unlock the door. From time to time, we have strangers drop in, people who simply want to sit in the sanctuary and pray. When we are able, we accommodate that, with supervision. We strive to be as welcoming as possible, but we are also trying to be safe and good stewards, protecting people and resources. Locked doors can be helpful, but they are not without problems.
On this second Sunday of Easter, our Gospel reading shows that Jesus is not stopped by the locked doors. He seeks out his friends, his loved ones, afraid for their lives, fearful of the religious-political authorities. But the fear and the locks are no bar to Jesus’ presence and power and life.
Christ’s resurrection makes possible our bold living and true generosity. Perhaps the strongest testimony to the resurrection isn’t a well-orchestrated Easter Sunday pageant, or an egg-cracking reminder of the empty tomb, but a group of people whose life together is so radically different, from the way the world builds community, that there can be no other explanation than–Resurrection!
As people of faith at Easter, perhaps the most important question is for us is not: “How could a thing like resurrection happen?” But rather, “Why don’t we look more resurrected?”
Thanks to blogger Peter Wood, who noticed the connection in the Greek text between “kleiso” and “ekklesia.” Kleiso means closed. The called ones, the disciples of Jesus, were afraid, and locked away behind closed doors. So, here John presents us with a closed room containing a closed community. “Kleiso” is linked etymologically to “ekklesia”, the Greek word that came to describe the church! The ekklesia (translated “not closed”) came from the idea of Greek democracy. The ekklesia was one of Greek society’s greatest gifts to the modern world. It was a concept that celebrated freedom from systems of dominance and oppression. It is powerful that the early church mothers and fathers chose ekklesia– not closed, to describe the community of Jesus’ early followers. In the upper room encounter with Thomas, it was clear that the tomb-breaking resurrected savior is not to be cocooned by fear, and neither were the disciples.
In ekklesia: we are summoned out. Not closed, but unsealed, out-ed and free. Called out by God to listen to the voice of God. Jesus breathes his life giving spirit-breath into us. It is as if he is saying “You are not to remain “klesio” you are “ekklesia’. Come out!”
We don’t have to look far to see the negative effects of fear in our lives. We wonder: would things have been different between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman without Florida’s “Stand your ground” law? How was that law, and how much of our nation’s violence, is motivated by fear? There are other fears, too: fear that makes us feel stuck, and fear that shuts out new possibilities. “If I truly express my feelings, will this person judge me?” “If I fail at _____, will I still be loved?” What fear keeps you from fully being yourself?
When do we stay closeted, in our thinking and practice, and in our heart? Closed rooms, closeted disciples, closed minds. It is dreadful what fear will do to disciples.
Cultural anthropologist and writer Ernest Becker noted that as belief in God eroded in Western culture, money assumed a god-like quality in our lives. That leads us back to the passage we heard from Acts.
“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.”
Well, honestly, preaching on this could label one a communist! The writer of Luke/Acts was not Marxist, but was a realist, knowing that there is a good chance that wherever our possessions are, there are our hearts, also. The same Spirit that made the lame walk, also enabled Barnabas to sell his fields and give the proceeds to the apostles, who then gave to those most in need. Could the power which rolled the stone from the tomb, and broke the bonds of death, also release the tight grip of private property?
The early church was called to be an alternative community. A sign to the world that Christ makes possible a way of life together unlike anything the world has seen. This early church was a gathering of real people who are pulled in different directions by the same real tendencies which tug at us.
Hmm. . .couldn’t we just focus on the hope and beauty of spring, this Easter? Do we really have to get into property and money and such? As we try to get at the heart of why it is so difficult to live by faith, it may be that deep down, we only trust ourselves. Martin Luther wrote that security is the ultimate idol. We are vulnerable people who seek to secure our lives in improper ways, living by our wits, rather than by our faith.
I’ve learned a lot about faithful living in another community: the Benedictine Sisters at Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Indiana. A key part of St. Benedict’s Rule is hospitality. Each person should be welcomed like this: “How happy we are that you have arrived at this very inconvenient moment!” Sr. Joan Chittister, who wrote Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, says that hospitality is not a finishing school activity. It’s not Martha Stewart. It’s not a series of grand gestures at controlled times. Hospitality is an act of the recklessly generous heart. Christian hospitality is a willingness to be interrupted and inconvenienced so that others can get on with their lives as well.
One sign of resurrected life may be reckless hospitality! When we immerse ourselves in Lectio, in God’s good news, and when we let the scripture read us, and our lives, we can’t help but open our minds in ways that radically change our priorities and caring.
Resurrected life together makes us a place where the truth of the oneness of all things shatters all barriers. A point where all the differences of the world meet and melt, where Jew and Gentile, slave and free, woman and man, all come together as equals. When we let unfamiliar people and new ideas into our hearts, we are beginning to shape a new world. Hospitality of the heart could change American domestic policies. Hospitality of the heart could make my world a world of potential friends, rather than a world of potential enemies.
But this hospitality is more than thinking new thoughts or feeling new feelings. . . It’s about opening our lives to others. Opening our doors and our lives requires that, instead of simply turning the newspaper page, or surfing away from the aching need in the world, we try to determine what it is about our own lives that is affecting those who are in need. We have to wonder how we can help the poor at our doorstep, and the poor who live thousands of miles away. Not be overcome with guilt, but to acknowledge that the problem is mine, not someone else’s. It is my door and my heart upon which people are knocking for our attention. Open lives means making a haven for the helpless, being a voice for the voiceless. We learn to take our own sense of home to others. What I would do for my own family and friends, I will do for others.
Hospitality is the way we come out of ourselves. It is the first step in dismantling the barriers of the world. It is the way God turns a prejudiced world around, one heart at a time.
I’m not forgetting that we all have our own lives to live, our own obligations to meet, our own schedules to run. But if we are to receive the breath of the Spirit that Jesus wants to breathe on us, we are going to be living in this world in a different way. In a world where some ministers are too busy to minister; where some wealthy never even see the doorman or cabdriver or cook; where some of the powerful never hear the powerless; in a world deprived of a spirit of hospitality, we are called to open doors and lives with deep, loving hospitality.
Into our moments of fear and surprise, Jesus comes with a message of comfort, “Peace be with you.” And then, Jesus breathes Holy Spirit, so that loved ones become messengers of the good news of what God in Christ. We are empowered to proclaim God’s love for the entire world. Strengthened by the Holy Spirit we can fling open the locked doors of fear.
Margaret Wheatley tells the story of visiting a South African island prison where Nelson Mandela and many others were imprisoned for more than twenty-five years because of their struggle to end apartheid. On Robben Island, there was a long narrow room that had been used as a prison cell for dozens for freedom fighters. They lived in close quarters—no cots or furniture, just cement walls and floors with narrow windows near the ceiling. As she was getting a tour of this closed room, the guide said he had been a prisoner in that very room. The cold came up through the floor as he spoke. They stared through the bars of the door as he described the constant threats they had suffered. Then he paused and said, very quietly: “Sometimes, to pass the time here, we taught each other ballroom dancing.”
That is thinking outside the box! Not closed, unsealed, open and free!
We are all summoned out. And today, especially, Nora May Higgins is summoned out. We will welcome Nora, our newest sister in Christ. Her baptism will be after the silence and hymn. In baptism, we are reminded that it is not that we have chosen one another, but that God has summoned us out, to be the body of Christ, together.
What doors need to open in your life? What fears keep us closed? What would our lives look like, if we were “more resurrected?” What would Westminster look like? What breath of new life is Jesus breathing into you? Into us?