Theme When Jesus appeared to his disciples
Sentence Let us give thanks to the Father who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. Alleluia! (Colossians 1:12) [NZPB, 595]
Collect Jesus, we believe you; all we heard is true.
You break the bread; we recognise you,
You are the fire that burns within us;
Use us to light the world,
Through the power of your Spirit. Amen.
Revelation 1:4-8John 20:19-31
The theme for the day and the season is clear, the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Each passage speaks to and about this theme.
If last Sunday was 'the day' of resurrection, a day to reflect on the momentous discovery of the empty tomb and the initial reactions to that, then this Sunday is a day to reflect further (or deeper) on the resurrection. We might, as one instance, reflect on what the resurrection means for individual believers (what inspires us, what challenges us). For another instance we might reflect on where the resurrected Jesus is today (e.g. the body of Christ on earth, the church).
But John's Gospel passage opens a wide open door to several possible sub-themes under the general theme of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
1. Doubting Thomas, John 20:24-29. We do not need to doubt the resurrection. Jesus was raised from the dead and presented himself for proof to his disciples, including doubting Thomas. Doubting Thomas accepted what his eyes (if not his hands) told him: Jesus had been raised from the dead. Will we trust Thomas and accept the Lord's word to him, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
2. Apostolic Commission, John 20:21 (or 20:21-23). "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." With these words the Lord commissions his disciples for their work in the world. This work is a straight-line continuation of Christ's own mission: they will serve as he has served; they will go where he has gone.
Simply as a post-resurrection commission this is both different (in words used) to the post-resurrection commissions in Matthew 28:20 and Luke 24:44-49 = Acts 1:1-8 and similar (in meaning) to the same commissions. In particular we might usefully observe that Acts in relation to Luke's Gospel is the disciples doing what Jesus did as they continue and expand the mission of Jesus.
The resurrection, in this perspective, is a validation of who Jesus is, the Son of God. But the resurrection does not mean the Son of God remains visible in the world: the risen Jesus does not 'hang around'. Rather the resurrection is the conclusion of Christ's physical presence on earth as Jesus of Nazareth. From now on he will be physically present in the world through his disciples.
For us, the resurrection celebrations lead to the resurrection challenge: to go as, and where Jesus sends us.
3. Johannine Pentecost, John 20:21-23. In Luke 24:44-49 = Acts 1:1-8, the commission to preach the gospel throughout the world is accompanied by the promise of the Holy Spirit's power. Here also, as John presents this first resurrection day appearance of the Lord to his gathered disciples, the commission of Christ is accompanied by talk of the Holy Spirit. On this occasion there is nopromise of a future coming of the Holy Spirit but the direct gifting of the Holy Spirit as Jesus 'breathes' on them and states,
"Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." (verses 22-23).
Some commentators call this the Johannine Pentecost!
(We could tie ourselves in knots trying to reconcile what John offers here with Luke's account of the promise and then actuality of Pentecost (e.g. is it a separate occasion, the same occasion told in a different way, were both Luke and John attempting to create a narrative explanation of the experienced power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers?)
The meaning of this occasion is clear: the risen Jesus will not remain but the disciples will; they will do what Jesus has been doing; the power to fulfill Christ's commission will be the very power of the Father and of the Son: the Holy Spirit (as already taught by Jesus, John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13-15).
The resurrection releases the power of God, the Holy Spirit, into the lives of those willing to be sent as the Father sent the Son. If we want the power we need to obey; if we obey we will receive the power!
Peter and the apostles have been brought before "the council" and "the high priest" himself is questioning them, as well he might do as the preceding passage has told us of the rising popularity of the apostles as they preach and heal, of their being imprisoned by the high priest but then released from prison by angelic intervention.
They are told off by the high priest because they had been instructed "not to teach in this name." Peter and the apostles give an answer which ever since has driven forward courageous Christian witness,
"We must obey God rather than any human authority."
The concise testimony then given by Peter and the apostles nails the resurrection of Jesus as decisive for their bold "rebellion" against the authority standing before them.
"The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree."
If Jesus had died on the cross ("tree" here recalls Deuteronomy 21:22-33) without further ado, then the authority of the high priest and his council would have been unquestioned. But there was further ado, God "raised up Jesus." Logically, the authority of this God is greater than the authority of the humans who had condemned Jesus to death.
This testimony (as elsewhere in the New Testament) connects "resurrection" with "exaltation." God does not merely bring Jesus back to life, God exalts him to the highest place "at his right hand." Thus Jesus is vindicated, his death has not been an irrevocable curse because it is transformed into a blessing ("that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.")
This is a mighty song of praise, worth singing in response to the mighty work of God in raising Jesus from the dead and exalting him to God's right hand (see Acts 5:27-32).
But it is also a passage with some key Christian understandings about who Jesus was and is, and what God has done in and through him, most importantly the notion that Christ was "the stone the builders rejected" now "become the chief cornerstone." (See Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10,11; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11; Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:4-7).
Although most of Revelation is visions full of dark portents and challenging insights into the present and future course of the battle between God's holy goodness and evil's dastardly machinations and thus we think of this book as an "apocalypse," these verses read like John is writing a letter to churches in true Pauline style!
We won't stop on this particular Sunday of Easter to study each detail (and thus, potentially be gloriously sidetracked into wondering why God is described in temporal terms (v. 4) and the Holy Spirit is described in terms of "seven spirits" (v.4).) Rather, we will focus on Jesus Christ, described in v. 5 as
- "the faithful witness" (that is, a model of what Christians will need to be in the face of the onslaught of evil depicted in the pages that follow);
- "the firstborn of the dead" (that is, the forerunner for all martyrs for the faith: death at the hands of persecutors will not be the end of life);
- "and the ruler of the kings of the earth" (that is, the true king of kings who eventually will triumph over all human kings, including the Roman emperor).
When John goes on to offer a song of praise to Jesus Christ, v. 5b-6, he also notes to his readers the effect of Jesus' death and resurrection: they (and we) are loved, freed from our sins, made to be a kingdom of priests serving God.
Verse 7 then presupposes the resurrection because one who has died and not been resurrected is unable to come again to earth. In verse 7 John combines (or cites from previous Christian combining) Daniel 7:13 and Zechariah 12:10-12 to offer a vision of Jesus Christ the coming judge of all the earth, whose appearance will be particularly challenging for those responsible for his death.