“The Rebirth of Hope”
Preached by Dr. Robert F. Browning
Calvary Baptist Church
April 19, 2020
This morning our attention is drawn to two post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. The first occurred on Easter evening as the disciples gathered in a room somewhere in Jerusalem. The second happened a week later, probably in the same location.
What made the second visit necessary was Thomas’ presence that evening. His skepticism of Jesus’ resurrection kept him from the first gathering.
There are similarities in the appearances. Jesus began both encounters by assuring the disciples he came in peace, soothing their frayed nerves. Then Jesus showed the disciples, including Thomas the second time, his hands and side that revealed the wounds he suffered while on the cross.
At the first meeting, we are told the disciples were overjoyed as they realized everything Mary told them about her encounter with the risen Lord that morning outside the empty tomb was true. At the conclusion of the second appearance, the once skeptical Thomas boldly exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)
Why did the disciples come together on Easter evening? I suspect there were several reasons.
To begin, they needed to process what they had been hearing throughout the day. No doubt the stories of Peter and John’s visit to the empty tomb earlier that morning and Mary’s direct contact with Jesus outside the tomb were spreading fast.
I also think they wanted to talk about the future in light of what they had been told. They had to give voice to the questions this hopeful but mysterious news raised.
What were they to do now? Where were they to go? Was Jesus going to return and give them instructions?
They had more questions than answers, which was all the more reason they needed to be together. Uncertainty leads to confusion and despair, and they needed a safe place to voice their concerns.
I am confident they also assembled behind locked doors that evening because they needed to express their fears and to figure out how they were going to remain safe in a hostile environment. There was a reason those doors were locked.
The Jewish authorities who orchestrated the crucifixion of Jesus had shown no mercy. They made it clear they not only wanted to silence Jesus’ voice, but all who followed him.
Already, the High Priest made it known he wanted to kill Lazarus, Jesus’ dear friend whom he raised from the dead about a week earlier. All who had been helped by Jesus and been called to follow him were considered threats to those who held the reins of power. Their lives were in danger, and this was especially true for these disciples.
So they gathered that evening with mixed emotions. It was a good news/bad news night, an ambiguous joy.
Why did Jesus join them? Why did he suddenly appear before them?
Jesus knew how they were feeling and what they were dealing with that evening. This day could not end until he appeared before the disciples to help them begin the process of rebuilding their faith, their lives and their ministries.
Have you ever wondered why Jesus did not go to his enemies before appearing to his disciples? Why didn’t he walk into the public square and announce victory?
This could have been a Rambo moment, the stuff that makes modern movies wildly popular. Why did Jesus seek out the disciples instead?
First of all, he did not die a bitter death with malice in his heart. He never had a vindictive spirit bent on seeking revenge.
This would not change after his resurrection. The ethic of love that guided his decisions before he died would continue to lead him on the other side of the grave.
Undoubtedly, his highest priority was helping his disciples to cope with the grief, guilt, shame, confusion and despair they were feeling. This was not a time to gloat. This was a time for calming frayed nerves and healing deep wounds.
Jesus knew the disciples were caught off guard by the way he was treated by the authorities. They never imagined Jesus would be tortured as he was. They never thought the story would end this way.
It ripped away much of what the disciples believed about the Messiah and expected from him. To make matters worse, it brought the worst out in them. They said and did things they never thought they would, and they were not proud of it.
So, there was no time to waste. The work Jesus needed the disciples to resume hung in the balance.
This is why Jesus appeared to them in that undisclosed location and talked to them about three things—peace, forgiveness and power.
Peace would calm their restless nerves. It would remind them they were not alone and never would be. Whatever they faced, God would be by their side providing the courage and confidence they needed to confront it and to handle it.
Forgiveness would make it possible for the disciples to shed their guilt and shame. No longer did they have to be held hostage by these crippling feelings and live in a prison without bars. By being forgiven, they could focus on the future rather than the past so they could rebuild their faith, their lives and their ministries.
The gift of the Holy Spirit would be their constant companion granting them wisdom and empowering them to accept the many risks and challenges awaiting them. Jesus knew the same people struggling to survive who needed his help before the crucifixion now needed the disciples to listen to their stories and to make hope visible.
Their ministry would be as important and necessary as Jesus’. It was time to unlock that door and go back to work.
So why did Jesus return the next Sunday night when the disciples assembled again? One of the disciples was missing the previous week when he appeared to them, but this disciple was in the room the second time they gathered.
I don’t know what the disciples said to Thomas that convinced him to join them the second week, but he did. When Jesus realized this, he returned to speak to an audience of one.
I am not surprised. The man who told a parable of a dutiful shepherd who left ninety-nine sheep in the fold to find the one who had lost his way was not going to miss this opportunity to find this lost disciple and bring him safely back into the fold. No one was unimportant or dispensable.
“Put your finger here and see my hands,” Jesus said to Thomas. “Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” (John 20:27)
And Thomas said, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)
Based upon these two appearances of Jesus to his disciples, what do you think John wants us to know about the risen Lord? I pondered this question for some time last week.
I think John wants us to know Jesus is unwilling to give up on people who disappoint him. He loves all of us unconditionally, at our best and our worst.
Redeeming us when we fall and restoring our value and worth are important to him. They bring him great delight.
Taking the baggage of shame and guilt away so we can travel in new directions toward a better life is his passion. Giving us back our future, a brighter and better one, brings Jesus great joy.
I believe John wants us to know Jesus is eager to help people who, like Thomas, struggle with their faith. He understands and is patient.
Jesus knows life is difficult, and often faith is, too. He knows we need someone who allows us to verbalize our confusion and takes our questions and doubts seriously.
He wants to be one who does this for us as we explore the mysteries of life and faith. He wants to be our companion on this spiritual journey that leads to wellness and wholeness and brings the best out in us.
I think John wants us to know Jesus uses imperfect people to meet the needs of other imperfect people. It appears wounded healers make the kind of listeners Jesus thinks is necessary for helping family members, friends and neighbors to overcome their grief, guilt, shame, fears, doubts and despair.
The personal touch and candid stories of wounded healers make them believable. They reveal hearts of compassion, empathy and kindness, all things necessary for healing to occur.
This is why people listen to people who have scars. They find them to be honest, vulnerable, sincere, authentic, understanding, humble and non-judgmental.
Jesus knew this. This is why he had to speak to Thomas. Thomas’ story would resonate with many people in every generation. It would be used by God to change hearts and minds and lives.
Jesus uses imperfect people to meet the needs of imperfect people. This includes you and me.
Show your scars. Tell your story. Leave the rest to God.
I think there is one other thing John wants us to know about the risen Jesus. Jesus wants us to do for others what he did for Thomas.
He wants us to take the initiative to reach out to those who are pulling away and bring them back into the fold. He wants us to find a way to get behind locked doors so we can express our love for and concern about those who are going it alone.
Jesus wants us to invite them to come back into community where they will be welcomed and their doubts, fears and questions will be taken seriously. In other words, Jesus wants us to leave no one behind.
My Episcopal friend, Tom Ehrich, sums up my feelings in an article titled, ‘Christian Community’.
“Christianity’s health isn’t about doctrine, liturgical style, location, architecture or anything that can be bought or intellectualized. From childhood through adulthood, church is about community, places to feel safe and loved, so that we can dare to grow up, dare to make our way in the world, dare to disagree with the powers that be and dare to face death.
If Christians can stop arguing about things Jesus did not mention or value, and if we could turn down our institutional ambitions and pride, we would see that our singular contribution to these difficult times is community. Our anonymous and fragmented world is desperate for authentic community. This need starts with childhood, and I don’t think we ever outgrow it.”
If we strive to be this kind of community of faith, and I am confident we shall, I am certain we’ll see the rebirth of hope in the midst of our current crisis and long after it has passed.