What a Difference!

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : John 20:19-22

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

John 20:19-22 rsv

The professor, in somewhat patronizing fashion, asked a young Christian student in his class, “Really, now, does Jesus Christ make any difference?” How would you respond to that question? Has the world been changed because He came and lived among us? Because He died on Good Friday and rose again on Easter? How would you assess the real impact of Jesus upon human life in this world?

I’d like to offer at least a beginning answer from the experience of His first followers. What difference did it make for them that, after His crucifixion, they saw Him, met Him, risen from the dead? Listen to these words that describe one of those encounters. I’m reading from the Gospel according to John, chapter 20, at verse 19:

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

SORROW AND JOY

When I read that, when I think about what happened to these disciples, I say, “What a difference!” Think with me about that – first of all the difference here between sorrow and joy. These followers of Jesus had been plunged into gloom by His death. Imagine what it was like for them to see their dearest friend, their trusted leader, the One they called Messiah, Son of God, treated as He was. They were there when the soldiers came to arrest Him. They saw one of their own band, Judas, betray Him with a kiss. Fearful for their own lives, they had melted away into the darkness.

Though they could not witness His trial, they sensed the grimness of what was happening. Facing the envy and rage of the authorities, what chance did Jesus have? When Pilate brought Him forth to the crowd, his friends heard the blood-chilling screams for Jesus’ crucifixion, saw Him clothed in mockery, crowned with a circlet of thorns. They watched Him stagger under His cross on the way to Golgotha, saw the stark and terrible drama of His agony. They had been there when His life blood ebbed away. What an overwhelming loss! And how much shame and regret and confusion must have mingled with their grief! “We had hoped,” they said, “that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). But now it seemed that all hope had been swallowed up in despair. When He had breathed His last, all their best dreams had died with Him.

But here on the evening of that first Easter, they were more glad than they had ever been in their whole lives. They rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

At first it must have been sheer amazement. They were behind locked doors and suddenly someone was present with them in the room, unannounced, totally unexpected. They looked at Him, mouths agape. Then He spoke the familiar words of greeting, “Shalom Aleichem,” “Peace be with you.” It sounded like Him; it looked like Jesus, but how could that possibly be? Next something happened that made them sure. He showed them His hands: nail prints. He bared His side: the wound from the soldier’s spear. This wasn’t a dream. It wasn’t a case of mistaken identity. It was really Jesus. And their sorrow was captured up in joy. They thought they had lost Him, but now here He was alive with them again. And they somehow knew that He would never abandon them.

AIMLESSNESS AND PURPOSE

It made the difference, too, between aimlessness and purpose. What they had lost in the death of Jesus was their reason for living. Remember: these men had left their homes, their occupations, their family members, and all their former plans and hopes, to throw in their lot completely with Jesus. In His call “follow Me,” they had discovered a new goal for life, a new organizing center. To be with Him, to get to know Him, to learn from Him, to serve with Him – God’s inbreaking kingdom – that gave their lives meaning and zest. When He was gone, they had faced a yawning emptiness. They didn’t know what to do with themselves. There they were, huddled together in the upper room, passive and purposeless.

The present, risen Jesus had something to say to them. “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” Their setting out to follow Him hadn’t been a tragic mistake after all. He was alive and He had a mission for them.

And what a mission! “As the Father had sent [Him]” . . . How was that? It didn’t become clear to them all at once. But they remembered for one thing how He had said, “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37). That would be their task too, to bear witness in a world of half-truths and the Big Lie, to testify to the great certainties God had revealed. They had a message to give.

Maybe they remembered how He said, “The Son of man has come not to be served but to serve” (Matt. 20:28). They realized that there was a servant ministry for them to the poor and needy, the crushed and the broken, the down and out and the up and out, to be among them all, as self-giving people, following a servant Lord, waiting on others.

And surely they remembered those other words of His, “The Son of man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). That was why Jesus had come, to save His people from their sins, to seek out the lost and lonely, the most despised and despairing, to be out after God’s wandering sheep to bring them home. That would be their task now as His followers. They would have more than enough to do. He was giving them a sense of high purpose, a mission that challenged them and captured their hearts.

WEAKNESS AND STRENGTH

It was the difference too between weakness and strength. After Good Friday, all the disciples must have been weighed down with a sense of shameful failure. When He had needed them most in Gethsemane, Peter, James and John had fallen asleep. They couldn’t watch with Him one hour. When the soldiers came with their torches and weapons to arrest Him, the disciples had been no help. Aside from one swipe with a sword, they did nothing in His defense. They stood by helplessly through the nightmare of His trial and crucifixion. And now having lost their leader and Lord, they felt totally inadequate, paralyzed by their own sense of weakness.

There in the Upper Room, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” What was He doing in that strange action? He was letting them know that they were receiving God’s power. God’s own Spirit would live within them, giving them strength to bear witness to the truth, to be a servant people, to seek and save the lost. They wouldn’t have to go forth relying on their own resources, incapable of making an impact on their surroundings. Had not God said, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit” (Zech. 4:6)? They were about to experience what that meant.

But there’s more. It has always been fascinating to me that Jesus breathed on them as He said this. In a sense, this was the key, the clue, to what would later happen to them on the Day of Pentecost. Remember how they heard on that great day a sound from heaven as of the rushing of a mighty wind? It was the breath of God filling the house where they were sitting. But that wind of God was the breath of Jesus, too. It was as though He was imparting to them His own life, inspiring them with His life-breath, communicating to them His risen presence and power.

In another appearance to His followers, the risen Lord said it this way, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you, and lo, I am with you always to the close of the age” (Matt. 28:20). A great task had been set before them: making disciples among all the nations, baptizing, teaching. It was a world-wide mission of unimaginable difficulty. But this is what made it possible: Jesus by His Spirit would be with them wherever they went, in whatever they did and suffered. They would never be alone. He, the risen Lord, by His inbreathed Spirit, would be always there. What a difference that would make!

FEAR AND FAITH

There’s one more difference I see in this passage, perhaps the most strikingly evident of them all. Meeting the risen Lord was the difference for these disciples between fear and faith. The most evident thing about them that night was that they were deathly afraid. They had locked themselves in that familiar upper room in Jerusalem. They were terrified that those who had hounded their Master to death would be after them next. They were so frightened that they could do nothing but huddle together in hiding.

But think of what happened after Jesus met them there. His words “peace be with you,” repeated more than once, had calmed their fears. The joy of seeing Him, of receiving a commission from Him, of being clothed with His power, gave these men a remarkable kind of courage. Only weeks later, they are preaching boldly on the Day of Pentecost. They defy authorities when they’re ordered not to speak in the name of Jesus. Even in beatings and stonings, they rejoice to be able to suffer for the name of Jesus. Imprisonment, torture, threats of execution do not move them. Some seal their witness with their blood. They become known as those who have turned the world upside down. Even their enemies marvel at their fearlessness.

These are people of faith now. They have met the risen Lord.

The apostle Peter, in one of his letters, talks about the conquest of fear. Listen: “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is right? But even if you do suffer for righteousness sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord” (1 Peter 3:13-15). Notice that, “Don’t be afraid of these enemies,” he says, “but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord.” Peter is paraphrasing here a passage from Isaiah. Here were the prophet’s words in Isaiah 8:11-13, “For the Lord spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: `Do not call conspiracy all that this people call conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him by your dread.'”

Do you hear what he’s saying? Don’t fear them but fear Him instead. The fear of the Lord, reverence for Him, and the awareness of His majesty and mercy is what drives out all the other fears. It’s not that Christians become superhuman, no longer vulnerable to anxiety, pain and sorrow, but the power of the Holy Spirit makes them aware that the Lord is with them. And that’s what enables them to rise above the fears they share with everyone else, and to do what He calls them to do.

Now all of this didn’t happen fully for those first disciples on that very night when they met the risen Christ, but that’s where it all began. And we who are the Lord’s people surely don’t want to present ourselves as finished products, as those who are fully transformed. But what we do want to say, as strongly and clearly as we can, is that life has become wonderfully different for us. And all of that has been bound up with meeting and knowing Jesus Christ.

I’ve known Him to turn my sorrow over heartbreaking family disappointments into joy. He gave me in my teens a great sense of purpose in these words to His disciples: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide” (John 15:16a). I’ve known ever since then that I was chosen for a mission. I’ve had times also when I’ve felt almost completely weak and worthless, only to have Him breathe new strength into me for some work He had for me to do. And though I’m naturally a man highly vulnerable to fear, I’m beginning to learn what it is to live by faith instead, and to fear the Lord most of all.

This same Jesus, friends, is being offered to you in the gospel right now. Wherever He is preached, He is present, though you may not see Him with your eyes or hear Him with your physical ears, or feel His breath as they did upon your face. If you will trust Him, Jesus Christ, your Savior, risen from the dead for you, He will begin to make a marvelous difference in your life. Won’t you trust Him for that?

Prayer: O Lord, may that be so. Make Yourself real in Your living presence and power, Your mercy and grace to everyone who shares this broadcast. Let Your salvation make a wonderful difference to each one. In Jesus’ name. Amen.