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Jesus Transforms the Fearful

This is the message I preached to God's people at
Bethel Lutheran Church in Portville, NY on Sunday, April 27.
The text is John 20:19-31. 

Let’s use our imaginations today as we look at today’s gospel reading. We’re going to jump into a time machine and go back to Jerusalem later in the day after the resurrection. How do you think we’re going to find the disciples? Are they going to be ecstatic? Are they going to be boldly walking around the temple area telling the Pharisees, “We told you so. He’s baaaaaaaaaaack.” Were they telling everyone they met that Jesus is risen? Were they spreading the news and the faith? 

No. They were hidden in the large room behind locked doors scared out of their wits. Would we be in any better shape? Just a few days before, their master and Lord was crucified. Yes, he rose on that Sunday morning—we know that, the women who went to the tomb know that, but just because some women had told the disciples about it doesn’t necessarily mean they believed it. 

After all, the disciples knew the cost of bucking the religious leadership of the Jews and the political leadership of the Romans. And now there was a rumor about Jesus’ body not being in the tomb where it had been laid. Jesus’ followers were being accused of hiding his body. It just was not safe outside. They had good reason to be afraid. I think we would be scared too.

Now how do you think a scared group of people is going to react when Jesus just appears inside of the locked doors with them? They’re going to be more scared! Is he alive or is he a ghost? 

Although the first words out of Jesus’ mouth were, “Peace be with you,” the disciples didn’t know what to think. How could they know who this was? He may have extended peace to them, but they sure didn’t feel very peaceful until Jesus displayed his wounds. Once they really knew this was their Lord--that was a different matter. Jesus does more than bring peace, he becomes their peace.

The greeting of peace was common in Jesus’ time just as it is in today’s Middle East. Although it’s a typical salutation, its meaning goes much deeper. There is a sense of wellness and wholeness in the word. In the New Testament, it is a description of a type of relationship between people rather than a personal inner calmness. Especially in John’s gospel, which emphasizes the importance of the disciples’ love for one another, the meaning may have been more communal.  Peace is an essential quality of the messianic kingdom. It is “the way people and all creation and God will relate to each other—a harmonious existence” (Brian Stoffregen).

The greeting of peace and the giving of peace was to be very important for the future of the disciples. They were going to need all the strength and peace that they could muster. This frightened group desperately needed Jesus’ peace to break the power of fear. They would be persecuted and martyred for their faith in Jesus and for their witness about him. These disciples and those who would be following them would experience the world’s hatred and persecution. After all, Jesus promised that as the lot for his followers, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you” (John 15.18). The gift of Jesus’ peace means that the disciples don’t have to be anxious when they face the authorities whether they are Jewish or Roman.

After the peace is given to the disciples, Jesus commissions them to continue the work the Father had sent him to do. “As the Father has sent me so I send you” (v. 21). The disciples’ work is an extension of Jesus’ work, which is making God in Jesus known in the world. 

Even though those gathered were the first followers of Jesus, as human beings, in themselves they were not capable of manifesting God’s presence and doing God’s will in the way Jesus did. This is why Jesus gave them the Holy Spirit. Jesus shares with his disciples the union he has with his Father. They are reunited with Jesus and are given his very life by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus gives his followers what they need when they need it and not a moment sooner. He breathed the Spirit onto the disciples after he gave them their assignment. This is the only place in the New Testament where the verb “to breathe” is used. It brings us back to the time of creation when God breathed the breath of life into the first human being. Just as the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, was a part of creation, here the Holy Spirit is poured into God’s new creation. Believers in Jesus received new life as children of God (John 3:3-10). The Holy Spirit is that breath that sustains and empowers that life. 

The event of the resurrection is so earth shattering, that God wants to tell everyone about it. No one is left out—not then, not now. Thomas was not there when the other disciples saw Jesus and received the Holy Spirit. But Jesus keeps showing up. He came back one week later for Thomas. 

Jesus keeps coming back for us as well—week after week among his gathered disciples. He comes to us in the word, the water, the bread and the wine. Jesus does not want any of us to miss out on the life and peace he gives. And God will not let us stay locked up in our rooms of fear. The disciples’ work and the work of God’s church today is an extension of Jesus’ work.

Just as Jesus did for his disciples then, God today gives us everything we need to do the work he calls us to. “He keeps sending us out of our safe, locked rooms into a world that… so desperately needs his gifts of life and peace” (Elisabeth Johnson).

Elisabeth Johnson,
Gail R. O’Day, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Volume IX
Grant R. Osborne, editor, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series
Brian Stoffregen.        

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