Peace in a Locked-in Place, Reflections on John 20:19-20

peace in spite of the scars

The regular cycle of bible readings known as the Lectionary keeps us in familiar territory as the Easter season unfolds. I wonder how many times we have read these stories over the years? However, I do think we sometimes over-sentimentalise the accounts of the aftermath of crucifixion and resurrection. My mind has been drawn these last few days to some curious elements of this story to which I’ve never paid too much attention to be honest, but they add more than a touch of realism to the story.

There is much to consider in just the first two verses of our reading today.

John 20:19-31

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.”

First there is the symbolism of the evening. The day has gone, the darkness is creeping. Nature itself seems to be in sympathy with these disciples who had seen all their plans and hopes dashed with the death of their leader. It was night, and not just in the streets of Jerusalem, but in the hearts of each one in that sealed room.

And it’s true for us too isn’t it. It’s always worse at night. We talk of the dark night of the soul.

And there’s the second thing. They were locked in. I think there’s something symbolic here too. Witnessing violence, or having violence inflicted, can have that effect. It can lock a person into their trauma. The disciples here were bolted inside that room, but locked in also to the trauma they had seen and experienced.

Tragically, many of us will have known this effect in our own lives. We have witnessed suffering, or violence acted out in front of us, or we have experienced suffering or violence, physically, emotionally or psychologically. Aggression and abuse deprives us of a voice, can turn us in on ourselves and away from the rest of the world.

These days we may have written about these people in the Upper Room suffering from PTSD, the physical or psychological impact of being in a perceived life or death situation, or of being surrounded by violence. PTSD can bring on anxiety or stress, fearful feelings, hallucinations, nightmares, flashbacks and panic attacks. Some experience selective mutism, where they just can’t communicate. For some they avoid life, become agoraphobic, or listless, or simply an inability to communicate. Was this in the experience of the disciples just days after the crucifixion?

And thirdly, there is the source of their fear. The Jewish leaders. Now this is a difficult thing to consider, yet it is a common theme within John’s gospel. Time and again he speaks about peoples’ actions or words being constrained for fear of the Jews. There may be some factual, or historical accuracy in the account, for the people who did these things happened to be Jewish, but within days, the movement that began here in this locked-in state moved out of that room and confidently began to proclaim their message. Within 400 years it was the official religion of the Empire. 1,000 years later it spanned the globe.

It was, and we are, no longer a minority movement in many parts of the world. Indeed in many places we are the reigning powers.

How easily then over the course of this history, did the factual statements of John’s Gospel become the permissive cause for anti-Semitism. This statement here in John’s Gospel, describing the actual fear experienced by those first disciples, became a generalised prejudice against a whole people group. It perhaps reached it’s lowest and most shameful point in the Holocaust, but it still has the power to commandeer the headlines, even as it has done this week.

How frequently do we see it that those who have been traumatised transfer their trauma onto another group whom they demonise and ultimately subject to the same violence and trauma that they themselves had experienced.

This is an endless, violent cycle of revenge and retribution. Perpetrated from the locked room of our pain and anguish.

Thankfully though, the story doesn’t end there.

The verse says, “Jesus came and stood among them and said “Peace be with you!””

The Risen Christ, so recently the victim of scapegoating violence comes and stands in the midst of the locked-in room and offers a new way out of the destructive cycle of revenge and retribution.   “Peace be with you!”

That’s what they needed to hear, locked in to their pain and their trauma. It is the blessing he offers in the noise and tumult of their torment. Peace!

And this was no easy peace. It was no PollyAnna-ish view which refuses to look at the harsh reality of a violent world. For he shows them the scars on his hands and his side. This is not make believe, this is peace in the context of real suffering and violence. Jesus still carries his scars and yet offers peace.

If you watched the Patrick Kielty programme during the week you will have seen some people who are still living out of the pain of their trauma, and others who have moved beyond it. Jesus never intends for us to stay burdened by our wounds, nor does he intend for us to forget, but he intends for us to know peace despite the wounds. You see, in the first instance, stepping out of the cycle of hatred and revenge, and learning to forgive, is not for the sake of the person who has hurt you, it is to break the hold that the pain has on us.

Last Wednesday was my Mum’s birthday, but it was also the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the great apostle of non-violence. He said,

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

a version of this piece was first published on the Spirituality of Conflict website, an online lectionary resource on reading conflict through the lens of the Gospels. Find the piece HERE.

Audio of a sermon based on the passage can be accessed HERE.

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