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April 28, 2018

“As the Father Has Sent Me, So I Send You”

John 20:19-31

 

It is baseball season once again. I rarely get to see the MLB team I follow, the Oakland A’s on television. But I do get to see highlights from all their games and follow their statistics on the official Oakland Athletics home page. At my last call in Fort Bragg, we used to live right near one of the high school ball fields, and I loved to hear the “ping” of the aluminum bats when they connected with a ball. It reminded me of when I used to play baseball-I spent 2 years in Little League, and another four in Pony Colt baseball during middle school and high school. I can remember each time I came up to bat how my heart would race and I would get so nervous. I can still remember the feeling of opening day- new uniforms on a fresh well-manicured field, people in the stands waiting for us to take the field. I was a first baseman and outfielder, and I can remember my first year in Pony Colt ball-I was on “Mexico Lindo”, a team sponsored by a local Mexican restaurant in Vallejo, CA. I was 13 and had a growth spurt over the summer. My coordination wasn’t as good as it once had been, and I was kind of clumsy out on the field. My hitting ability was ok, but not great. I came up to bat in the third inning against a really good, big, strong fastball pitcher. The first pitch he threw was right over the middle of the plate, and I remember closing my eyes and swinging as hard as I could, and I heard that “ping”, as my aluminum bat connected with the ball, and hit a screaming line drive. Unfortunately, the liner went right at the pitcher and hit him straight in the forehead, knocking him down. He crumpled to the ground, unconscious. I thought I had killed him, and so I only took a few steps towards first base and stopped. Everybody else had frozen on the field looking at the pitcher, flat on his back sprawled out on the mound. Eventually, one of the fielders picked up the ball and threw to first, which made me out, but I didn’t care. He started to stir, and one of the coaches finally got him up and got him off the field. Thank God he was alright, but he was done pitching for the game. I think they took him to the hospital for observation, as I don’t remember shaking hands with him after the game was over.

 

About two weeks later, we were slated to play the same team again, and they were going to use the same pitcher whom I had hit in that opening day game. A lot of the guys on the team said, “Man, he’s gonna get revenge on you, dude! He’s gonna throw one at your head when you get up to bat!

I remember asking my coach if he would play someone else at first that day, but he said, “Fowler, get out there!” He sent me out to play, but I was scared to death. And my fear doubled when I came to bat a couple of innings later. I just knew I was going to get a fastball in the ear, or in the face. I got into the batter’s box halfheartedly, and when the pitcher wound up to throw I was thinking of about 400 other places I would rather have been than there. I mumbled a quick prayer and braced myself. The first pitch was way outside. The second was low. The third was inside and high, but not at my head, and the fourth was in the dirt. Apparently, the pitcher didn’t want any part of me and was as afraid of me as I was of him. The coach sent me out despite my fear and I survived after all.

 

 

Today’s scripture passage is about being sent out as well and begins with fear. Let us set the scene- The disciples were afraid for their lives- Their leader had been killed by an angry mob, and they figured they were next on the list. It was time to lock the doors and lay low. All of them were there together, and suddenly Mary Magdalene came running and knocked excitedly on the door. “Open the door! Jesus has risen! I have seen it!” She says. Mary shared her story of seeing Jesus in the garden, then left the scene. The disciples remained in the upper room, except for one, Thomas, who may’ve gone out to look at the empty tomb for himself. Then, despite the closed doors, Jesus appeared among the huddled disciples, and said: “Peace be with you.” Then he said, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.” What did Jesus mean when he said all these things to the disciples?

 

For John’s storyline, unlike the other gospels, everything happened at once, all on Easter. According to verse 18, Jesus had already ascended to God, and in this account with the disciples, he gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit as well. In the other gospels, these events are well separated, but not in John- Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost are drawn tightly together in John’s narrative.

 

What does this scene symbolize for us? It is a glimpse of the beginnings of the Christian church- All the ingredients are there for us- a group of followers, the presence of the risen Lord, the sending of the church into the world, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the message of forgiveness. Just as Jesus has been sent by God with a mission, so Jesus sends out the early church on a mission. Just as Jesus has been the bearer of God’s Spirit, so now the church becomes the bearer of the Spirit. Just as Jesus has declared the forgiveness of sins, now the church would become the bearer of forgiveness.

 

This scene also reminds us that we are unlike any other social group or gathering of people. We have divine origins that are traced back to this moment, as Jesus stood there before the disciples. Our reason for being is not in how we are successful, in how we grow, in what we build- our reason for being a church is that Jesus has called us into being- and sends us out into the world on a commission to go and spread the Good News. This is why we aren’t just like Rotary or Kiwanis or some other community-minded organization.

 

For today’s sermon, I’ll focus on two areas from today’s story. First, I’d like to give a bit of my focus this morning on Thomas- John in part wants us to identify with Thomas. Word came to Thomas that Jesus did not remain in the grave when Mary Magdalene came earlier that day. We don’t know how the disciples responded to this news. Perhaps they doubted Mary’s words. Perhaps Thomas went by himself to see the empty grave. For whatever reason, when he was gone, he missed seeing Jesus. He missed the party. Jesus appeared while he was out, and Thomas was beside himself. He declared that he would not believe unless he could place his hand in the wound in Jesus’ side and his fingers in the wounds in Jesus’ wrists.

 

 

In one way, Thomas represents the community to which John was writing- We believe the Gospel of John was written around 80A.D. Just prior to this time, Christians had suffered greatly during the reign of Emperor Nero (40-64 A.D.), and they were also being persecuted by faithful Jews. Because of their faith in Jesus, many were thrown out of the synagogues, or thrown out of their families. It was a very difficult time to be a Christian. Furthermore, many early followers believed that Jesus would come back soon after his ascension. This had not yet happened, and it had been almost 50 years since Jesus had risen from the grave. Doubt and fear must have been there in the small groups of followers who were trying to gain a new identity apart from the temple. For this struggling band of Christians, Thomas was the focal point of this story, the one whom with they identified.

 

We too live in a world of doubt and fear- strange days indeed. We are called to believe in a powerful and loving Creator, and yet we see suffering beyond measure in direct attacks on worshipping Christians on Easter Sunday, leaving hundreds dead, hundreds maimed. We are called to believe that the church makes a difference in this world through the power and presence of Christ, but we still see corruption, war, violence, and poverty. We are also called to believe that Christ will return one day- Yet it has been nearly 2000 years since these events we have read about happened. It isn’t hard to be a doubting Thomas these days.

 

In the National Gallery, London hangs a painting by Cima da Conegliano entitled “The Incredulity of St. Thomas.” It was the altarpiece for a chapel near Venice for nearly three hundred years. It is an illustration of verses 26-29, a week after Jesus first appeared in the upper room. In the painting, Thomas leans forward and in the midst of the disciples, he places his finger in Jesus’ side. Jesus looks into Thomas’ eyes and recognition lights up the eyes of Thomas. His fear is being dissolved and his faith is rekindled. Thomas is being led from doubt to faith. Being an altarpiece gives one the clue to its purpose. Viewing the painting as one prepared to celebrate worship with others who were followers also, gave one the assurance that Jesus does not leave us alone with our doubts.

 

Our second and main focus for this morning is on this one phrase- “As the Father has sent me, so I send YOU.” Eventually, the disciples left that upper room. They followed Jesus’ command- He sent them out into the world to help those in need, to share God’s love, to make a difference in this world. Because of their actions, because of their faith, because they conquered their fear, they went about proclaiming the good news, preaching, teaching healing and helping.

 

What did Thomas do with the rest of his life? He too followed Jesus’ command. He was sent out, according to tradition, to India. There he established the Church and served Jesus with his life. He became a martyr, dying rather than renouncing the risen Christ who had taken the time long ago in an upper room to feed his faith and strengthen his belief. Because of Thomas’ actions, there is a strong Christian church in India today. The voice of faith spoke louder to him than the voice of doubt and fear. We should, therefore, think of Thomas as “Faithful Thomas” not “Doubting Thomas.”

 

 

What about Jesus’ other disciples? Prior to his appearance, they were in a state of unbelief, they were paralyzed with fear, spending their days hiding in the shadows. Then Jesus appeared, their faith was rekindled and he sent them out. Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick said, “It is cynicism and doubt that freezes life; it is faith that thaws it out, releases it, sets it free.” The disciples spread the Christian message all throughout the holy land and beyond. And because of their mission, because Jesus sent them out, we have a church here today. Because of their actions, the world was changed forever.

 

These words spoken to the disciples huddled in the upper room are meant for us modern day disciples as well. “As the Father has sent me, so I send You”, Jesus says directly to you, now. Jesus sends you out into the Rogue Valley where not many of the overall population attends any sort of religious function, where those of us who practice organized religion are held in suspicion, where people call themselves “spiritual but not religious”. Jesus sends you out amongst family members who do not believe, and amongst friends who think Christians are naive. It’s almost enough to make us want to huddle here in the sanctuary, where it is safe. But that isn’t what we Christians were made for, 19th Century American author John Augustus Shedd wrote, “A ship in the harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” The same is true of the Christian. Or consider the butterflies we will be releasing into the wild in just a bit, who have spent their entire existence in a tent. They too would be safe from predators, but they weren’t made to stay in those tents. We could stay in church and worship where it is safe, but that’s not what we are built for. We are called to go out into a hostile and difficult world, to share the good news about a Risen Christ. But we aren’t alone in this venture. Christ is with us. The Holy Spirit is with us. We do not need to fear or doubt- The Spirit will give us words to say. Christ in our heart and mind will speak through our actions of love.

 

So, just like my coach said to me all of those years ago, Jesus says to me now, “Fowler, get out there!” Jesus says it to you as well. May the Spirit and power of the risen Christ speak to us all as we get out there, that the voice of doubt might be lessened in our hearts. May we, being sent out into the world have our faith blaze forth, continuing the mission of the church, telling others that Christ has risen! Alleluia! Amen.

Pastoral Prayer-Faithful God, last week churches across our nation were filled with worshipers. Trumpets blared and jubilant throngs joyfully sang “Alleluia.” And with bold affirmations, we announced that “Jesus Christ is risen, that he is risen indeed.” Yet today the pews in most churches are not nearly so crowded. And in comparison to Easter Sunday, our worship today seems more reserved and less exultant. So we wonder if the good news of last Sunday is really true. We wonder whether the good news we heard last Sunday of Jesus’ resurrection has a truth that goes beyond just one day, whether it possesses a truth that is meant to grasp hold of our lives and direct us forevermore. Gracious God, You know the doubts that creep into our hearts. You know those fears that hold us back from committing ourselves to You as we should. So we pray that You would reach out to us even now and dispel those fears. Create within us a renewed passion; kindle within us a burning desire to believe the good news and to announce Your gospel to all creation. In our church, show us the ways that You want us to serve You. Among our families, neighbors, and co-workers, lead us to demonstrate our faith through what we say and through what we do. And in our communities and in the world, guide us to be instruments of the new life that You desire for all the world. We ask these things in the name of our risen Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

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