The Missionary Community (Slowly) Gets Underway


John 20:19-31

Second Sunday in Easter

It is Easter Day, but it is evening. The disciples of Jesus have retreated, perhaps to a familiar place. It is somewhat likely that after Jesus’ death, that the disciples returned to the house in Jerusalem where they and Jesus had celebrated their last Passover together. In times of crisis, we all seek that which is familiar. John the Evangelist tells us right away that the disciples have gone into hiding, as if they are fugitives from justice. At the very least, they are afraid for their lives. At his trial, the best evidence that his accusers could produce against Jesus was that he was a threat not only to a respected religious heritage, but also to the Roman government. And it was only on the basis of this perceived threat that the Romans finally consented to crucify Jesus. And now, the disciples of Jesus are afraid for their own lives, because it is natural to assume that the followers of an insurrectionist would hold to the same ideology as did the insurrectionist. We’d like to think that the followers of Jesus would do the same thing today! The disciples are very afraid that the Romans, or perhaps even the temple police intend to take the whole gang out. And so they are hiding behind locked doors.

And while a locked door might have been a momentary inconvenience to a squad of soldiers on a raid, it seems to be no impediment at all for the risen Christ. Jesus simply appears among the disciples and pronounces peace on this sorry lot of cowards. The resurrected body of our Lord is an anomaly in terms of our ability to comprehend it. On the one hand, it seems to be quite normal. Jesus can be seen, heard, felt, touched and embraced. He even seems to have a healthy appetite. And yet, on the other hand, physical barriers that would slow us up considerably, seem not to impede his progress at all. And good thing, too, because Jesus is on a mission; a very important mission. He intends to reclaim his wavering disciples and to rid his disciples of their cowardice, and to create a new missionary community that will transform the entire world. And that’s quite a mission!

And so, as he stands among his shocked and surprised disciples, he says to them, “Peace be with you.” One of the primary human emotions is fear. We live in fear of that which will harm us. It is how we survive. It is quite natural. And yet, in spite of our fear, and perhaps because of it, we are also constantly in search of peace. And we will go to great lengths to seek peace, most of the time without realizing that it is something that we will not find or achieve on our own, but rather that it is Jesus who takes the initiative and pronounces it over us. “Peace be with you.” It is a gift.

I am very sure, that at this moment, that the disciples are quite overwhelmed. Someone has penetrated their defenses. Someone has spoken peace to them that has managed, somehow, to penetrate even the strong defenses of their hearts. And now, that someone, is proving himself to be the living embodiment of the man to whom they have given the previous three years of their lives; inviting them to examine the scars of the wounds that brought about his death on a cross. I am quite sure that I would be an emotional wreck at this point, and that I would definitely need the second pronouncement of peace that Jesus provides to his disciples. The first pronouncement of peace may have penetrated the solid defenses of my heart, but I would certainly have needed the second pronouncement of peace to quiet my troubled and confused mind. Fortunately for all of us, Jesus willingly provides us with both. We just need to receive it.

And because Jesus is on a mission, he wastes no time in getting down to business. There is much work to do and the new missionary community needs to be commissioned so that it can get to work. And so Jesus says to his disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” I will have to gain eternity before I can fully comprehend the depth of the mystery of that statement. But here’s what I do understand: Jesus is drawing some very powerful lines of connection between heaven and earth, and these lines connect God the Father, Jesus, his disciples and us in a most awesome and intimate way.

Jesus is reminding his disciples that Almighty God, the father of our earthly Jesus, commissioned Jesus to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God, and then sent him here to do it. And Jesus came to this earth, which I can only barely fathom, other than to use the words that the Apostle John gave us when he said that the “…Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

And when Jesus came to this earth he was obedient to his calling, and he fulfilled his divine commission, and he announced the arrival of God’s emerging kingdom, and he proclaimed the forgiveness of sin, and he made manifest in his own life the mercy and grace of God. And in absolute awe of all of that John the Apostle also wrote these words: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

And now Jesus is saying, in the same way that God Almighty sent me to this place to do all of this, in the same way that Almighty God commissioned me, I am sending you to carry on the work of this ministry that my father first gave to me. I fulfilled it with all of the divine authority that I was given, and I am now giving you that same divine authority to announce the continuing unfolding of God’s kingdom, and to proclaim the forgiveness of sin, and to make manifest the mercy and grace of God in your own lives, so that others will find and receive the gift of eternal life. That’s profound. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

In Genesis chapter two, when God had informed the first human being, God breathed the breath of life into that creature, and that creature became a living being. Here in John chapter 20, the risen Christ gathers his disciples around him and he breathes the Holy Spirit into them. And with that act of recreation, the new missionary community is fully established and fully empowered by Almighty God. The word and breath of God is implanted within them. Verse 23 is too frightening to discuss this morning; it is the stuff of an intense and prolonged Bible study. And even so, it will remain inexplicable. Two thousand years worth of the best minds in Christendom have struggled with these deceptively simple words, but have never been able to provide an adequate explanation. All agree that it has something to do with divine power and authority, but the wisest among them also agree that we’ll have to wait until eternity to discuss these words with the one who spoke them.

So…the lines between heaven and earth have been drawn. The power of Almighty God, made manifest in Jesus Christ, has now been handed off to the disciples. The new missionary community has been fully empowered and divinely established. (Pathetic illustration, spoiler alert coming) This is better than having a new car! Let’s take this thing out for a spin! Let’s get out there and start proclaiming the joy of God’s kingdom!

Well, not so fast. It appears as though the car has stalled, or at least that it will only idle, and won’t go into gear.

Thomas is often identified as the bad guy in this story. An unfortunate play on words involving his name has contributed to this, and a well-known children’s song warns us to avoid any association with him at all. “Don’t be a doubting Thomas; stand fully on his promise! So the poor guy has been abused over the centuries, and really, all he did was honestly express his desire for the truth. And Jesus himself will show him that truth.

And so it seems as though this new missionary community is stalled until Thomas can discover his truth. But who’s stalling it? Is it Thomas, or is it the rest of the disciples? A week later, where are all of the disciples? They’re still holed up in their hiding place. The proclamation of the kingdom is on hold. The power and authority of the gospel is trapped in that hiding place along with the disciples. Nothing is happening. The disciples need to be rescued from their paralysis.

And quite surprisingly, at least to some of us, Thomas is the one who will lead them out of that paralysis. Thomas is the one who insists on the truth, and he is the one who receives it. And when he receives it, he proclaims aloud what the rest of the disciples have already experienced, but apparently haven’t been able to express. When Thomas begins to proclaim, “My Lord and my God,” the rest of the disciples are then free to express it aloud also. Their tongues have been loosened to proclaim the gospel. And with that, this new missionary community is back on its feet. It has received divine power and authority, and now with Thomas’ bold proclamation, it will begin to proclaim the message that has been implanted within them with boldness, and with power and with authority. In more than 2,000 years nothing has changed. The new missionary community is still being sent by God to proclaim the good news of God’s gospel. The power and authority of Almighty God is still present, and the Holy Spirit still breathes in and out of us. We are fully empowered to be the missionary community that God intends for us to be. We need only to proclaim the same words of faith that Thomas proclaimed, and we will spill out of this hiding place with all of the divine power and authority that we possess, for we, too have received the divine blessing. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This is still the watch-word and the motivation of God’s continually emerging missionary community. Let us never forget that our tongues have already been loosened.

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