“When it was evening that day, the first day of the week the doors of the house where the disciples met were locked for fear...”
As this gospel reading begins we are in the evening of last Sunday, Easter Day. Jesus first appears to the disciples that very night. And he finds them hiding in fear.
Of course they have lots to be afraid of. Their friend and leader, Jesus, has just been crucified. Who knows, they could be next.
On top of that they’ve heard that Jesus is missing. His body is not in the tomb. The women said he is alive! How could this be? Is Jesus now a ghost come to haunt them? This is a problem; they are all guilty of denying him in his greatest hour of need. Who knows what the ghost/Jesus might do to them….
This is probably the worst day of their lives. Granted it was pretty awful when Jesus was captured and killed. But now, for the disciples, this day is even worse. They are going to be held accountable. Isn’t that what we would think?
So, the disciples are hiding…fear-filled…a tremendous anxiety. The awful struggle to move through the last three days - and now this – what a horrible day.
All over the news this week we’ve heard about the hurtful remarks of Don Imus and the women’s basketball team from Rutger’s. This has been a troubling week in our society as we face the reality of prejudice and hurt. The suffering of these women, robbed of the joy of their successful win. The suffering of Imus who is living the consequences of his actions. He’s not getting away with it this time, and it must feel terribly humiliating. I don’t know Imus, I suppose he could stand defensive against this and not feel bad, but most of us would feel deeply ashamed if we were he.
Take a moment and think of your greatest struggle. Think of the time when you felt you hit your lowest of lows. When just getting out of bed in the morning was all you could manage, if you even managed that. How did it feel? You needn’t share the situation, but can you share the feelings?
Several years ago Joan Chittister spoke on the subject of suffering at a conference at Chautauqua in New York State. She is a renowned Benedictine nun, an author (35 books) and an international lecturer on topics concerning women, the poor, peace and justice, and contemporary issues in church and society.
She titled her presentation at Chautauqua: Scarred by struggle, transformed by hope, the 9 Gifts of Suffering.
The premise is that all people suffer. Each of us has as the one common denominator in life, times of suffering. They come she says, just when we think life is perfect. Wham. Everything changes. Someone dies. Someone get sick. Depression hits. A job is lost. The list could continue on. We all suffer when life changes dramatically for unexpected reasons when we least expect it. These struggles are not just some mere inconvenience. These struggles are irreparable change. Life will never be the same again.
And the point is, how do we go about living through these times of great suffering with out giving up the soul?
She lists 9 struggles and the gift that comes from the struggle. By gift she means what we learn about ourselves, our lives, our faith, by living through the struggle.
The first struggle is change. Struggle brings unwanted change. The disciples have faced an unbelievable change: Jesus has been crucified. From this place of profound change comes the gift of conversion, we learn to recreate ourselves. For the disciples this struggle began with them running away but led to the resurrection. Throughout the Easter season, for the next seven weeks, we will hear resurrection stories in our Gospel. On Pentecost we learn that these stories led to a conversion of strength and courage in the disciples. It was their new found strength that built the Church. And from the early church came a legacy of human transformation that has lived over 2000 years.
The second is isolation. The struggle leaves us feeling alone, and in deep pain. The disciples are hiding in the room with the doors locked. They are hiding in fear. From isolation comes the gift of independence. Actively working to move through our suffering days leads us to a place where we can become independent from our pain, we learn to insist on living despite the pain. Anyone who has lived with a chronic illness or suffered for a long time knows this reality. Buddhists call this “mindfulness” having an observing eye, able to look with some detachment at the circumstances of one’s life even as one lives and feels life fully.
The third is darkness and its gift is faith. In the darkness of losing everything we come to believe in a life beyond the life we know, something greater than we are is acting in the world. On our darkest days it’s that something that gets us up in the morning. God stays with us in these dark moments. We are not abandoned. Jesus returns to the disciples, finds them in their darkest moment, in this room, and assures them that they are not alone. He is with them always. My peace I give to you. My peace I leave with you. Jesus is not a ghost out to haunt them. He is the resurrection. His body bears the marks of his tragic death and with those marks of suffering he is a new person. He is the fullness of God’s love. He loves the disciples just as they are at this very moment. He loves the disciples even knowing they abandoned him. This story assures us that God’s love for us is ever present, there in our darkest moments.
Forth is fear. In our struggle we face things we do not understand and cannot name. We are paralyzed by our unknowing, but in moving through the fear we come to know the gift of courage. Every tiny act of courage: getting out of bed in the morning. Going to work each day. Seeking help. Each step we take to move through the fear produces in us a little bit of courage. Each little step puts us back in control of our lives, even if on a small scale.
Fifth is powerlessness and its gift of surrender. When we move through struggle, eventually a healthy response means we give into the struggle. We give in because we know that someone is there to help us. It is not defensive. And it is a giving over of the self. It is not an absence of self. Rather this surrender is trusting that someone is there to hold us up and keep us going. For Christians this is clearly the message of God’s love poured out in Christ. We sing, Christ beneath us, Christ above us, Christ behind us, Christ before us…where ever we go Christ is there.
Sixth is vulnerability and its gift of self acceptance. In moving through the struggle we come to a place where we have to admit that we are wounded. We need to accept our own weaknesses. And in this case our weakness becomes our strength. We are able to accept ourselves for being who are. This becomes a position of humility and grace. We know that God loves us in our brokenness, just as we are. Being loved like this by a gracious God enables us to love others just as they are.
Seventh is exhaustion – moving through struggle wears us out. But the gift of moving through struggle, of living though the exhaustion, the gift is endurance. We learn that life begins again. Endurance brings us hope.
Eighth is scarring. We cannot move through struggle without becoming scarred. Our woundedness leaves marks on us. These marks can make us bitter. Or they can make us better. We can become better people through our struggles. The very process of moving through the struggle, of becoming scarred, is the same process that makes us better people. Our woundedness, our scars, become the source of our compassion. We wear our scars gracefully when we have compassion for others.
Jesus is marked. He appears in the room and shows these marks to the disciples. It is a sign to them that he is who he is. He is their friend. He is Jesus. He loves them just as they are. He has come to help them move through their deepest struggle. He has come again to help them be more fully who they are meant to be. The gift of scarring is hope.
We cannot go through the struggles of this life and remain the same.
We can become bitter. That is one kind of change that can come from struggle.
But we can also be transformed into a new person. Jesus, in his resurrected body, with the marks of his crucifixion still very visible, is transformed into a new life. He is now able to be fully present to all of his disciples, and all of us, all the time. In the resurrection Jesus becomes the bridge for us between the divine world of God’s love and the human world of suffering. Jesus offers us a way, a path, a means, for moving through the struggles of life. This is the peace of Christ.
“Jesus came and stood among them and said. ‘Peace be with you.’”