Summary: Jesus commissions his disciples with the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Sent or Stuck?
I’ve never really been in fear for my life. I have felt fear – that powerful, raw emotional response to some situation, where the heart suddenly starts beating much harder, sweat appears on the brow, all the senses go on high alert, and everything appears larger and more real and like it could unhinge us. I felt some of that just a few weeks ago, trying to climb up to the top of the scaffolding and stand on a platform on the very top, with no rails or supports, so I could keep working up high. I climbed up 4, maybe five times, willing myself to just not care that there was nothing to hold on to, nothing to stop me from leaning too far, nothing to scream “caution: edge!” I felt fear in Bolivia as we drove through an angry mob – they weren’t angry at us but at their government, but it was still a volatile situation. I felt fear two months ago as my son hung tightly to me in the operating room, crying, while the anesthetist put him to sleep for his elbow operation and I had to walk away with him lying on the table. But I’ve never been in fear for my life.
As a result, I can’t completely identify with a large number of Christians in our world today who live in fear for their very lives because of their love for Jesus, and I can’t completely identify with that first group of Jesus’ disciples which we are going to read about in John in just a moment. But I do know a little something of that desire to run away, to hide, to retreat, to get out and get safe. And I do know a little something of the power of those times of fear to determine the very course of our lives – either as creating and enforcing a pattern of feeling fear and running away and withdrawing from life, or of feeling fear and overcoming it and embracing life. Let me set the stage for our Scripture reading today…
Jesus has just died, and the disciples have good reason to believe that they could be close behind. The crowd was hostile, Peter barely avoided detection and possible sanction around the fire the night Jesus was arrested and began his trial, and in their grief and fear they have gathered in secret to try to make sense of it all, and figure out what happens next. Here’s the story:
19 That Sunday evening the disciples were meeting behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Suddenly, Jesus was standing there among them! “Peace be with you,” he said. 20 As he spoke, he showed them the wounds in his hands and his side. They were filled with joy when they saw the Lord! 21 Again he said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Behind Locked Doors: vs. 19-20
John’s story begins behind locked doors. This is what fear does – it sends us running, and we lock the doors behind us. We retreat, try to get safe, run away. And then in the story, suddenly, miraculously, Jesus appears! Jesus, who was supposedly dead, “standing there among them!” And the immediate response of the group is of even more fear, which I think we would agree is natural and even appropriate for a first response: Lk 24:37 “But the whole group was startled and frightened, thinking they were seeing a ghost!”. And then we read quickly of what would likely have actually been a longer process: Jesus speaks a word of peace, Jesus demonstrates that He is, in fact, real, and the disciples have an opportunity to see, hear, come to believe, and then respond in joy. We read that quickly, but it likely took some time that evening, and it likely takes some time in our lives as the same process unfolds – we are afraid, then Jesus comes, speaks, shows Himself, and we have opportunity to come to believe and respond. I want to make some applications here in a moment, but let’s finish the story first.