by Kurt K. Hendel
Bernard, Fischer, Westberg Distinguished Ministry Professor of Reformation History
Easter 2: Psalm 118:14-29 (Psalm 150); Acts 5:27-32; Revelations 1:4-8; John 20:19-31 – LSTC Chapel
Christ is risen!
It is likely that many sermons based on the gospel lesson for the second Sunday of Easter focused on the Apostle Thomas and his encounter with the risen Christ. This is not surprising. After all, we can easily relate to St. Thomas and his desire for tangible, convincing, irrefutable proof. Indeed, Thomas could readily be viewed as the patron saint of post-Enlightenment believers. However, rather that exploring the Thomas story, I am going to focus on what Jesus says and does in this post-resurrection narrative, particularly on the vocation that He envisions for His closest friends. I do so because it is precisely the vocation to which Christ still calls us as His disciples, His apostles. I hope and pray that our Easter calling is good news for all of us and that we are eager to pursue it with joy and faithfulness.
The gospel lesson recounts the first two appearances of the risen Christ to the inner circle of disciples. Jesus suddenly stands among them, grants them two gifts and clarifies their vocation. The gifts and the vocation are intimately related. The first gift is embodied in His greeting, “Peace be with you.” This was not simply a sincere wish. Rather, it was a divine blessing that the disciples needed so desperately. After all, they had experienced no peace at all since Jesus had been arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane and had subsequently been interrogated, tortured, mocked, condemned, and crucified. They were troubled by what had happened to their teacher and friend, but they also feared what their fate would now be, and they had difficulty imagining what the future held in store for them. The joyous news shared by the two Marys, Joanna, the other women, and by the two Emmaus disciples must have brought a glimmer of hope, but it did not free them from their fear. Not even Peter’s and John’s visit to the open tomb brought them peace.
But now Jesus stood among them, and He shared the gift of peace with them, the peace that only He can give, the peace that results from a restored relationship with God. The disciples experienced that peace when Jesus breathed on them and gave them His second gift, the gift of the Holy Spirit. The divine ruah, the breath of God, the divine power that created the universe, now also became the means through which Jesus fulfilled His promise that He would send them the Comforter, the One who is God’s continuing presence among and within Christ’s disciples, who is their Companion and Advocate as they journey through life. This Comforter transformed the promise of peace into an experiential reality for the fearful, puzzled, uncertain, startled disciples.
In addition to blessing them with the gifts of peace and the Holy Spirit, Jesus also clarified their vocation or mission for the disciples: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” This sounds very much like a call to public ministry. His friends, who had been transformed by the promise of peace and empowered by the gift of the Holy Spirit, were to leave the place where they had been hiding and go out into the world. And what were they to do? The precise nature of their calling is described more specifically by the other Gospel writers. In Matthew Jesus commands the disciples to teach all nations and to baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. In Mark Jesus tells them to go into the whole world and preach the gospel to everyone, and in Luke Jesus calls them to share the good news of His redemptive work with others. That the disciples heeded Christ’s call is apparent in the first lesson for this week from the Acts of the Apostles. The disciples did become witnesses of the risen Christ. They preached and taught radical good news with courage and conviction, eager to serve God and willing to disobey than human beings when the latter opposed their witness. In fact, the whole Book of Acts confirms that the disciples obeyed Jesus’ command and proclaimed the message of Christ not only in Jerusalem but also in Samaria and eventually throughout the Mediterranean world. According to tradition, St. Thomas, who was graciously given the proof that he desired, was the most adventurous of all of the apostles as he traveled east and brought the message of Christ to far-away India. Witnessing the resurrected Christ is, therefore, the essence of the apostolic vocation. Mary was the first apostle because Jesus chose her to be His first witness, and eventually all of the apostles exercised this office. They went out, as Jesus told them to do, and they shared what they had seen and heard. They did so because of Christ’s command and because they experienced the power of the gospel in their lives and the lives of others as God used their witness to transform people and to fill them with the peace that surpasses all human understanding. The Peacemaker who blessed them with the gift of His peace thus also gave them the privilege of being messengers of peace.
Jesus called His disciples to be His witnesses. He also empowered them to forgive and retain sins, and He clearly intended this ministry to be part of their vocation as well. Of course, retaining and forgiving sins is really nothing else than proclaiming God’s dialectical word of law and gospel. Retaining people’s sins is a powerful word of the law that is intended to confront sinners with their brokenness, their alienation, their rebellion, their destructive behaviors, all of which compromise their own humanity; harm others; and bring discord, violence, and suffering into their lives and the lives of other human beings. Recognizing and admitting sin are necessary prerequisites for addressing sin and its effects on sinners and on those whom they harm. They are necessary if sinners are to be honest about who they are and what they do, if the power of sin is to be overcome, if repentance is to become a reality, if the need for good news is to be recognized.
Of course, the purpose of proclaiming law is to be able to offer this good news, not any good news but the good news that brings forgiveness, new life, and peace; the good news that restores broken relationships. This good news is the gospel, which is nothing else than the message of the crucified and risen Christ, the message that Christ calls His disciples to share. “Your sins are forgiven” is a powerful expression of the gospel, and I hope that each of you have experienced this to be the case in your own life.
And so we now ask the inevitable question what all of this has to do with us. We have barely had time to meditate on the Easter story, to digest its meaning, to consider its implications for our faith journeys. Yet, in this second Easter week we are already invited to consider our vocation as Easter people, and the obvious conclusion that the lessons encourage, indeed, compel, us to reach is that we, too, are to be apostles. Dear people of God, this is the vocation to which Christ calls us as surely as He did His first disciples, and if we are going to take Christ’s own vision of the apostolic office seriously, then it is clear that witnessing—proclaiming the risen Christ—constitutes the very heart of that vocation. Christ’s original disciples were sent out by Him to be His witnesses. The church, Christ’s disciples now, is sent out to be a witnessing community. As Luther noted so aptly, the church is to be a “mouth house,” and such a mouthy community has a very specific message to share with the world. It is the bold and comforting message that “Christ is risen!” and all that this means.
In recent years our seminary community and many within the ELCA and beyond have insisted that the church must be a “public church.” I like this vision of the church’s identity and calling very much because it reflects Christ’s own expectations of His disciples. It is crucial to remind ourselves, however, that our understanding of “public church” must be consistent with the vocation to which Christ calls us. While we continue to clarify just what it means to be a public church, I believe that we have reached a consensus that such a church is sent out to do ministry to the world. I am not sure, however, that we agree about what this public ministry entails.
Most of us gathered this morning in this sacred space would eagerly affirm that the quest for justice is an essential part of the church’s vocation. That is certainly a defensible assertion. Jesus Himself was primarily a preacher and teacher, but He also healed people’s ills, reached out to those who were despised and rejected, and ate with tax collectors and sinners. He challenged those in positions of authority and those who exercised power when they abused their authority and power, and He stood with those who had no power. Jesus’ own ministry was, therefore, a holistic one, and it addressed body, mind, and spirit.
The quest for justice in our world is, therefore, an appropriate and important part of our calling as a public church. We share Christ both with words and actions, though we should never forget that speaking is also an action. Community organizing, marching, picketing, calling and writing to our political leaders, disrupting commercial activity, holding those in power accountable can all be defensible and even necessary aspects of our vocation as a public church and as public ministers.
However, they cannot be all that we do, and they will never be the most important things that we do. The heart of our vocation is still the proclamation of the gospel, and there are particularly three reasons why this must be the case. First of all, this is clearly what Jesus commanded His disciples to do. He called them to be His witnesses, to point people to Him, who is the Promised One, the Christ. Secondly, in order to be a public church we must, first of all, be church. Thus we must be the co-workers of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit gathers people into the community of faith where they are encouraged and strengthened to be God’s voices and hands in the world. Such gathering necessitates preaching and living the gospel, for it is through this message of grace that the Holy Spirit creates and nurtures faith and frees and inspires people to go out and serve others in love. The third reason why the proclamation of the gospel is essential is because the racism, economic inequities, pollution of the earth, sexism, gender discrimination, wars, terrorist attacks, and all other injustices so readily apparent in our world will not cease if we only focus on what we might envision to be the quest for justice. Systems, organizations, and policies will ultimately not be transformed and their self-centered and often abusive agendas will not change unless the people who construct those policies and who administer those systems and organizations are literally born again and thus radically transformed. Such rebirth and transformation will not happen through our community organizing, or marching, or picketing. At best these actions can serve as a function of the law through which people are confronted with their sins, their brokenness, their abuses. They will, of course, also enable those who have little power and whose voices are silenced to claim power and the right to speak. Proclaiming the law is surely essential, whenever and wherever the consequences of sin are manifest. However, the law, and hence our marching and picketing and community organizing, will only make people aware of their sin, their brokenness. They will not enable people to repent, to turn around, to change, to be new and different, to treat others with respect and love. Only the gospel has this transformative power because it is the means that the Holy Spirit uses to do God’s justifying and sanctifying work. Only the proclamation of the gospel will bring the peace that passes all understanding and that is Christ’s gift to His disciples. Only the gospel has the power to change people and to free them to love rather than to hate, to heal rather than to wound, to serve rather than to oppress.
Jesus’ comforting words to His disciples and His announcement that He is sending them out to proclaim good news and to forgive and retain sins are clearly addressed to us as well. We are as surely His disciples as His initial circle of friends were. We, too, have the apostolic office that was Christ’s gift to the eleven frightened disciples gathered behind locked doors, and we are called to go out into the world to be God’s messengers and instruments of peace, justice, and grace. We pursue this calling most effectively when we are faithful witnesses of the risen Christ both with words and actions. This is still our Easter vocation. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.
Easter 2: Psalm 118:14-29 (Psalm 150); Acts 5:27-32; Revelations 1:4-8; John 20:19-31