Receive the Spirit
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
23 April 2023
Two weeks ago I was yet again at the State Capitol in Lincoln to protest yet another one of this year’s legislative attempts to rob people of their liberty of conscience and bodily autonomy. The first speaker at our press conference was Rabbi Deana Berezin of Temple Israel. She drew attention to the fact that that day was the last day of Passover and yet she was there at the state capitol instead of leading services at the synagogue. Why? Here’s what the rabbi said,
I stand here today in the midst of a holiday that celebrates the victory of freedom over slavery, and the liberation of a people who were under the yoke of oppression, because good people stood up to a Pharoah who held their futures captive and demanded something more.
And it was not just Moses. It was Miriam and it was Aaron. It was Batya and it was Yocheved. And it was every ordinary Israelite and many of their Egyptian friends and neighbors. It was all of them, together, an entire people demanding in one voice “Let My people go, [so]that they may worship [their God].”
I stand here today as did my ancestors before me – to demand religious liberty in the face of those who stand to hold it captive.
In Warren Carter’s commentary on the Gospel of John he points out the importance of the Jewish Passover as the context for Jesus’ death and resurrection in the story John is telling. Passover “celebrates a way of life free of . . . oppressive rule and structures,” Carter writes. And so the author of the Gospel of John wants us to draw parallels to the story he is telling about Jesus and his disciples.
Carter proclaims, “Jesus’ revelation of God’s life-giving purposes is necessary because the world is contrary to God’s purposes but does not seem to know it.”
This Easter Season we are taking our time with the stories the Gospel of John tells us about the resurrection of Jesus and the disciples’ reactions to it. We’ve already focused on Peter and John running to the tomb and Mary weeping in the garden. Today we get the story of Jesus’ first appearance to a group of his followers, who are gathered in a room together, afraid.
And their fear is legitimate. They’ve seen armed guards arrest Jesus. They either watched or heard about his beating, being paraded through the streets, the crucifixion. They must be worried that the authorities are looking for them too, especially if they are too public.
And now they’ve heard confusing stories about the empty tomb and must be wondering what this means. And they’ve most likely heard from Mary and probably aren’t sure they understand what she’s told them.
So, they are confused, anxious, uncertain, and afraid.
And, suddenly, here is Jesus, standing in their midst. Clearly not a corpse, but wounded none the less. A traumatized but resurrected body and he tells them “peace be with you.”
Throughout these gospels it’s pretty common that the disciples don’t understand what’s happening. They often don’t grasp the full meaning or intentions of Jesus. And here again they are having an experience that transcends their comprehension.
But what makes them disciples is not full understanding, but following. Trusting Jesus even when they don’t understand. Carter writes, “Disciples bear witness to and confess Jesus’ identity as God’s agent.” That’s the core thing. In Jesus they’ve experienced God at work. They don’t fully understand what and how, but this they trust and so they are going to follow, to stake their lives upon it.
And once they realize this truly is Jesus and he isn’t dead, they rejoice.
But that’s not the end of the story. Jesus again says, “Peace be with you.” But then he adds something. In essence he’s telling them that the story isn’t finished. Indeed, it’s only beginning. For Jesus says, “As the Heavenly Parent has sent me, so I send you.” And he breathes upon them.
They aren’t just followers anymore, not they are sent. They shift from being disciples to also being apostles. They are given a mission from God to go forth into the scary world and carry on Jesus’ work. As Cameron Murchison writes in his commentary on the passage, “It becomes evident that the peace Jesus announces is not one that can allow the disciples to remain behind locked doors.” Now they’ve got to overcome their fear and get out and do the work.
And what is that work? Jesus tells them they are forgive sins. Murchison interprets this as follows, “The commission to contend with sin as it afflicts and affects the world.” That’s their mission—to contend with all the ways that sin afflicts the world by living as agents of God’s forgiveness, grace, and mercy.
You see, that’s what Jesus has already done in his death and resurrection. The powers that be have killed him, violently and horribly, hoping that that would be the end of the Jesus movement. But it isn’t the end. He rose again. Revealing that the powers of death do not have the final word. There is new life. Life is greater than death. Life, truth, beauty, goodness, love, freedom—these are the great powers of the universe. Jesus has revealed all the ways that powers-that-be are opposed to the life-giving purposes of God.
And, so, he sends forth these once frightened disciples to carry on the work of challenging sin and evil and bringing about redemption and the forgiveness of sins.
How are these frightened people who don’t understand all of this supposed to do that?
Well, Jesus has breathed upon them. He’s given them the gift of the Holy Spirit, which will bring them the power and the courage that they need to carry out the work.
Just as the Passover context of this story hearkens back to the story in the Book of Exodus of the freedom of slaves from Egypt and the formation of a new people, this story also hearkens back even further to the story of the Creation in the Book of Genesis.
In Genesis chapter 2, God breathes upon the human bodies God has formed, breathing into them the spirit, the life-force. And here Jesus breathes upon the frightened disciples again, breathing into them the spirit, the life-force. Here is a sign that this story is a new creation story. Cameron Murchison states that Jesus is “recreating” the disciples. From frightened followers to powerful apostles.
Seeing this connection to the Genesis story, I looked at my favorite Jewish commentator on Genesis, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, and she writes that even at the Creation “To make the world is the charge that God left [humanity].” God left the world “open-ended, open to the doing, the making of [humanity].” What continues the creation of the world is humankind facing the challenges before us and rising to the occasion to create new and good things.
And it is that same task that falls to the disciples in this resurrection appearance of Jesus. They are part of a new creation, a recreation, as God empowers a new generation of God’s people with the task of continuing the creation of the world, of making the world, of healing and repairing the world. Of confronting all the ways that sin afflicts the world, of challenging the forces of death with the life-giving work of Jesus.
Warren Carter summarizes:
The good news according to John is that Jesus is the definitive revealer of God’s life-giving purposes and that his mission continues in and through the alternative community, the church, an antisociety that is sustained by the Spirit in a hostile world until God’s purposes are established in full.
So we too are followers of Jesus who don’t always understand what’s happening, who are sometimes uncertain, confused, and afraid.
And Jesus comes to us and says “Peace be upon you.” Do not fear. And don’t stay here behind the safety and security of these closed doors. It’s time to venture forth.
You must be go out into a hurting and needy world, where the forces of sin and death are afflicting pain and destruction, and you’ve got to challenge them with the powers of love and forgiveness, freedom and redemption, and new life.
And, don’t worry, Jesus says, the Spirit that created the universe is going to fill you with courage and power and hope and joy.
And don’t worry, because life has already defeated death. You’ve already won, no matter what happens.