The Disciple Life in the Resurrection Age (John 20:19-23)
Sunday, May 1, 2011
Jesus had been executed, and not just killed. He was subjected to the worst possible death, the Roman cross. So, the disciples, filled with fear, huddled behind a locked door hoping to go unnoticed. The political leaders in Jerusalem had already demonstrated they could influence Roman Governor Pilate to collude with them in bringing someone to death.
Who killed Jesus? The Romans? The temple leaders? Me in my sin, or us in our sins? God, for the sake of sin debt? Who is killed Jesus is not a question we will answer this morning. The important point John illustrates is that the disciples were terrified more killing might be coming. They locked themselves in.
It’s no way to live, but many do. I just read this week of an evangelist who was beaten to death by Muslims.[i] It’s scary for a Christ-follower, knowing Jesus commands us to witness, to live in a place where evangelism is not tolerated. It’s scary for a child to live with a parent who beats him or a wife to live with a husband who hits her. It’s scary to think one might lose her job, and she’s over 55, not yet able to retire, but old enough that potential employers overlook her. It’s no good to live in fear. It casts a heavy shadow over life that makes it difficult to sleep, difficult to dream. Fear is unsettling and demeaning.
The disciples hid behind a locked door, and there He is! They were afraid, now a glimmering brilliance fills the room and the shadows of fear flee with great haste. “Peace be with you.” “… The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”
I feel a distance from the resurrection that I don’t like. It happened 2000 years ago. A final resurrection is coming at some unknown future date which will mark the Lord’s Second Coming and the Judgment Day. We live in between the times. So, we can’t always sense the force of the resurrection, either how important it was or how important it will be. The disciples were most likely as disoriented after Jesus materialized in their midst. Fear cast a gloomy blanket. Then Jesus shined a radiant light. They knew fear, but what prepares one for resurrection?
How can we enter the wonder and mystery, the awe and surprise the disciples experienced with Jesus in that locked house? We read the stories in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Every year, we read at least two of the four Easter accounts. We supplement with the brief appearances of the risen Christ in Acts and the book of Revelation. We hear Paul testify of his encounters with Jesus. But, it’s all old text, very old. How do we drink the new wine and share the newness of the Kingdom of God when our experiences of the Gospels are like watching? The show is fantastic, but it is still a rerun we’ve watched over and over and over.
One thing did startle me in John 20. Jesus said …
As(AF) the Father has sent me,(AG) even so I am sending you." 22And when he had said this, he(AH) breathed on them and said to them, (AI) "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23(AJ) If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld."
If the disciples forgive sins they are forgiven; and, if they don’t then the person is not forgiven. Early in his ministry, four men approached Jesus. Approached is understated. He was teaching in a crowded house, and these men cut their way through the roof so they could lower their paralyzed friend on a mat that Jesus might heal him. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Your sins are forgiven,” and some in the crowd did not like him saying that. They accused him of blasphemy and then said, “Who can forgive sins but God alone” (Mark 2:7)? Jesus responded, “So that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins … I say to you [the paralyzed one] take your mat and go to your home.” The man who could not walk, stood and carried his own mat.
That’s all well and good. Jesus the miracle-worker is God in human flesh. He’s conquered death. He can forgive sins. But these disciples? They constantly misunderstood his message. They ran, abandoning him when he was arrested. Why would he say they could forgive or retain the sins of others? Is this exclusively for these we read about in John 20, or is what he says to them applicable to all who have the Holy Spirit. If we are filled with the Spirit can we forgive or retain sins? Are we filled with the Spirit or did we have to be there and have the resurrected Jesus fill us as he did them?
This is all a bit troubling because we can go through Acts and the later New Testament books and see where the disciples who made up the early church made a lot of mistakes. They weren’t all of a sudden perfect. We want Jesus to forgive our sins, but do we want these guys to have the power to forgive or withhold forgiveness? Worse, what if in fact we do have that authority?
I have known some people who by most technical definitions would be considered Christians. But, they have a vindictive streak. Do I want them to be able to retain sins, my sins, as Jesus says in John 20? Worse of all – do I want that responsibility?
A sin is an offense against God. A sin is a choice made to reject God’s ways and go our own way. A sure sign that someone is cut-off from God is that person is unrepentant in terms of his own mistakes, and is unconcerned with God’s commands. Forgiveness is important because sin cuts us from God and leads us to violence against each other. Sin rips human society apart. We desperately need forgiveness. When is it appropriate to “retain sins?” Why does Jesus say that?
I am thrilled with the resurrection even though it is hard to wrap my mind around. Fear of authorities had the disciples trembling behind locked doors and then the appearance of the risen Christ had them awe-struck. Those things are aspects of story I’ve read over and over, year after year. It is what the Risen Jesus says that startles us, has us shaking our heads, and wondering how we live in response to our Lord’s words. “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
I can only make sense of it in terms of commission. What Jesus said to the frightened disciples gathered in the locked house the eve of the resurrection he says to us as well. But two statements come before the granted authority to forgive or retain sins. We understand Jesus’ word to us when we understand the three-fold commissioning and the way it relates to the rest of John’s gospel.
“As the father has sent me, so I send you.” Our mission as the church of Christ followers comes directly from Him. Jesus draws line of succession. God sent him and to do what? And how was he to do what the Father sent Him to do? When gathered with the disciples for the final meal, Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). What he came to do was reveal God. That’s our job. As the Father sent Jesus, so he sends us.
How? At that same supper, Jesus got down on the floor and washed the feet of his disciples. “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet,” He said. “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (13:14-15). We say the Golden Rule is do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Jesus rule is do to others and to each other what Jesus has done for us. He is sending us just as he was sent. He was sent to reveal God that the world might see and know, follow and worship God. We are to go and reveal Jesus, God in the flesh, to the world. How? Jesus did it gently, patiently, lovingly, and in acts of compassion and service. Our evangelism, our revealing of Jesus, is to be seen in our love of others, our service for them, and our compassion poured on their behalf. He sends us just as the Father send Him.
But not empty handed; after Jesus spoke, he filled his followers with the Holy Spirit. The language provokes memories. In Genesis, when God made man, he breathed into Him the breath of life. Humans are not humans until God breathes life into us. In Ezekiel 37, the prophet, at God’s prompting, calls a valley of dry bones to life. The bones take on shape, skin, flesh, muscle – they look like human beings, but are not alive. They only come to life when the prophet, again directed by God, prophesies to the winds. Similarly, Jesus breathes on the disciples and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit.
Only after they’ve been commissioned and only after they have been filled with the Holy Spirit are they ready for what Jesus says next, the line that stopped me in my tracks. We are sent. We are filled with the Spirit of Jesus. Then he says, “If you receives the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
We’re doing what Jesus did. Jesus did not retrain sins. John the Baptist, early on in the Gospel, says to two of his followers as they watch Jesus walk by, “Look! Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (1:29). He did not say, “Look, here is the Lamb of God who numbers the sins of the world.” Or, “Here is the Lamb of God who keeps track of the sins of the world.” Or, “Here is the Lamb of God who punishes the sins of the world.” What did Jesus do with sin? He got rid of it. As his followers, with His Spirit in us, guiding us as we do his work, we forgive.
In the resurrection age, the followers of Jesus model forgiveness for one another. We gratefully receive the grace and forgiveness he gives us, and thus we forgive ourselves and do not live in guilt. And, we forgive one another in the church. And we make grace a habit.
There are a lot of people whose words or actions infuriate us. We get mad at foreign dictators who kill their own people and perpetuate totalitarian regimes and sometimes hunger and starvation. We get mad at pastors and theologians who only preach judgment and are far too eager to name everyone who is going to Hell without an ounce of love or compassion for the lost. We get angry at people we love – people in the church; people in our families. In each instance of ill feelings toward another human, we must remember our commission.
(1) Jesus sends us – so our lives are lived on mission. It’s not a cheesy line from the Blues Brothers movie. If we want to be followers of Jesus, we really are on a mission from God and that mission is to help people see and know, worship and follow God as He is revealed in Jesus.
(2) Jesus fills us – we have His Spirit. So we’re acting with His power and doing His work. When we lose our way in trying to be passionate and devoted in our discipleship, we retreat back to the very Spirit that fills us. It truly God alive, active in us.
(3) Jesus directs us – we are directed right to the work of forgiveness. We’re supposed to forgive everyone Jesus forgave. As he was being crucified, he said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). I can’t think of any sins Jesus retained.
The commission in John’s Gospel is worded differently than in Matthew’s. Matthew’s is what history has entitled the Great Commission, and it truly is that. But John’s is just as important. The fourth evangelist underscores what he’s trying to do, why he wrote this account of Jesus’ life. In chapter 20, verses 30-31, we read, “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are no written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing you may have life in His name.”
It ties back to what we read at the very beginning of the year from John 1:12. All who receive Jesus and believe in Him are given power to become children of God. At the beginning this morning, I bemoaned the lack of freshness in the resurrection story.
We are disciples of Jesus Christ living in the Resurrection Age – the epoch of history when salvation is offered to everyone in the world and God speaks through his church. When we live in love and forgiveness and when we draw lost people into a community of love and forgiveness, we see the resurrection. We feel its force. We are the family God – his sons and daughters – and we find words to say what that is like. We experience His love and are forever changed by it.
So, no, our surprise is not the same as that of the disciples on the day of the resurrection. But our wonder is just as great. His love is deep. His presence is real.
My friends, as the Father sent Him, Jesus sends us. Receive the Holy Spirit. And forgive as Jesus forgave. Share the Gospel, the good news that we in Jesus.