Easter Sunday 2017 was a glorious day at Chatham Baptist Church. We enjoyed wonderful music, great attendance with many friends and family present, and the celebration of communion together. Here’s the sermon I preached from John 21:1-18, titled, “The Resurrection Changes Everything:”
Our services have been cancelled tomorrow — Sunday, February 22, 2015 — because of snow and ice. But, this week’s lectionary readings are so full of wonderful opportunities for reflection as we begin the Lenten season, that I wanted to share some of my sermon notes with you.
The Gospel text for the Year B, the first Sunday of Lent, is Mark 1:9-15. This is Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism and the Spirit’s “thrusting” him into the wilderness where he was for “forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
The Markan text covers three significant steps in Jesus early ministry: his baptism (v. 9-11), his 40 days in the desert (v. 12-13), and his initial proclamation of the kingdom of God (v. 14-15). A preacher could take off in any one, or all three, directions and not go wrong.
However, because Lent is often imagined as a journey, the desert experience is very appropriate for this first Sunday in Lent. Mark’s dynamic description of the movement from baptism by the Jordan to the desert describes the Spirit as “thrusting” Jesus into the wilderness.
Journey as a Universal Metaphor
The wilderness experience is not just a good opportunity for Jesus, and for us, to step back and reflect on our spiritual journeys, it is an archetypal experience known across cultures.
In his groundbreaking book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the universal metaphor of the “hero” and his or her mythic journey. The hero’s journey typically involves three phases — the departure, the initiation, and his victorious return. For this text, we’re concerned with only the first phase, the departure.
Campbell believes that the hero’s movement from the relative safety of the status quo into a wild and scary land sets the stage for the journey. In his rather awkward prose, Campbell writes:
The folk mythologies populate with deceitful and dangerous presences every desert place outside the normal traffic of the village. (pg. 64)
In other words, when you leave home on an adventure into the unknown, it can be pretty scary! And on this journey into the desert, these “deceitful and dangerous presences” are often demons, devils, or human-like creatures that beguile, entice, and tempt. Campbell describes that one of the human-like creatures from Central Africa is said to try to entice the hero to fight. When the hero has the advantage of the ogre, the ogre bargains by saying, “Do not kill me, I will show you lots of medicines,” which means a kind of shamanic power. Sounds very much like what the devil offers to Jesus!
Now, let me be clear: I am not saying that the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is a myth. However, because the hero’s journey is a metaphor known across time and cultures, there must be something to the idea of a spiritual journey or quest.
And that thought brings us back to Lent. Jesus’ experience in the wilderness was necessary for the beginning of his ministry. Likewise, we as his followers also must face head-on the reality of our own demons, and all those spiritual powers that would distract, deceive, and derail our journey.
For years I did not like Lent because I thought it was generally dreary and depressing. But without the experience of victoriously battling our demons and resisting the siren-song of temptation, we cannot take the next steps in our journey. Jesus settled his allegiance to God in the wilderness, and so must we. Anyone can serve God in the bright light of day, but obedience to God when surrounded by darkness is a learned obedience.
I also like the scene in at the end of verse 13 — “He was with the wild animals and the angels attended him.” Not only do we see Jesus resisting the devil, but after he has done so, Mark gives us a hint of paradise restored. For the first time since Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a human being dwells with the animals in peace, and God’s messengers shuttle back and forth between heaven and earth attending to him.
During these next weeks leading up to Easter, we must remember that the Lenten journey from baptism to resurrection runs right through the desert.
On Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014, I preached an Easter message from the Gospel Reading for the day, John 20:1-18. Mary Magdalene’s testimony to the other disciples was, “I have seen the Lord.” In this message I explore the idea that it isn’t enough to have seen only Jesus the baby of Bethlehem, or Jesus the miracle worker, or even Jesus the crucified. We must also see Jesus the risen Lord as a reality in our own lives.
For this Palm Sunday, we took a different approach. We combined elements of the Liturgy of the Palms about the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, with elements of the Liturgy of the Passion. This enabled us to move from the joyous crowds which greeted Jesus on his entry into Jerusalem, to the vengeful crowd that cried, “Crucify him!”
We took this approach because many in our congregation will not attend a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service. If they attended a joyful Palm Sunday service, and then a celebratory Easter service, they might miss the events of Good Friday and the drama surrounding the crucifixion. To solve this problem, here’s what we did:
1. For our first reading early in the service, we read the Gospel story of the triumphal entry into Jersusalem, from Matthew 21:1-11.
2. We sang appropriate Palm Sunday hymns of celebration including All Glory, Laud and Honor, and Hosanna.
3. During our children’s time, the children heard the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Then, they distributed palm fronds to each person in our congregation. When everyone had a palm frond, the entire congregation waved their palm branches and said in unison, “Praise God for the Son of David! Bless the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Praise God to highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:9 – NLT). It was a little chaotic, but then the first Palm Sunday probably was a little chaotic, too.
4. Our organist provided a musical transition from the Palm Sunday celebration to the events after Jesus’ Passover meal with the disciples.
5. During the time alloted for the sermon, I read the following scripture lessons from the Liturgy of the Passion. Because the entire narrative moves from scene to scene, I separated each scene with a corporate prayer of confession. After I read each passage, I then invited the congregation to pray with me the prayer of confession. Here’s the sequence:
Palm Sunday Liturgy of the Passion
Reading: Matthew 26:14-30 — The Last Supper
All: Lord, we confess that just like Judas we have come to your table with thoughts of betraying you in our hearts. Like Judas, we have taken the bread from you hand and the cup from your table while harboring doubts about you and your teaching. Forgive us, O Lord, for this spirit of betrayal that presumes we know more about your Kingdom than you. Amen.
Reading: Matthew 26:31-56 — The Garden of Gethsamene
All: Lord, we confess that when you struggled in agony, we slept in apathy. When they came to arrest you, we betrayed your teaching by fighting back, and then abandoned you in your hour of need. When they accused us of being your disciples we denied ever knowing you. And when the cock crowed, we wept over our own failure to be faithful. Forgive us, O Lord, for our apathy, our fear, and our faithlessness. Amen.
Reading: Matthew 27:1-26 — Jesus Before Pilate
All: Lord, we confess that like the crowd gathered before Pilate, we have chosen Barabbas instead of you. Like the crowd that day, when Pilate asked, “What shall I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” — we have answered, “Crucify him!” Forgive us for our failure to choose you and the freedom you offer. Amen.
Reading: Matthew 27:27-66 — The Crucifixion and Burial of Jesus
All: Lord, we confess that we see ourselves in the faces of the Roman soldiers who nailed you to the cross; we hear ourselves taunting you as you hang silently before us; and, we feel the bitterness of one thief and the contrition of the other. May we be counted among those who, in great sorrow, lovingly laid you to rest in the garden tomb, hopefully waiting for God’s salvation. Amen.
I wrote the prayers of confession, so feel free to edit them for your use.
6. After the readings and prayers, our choir sang the anthem, The Hour Has Come, which was a solemn and powerful account of the last days in Jesus’ life.
7. When the anthem ended, the congregation left the sanctuary in silence, with a solemn organ postlude played during their exit. We included this note in the bulletin:
“In the tradition of the Liturgy of the Passion, there will be no benediction after the choral anthem. Please leave the sanctuary in silence as we contemplate the death and burial of Christ, and wait in hope for God’s salvation.”
Many people commented on how powerful and meaningful the service was for them. While it was hard for me to resist preaching on Palm Sunday, the narrative of the events of the last week in the life of Christ needs no explanation.
However you choose to celebrate and commemorate the events of Palm Sunday through Good Friday, give careful attention to including them all, including the betrayals, the trials, the mocking, and the crucifixion. The glory of the resurrection shines brightest when celebrated against the backdrop of evil, suffering, and death.
If you have ever been captivated by the stories of those who heard the voice of God, then today’s lectionary reading will appeal to you. This is the sermon I’m preaching on how those of us who aren’t mystics can hear the voice of the Good Shepherd today. I hope your congregation will hear the voice of Jesus as they gather for worship.
Hearing The Shepherd’s Voice
John 10:22-30 NIV
22 Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. 24 The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
25 Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”
Farm Life As I Remember It
I think I’ve told you about the two weeks my mother sent me to south Georgia where her family lived so I could experience life on the farm. At least I think that’s why she and my dad sent me there, but I was about 10 at the time, so it could be they needed a break from my frequent misadventures.
In any event, I spent two weeks with my cousins, and of course my aunts and uncles, at about the time the tobacco was harvested. I’ve told you that story, but in addition to the tobacco harvest, life on the farm went on as usual. Part of farm life was calling the various animals primarily at feeding time.
Each animal grouping — pigs, cows, chickens, and horses — all had distinctive calls they responded to. Chickens were the easiest because all you had to do was show up in the chicken yard with the pale of feed and the chickens flocked around your feet. Which was a little scary for a boy from the city, primarily because I had been warned about the rooster who had a nasty disposition.
The cows responded to the pickup truck in the pasture, which usually had bales of hay on the back which we pitched out as the cows gathered around. My cousins also put out salt licks, but I stayed pretty much on the back of the pick up because cows were a lot bigger than chickens, and the bull apparently also had a bad attitude.
But I remember the pigs most. Now they didn’t have a lot of pigs, maybe six or seven, and they were all in the pig pen out back. The pig pen was not huge, but big enough for a half dozen really big pigs, and of course it was a muddy mess and the pigs were muddy, and the whole thing kind of reeked of, well, pigs. So, after each meal, we went out to slop the hogs. Now that term pretty much describes the whole event. Slop is not a word you use for anything that’s anywhere close to appealing, but that’s what we did.
One of my aunts had a lot of kids — two girls and four boys — plus I was there, and then there were some other cousins who came along to help with the tobacco harvest, so at mealtime there was a pretty big crowd.
After the meal, all the plates were scraped into the slop bucket. This produced a kind of slurry of mashed potatoes, lima beans, half eaten biscuits (although there weren’t many of those), soppin’ gravy, tomato peels, and so on. You get the picture. It was not a pretty sight.
Once the plates were scraped, and the kitchen scraps all dumped into the slop bucket, off my cousin and I set to slop the hogs.
For some reason, you had to call hogs to come get the slop. The hogs were usually lying on the sides, in the mud, up near the back part of the hog pen. So my cousin would have to holler, “Sooo-eee, sooo-eee.” Which seemed like a ridiculous way to call pigs, but since the pigs were going to become bacon sometime in the future, they didn’t have names, so I guess they had to be summoned to dinner with some call.
Sure enough, the hogs, because they were really to big to be called pigs, would rouse themselves, get up, and head toward the direction of the sooo-ee call to dinner.
The amazing thing was, I discovered during my two weeks on the farm, that each type of animal knew what the feed bucket, or the pickup truck, or the call of “sooo-ee” meant. And they responded to whatever it was that got their attention.
My cousins didn’t have any sheep, so I don’t know what calls sheep respond to, but Gene Logsdon, one of my favorite writers about rural farm life recalls this story from his childhood:
“I grew up— woke up many mornings— to the wail of my cousin, Ade, calling his sheep. His farm was next to ours and he took to practicing this primitive ritual at about four o’clock in the morning. Mom said he wanted us to know he was already up and about and anyone still in bed was a sinner. But his sheep call was music to my ears. Up the little creek valley that connected our farms would roll this long drawn-out wail of “shoooooooooooooopeeeeeee” that began on about high A over C on the musical scale and fell, quaveringly, a couple of notes on the second syllable. The call lasted as long as he could keep expelling air with enough force for the sound to carry a mile or two.” (Gene Logsdon, The Contrary Farmer, “Calling Home The Sheep”).
Logsdon continues by saying that he practiced his cousin’s sheep call until he got it down pretty well himself. He said later when he had sheep of his own on his own farm, all he had to do was start the call “shoooo…” and before he could get it all out, the sheep came trotting down the path to the new pasture he wanted them in.
But How Do The Sheep Know The Shepherd’s Voice?
Okay, that was a long introduction to the scripture for today, but if you haven’t figured it out by now, the verse I want us to focus on is verse 27 —
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
Jesus made this statement in response to the rather impatient insistence from some in Jerusalem, in the Temple during the Festival of Dedication, that he tell them plainly if he was the messiah or not.
Jesus reply was that he had already told them, but they did not believe him. Jesus told them that the works he did in his Father’s name was testimony that he was the messiah, but they didn’t get it because they aren’t his sheep.
It’s then that Jesus says, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
So, the one question we have to answer today is, How do we hear the voice of Jesus today?
There Are More Sheep Than There Are Mystics
Of course, we might point to examples of extraordinary people who heard the voice of God in extraordinary ways. God calls Abraham out of the Ur of Chaldees and makes him the father of a great nation. God appears to Moses in a burning bush and speaks audibly to him about the assignment to lead the Hebrews out of bondage in Egypt. God speaks to a discouraged Elijah with a still, quiet voice. And then there are the priests, and kings, and prophets of the Old Testament, many of whom God speaks to directly and unmistakably.
The history of Christianity is also filled with stories of people who had a special ability to hear the voice of God. From Paul’s Damascus road experience, to the revelation God gave to John on the Isle of Patmos that has become our Book of Revelation, we know that God speaks directly to certain people at certain times.
Amazingly, God’s voice does not go silent with the passing of the Apostles. The Desert Fathers — and there were Desert Mothers, too apparently — were mystics who lived lives of asceticism separated from the urban centers in order to seek to hear God more clearly and fully.
These monastics lived solitary lives at first, then later formed communities of monks and nuns who lived separated from the everyday distractions to spiritual devotion. Prayer, scripture, work, deprivation, vows of silence, poverty, and celibacy, and other acts of devotion marked their existence. And down through the centuries there were those who heard the voice of God and lef their mark on Christian spirituality.
But there are others who have heard the voice of God, too. Joan of Arc claimed to hear God’s voice calling her to save her people. Some thought her mad, others thought her a mystic. In any event, she died a martyr’s death for her witness.
We could spend more time than we have this morning naming the outstanding mystics of the Christian faith who heard the voice of God. But for most of us, their experiences, while interesting, are the stuff of inspiration, not our experience. Most of us are not mystics. So how do we hear the voice of Jesus calling us today?
Sheep Congregate in Flocks Just Like We Gather For Worship
When Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me,” he gave us some clues as to what this means for us today.
First, for sheep to listen to the shepherd, he or she has to say something. The first thing we need ot realize is that Jesus still speaks to us today. Of course he speaks through Scripture, which is how most of us know anything that Jesus has said.
But Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice…” For sheep to listen, the shepherd has to be speaking. Now this may seem obvious, but we often gather for worship, go through the order of worship, sing our songs, give our offerings, listen for more or less 20 minutes to people like me, and then go home. And we can do all of that without being aware of the Shepherd’s voice at all.
The first expectation of worship is that Jesus is going to say something to us.
The second expectation of worship is that Jesus is going to say something to us all — as a group, or flock, if you will. Because Jesus imagery was not accidentally chosen. Jesus knew that sheep congregated in flocks, and he referred to himself as the Good Shepherd.
So when he says, “My sheep hear my voice…” he means the flock, the whole bunch of them, as a group — or in Israel’s case, as a nation.
Most of us aren’t mystics, but we are members of this congregation. And it is gathered here that we hear the voice of Jesus speaking to us. It is the congregation gathered for worship that should have the expectation that Jesus is going to speak to us, and speak clearly. About who we should be. About what we should do. About the mission to which he has called us.
Each week when we gather here, we should ask ourselves, “What will Jesus say to us today?” and then we should listen for the way in which he might say it. Because I’m pretty sure that most of the time, the voice of Jesus is not going to be my voice. Of course, I hope I speak the words of Jesus faithfully, but most of the time I think Jesus is going to speak to us in some other way that we have to pay attention to.
Like when our children touch our hearts with their sweet sincerity and honesty. Like when a concern moves us to pray, as I understand you prayed for me when I was so sick. Like when we rejoice at a new birth, either physical or spiritual, and are reminded that the kingdom of God continues in the lives of those just coming into it. Like when a song resonates with us all and together we sing or listen in the presence of the Holy Spirit.
So, the question for us in not, Does Jesus still speak to people today? But the question for us is, “What is Jesus saying to us this morning?”
What is Jesus saying to us about the violence in our nation? About the bombing in Boston? About the violent crimes tried in the courthouse across the street from this sanctuary? Does Jesus have anything for us to do to be his peace, his shalom, in this world? in our community?
What is Jesus saying to us today about the poverty in our county? About those who live in substandard housing, or who go to bed hungry, or who are victims of domestic abuse? What is he saying to us about how we can be salt and light in this community?
What is Jesus saying to us today about those who have no church family? Who, when sickness or difficulty come into their lives, have no one to gather and pray for them, as we gather each week and pray for one another.
Of course, I may be wrong today. Jesus may not be saying anything to us about any of those issues. But he is saying something. What are we listening for today?
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
Here’s the sermon I’m preaching for the second Sunday of Eastertide. I trust your Sunday will be a wonderful day filled with hope that the resurrection brings, just as it brought hope and possibility to the first disciples.
The Implications of Being Sent By Jesus
John 20:19-31 NIV
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said,“Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Going for the Big Finish
Our granddaughters, Vivian and Maggie, are like other 12 and 9 year old girls. They are involved in a number of extra-curricular activities. Vivian took dance for several years, and the highlight of the dance year was the annual recital. But this wasn’t just any recital. The dance studio has dozens of students, which means lots of moms and dads, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, and so on who will want to see their daughter, or granddaughter, or niece perform.
To accommodate the large crowds, the dance instructor rented the Peace Center in Greenville, South Carolina, for, not one, but two days of dance recitals. But for the little girls — Vivian was a preschooler then — the highlight of the dance recital was getting to wear the costume, or costumes, depending upon how many numbers they were in.
So, this is a big deal. And, like dutiful grandparents, we made 4-and-a-half hour trip one way to see Vivian on stage for all of about 3 minutes. That’s what grandparents do, and we did it a couple of times.
Well, by about the third or fourth year of dance lessons, Vivian’s interest in dance classes was waning. So before signing up for dance lessons for another year, Laurie, our daughter, and Vivian had a little chat.
Laurie asked Vivian if she wanted to take dance for another year. Vivian said, “Yes.” Then, Laurie said, “But that means you’ll have to go to dance lessons every week.”
Vivian replied, “Oh, I don’t want to go to the lessons. I just want to be in the recital.” Laurie informed Vivian that the only way to get to be in the recital (and wear the sparkly costumes) was to take dance lessons each week. Thereupon, Vivian’s dance career came to an end.
The Disciples Face a New Challenge
All of us have had those moments where we want the big finish without all the prerequisites that go before it. And followers of Jesus are no different. Let’s look for a few moments at the implications of being sent by Jesus.
First, of all, we have to realize that the disciples had not thought about their future without Jesus present to lead them. However they had imagined their lives turning out as Jesus followers, a life without him was not one of the scenarios they entertained.
So attached were they to Jesus that when they thought about his leaving them, as they do in John’s Gospel the 14th chapter, Jesus has to reassure them that where he is going, they are going to, and that there are rooms prepared for them in his Father’s house. (John 14:1-6 NIV)
But that doesn’t seem to satisfy at least one of them. Thomas complains, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
So, when Jesus is crucified and buried, their world collapses. Now, on the first day of the week, the disciples have had time to see the empty tomb, and to discuss the implications of that for themselves. Of course in John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene claims to have seen the Lord herself, but in John’s telling of the story, the disciples have gathered together behind locked doors because they are afraid of what the Jewish authorities will do to them next.
They must be imagining that the authorities, with the consent of Pilate, have raided the tomb of Jesus, and concealed his body so that his grave will not become a martyr’s site for Jesus’ followers. Or, they might be afraid that the authorities have stolen the body of Jesus in order to blame them, his followers, of doing the same thing and thereby trying to perpetrate a hoax that Jesus rose from the dead.
Whatever they are thinking, they are dealing with the implications of having been Jesus’ followers. And, I imagine that not a few of them are wondering how they got in the mess they found themselves in.
But suddenly, without announcement or warning, on the evening of that day that had seemed to go on forever, John simply says, “Jesus came and stood among them…”
He greets them with the words, “Peace be with you!” which was the standard greeting among Jews, the greeting that God’s peace would rest on the person or family to whom one was speaking.
Immediately he shows them his hands and side. This is no apparition, no ghost, no fog-machine scene where they can barely see Jesus. No, as proof that he is who they think he is, he shows them the nail wounds in his hands and the gaping spear wound in his side. Now, you and I can only speculate on what this looks like. Apparently these wounds were meant to verify that this really was Jesus, rather than further disturb the disciples, so the visible wounds had a reassuring, rather than revolting, role.
Then, Jesus says to them again, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
And there we have it. This is what they are going to be doing in their future which does not include the physical presence of Jesus. They are going to be sent into the world by Jesus, just as the Father had sent Jesus into the world.
We read these words so casually now, as if we are thinking, “Well, of course that’s what Jesus is doing, sending the disciples into the world. We all know that.”
But for the disciples this is a new revelation. Of course, Jesus has hinted at their mission. He’s even sent them out on trial runs of the sort capture in Luke 10, where 72 of Jesus’ followers go on a mission of ministry to do what Jesus did. They heal the sick, they cast out demons, they seek the person of peace — meaning one who is a conduit of God’s shalom — and when they return Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” (Luke 10:18 NIV).
But now, rather than going immediately where Jesus is going, Jesus is sending them on a mission to the world, in the same manner in which God the Father has sent him. In other words, just like Vivian learned, before you get to the big finish, there are some things that have to be done first.
So, what are the implications of being sent into the world by Jesus?
Equipped by the Spirit
The first implication of being sent my Jesus into the world is that Jesus isn’t sending them, or us, alone. No, as he promised he is sending the Holy Spirit to be his presence in our life.
Jesus promised the disciples, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever — the Spirit of truth.” (John 14:16 NIV)
This Spirit of truth is the Holy Spirit. Now this is not the first time we see the Holy Spirit. From creation onward, the Spirit of God has been present and at work. But this is the first time that the Spirit is promised to someone other than a king, or a priest, or a prophet. This time the Spirit is promised to be the ever-present companion of every follower of Jesus, just as Jesus was with the disciples in his earthly life.
Then, Jesus doesn’t just promise the Spirit, he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Wow. That was unexpected by the disciples. While they’re still trying to digest the idea that the resurrected Jesus is standing before them, and that he is sending them, he does something he has never done before — he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Somehow in our misunderstanding of the Holy Spirit, we have thought that the Holy Spirit is optional, at least in our worship and doctrinal expression. So, when the charismatic movement came along, you were either in or out. You either decided that you wanted those expressions of the Holy Spirit or you didn’t. The same is true today. Pentecostals represent those who are led by the Spirit in worship, while the rest of us are led by our understanding of Scripture, or tradition, or doctrine.
But if we think that about the Holy Spirit we miss His presence and power. The Holy Spirit is our promised companion regardless of worship style or basis of authority. You might find it interesting that early in our founding years, Baptists were viewed as wild-eyed spiritual fanatics who neither respected tradition or reason, but held an unseemly commitment to letting the Spirit of God speak to them. Interesting how we’ve gotten tamer over the past 400 years!
But the point is, one of the implications of being sent by Jesus is that we’re not sent alone — the Holy Spirit is our ever-present companion.
An Unthinkable Ministry
But if you think the idea of having the Holy Spirit present as our companion is unsettling, just wait. Jesus also gave the disciples a ministry previously reserved for God alone. The act of forgiving sins. You remember the famous encounter Jesus had with the religious authorities of his day in Mark 2:1-12. Jesus is teaching in a house, and the crowd is so great that no one can press through. So, four friends who have brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus for healing, quickly climb up on the flat roof, remove the roof tiles in the spot above where Jesus is teaching, and lower their friend down right in front of Jesus.
Mark says, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’” (Mark 2:5 NIV)
Religious authorities are present in the crowd, and they are appalled. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” they ask. Then Jesus says, “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…He said to the paralytic, “I tell you, get up, take up your mat and go home.” (Mark 2:10-11 NIV)
The disciples must have recalled that incident as Jesus gave them authority to forgive sins. But, what does that mean for us today? Is that our ministry, or did it just belong to the disciples? Well, if the Holy Spirit is ours, then this ministry is ours also.
But, this ministry of forgiving sins is a mystery to us. We do not know exactly what it means. What it does not mean is that we are now to pass judgment on others who are not like us.
What I think it means is that we act like Jesus acted toward those who are sinful. While that would include all of us, in Jesus day there were the righteous Jews, like the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and other religious figures, and then there were the sinners like the tax collectors, women of the street, and so on. Jesus ate with these sinners. Jesus went into their homes. Jesus pronounced as Zachaeus came to faith, “Today salvation is come to this house.”
Our ministry, with the leadership of the Holy Spirit, is to be Jesus to those for whom access to God has been denied, or discouraged. We open the way for them to find forgiveness by showing them the kindness of Jesus himself, the kindness wrapped in redemption and hope.
When I was in the hospital, a lady came in to clean our room every day. I’ll call her Pauline, which was not her name, but I want to protect her privacy. It was obvious Pauline had had a difficult life. You could see it in the stoop of her shoulders, and the shuffle of her feet. And it was written on her weary face.
At first, Pauline went about her business of emptying the trash, and then mopping the room with little to say. She would say to Debbie, “Come out so I can mop.”
For many people, Pauline was the anonymous housekeeper, one of the many faceless, nameless people to do menial labor that others do not want to do.
Debbie and I decided to make a friend of Pauline. We had heard one of the nurses calling her name, so each day when she came in, we were greeted her with the same friendliness and warmth of a welcomed guest. And each day, Pauline opened up a little more of herself to us. Pauline was there everyday except Sunday. When she returned on Monday, we told her we missed her the day before.
She asked if anyone had mopped our room, and we said no, they had only picked up the trash. With a sense of pride, she said, “They’re supposed to mop, but all they do is pick up trash.” We assured her that we had missed her careful attention to our room. By the time I was discharged, Pauline was actually laughing with us.
Okay, you say, “But where’s the forgiveness of sin in that?” I believe as we forgive each other the little moments of sullenness, the times of testiness, the words that wound, and the looks that kill, we free that person to be what God intended for them to be — His child, filled with his Spirit and joy.
Of course, there are other implications of being sent by Jesus than the presence of the Spirit and the ministry of forgiveness. But those are two that are important. Sometimes we skip over those two implications and rush right on to preaching and teaching and all of the ways in which people hear the Gospel. Because after all, Jesus told Thomas, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
But in this Easter season, let’s not forget that the presence of the Spirit and the ministry of forgiveness are where Jesus started with the disciples.
We got good news this morning from the surgeon who performed the biopsy surgery. My biopsy was negative for lymphoma. They attribute the PET scan results to “reactive” lymph glands which can be the result of an infection.
Possibly the infection came from the virus I had in January. In any event that seems to narrow it to an auto-immune disorder. I still am struggling with the symptoms of numbness in hands and feet, and some loss of activity in legs and some body functions.
I have a follow-up with the Duke hematologist next Tuesday, then my neurologist at the end of April. I appreciate your continuing prayers for whatever the next steps are. During this Easter season an “alleluia” or two is our response to this good news!