"On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews,..." For fear of the Jews.... Who were the disciples afraid of, really? Exactly who was threatening them, who might be after them?
John is different than the other three gospels, which are so much alike that we call them synoptic, seeing with one eye. John sees with a different eye. John was the last gospel written, and there is less urgency to the narrative; it contains more discourse, more editorializing, more theology.
John is different in another way. All three of the other gospels make it clear that Jesus had the support of the overwhelming majority of the people. The religious leaders, the "elders," the "chief priest," the "scribes and Pharisees," as the synoptic gospels variously describe them, were the ones who felt threatened by Jesus, who plotted to remove him, and who did so in secret, fearful that there would be a "tumult among the people" (Matthew 26, 5; Mark 14: 2) if their plans were discovered.
The synoptic gospels take great care to make a distinction between the religious leaders, who opposed Jesus, and the people, who largely supported him. John obliterates this distinction, talking again and again how Jesus was opposed by "the Jews," how "the Jews" plotted against him, "the Jews" took up stones to stone him. Throughout the gospel of John there is a blaming of "the Jews," a general condemnation of an entire group of people with none of the distinctions made by the other gospels. The Gospel of John is anti-Jewish, at times spectacularly so.
This shift between the synoptic gospels and John would be primarily of academic interest were it not for the ugly attitude and tragic events that it has fostered. Imbedded in our Holy Scripture, "the Word of the Lord" as we say when we read it in our public worship, is a consistent and unwavering condemnation of "the Jews." We learn from John's gospel how "the Jews" plotted against Jesus, "the Jews" sought to destroy Jesus, how the followers of Jesus feared "the Jews," and of course this clear, consistent message has had an effect.
For example, the Fourth Lateran Council, convened by Pope Innocent III in 1215, reached consensus on a number of issues. They agreed on an official definition of the doctrine of the eucharist (i.e. transubstantiation) and established rules for who could preach in cathedral churches. The council also issued a decree that Jews should be distinguished in public by having to wear a yellow patch of cloth sewn to their coats.
Adolf Hitler's policy of identifying Jews by forcing them to wear a yellow star on their outer garments was not original. He borrowed it from the Christian Church, who beat him to the punch by over six hundred years.
In our own country we remember 1492 as the year that Columbus discovered the New World. (As Byron Rushing, chaplain to the House of Deputies has noted, "Discovered" in the same way someone from the inner city might venture out to a wealthy suburb and discover a B M W in someone's driveway.) Something else happened in 1492 that made this journey possible: Jewish people were driven from Spain in 1492.
All Jews were expelled from England by 1290, from France by 1394, and then from Spain by 1492. They were forced to leave most of their belongings and property behind, and so Columbus' voyage was largely financed by valuables confiscated from Jewish people when they were driven out of the country.
It would be an exaggeration to blame the long, tawdry history of Christian anti-Semitism on the Gospel of John, but it would also be a mistake to think that the repeated antagonistic references to "the Jews" throughout John's have not had any effect. It is a sad irony that the every single year on the first Sunday after Easter we hear, "On the evening of the day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews..." It is a lesson that ought never be read without an explanation, a disclaimer.
And yet the anti-Semitism of this passage yields an inadvertent but profound lesson about our faith. If we return to our original question, which Jews were the disciples hiding from, it is likely that one of the Jews they feared was Jesus.
Think about it. They knew that one of their number had betrayed Jesus while others had denied him, run away, and abandoned him to face his shameful and humiliating death alone. It was the women and Nicodemus who made the initial hasty arrangements for Jesus' body after his death, and it was the women who returned with the amazing news that Jesus was not dead, he had risen, the disciples initially refused to believe them. It is easy to imagine that their response to the good news of the women might have initially been to feel ashamed, anxious, even afraid. They had not shown any hint of loyalty, bravery or love for Jesus when he most needed it. Think about the last person you disappointed or let down, and remember what it felt like when you next encountered that person, and then try to imagine what the disciples were thinking and feeling in that room, hiding behind those locked doors.
The friend they had betrayed, denied, abandoned, the one they had left to die alone and then even after death had distanced themselves from was now alive, walking around, and might possibly be coming to see them. This may have sounded more like alarming news than good news.
And so they are hiding away, behind closed doors; fearful, anxious, no doubt concerned about what Jesus may say or do to them, when suddenly he is in their midst, he is standing among them.
It appears he understands their anxiety, their shame and fear, for the first words out of his mouth are, "Peace be with you." Jesus initial reaction is to reassure them. Don't worry, he says, in effect. I'm not angry, upset with you. It's all right. I'm not holding a grudge.
It's a critical moment for them, and for us, because of course each of us is all too aware of the ways we have failed God, all of the countless ways we have denied, abandoned, betrayed our faith.
It often feels hard to come before God, to pray to Jesus, because we are painfully aware of how wavering and inconstant our faith is. In a way we are like the disciples, hiding away from God behind locked doors, unwilling or unable to come out from behind the locked doors and walls of our guilt and approach God.
It is easy to pray when we feel good about ourselves, when we feel faithful, compassionate, loving and good. It is much harder to pray when we have blown it and we know it.
God knows it, too. This passage tells us that when we are tempted to remain cut off from God, hiding behind locked doors, God will come to us. Suddenly Jesus is in our midst, in spite of all our efforts to keep him out, and Jesus stands among us, not as our accuser, our prosecutor, but as one who loves and understands us, who assures us, "Peace be with you."
Our brokenness is no barrier to God's love. As Jesus assured his disciples that their monumental instances of bad faith did not diminish his love for them, we are assured of this as well. As Paul writes in Romans, nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ. Nothing.
There are times when we cower, unable to pray, anxious over the things we have done and left undone. This story reminds us that we need not fear this Galilean Jew, and that we need to leave the locked room of our anxiety and come out into the world. There is much that Jesus beckons us to do. Amen.