A sermon at St. John’s Episcopal Church on April 24, 2022.
I’m not an expert in church planting, but I’ve gone to seminary, sat through a few church leadership classes, and helped at a few churches over the years. I know two informal rules of church planting that should be common sense for all of us.
Now, let’s get our terms straight first. There’s a lead pastor or senior pastor who is in charge of the church plant. Then there’s a core group of committed volunteers known as a launch team who do a lot of the heavy lifting to help the lead pastor get the church started.
So, there’s a lead pastor and a launch team.
Here’s Rule # 1 for church planting.
Don’t get your launch team arrested. If someone arrests your launch team, they won’t help you launch your church. So don’t send your launch team to a place where they may be arrested.
Here’s Rule #2
If you’re the senior pastor of a new church plant, avoid being killed at all costs. If there’s no senior pastor, the launch team won’t know what to launch. They may just end up sitting around in a room with the doors locked.
Today’s Gospel reading shows Jesus breaking those two rules as his disciples hide in a locked room for about a week. The new church or community assembly that Jesus planted appeared to be withering right from the start.
What could the disciples do without Jesus present to guide them?
How many disciples would be killed or imprisoned by the religious leaders who proved themselves capable of heinous violence?
If we place ourselves in the sandals of the disciples in chapter 20, we would discover men and women feeling a wide range of emotions. Their lives and their hopes for the future have been turned upside down by the brutal execution of Jesus. Yet, they received incredible news from some women in their group that Jesus was alive.
Most, not all, of the disciples dismissed this as impossible, yet we can imagine that everyone hoped against impossible odds that Jesus could be alive.
The 3 Things Jesus Gave His Disciples
When Jesus showed up in the locked room, he shared three things with them, and I’m guessing they only wanted two out three.
First, Jesus offered peace to them. They were terrified of the Jewish leaders, and they didn’t know what to do next after seeing Jesus’ execution.
Although they rejoiced at the sight of Jesus, their fear remained. And we know that this fear had gripped them because even a week later, when Thomas showed up among them, they were still hanging around in the same house. They weren’t going anywhere or taking any chances.
That self-imposed cabin-fever was a problem because Jesus had specifically commissioned them to go into the world just as the Father had sent him into the world.
That commission is the second thing Jesus gave to his disciples, and it certainly wasn’t what they wanted to hear. They saw that the Jewish leaders were willing to work alongside the hated Romans to orchestrate the execution of an innocent holy man.
If the Father sent Jesus out to preach repentance and forgiveness only to be killed, what would happen to them if they were sent out on the same mission?
We may imagine the disciples saying at first, “Jesus! You’re here!!!” And then their enthusiasm wanes after hearing this commission, “Oh. Jesus… You’re here?”
The third thing Jesus gave to his disciples was the Holy Spirit, who is the promised means for their mission. Jesus promised the Holy Spirit in his longer discourse, which included prayers and promises, in John chapters 15-17.
It seems that Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on his disciples in a way that would call to mind God breathing life into the first human. Perhaps we have a hint that Jesus is starting something brand new, a new creation, as he breathed the Holy Spirit on those gathered.
Commentary writers have a lot of different views on how to relate this filling of the Holy Spirit to the day of Pentecost as described in the Book of Acts. We could get into the finer points of the debate over what Jesus did here, but in my view, I can’t imagine anyone today arguing against another chance to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
At the very least, Jesus is telling his disciples, if not empowering his disciples, to complete his mission of being sent out to preach repentance to others. Jesus made sure they could rely on the Holy Spirit to complete their mission.
What Was Their Mission?
Now, it might be easy to read this passage and overlook what exactly Jesus was sending his disciples to do. What does it mean for them to be sent in the same way that the Father sent Jesus?
We get our clues from what Jesus says after filling them with the Holy Spirit: They are being sent to forgive sins so that people can be restored in their relationship with God and have life by believing in Jesus.
A little bit of a pause is warranted here because it’s very easy to read this passage in an unhelpful way. It has been interpreted poorly for centuries and there no doubt are Christians who have said awful things because of it.
First, commentary writers and scholars aren’t necessarily agreed on this point, but quite a few believe that a larger group of disciples were present for this conversation and commissioning.
This wasn’t a special power over sin only granted to the top apostles or leaders. Every Christian can share the gift of God’s forgiveness to others.
Second, there’s an unspoken point that needs to be spelled out after centuries of poor application. Jesus wants his disciples to forgive sins. He’s not giving them arbitrary power over sin for their own jollies.
This commission is important and high stakes. Jesus sacrificed his life in order to unite humanity with God. He forgave his executioners on the cross. It would have never crossed the minds of the disciples to withhold forgiveness as a power grab or way to manipulate others.
They were being sent to free people from their anger, pain, greed, violence, and selfishness. If they failed to go, then people would retain their sins.
Now, we would assume that having received the Holy Spirit and the commission from Jesus to go forgive sins, that the disciples would step forward in boldness. We would expect them to announce that Jesus has risen from the dead and conquered death, and all who believe in him can be forgiven, liberated from sin, and restored to communion with God.
Or they may stay put for a week and fail to convince even one of their own apostles that Jesus is alive.
The church planting plan isn’t off to a great start with their first attempt at a convert among themselves.
Thomas Goes Over the Top
The story of Jesus and Thomas is a bit of a low point in the Gospels where even an apostle of Jesus who had every advantage of sitting under Jesus doubted his Resurrection. Yet, the focus on Thomas’ doubt has always bothered me.
If I was going to make up a subtitle for each Gospel, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to write something like this:
Stories of Jesus Saving People Who Misunderstood and Doubted Him
The single strongest argument for the historical authenticity of the Gospels is the number of times the disciples look bad. They’re always doubting Jesus, misunderstanding Jesus, confused by Jesus, and sulking about with their tails between their legs. Jesus even called Peter “Satan” once!
The Resurrection accounts are filled with the disciples struggling with doubt and confusion. Matthew and Luke take care to mention the doubts of the disciples, which we tend to overlook because those doubts aren’t as dramatic as Thomas.
Thomas makes a demand for an even more miraculous experience than the rest of the disciples who saw the wounds of Jesus. He wanted to touch them!
Over the years, I have still felt that John was kind of outing his friend.
I’ve since changed my mind, though. The Gospels take care to document a lot of doubting disciples, and the story of Thomas at this particular moment is crucial for the disciples and for us today.
Thomas struggled to believe the people he trusted the most about the risen Jesus. Therefore, their mission to announce forgiveness of sins through the Risen Christ faced steep challenges.
This prompted Jesus to announce a special blessing for those who would believe in his Resurrection and forgiveness without seeing what they saw. John wanted future generations to know their mission is a tough ask, and they will most certainly need all of the help they can get from the Holy Spirit.
I don’t think the intention is to single out Thomas after a Gospel full of doubts and confusion. In fact, Thomas gives one of the most memorable affirmations of Jesus being God, saying “My Lord and my God.”
Thomas reminds us that we will need God’s help to share the hope of Jesus being alive and present to forgive sins.
Where Does This Story Leave Us?
Based on today’s Gospel reading, we may find that we have a few things in common with the disciples, even if we haven’t witnessed the events of Jesus’ death and Resurrection.
We too have had to deal with our doubts and failures.
We too have been forgiven by the risen Jesus and invited to share in new life through the Holy Spirit.
We have received the Holy Spirit or we can receive the Holy Spirit because of our relationship with Jesus.
Although we aren’t hiding from people who threaten our lives, we may still feel alienated by others and struggle to find much in common with them.
We may feel the burden of being called to help people find freedom and forgiveness in Christ if we don’t appear to have anything in common with them.
For some of us introverts, it’s very hard to talk to people. And it’s even harder to talk to people when we can’t see common ground.
I share those concerns, and here are a few things that may help.
For starters, I hope that you can take time this week to meditate on God’s love for you and the indwelling Spirit Jesus has breathed on you. Those are God’s gracious gifts that you could never earn or “prepare” for. You just have to receive them.
Then, I hope you take time to remember God’s love for you also extends to everyone. I love the snarky t-shirt that says, “Jesus loves you. Then again, he loves everybody.”
As snarky as that sounds, it’s actually true. Jesus loves you as a unique, wonderful person, but he also loves everyone. That love and grace is given to you for you benefit and for the benefit of others.
We don’t talk about sin because we are God’s appointed judges for this world. Jesus specifically said he didn’t come to judge. He came as a doctor who wanted to heal people.
As you think of how you can share the life and love of Jesus with others, consider ways you can help others heal. Don’t stand as the judge. Be a caring doctor who listens, prays, and supports people in their faith journeys.
If you ever worry that you’re not doing this right or that you don’t have what it takes, remember something from today’s passage. The risen Jesus appeared to his closest disciples, told them to go out and forgive sins, and then, they stayed put. Even one of Jesus’s own disciples doubted the testimony of his friends.
We have been given a high and holy calling to heal others by sharing about the love and grace of Jesus. But we shouldn’t forget that this mission started out as a fiasco that appeared doomed to failure.
Only the breath of God moving through ordinary people could help them continue a mission that depended on the power of God from day one.
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