“It was late that Sunday evening, and the disciples were together behind locked doors, because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities.Then Jesus came and stood among them.’Peace be with you,’ he said. After saying this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples were filled with joy at seeing the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ Then he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive people their sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven…'” (NIV)
Following Jesus’ enigmatic death, the first disciples, uncertain and fearful, did one good thing: they gathered together in a convenient room to process this unexpected turn of events. They were beginning to discover the rich experience of koinonia (so rare in institutional Christianity). This became their habitual practice following Jesus’ resurrection and the gift of the Spirit:‘They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the communion meal, and the prayers,’ with dramatic ripple-effects. (Acts 2:42, 43ff/MSG) (1)
On this particular occasion, the disciples gathered behind locked doors ‘for fear of the Jewish leaders,’ i.e. the temple police (they’re still around) [in a small way I can identify with the disciples: I’ve been under secret police surveillance twice in my life, the first time in Malawi during President Banda’s clampdown on the Church and the second time in communist Central China while meeting with some underground church leaders].The Gospels and Acts repeatedly reveal the spiritual blindness of the law-driven temple clergy: cf. Jn. 9 & 10’s contrast of false shepherds and the true Shepherd. (2)
The living Jesus burst into the room to ‘surprise them with joy!‘ Twice he greeted them, ‘Peace!’ He showed them his hands and side, bringing recognition and relief. [any reader currently ‘locked-in’ by personal pain or overwhelming fear, believe me I’ve been there – why not allow the tender Jesus to unlock your room and gradually restore the joy of your salvation?]
Together with re-assurance of Jesus living-ness, came Jesus’ clear commission: ‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you…’
- Make no mistake, God is in himself a dynamic God. The late Dr. Ralph Christensen, my missions mentor, used to ask his students ‘Where is God?’ We could never quite get the answer right: ‘He’s going into his world!’ Brilliant South African missiologist, Prof. David Bosch, made it clear that ‘missiology’ is ‘the mother of all theology.’ Note how all the Gospel-accounts record the Great Commission: Mt. 28; Mk. 16; Lk. 24 (& Acts 1ff); Jn. 20. This is one of the primary reasons for Christ’s gift of the Spirit: the purpose of the Spirit supersedes, in a way, even his gifts (William Temple). John tells us how Jesus“breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” Earlier in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus had already promised the energizing gift of the Spirit to all who would ‘believe’ (7:37-30), a promise fully realized at Pentecost and forever thereafter (Acts 2ff).
- Such was the authority given to these primitive non-clergy disciples that Jesus could add,‘If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’ Ah the beauty and practicality of ‘the priesthood of all believers!’ (cf. 1 Pet. 2:9ff). And the privilege of consorting with what my brother-blogger Tobie v.d. Westhuizen once so aptly called ‘God’s little people’ (cf. his blog ‘Natural Church’). That was in fact the vision of Bohemian reformer Jan Hus, long before Luther and Calvin – sadly it cost him his life at the hands of the official church on 6th of July 1415 when burned at the stake for daring to speak truth to power.
- It is critically important for us to note that this commission was fundamentally incarnational! [PS, this fact inspired my MTh dissertation‘Toward the Re-Incarnation of the Church in the 21st Century’ some years ago]. Jesus came into the world fully divine and fully human: Jn. 1; Phil. 2:5ff; etc. As was Jesus, so must we be in the world, conveyors of his divine life (2 Pet. 1:3ff) in a human way. It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, disillusioned with the irrelevance of the German Church under Hitler, called Christians to drop their ‘religiosity’ in order to become truly ‘human.’ This was the life he lived among his fellow-inmates, even in Flossenburg Prison while awaiting execution by order of Hitler himself. His whole life and teaching was a call to radical Christianity, as outlined in his classic,‘The Cost of Discipleship.’
- Our text also marks us out as ‘a community of the forgiven and the forgiving.’ How the Master looked past his first disciples’ many sins, weaknesses and blunders. Think of Peter and Judas. Today we live in a horrendously angry and unforgiving world: consider the division of the American Church and society by party-politics, the boiling racism in every part of the world, etc. (Cf. my blog-series “‘I Believe in the Forgiveness of Sins’ – Really?” Archives 19/10/2020, part 2)
- This commission is only possible via an imparted life, the very life of Christ within us ‘by faith,’ a life lived out, a life for Christ and others. Salvation is not pie in the sky when we die but a current commitment to a gardener and the fuller establishment of God’s paradise on earth. The process started in Eden, continued through his remnant in Israel (rebellious Israel as a whole failed to be God’s vineyard giving messianic life to the nations), Jesus came as the true Israelite and the true Vine, and the Church by his indwelling life is committed to growing that garden until the day of its full fruition in God’s new heaven on earth (Rev. 21). (3)
- What does such a Christ-life really look like? If we were looking at Matthew’s Gospel, I would suggest the Beatitudes of Mt. 5. In the Johannine context, I would refer my readers to John’s first Letter, which is essentially about knowing, experiencing and living out God’s love for us in Christ in a hostile world. To some extent the cliche applies: it’s not so much about how much we ‘know’ but how much we ‘care’ that impacts people – i.o.w. a little bit of ‘tlc’ goes a long, long way! Thus early Christianity pervaded and transformed much of the Middle East, North Africa, Asia Minor, Europe and beyond.
Here let me mention two more modern illustrations of Jn. 20. I refer firstly to the 18th century Moravians of Herrnhutt. Motivated by the ‘crucified Lamb who had conquered,’ they set up a dynamic community on a piece of land made available by German Count von Zinzendorf. They worked hard on loving God and one another. Out of this communitas and a 24/7 prayer watch, there emerged a unique lay missions movement which impacted many nations across the globe, including my native South Africa. With my family we spent a day at Genadendal and Elim Mission in the W. Cape, where the witness continues to this day. On my bookshelf I have Bernhard Kruger’s ‘The Pear Tree Blossoms,’ the history of the Moravian Church in SA 1737-1869.
A second example. In the 1990’s I was privileged to visit Antioch Mission in Sao Paulo, Brazil, established in 1980 somewhat along the lines of the Moravian vision. In the late 1960’s, amid a charismatic renewal in the state of Parana, two young Presbyterian pastors founded a Bible School for training in preaching, prayer, healing and holistic ministry. Initially resistant to global missions, American missionary Barbara Burns persuaded them otherwise. As the community began to pray for the world, the first missionaries were sent out in the mid-70’s to Portuguese-speaking Mozambique. By 2010 the mission had sent out 92 Brazilians into 19 nations, a good proportion serving in ‘closed’ Arab countries in the Middle East. I will never forget that visit: the training facilities were so basic, the sense of Christian unity was wonderful, and central to it all was a prayer chapel with a huge world map and prayer booths set up for one-hour cycles of prayer by volunteers. This agency went on to specialize in training for evangelism, discipleship, church-planting, children’s ministry (80% of the world is poor and young), community development and sports ministry.
A concluding challenge. Brennan Manning once preached a powerful message entitled ‘Settlers or Pioneers?’ The implication was that we are called as Christians to be ‘pioneers’ rather than ‘settlers.’ Of course there is a case for being ‘settled’ in Christ, from which all fruitful service flows. But ultimately, every community and believer is called to be a pioneer for Jesus. We can never afford to settle into spiritual complacency like the Asian churches of Philadelphia or Laodicea: the exalted Lord remonstrated with those early churches, “‘Now see what I’ve done. I’ve opened a door before you that no one can slam shut… Are your ears awake? Listen. Listen to the Wind Words, the Spirit blowing through the churches.'”… “‘You’re not cold, you’re not hot… You’re stale. You’re stagnant. You make me want to vomit…’… ‘The people I love, I call to account – prod and correct and guide so that they’ll live at their best. Up on your feet, then! About face! Run after God!’… ‘Are your ears awake? Listen. Listen to the Wind Words, the Spirit blowing through the churches.'” (Rev. 3:8ff, 15ff/MSG).
As “GOD’S ‘LITTLE CHRIST’S'” it behoves us to listen well to Jesus, think on him well, and, indwelt by him, serve him as did the first believers with childlike hilarity even amid trouble and opposition!
(1) As I’ve done many times before, I commend Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s little gem,‘The Life Together.’ I promise you, you’ll never look at ‘fellowship’ quite the same way again! [Cf. YouTube ‘Agent of Grace’ for Bonhoeffer’s costly witness during WW2]
(2) Cf. my twin-blogs on ‘Crazy Christians.’ The way back to sanity? – reading Galatians each day for at least a week if not a month.
(3) ‘Christ who is our life…’ As John’s Gospel clearly indicates, Christ’s service sprang from his life and identity in the Father. We too can only truly minister once we’ve grasped our gracious identity in Christ. It is the overflow of his life, to all and sundry. Cf. Jn. 15 and my archives for ‘Apostles of Abiding Love,’ publ. 19/02/2020.