A locked room mystery- the learning time for April 16 at Harrow United Church

This is the cover  of a book by Carolyn Keene. She also wrote the Nancy Drew stories, published by the same company that made the Hardy Boys books. Anyone here read, or watch the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew? Those stories are often the gateway drug for people who go on to develop an addiction to mystery fiction.

In the world of mystery fiction, there is a sub-genre called the Locked Room Mystery. In its classic form, a crime has been committed in a locked room, and there is no obvious way to tell how it happened, or who did it. It’s usually a murder.

A corpse is found in a room that was locked from the inside, and there is no explanation of how it could have happened, or who did it.

The detective comes in to gather clues, interview witnesses and suspects, and develop a theory. 

Scholars of mystery fiction, and yes, that really is a field of study, generally agree the first locked room mystery was written in 1841 by Edgar Allan Poe. It was called the Murders in the Rue Morgue, and is also considered by many to be the first detective story. 

1841 is a long time ago, but I was thinking this week about the Gospel story we just heard, that was written down around 100 years after the earthly life of Jesus. It’s over 1900 years old, and is a kind of locked room mystery.

We can cast Thomas, the one called the Twin, in the role of the reluctant sleuth. He is faced with a most bothersome mystery.

What the story reveals is Jesus’ closest companions, the disciples, were gathered together behind locked doors. This was just after Jesus had been crucified, and the disciples had locked all the doors. The story says they were afraid. Perhaps they worried they might be next. 

Somehow, Jesus entered, and stood among them. They were awestruck. 

Jesus said to them, “Peace to you.”

But Thomas was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We saw the Master.”

But he said, “Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, put my finger in the nail holes, and stick my hand in his side, I won’t believe it.”

Some translations of the Bible give this story the heading: Doubting Thomas.

Many preachers over the centuries have used this story as a launching pad from which to send out sermons extolling the virtues of faith, and encouraging their listeners to simply believe. It’s a pretty powerful line of argument. Don’t be a doubting Thomas. You don’t need proof, just believe. 

But I like Thomas. I like people who question assumptions, who want to investigate, to try to understand, who look at available evidence, before reaching a conclusion.

There is always a temptation to not make waves, or upset apple carts, swim against the current, or challenge the group thought. But the Good Friday story is a good example of why it’s not always good to go along with the crowd. Pilate found no reason to condemn Jesus, and offered to set him free.

The people in the gathered crowd called out for Jesus to be crucified. Popular opinion can’t always be relied upon.

The disciples told Thomas Jesus had appeared to them in a locked room. The same Jesus they knew had been crucified. 

It makes perfect sense to me that Thomas wanted evidence. Good for him, for thinking for himself.

The story jumps ahead 8 days. The disciples were in the same locked room. Had they gone out at all, or had they stayed hidden away all that time?

Thomas was with them this time, when Jesus somehow came through the locked doors to appear in their midst, and say,  “Peace to you.”

Jesus then turned specifically to Thomas. He said,  “Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving. Believe.”

Thomas said, “My Master! My God!”

It’s a good story. Often, when I read a good mystery, the main question- who did the crime, is solved, but I am left with other questions. I may want to know more about the character of the detective. Many of the mysteries I read, like those old Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, are written as series, so I can go on to the next, and learn more. 

Honestly, the crimes they solve are often just a vehicle to move the book along, so I can spend more time with the detective, and learn how they think and what matters to them.

In the case of Detective Thomas, there are some things I’d like to know. The first being, what was he doing, while all the other disciples were together, behind the locked doors? Where was he?

I like to imagine that he was pursuing other mysteries, that any of us who have had a death in the family, lost a loved one, can understand.

Thomas’ good friend, and teacher, and leader, Jesus had been killed. Thomas and the others followed Jesus because they loved the message he brought about how they each mattered to God. Jesus taught them that God loved them, in such a personal way they could think of God as a parent, pray to God calling him Abba, or Daddy.

More than that, Thomas and the disciples saw the way Jesus lit up a room, or a hillside.  People flocked to be close to him, to hear his message,  and experience healing, happiness, peace, and wholeness in Jesus’ presence.

I imagine Thomas was out in the world beyond the locked room, searching for clues about how to go on. What would his life mean, now that Jesus was gone? What would be worth doing? What would his purpose be?

Would Thomas be able to continue to trust that his own life had meaning, worth, or purpose after Jesus was so cruelly taken away and killed?

When we lose someone who matters to us, it can shake us to the core, and have us question everything. It can take a while before we feel like we can feel anything except exhaustion and sadness, and at some stages of grief, anger, fear and hopelessness.

So what was Thomas up to, while the other disciples were locked away in a room, fearful?

The Gospel of John leaves that a mystery. The focus was on Jesus, and the writer says near the end of the Gospel there were so many more stories and signs that could have been written down, that would have filled many more books. We don’t get the next volume in the adventures of Detective Thomas, with a flashback showing us what he was doing during those 8 days while the others were in hiding.

I like to imagine that Thomas was finding his way back to life, after the loss of his friend and teacher, by traveling around, and visiting with others like him, who were grieving the loss of Jesus. I think maybe he was checking in on people to see how they were doing.

I think he may have been looking for clues about how to carry on, by doing what Jesus had taught from the beginning. Take care of people. See to their needs. Remind them they are loved, and not alone.

I think this, because when I read about Jesus appearing in the locked room, that’s essentially what Jesus told the other disciples.

After Jesus said, “Peace to you,” he said, “Just as the Father sent me, I send you.”

Jesus sent them back out into the world, in the same way God had sent him. Get out and there and be with the hurting, the lonely, the worried. Help people. Let them know they are known, and remembered, and that they matter. Amen

Here is a link to the YouTube video of the whole worship service. My learning time about the Locked Room Mystery starts at 35:02.

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