First United Methodist Church
April 16, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
Indescribable and Glorious Joy
“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week…” Imagine for a minute a scene from a mobster movie, when one family carries out a hit on another, and all the main players gather in a secret, darkened room to discuss what happened and figure out how to lay low for the next few weeks. They hear a knock on the door, and their leader tells everyone to be quiet as he prepares to open the door, gun in hand, cocked and ready to fire if necessary. Being in a position where they have to anticipate retaliation from the family they attacked, as well as avoiding any investigation that might come from the authorities, the mobsters trust no one and they fear for their lives.
Let us pray:
Loving God, speak powerfully to us today through what is written in your holy scripture. Help us hear the witnesses to Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, and to the promises of life in his name. Amen.
I imagine the disciples gathered in the Upper Room in a very similar mindset. After the awful reality of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial on Friday, they had been required by tradition to stop everything in order to observe the Sabbath. Although they expected to spend this Sunday figuring out what to do next, instead they found themselves huddled behind locked doors, struggling with the reality of the resurrection.
Early that morning Mary Magdalene had burst into their gathering place to tell the disciples that Jesus’ body was missing from the tomb. Peter and another disciple had run to the tomb and had seen for themselves that what Mary said was true. They had seen the linen cloths that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head and body lying there with no corpse to be found. They went back home, most likely to share this news with the other disciples and also to talk about what it meant. Then, a bit later that day, Mary Magdalene had come to the disciples once again, this time breathless with excitement, and told them, “I have seen the Lord.”
We might expect that the disciples would be celebrating by now. Instead, we find them huddled behind locked doors. “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews…” Since the disciples themselves are Jews, this statement actually means that they are afraid of the Jewish authorities who turned Jesus over to the Romans to be crucified. It would make sense that the Jewish leaders would want to eliminate all of his followers as well. Much like the Mafia scene I described above, they are likely afraid for their own lives, and uncertain about their future.
And when you think about it, they might even be a little afraid of Jesus too. They had all pledged to remain by him, and they failed in that miserably. One of their own had betrayed him, and at this point they probably didn’t know where he was. Peter had denied him three times, and the rest had deserted him, except for the one who stood by the cross and took Jesus’ mother into his own home. Although Peter and John witnessed Jesus’ disappearance from the tomb, the only evidence they had of his resurrection was Mary’s account, and she was a woman! Why would he go to her first? Perhaps he was upset and disappointed with them. Absorbed with their own confusion and guilt, the last person the disciples probably wanted to meet on that evening was Jesus, risen from the dead and able to confront them face to face with their failures. And so what does Jesus do? He bursts into the room and chastises them, “How dare you abandon me when I needed you the most?”
Of course, he doesn’t do that. He appears in the midst of his frightened followers and says, “Be at Peace. I am here.” And this is the part that we have to pay attention to. He doesn’t come to confront the disciples with their failures, but to grant them peace. He offers compassion, understanding, forgiveness and reassurance all in that single statement. As Peter would proclaim later, “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:8-9) All he is doing when he shows them his hands and his side, is reassuring the disciples that he is the real, flesh-and-blood, crucified Jesus – not a ghost or apparition. The joyful response of the disciples shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus had told them that he would return, and here he stood.
When we read this passage, we can be assured that Jesus will approach us with that same compassion when we are most vulnerable. When we fail Jesus or when we abandon him to pursue our own passions, we become like the disciples. We know that the risen Christ has given us a chance to live a Holy life, but we choose a different path, and we dread our encounter with Jesus because we are afraid of what he might say.
But Jesus approaches us with that same forgiveness and grace and offers us the same opportunity he offered the disciples. Their fear turns to anticipation as they realize that their Lord didn’t stay dead and that he isn’t going to hold everything they did or didn’t do over their heads for the rest of their lives. Instead, he comes to them to give them a mission. He tells them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Where is he sending them? The disciples are being sent to continue Jesus’ mission of revealing God to the world. He won’t send them out on their own to carry out this daunting task. He promised to send an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who would be with them forever. The Greek word for Advocate, parakletos, means one who is “called alongside” someone. In John, this is when he fulfills this promise. In an act of new creation, he breathes into his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Advocate, or “Spirit of truth” will teach them, remind them of all that Jesus has said to them, and guide them to the truth.
And then Jesus gives the disciples one more instruction. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” This is a very complex statement, but we have to consider a couple of things. First, “sin” in the gospel of John is not primarily a moral category; rather it is unbelief, the refusal to receive the revelation of God in the person of Jesus.
In the second part of this statement, Jesus is not giving his disciples some special power to decide whose sins will be forgiven and whose will not. This statement isn’t about judgment. Jesus is specifying what it means to be sent, to make known the love of God that Jesus himself has made known. As people come to know and abide in Jesus, they will be “released” from their sins. If, however, those sent by Jesus fail to bear witness, people will remain stuck in their unbelief and their sins will be retained or held onto. When we receive Christ’s love and forgiveness personally and we fail to share this love through our own witness, we are retaining the sins of others. The stakes of the mission Jesus gives us are very high.
But we also have to remember that Jesus doesn’t send us out to do this mission alone. We have our comforter and teacher alongside of us to equip us for this tassk.
How many of you have ever been to a piano recital? Most piano teachers have some students who have been taking lessons for several years and the recital is not difficult for them. Others are very young and have to be reassured that they have practiced and know what to do. Quite often they will play with their teacher alongside them, encouraging them and offering comfort. This is what the Holy Spirit does for us. When we practice our faith regularly, we become more confident in our witness and Christ’s mission becomes a normal part of our lives.
The natural thing to do when we are feeling anxious or threatened is to hunker down and lock the doors, to become focused on our own security rather than the risky mission to which we are called. The promise of this text is that Jesus cannot be stopped by our locked doors. Jesus comes to us as he came to the first disciples, right in the midst of our fear, pain, doubt, and confusion. He comes speaking peace, breathing into our anxious lives the breath of the Holy Spirit.
What is more, he keeps showing up. Just as he came back a week later for Thomas, Jesus keeps coming back week after week among his gathered disciples -- in the word, the water, the bread, and the cup -- not wanting any to miss out on the life and peace he gives. And he keeps sending us out of our safe, locked rooms as well, into a world that, like us, so desperately needs his gifts of life and peace. Amen.
Invitation to Discipleship
The risen Christ stands in our midst and says, "Peace be with you!" As you go out into the community this week, know that the peace of Christ goes with you always, and share that peace with each and every person you meet. Amen.