Written by Pastor Ed
So I send you
April 3, 2016
Acts 5: 27-32
John 20: 19-31
Why is it that we are so often reluctant to share our faith? I’m not talking about posting one of the many Face Book things that get passed around saying “share this if you love Jesus.” I’m talking about those opportunities where our faith could make a difference in how we act or think and we don’t take the opportunity. As Alan Kreider once said, “If our actions are our witness, then they should be so outrageous that people will ask why we do what we do.”
Our scripture passages this morning give us some contrasting pictures of the disciples after the resurrection of Jesus. And perhaps tell us something of the progress of their thought.
There is a certain irony to the picture we get of the disciples in the last part of John 20, which we read this morning. You will recall from last Sunday how Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, then ran back to the disciples, who had a foot race to the tomb – John being the faster – saw that Jesus wasn’t there and then went back home while Mary stayed around and encountered Jesus in person. And she went and told the disciples of her encounter, “I have seen the Lord.”
The next thing we are told is that that same evening, no more than 12 hours later, the disciples are locked in their house, “for fear of the Jews.” Now recall that these are Jesus’ disciples, themselves all Jews, and the person who shows up unexpectedly, Jesus, is also a Jew. So the phrase, “for fear of the Jews” probably says more about the community at the time John was writing than about that Easter evening. By the late 1st century, the Christian community had been pushed out of the synagogue and saw “the Jews” as opposition.
In any case, they are locked away out of fear. Unlike Mary who ran to tell, they withdraw and lock the doors. And then Jesus, the Jew, appears and what is his message? “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Perhaps it’s little wonder that John doesn’t record their response! He moves on quickly to Thomas. And then we’re told, a week later, they’re again in the house, and the doors are closed. So much for being sent.
What a contrast to the picture we get in Acts 5 of Peter and the other disciples. Here we find the disciples, these same men, preaching in Jerusalem, and even after being arrested the first time and then miraculously released by an angel during the night, they go to the temple, the center of Jewish worship and begin to teach. That’s the background to the passage we read.
In the morning when the council calls for the men to be brought from prison, they can’t find them until someone reports that they are, in fact, back preaching at the temple. And now it’s the temple police who are fearful of the crowds as they bring the disciples back before the council. And it’s in that context that we get that often quoted response from Peter, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” A phase that has been used for both good as well as evil in the world.
They then go on to recount the central points of their faith in the resurrection and note that they are witnesses of these things, not just that they saw them, but witnesses to tell about them. Our reading didn’t tell the rest of the story. After the disciples had made their statement, the council deliberated and we have Gamaliel, a wise teacher making his speech noting that other people had gathered a following around them, but all had quickly died off once the leader was gone. So they should just wait and see what happens. So they flogged the disciples, told them not to preach or teach anymore, and let them go. Yet, Luke notes, “every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.”
So what changed them from a scared group huddled behind locked doors to a group that was willing ot defy the religious authorities and boldly proclaim the Gospel, even after being flogged and ordered not to do so? Now one of the obvious answers is that Pentecost happened in between there, and that certainly made a difference. But according to John’s account, Jesus had given the Holy Spirit to this group of disciples way back there on that Easter Sunday evening. “He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
So it can’t be totally chalked up to the Holy Spirit. No, I think that along with the presence of the Spirit, or perhaps with the guidance of the Spirit, the disciples began to understand the implications of that day and of the resurrection. That the resurrection wasn’t just about some future hope, your reservation for a mansion over the hillside, but rather about a new relationship with the God who could raise Jesus from the dead. It was a whole new way of looking at life for the future, and for now.
You see it’s very easy to say we believe in the resurrection. But belief, particularly for John, the writer of the Gospel, belief is not just a head thing, like, “I believe spring is coming.” But involves action, doing something about it – getting out and raking the lawn! He notes that the reason he wrote what he did was so that “you may come to believe” or it could be translated “you may continue to believe” that Jesus is the Messiah and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Not “you can have life after death” but that “you may have life” now.
And part of that life now is spreading the good news of the resurrection, both in word and deed. Being sent out, witnessing, making some tough choices about forgiveness. That whole thing about forgiving and retaining sins has been a tough one for the church through the years. What did Jesus really mean by that? Does the church really have that authority or power to decide whether to forgive or not? Raymond Brown in his commentary on John devotes a long section to a discussion of this passage. And still there is no definitive answer.
I think the best we can say is that we as disciples are given a task of discernment that we need to take seriously and that the Holy Spirit is certainly involved in that process. And it points out that living out the meaning of the resurrection is not an easy task. As with the disciples in Acts, it may involve getting into hot water from time to time. It may involve acting in ways that rile people up, and even at times in ways that are considered against the rules.
Most of you, thankfully, never had to face the decision I faced during the Vietnam War or how to register, or even whether to register for the draft. And in some ways I was fortunate in that the lottery system was introduced and I got a high number so didn’t have to make the choices some others needed to, including some who chose Canada.
At my brother’s funeral some of his co-workers told of his refusal to participate in one job their company was involved in, which required them to go into the nuclear bomb facilities at Rocky Flats outside of Denver, a position that could have cost him his job, but thankfully didn’t. They spoke of the testimony that made to others in the company.
As I quoted Alan Kreider earlier, our actions need to make people ask questions. And we can only do them if we understand that the resurrection has meaning for the here and now, that we need not be controlled by fear. I sometime wonder what it says about us as Christians when I hear Christians promote the need for a strong defense of the country so that we aren’t taken over by others, or more recently fears that are raised that somehow Islam is about to take over. (which isn’t anywhere close to true.)
But even if it was, do we somehow feel that our faith is so weak we wouldn’t be able to continue? There are Christians all over the world who have, or are, living in conditions where these words of Peter to the Council are more than nice words, they are the reality they live with each and every day. And in many cases Christianity flourishes because of the witness they give. Not just those first disciples, but we too are to be witnesses of the resurrection.
We too are sent out, just as Jesus sent his disciples, to share the good news. We too have been breathed upon and received the Holy Spirit. As we were reminded two weeks ago, we too are Christ bearers; carrying Christ to the world around us. And that applies no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in.
Jesus may show up and make himself known to us at any time or place, whether we have locked ourselves away or kept the doors wide open. And we, like Thomas may not be ready at first to recognize the presence of Jesus when he comes. But when we do recognize Jesus among us, then we will hear him say, “As the father has sent me, so send I you.” And with boldness we are called to proclaim the good news to all.
May we, like the apostles in Acts, choose to follow wherever that may lead us.