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May 3, 2020 Sermon – From 11 Frightened Disciples: The Holy Spirit

May 3, 2020 Sermon
“From 11 Frightened Disciples:
The Holy Spirit”

Scripture Readings

Our first reading will be the guiding passage of this sermon series, a reminder of how the disciples began the evening of the first Easter locked away in a room out of fear.

John 20:19-20

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

Luke 24:36-49

36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.

44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

“From 11 Frightened Disciples:  The Holy Spirit”

We’ve spent the season of Eastertide reading accounts of resurrection and resurrection appearances from all of the gospels, so it can become rather difficult sometimes to figure out where we are in the timeline.  So, before I move onto the message for today, I want to remind you of where we are.

Today’s reading from Luke’s gospel comes immediately AFTER the events of last week’s story, the story of Cleopas and another disciple – neither were part of the eleven – walking on the road to Emmaus on the afternoon of the first Easter.  Remember what happened at the end of that story.  After the two disciples arrived where they planned to spend the evening (presumably Emmaus, 7 miles from Jerusalem), they broke bread with a stranger they met on the road and had their eyes opened to the reality that the stranger was, in fact, the risen Christ.  So, rather than spend the night as they had intended, they got up and returned to Jerusalem, where they discovered that the risen Christ had ALSO appeared to Simon.

Here’s why I mention all this.  Notice, if these two told the eleven, and only one of the eleven, Simon/Peter, had already seen the risen Christ, at the end of last week’s story, we had not yet arrived in Luke’s gospel to the point in time of the resurrection appearance described in John’s gospel that is the focal passage of our Eastertide series.  BUT…at the end of last week’s passage, without us yet realizing it, we had ALREADY arrived at the very beginning of our guiding passage from John.

Remember how John’s passage begins, with the disciples – not “the eleven” but “the disciples”, which could include Cleopas and and his traveling companion – were locked away in a room.  In Luke’s gospel, when Cleopas and the other disciple returned to Jerusalem, “they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.”  It could be the exact same gathering; it’s on the same night.  And today’s reading provides more insight, more proof that it IS the same gathering described by John.  In the passages from both gospels, Jesus stands among the disciples and says “Peace be with you.”  In the passages from both gospels, Jesus shows the disciples the wounds on his body.  In the passages from both gospels, the result for the disciples who see Jesus is JOY.  And in both gospels – even though we didn’t read far enough in John’s gospel to hear this part, Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit.

There are some differences for sure.  For example, Luke provides quite a bit more detail – Jesus even eats some broiled fish to prove that he’s not a ghost.  And John presents Jesus as giving the Holy Spirit in that moment, instead of at Pentecost, because John’s gospel doesn’t go as far into the future as Luke’s collection of Luke and Acts (so John, like Matthew and Mark, truncates the ending while still communicating the important details.)

I hope you can see that these two passages of scripture – John 20:19-22 and Luke 24:33-49 – are telling about the SAME events, the same story, with details remembered just a little differently by two different tellers.

And BOTH of them end with Jesus talking about the Holy Spirit…which brings me to what I want to talk to you about today.

Even though Luke will go on in the book of Acts to tell the story of the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus’ followers at Pentecost, the gospel writer Luke provides a bit of what I’ll call a proto-Pentecost here, meaning a precursor to Pentecost that points forward to the actual event of Penteocst that Luke will describe later.  Think of the end of this passage from Luke as a prelude to Pentecost.

In these verses:

  • The risen Jesus does something the Holy Spirit will do later on: “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures”;
  • And the risen Jesus promises that the gift he already promised them – the Holy Spirit – will be sent upon them in the near future, and when they receive the Spirit they will be “clothed with power from on high”.

My friends, these two links between the risen Jesus and the Holy Spirit, they were critical THEN to the spreading of the gospel from 11 frightened disciples to the ends of the earth, and they can be – will be if we let them – critical to the spreading of the gospel AGAIN from today’s somewhat frightened and locked away disciples to the ends of the earth.  Let’s spend the rest of our time together considering how.

Jesus “opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”  Wow!  As far as I can tell, in Luke’s gospel, this is the first time the disciples GOT IT.  It’s the first time the disciples understood that/why “the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.”  It’s the first time they understood that/why “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem”, beginning WITH the disciples.

Can you imagine what the movement of Jesus’ followers would have looked like, how it would have quickly disappeared into thin air, had the disciples not finally UNDERSTOOD these things:

  • As the disciples started spreading the news about Jesus, when they were asked how such a powerful leader, a powerful Messiah, God’s anointed who had they very power of God in him, could be put to death at the hands of mere people, how would the disciples have responded if they never understood?  Likely, they would have not even been able to convince themselves that Jesus was still worth following, so they most  certainly could not have convinced anyone else.
  • (And) As the disciples started spreading the news about Jesus, if they didn’t understand, didn’t get, that God’s desire is for repentance (turning back to God) and forgiveness of sins (grace and mercy), what kind of message would they have had to give, and who would have listened?  As we see in the world today, when Christians reduce Jesus to a good man who had some good ideas about living (and leave out the part about changed life, new life, forgiveness of sins, and resurrection), how far and wide does the message spread?  Not very.
  • And then there’s one more thing, one more thing that might be easy to miss based on the wording from Luke’s gospel.  If Jesus’ disciples would have reveled in these resurrection appearances but had not understood that THEY were supposed to take (spread) the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins outward to “the nations”, would the message (the gospel) have gotten any further than Jerusalem? I doubt it.  But that is what they finally understood here; “beginning from Jerusalem” means beginning with THEM; THEY are the ones who Jesus is sending to spread the gospel.

Ya’ll, Jesus provided the Holy Spirit to help, to empower, those disciples to take what would have otherwise been a momentary understanding and, instead of letting that understanding perish in that room with the the risen Christ, carry it forward into the future, even carry it forward to US.  What does this mean for us?

It’s absolutely CRITICAL.  Just like the disciples who walked with Jesus didn’t really GET the gospel, didn’t really understand, until Jesus (and then the Holy Spirit) opened their eyes/minds to understand, the same is true today.  There really are some people today who don’t understand how we Christians can proclaim Jesus to be a person of the Trinity (God) and yet also proclaim that mere human beings were able to crucify him.  There really ARE people today who think that Jesus was a good/wise man who had some “nice” things to say that might – or might not – be meaningful to lives today.  There really ARE people today who don’t see the value in turning toward God or even the value of God’s grace.  And, yes, there really are CHRISTIANS today who don’t get that all Christians – not just those with the gift of evangelism – are tasked with taking this message of repentance and forgiveness of sins to whatever “all nations” looks like in their lives.

I look around the world, and I see these things to be true, and I wonder: given that God’s Holy Spirit WAS poured out at Pentecost and IS still present in the lives of Jesus’ followers today, how can these things be true?  How can there still be people who don’t GET what the Holy Spirit was poured out to GIVE?

I can’t answer definitively; I can give you my best guess, based on this passage of scripture.  It all starts with seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance in understanding the scriptures.  If you try to understand the scriptures on your own – if you try to understand the scriptures without seeking the Spirit’s guidance EVERY time you open your Bible and without seeking out the people the Spirit has gifted as teachers of the scriptures – you WILL…NOT…UNDERSTAND.  Worse, you will think you understand, and you…will…be…wrong.  Don’t believe me?  Go back and read the gospels again.  The disciples knew Jesus better than anyone.  They thought they understood, and over and over again, they…were…wrong.  Not until this point when Jesus opened their minds and then gave the Holy Spirit to open their minds more permanently did the disciples get it, and – remember – they walked with Jesus for three years.  If you/we don’t seek the Spirit’s guidance, why do we think we will fare better than those disciples?

And if we get the scriptures wrong, the scriptures that provide the foundation for everything else we believe and do, won’t we get the heart of the message wrong (and claim it’s predominantly about something other than repentance and forgiveness), and won’t we likely miss the reality of our role in transmitting the message? Indeed, I’m quite certain that is EXACTLY what has transpired.  We, FCCGJ, we, Universal Church, MUST seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance in understanding the scriptures or we…are…LOST!

Which brings me to the second part of this message about how the Holy Spirit was instrumental in the transformation of 11 frightened disciples into a movement that  spread to the ends of the earth.  The Holy Spirit “clothed [them] with power from on high.”

I’ve talked about this before, but it’s worth mentioning again; it’s worth mentioning…OFTEN.

In our world, our culture, rooted in science, rooted in what is observable and provable, we struggle with “power from on high”; we really do.

  • We read that maybe some people have the ability to heal with nothing more than the power of God’s Holy Spirit – the healing power that Jesus used, but we go instead to the doctors of scientific medicine when we need healing. 
  • We read that maybe some people have the power of prophecy – the power to speak an authentic word from God for the world today, for us, to us, but we choose instead to imagine God is saying what WE are saying, that God wants what WE want.  And we wonder why our world doesn’t much resemble God’s kingdom so much as it resembles OUR kingdom.
  • We read that maybe some people have the ability to administer the ministry of God’s people, that people with this power could administer our congregational ministries in ways beyond our imagination, but choose instead to give the task of administration to the people who want it most or to the people who are passionate about a particular ministry or even jst  to whoever reluctantly says “ok”.  And we wonder why our ministries aren’t singing, aren’t expanding, aren’t as dynamic as we imagine the ministry of God’s people should be.
  • We read that maybe some people have the gift of wisdom and some the gift of teaching.  These people have the gifts that will help us know the scriptures, know God’s general desires for us…so that we can apply God’s word to our lives.  But – much like with prophecy – we cling to the teachers who reinforce what we ALREADY believe, what we think we already know, even in our lack of wisdom.  And we wonder why the scriptures (as we understand them) don’t seem as relevant to our lives as they should.

Y’all, I’m just getting started, but I hope you see what this is about.  The Holy Spirit clothed THEM with power.  Those disciples, they tapped into the Spirit’s power, and look what happened: a movement that began as 11 frightened disciples became the religion of the Empire and then the dominant religion of the world.

Guess what?  The Holy Spirit has clothed US with that very same power.  If we decide to accept that power, if we decide to discover that power within us, if we decide to use/wield that power, the movement of Jesus’ followers can spread anew, even in THIS time.

I don’t have time today to address all the reasons we modern Christians choose to not accept, discover, and use this power.  I’ve done that before, and I’m sure you can figure it out for yourself.  Rather than focus on the problem, I want to provide a vision of the solution, of the amazing future that awaits us if we adopt the solution.

My friends, if you choose to accept, discover, and use the powers placed within you by God’s Holy Spirit, I can guarantee you some things, some amazing things:

  • When you perform ministry in accordance with your gifts, you will NEVER feel burnt out in your work for God again. Instead you will feel ENERGIZED by your ministry.
  • When you perform ministry in accordance with your gifts, you will feel the power of the Holy Spirit flowing through you.  You will experience yourself accomplishing things that you would have previously deemed superhuman.
  • When you perform ministry in accordance with your gifts, you WILL feel like you’re making a difference in the world….because God will be making a difference in the world through you.
  • When you perform ministry in accordance with your gifts, you will NEVER doubt the relevance of your faith.  You will KNOW, deep in your heart, that your faith matters.
  • When your perform ministry in accordance with your gifts and allow OTHERS in your midst – in this congregation – to perform ministry in accordance with their gifts, this congregation will be transformed and will feel like a very different kind of place, a place so different from the world around us as to be confused with the kingdom of heaven…because it WILL be the kingdom of heaven.
  • And when you perform ministry in accordance with your gifts more than you perform ministry that’s not in accordance with your gifts, you will experience the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Just out of curiosity, are there any among us who do NOT want to experience ALL these amazing things?  They are within your reach, within your grasp.  They are within the grasp of us all.  The risen Christ made it possible thousands of years ago in a room with his disciples.  The Holy Spirit continues to make it possible today.  

Amen.