Today’s Message, 4/19/2020

St. John 20:19-31   Frightened Disciples to World–Changers   Jesus appears to his disciples, and later to Thomas, but there are questions: Why didn’t the disciples go looking for Jesus? Why did they lock themselves in this room? Does Thomas get a bad rap? How did this band of frightened disciples change the world?                 
Following 9/11, the United States government founded the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). One of the things that came from DHS early on was the color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS). This system was referred to often in daily news reports across the nation when the various news agencies reported such things as, “The Department of Homeland Security has raised the national threat level to orange. …”               
That system is no longer in use. Although it was designed to convey a range of threat levels, elevated and high (yellow and orange) threat warnings were the most used, and thus, they desensitized the public and caused HSAS to lose credibility and effectiveness. According to one observer, “Over the eight-year life of the old system (2003-2011), the threat level changed 17 times; however, it was never reduced to low or guarded (green or blue), and only once was the threat level ever raised to red.”1               
Many of you today, especially those under the age of 18 or so, probably remember very little of this. But for much of the nation, those daily reports served as a reminder of the fear that gripped the American people in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Previous generations can remember similar feelings surrounding the attack on Pearl Harbor (1941) and the assassination of President Kennedy (1963) and of Martin Luther King Jr. (1968).              
 In each of these situations, the very bedrock of people’s lives seemed threatened.  

Locked in by fear             
It is not a stretch to say that Jesus’ disciples experienced similar feelings as they huddled together in a house with doors locked “for fear of the Jews.” How that small group of disciples moved from paralyzing fear to changing the world is a testament of the amazing work of God in and through their lives.               
St. John does us a favor by telling us exactly why the disciples locked themselves in the house. “… and the doors of the house were locked for fear of the Jews” — not their fellow Jews on the street, but the powerful Jewish leaders who had engineered Jesus’ execution.              
 Fear is a powerful human emotion. It shuts all kinds of doors in our lives. It shuts the door on people who are different from us, making us see them more as a threat than a friend. It shuts the door on opportunities that could lead to wonderful new chapters in our lives. Fear causes us to react to the unknown rather than see it through the eyes of God. This day, the disciples locked themselves in the house for fear of what Jesus’ opponents might do to them. Jesus had been nailed to the cross; what hope did they have?               
But really, the lock on the door was unnecessary. Fear was enough to keep them locked up tight. They weren’t going anywhere.               
Then Jesus showed up. He didn’t knock on the door. He didn’t ask them if it was okay for him to come in. He just appeared. St. John tells us, “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’”               
After that Jesus “showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” The gospel does not give us a full picture of this event. It would be great to know more about precisely how the disciples reacted when Jesus first appeared among them, but St. John didn’t see the need for that. Jesus appeared and that seemed to be enough.  

A prequel to Pentecost             
St. John, however, does tell us the really important things. In what can be thought of as a prequel to Pentecost, Jesus spoke to his disciples: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then Jesus breathed on them. Of course, we know that just a few weeks later the Holy Spirit would come in a powerful way with a sound like the rush of a violent wind on the day of Pentecost. Three thousand people came to believe that day. The disciples ministered in powerful ways, and Peter preached an amazing sermon. Would any of that have happened that day if Jesus had not appeared to the disciples on this day and breathed on them? We don’t know.               
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and he instructed them, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” While there are many differing ideas about the exact intent and meaning of Jesus’ words here about forgiving sins, what we can say with certainty is that Jesus was assuring the disciples that there was a vital place for them in his kingdom and in his ministry.  

Jesus meets with Thomas             
Ten disciples were fully on board with Jesus. Judas had taken his own life, and Thomas was not in the room when Jesus appeared to the other disciples. When they told Thomas what they had seen and heard, he said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” “Doubting Thomas,” we say. But actually, scripture does not say he doubted Jesus. He doubted the disciples who told him what they had seen. We’ve all done that very thing. Someone tells us something fantastic, and we say, “I’ll believe that when I see it.”               
A wonderful part of this account is the way Jesus addressed Thomas’ reservations. He knew what Thomas was thinking. So, when he met Thomas, he said, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God!”               
Jesus did not scold Thomas for his unbelief and his doubts. Jesus took them seriously and showed Thomas what he needed to see. We should not be ashamed of doubts. While they can lead us away from God, once our doubts are answered (not necessarily resolved, but answered in some way that makes it possible for us to go on), we may become stronger in our faith. God is bigger and stronger than our doubts.  

The reason for St. John’s gospel             
Interestingly, St. John’s next words in his gospel state that Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, but St. John said he did not write all these down. Then he wrote, “But these [the accounts in this gospel] are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” I wonder if it occurred to St. John that, just as Thomas had doubts, perhaps others would have doubts as well. So St. John wrote his gospel in order that everyone — the doubters, the unbelievers, the scoffers, the “I don’t think any of this is true” crowd, the seekers, the pessimists and the optimists, that everyone — may come to believe and have life in Jesus’ name.               
One thing we know for sure is that this small band of disciples, including Thomas, became agents of change for God in the world. At his ascension, Jesus told his followers, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”2 The day of Pentecost saw the beginning of the church. The disciples went to the far corners of the world preaching and teaching.  The frightened disciples became world-changers.  

What changed them?             
What moved the disciples from operating out of fear to operating out of passion? Two reasons come to mind.               
First, they saw Jesus risen from the dead — not some zombie-like creature, but Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, alive again. They talked with him and ate with him and touched him. He was alive!  Jesus had told them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”3  St. John tells us that after Jesus was raised from the dead the disciples “remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”4 Their lives could never be the same again!               
The second reason is that they were present at the day of Pentecost. Jesus had told them previously that an Advocate would be sent by the Father. This “Spirit of truth,” Jesus said, “abides with you, and … will be in you.”5 On the day of Pentecost the disciples experienced the coming of the Holy Spirit. While they were all together in one place, remarkable things happened. “From heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind. … Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them. … All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages.”6 Throughout that remarkable day, the disciples and others saw the power of the Holy Spirit at work. The disciples speaking in other languages, the power of Peter’s sermon, the great movement of repentance — and all of this resulting in about three thousand new believers!              
 They were firsthand witnesses to this incredible day and to the power of God at work. Their lives could never be the same again!             
Your life and my life can never be the same again either. What Jesus promised and accomplished through the cross and the resurrection, and what the Holy Spirit began on the day of Pentecost,continues to be at work in believers and in the world even today. What God did in and through the disciples he can do in and through us.               
Let us be open to receive the risen Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.    
1 Jessica Zuckerman, “National Terrorism Threat Level: Color-Coded System Not Missed,” The Heritage Foundation, September 26, 2012, 2 Acts 1:8. John 2:19. John 2:22. John 14:15-17. Acts 2:1-4.


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