English service on April 19, 2020 (Online service) Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
Christ’s Resurrection and Freedom from Fear
In our church’s Good Friday worship recently, I talked about the cross and freedom from loneliness that it can give. Today I would like to speak to you about the resurrection and the freedom from fear that it makes possible.
You don’t need me to tell you that we live in frightening times, do you. The coronavirus has hit us with the knowledge that any of us, or people we love, could lose our health. Having control over key parts of our lives taken away is scary, isn’t it. Many have already lost their jobs due to the damage this virus has done to our nations’ economies, and no one knows how long this crisis will last or how serious it will become. Facing the unknown scares us, too. Even if we do not become ill or unemployed, many of us are already experiencing indirect effects of COVID-19 such as difficulty getting timely help with other health needs and having to delay or cancel many important activities.
Jesus’ disciples also are in an atmosphere of fear in the Bible story we have before us today. They have in the past few days seen people use their positions of power in corrupt ways to take the life of their master, Jesus. A crowd had come for Him at night with swords, and clubs. They could do the same for His followers. So John tells us in v. 19, “They had locked the doors because they were afraid of the Jews.” Stuck indoors and afraid for their safety. That describes a lot of us today, too, doesn’t it. That is when “Jesus came in and stood among them.” He gives them a standard greeting, “May peace be with you!”
John doesn’t tell us in detail how they first respond, but Jesus shows them His hands and side. They can see in His hands the places the nails went in and in His side where the soldier’s spear pierced it. Maybe they are still a little in shock at seeing Him appear and they need some convincing.
That’s easy to imagine, much like the women at the tomb earlier that day, whom Matthew describes in his gospel. Both the angel there and Jesus have to tell them, “Don’t be afraid” (Matthew 28:5,10). Luke tells us, “The women were terrified. They bowed down with their faces to the ground” (Luke 24:5). The guards are so afraid of the angel that they shake and become like dead men (Matthew 28:4). Even though the women begin to feel joy at hearing Jesus is alive, they are also afraid (Matthew 28:8). Mark tells us, “They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). So there is a lot of fear when the first people hear and see that Jesus is back from the dead.
And when Jesus later in the day comes to the place His disciples are staying, even after the first wave of alarm passes, He sees that their hearts and minds are not yet ready to accept the good news that He is with them. There is a story in Luke 24:36-39 that is much like the John 20 story we are learning today. It’s not completely clear whether it is a different version of the same meeting or a separate appearance of Jesus, but Luke tells us about the disciples (Luke 24:37), “They were surprised and terrified. They thought they were seeing a ghost.” Then Jesus asks, kind of scolding them, it seems (Luke 24:38), “Why are you troubled? Why do you have doubts in your minds?”
With all this fear throughout not only the tragic story of the cross but the joyous news of the resurrection, Jesus has to be a little patient with His disciples. He understands their feeling of being scared, of course, but He is not OK to leave them that way. He also lifts them up out of it. In John’s account, Christ says to them again (v. 21), “May peace be with you!” The first time, it may have sounded like a simple greeting: “Hi, everyone.” But you don’t tell someone konnichiwa and then say the same thing the next minute, do you. He means exactly what He is saying. He is probably reminding them of the words He gave them just a few days ago (John 14:27), “I leave my peace with you. I give my peace to you. I do not give it to you as the world does. Do not let your hearts be troubled. And do not be afraid.”
When He said that, He wasn’t just saying it because it sounded good or something. He really wants them to be at peace. “Peace be with you!” These are the same words He will use a week later when He comes back to them and Thomas to show again that they have a strong reason to live in peace, even in scary times. It’s that He is alive and well and still working powerfully among them. His will for you and me in our times of fear, too, is that we live in deep peace. He does not condemn us for having the normal human feelings of fear in dangerous situations, but in the end, He wants to help us learn to overcome our fears and not be controlled by them. “Do not be afraid.” Those are words that God’s people need to hear and keep hearing and continue telling each other regularly, especially in times like these.
Why does He call us to live with courage? It’s of course because love is at the center of His feelings, thoughts, and will for us. But it’s not only that. Jesus continues by telling His people (v. 21), “The Father has sent me. So now I am sending you.” His love is not only for them but all people, and He intends to use His followers to spread and share it. He has a mission for them. And in order to accomplish it, they will need to be free from the power of their fears. The living Christ is now with them. In fact, He is making His home in them. Jesus has given the command, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (v. 22), providing them in this way with the power they will need to carry out the tasks He places before them. So it is possible to accomplish this great work, but they will have to rely heavily on Him to learn to live as people of courage in trying times.
Well, now we have about 2,000 years of Christian history to look back on and see how Jesus’ plan has worked out. Not perfectly, to be sure, because He has chosen to use broken, sinful people as tools in His ministry. Yet there are some remarkable things worth seeing again about how God has done His work of salvation through people willing to follow Him in simple faith. Various times that widespread diseases have taken many lives give us a window for viewing this.
One example is the 2nd century Plague of Galen, also called the Antonine Plague. Galen was a doctor, a leader in the field of medicine in the Roman Empire. When a virus (maybe smallpox) brought a terrible widespread illness, the first thing he did was leave Rome for the safety of his home in the country. He knew there was nothing he could do to help. Bodies piled up in the streets. Galen commented that Christians went out to visit sick people and acted as if they were not worried about protecting their own lives. This was a remarkably different reaction to the situation than most Romans showed. Christians believed that if they died, they just went someplace better. The fact is that everyone is going to die of something. Followers of Christ concluded that if you die of this disease or die of something else later, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as one key fact: you have a far better life waiting for you in heaven.
In the 3rd century, Cyprian’s Plague (possibly Ebola) swept across the Roman Empire. Typical Roman people put the dead on the streets, hoping to avoid getting the disease themselves. About 5,000 people per day in Rome were dying, according to remaining records. A Christian leader, Bishop Dionysius, wrote around 260:
Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy. . . . Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead. . . .
Christians were very conscious of what Jesus had done and taught. They knew that only He could provide for humans’ eternal salvation by dying for the world’s people. But they also had the spirit of loving sacrifice which Jesus modeled and taught them to have. And they knew that Jesus did not only die of the cross but also healed the sick. They also understood that He had left behind Him the Holy Spirit to live in the hearts of believers and enable them to carry on His work. So they believed that they were there to act as “little Christs” (“Christians”), in their time and communities and cultures. In imitating Christ, they believed it was their responsibility to go out and take care of sick people.
So Christians had the example, inspiration, and teachings of Jesus, as well as the assurance of eternal life. That made them radically different from the people around them in the Roman Empire, and as a result they were very powerful witnesses for Christ in a time when many of their neighbors were keenly aware of their need for help.
In the next century (the 300s), the emperor Julian wrote a letter to a priest who served not the Christian God but the Roman gods. The emperor wanted him to set up charities similar to the ones Christians were running. Julian clearly did not like Christians but saw that their work was proving effective in winning the support of many people. He complained about these people, “The impious Galileans [his insulting name for Christians] support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that ours lack aid from us.”
As Christian social historian Rodney Stark points out, Christians did not have medicines to stop the diseases they faced. But by visiting and taking care of sick people and burying the dead, they did in effect provide basic nursing care. And in quite a few cases, that was enough to get people through the crisis. Followers of Christ enabled many to survive, and compared to basically no health care, which was standard at that time, it was very remarkable. Stark’s point is that where there was even basic nursing care, the survival rate went up dramatically. Christians’ behavior probably looked crazy and suicidal to many, but in those cases, it was a solid support for public health. There was nothing that an ordinary Roman would lay down his or her life for, but Christians were doing that. So many people would ask, What is it that makes them do that, apparently freely and happily? And non-Christians’ willingness to hear the Gospel, interest in it, and attraction to it, grew.
The witness that Christians were to their non-Christian neighbors in the Roman Empire was no doubt one of the major reasons that so many people there became Christians. The Roman Empire, where being a Christian could get you killed soon after Jesus’ time, within roughly 300 years became an officially Christian Empire. That dramatic change was possible in part because followers of Christ understood that they were sent by Jesus Himself to continue His work of love and salvation in this world.
People with a Roman religious background would see a natural disaster and think that people who suffered from it were being punished by the gods. Christians had a radically different view, that people who suffer are not necessarily being punished, but the God of deep, unchanging love is there with them, suffering together and giving them strength to go through their time of trouble. He is not just a God of judgment, throwing thunderbolts down from heaven like Zeus. Far more, He is the God of mercy, shown best by Christ on the cross, providing a way for salvation and healing and restoration. He is the God of life, not death, shown best by the resurrected Jesus.
Widespread illnesses continued from time to time. In the 6th century Justinian’s Plague hit Europe, going from Constantinople all the way to Ireland. Many Christian spiritual leaders died of this illness.
It was the same bacteria that caused the worst of Europe’s plagues, the one in the 14th century known as the Black Death. It killed about 48% of Europe’s people in three years. Even two centuries later in Martin Luther’s time and afterward, this plague returned and took many lives. In each of these crises, Christians lived out their faith by running not away from the disease but toward it in order to help people in Christ’s name. Their beliefs about God’s love, serving others, and life after death all were key parts of their motivation. Jesus went to the cross “because of the joy He was looking forward to,” Hebrews 12:2 tells us. Christians in times of epidemics did not just help people because they were supposed to. They did it because it was right, because they wanted to please God, and because they had a deep assurance of life in a world far better than this one.
In writing about whether he should leave his community for a safer place or stay and help, Martin Luther listed plusses and minuses of both choices based on the Bible’s teachings. It was very important to him to do everything within reason to protect public health and God’s great gift of human life. So he wanted to avoid being “responsible for either my own death or the death of others.” But in the end, he decided to stay and take care of his community. A main reason was that he believed his life and everyone’s were ultimately in God’s hands. He wrote, “If God should wish to take me, He will surely find me. . . .”
So how about us here in our time of crisis? What will it look like for us to be the hands and feet of Christ in ways that match the needs especially in Sapporo in 2020? This crisis, in a strange way, is a very valuable chance for us to grow as a community of faith that gives love and support to each other and the community around us. Who needs some food that we could buy and take to them? Who could learn from us how to order many of the things they need online so they will not need to go out into crowded areas for shopping? Who would welcome a simple phone or online conversation or some prayer time with us while they are stuck at home? These are examples of questions that not only experts and specialists but ordinary Christians like you and I can ask and answer as God leads us.
Let’s ask Him now to guide us in all the ways He chooses.
Father in heaven, we have heard you speak to us again today through your word. “. . . Peace be with you!” “. . . I am sending you.” “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In the sometimes-frightening times we are living through now, please fill us with your peace. Give us the courage and wisdom to listen and obey when you send us to serve others in your name. Protect and bless us as we do. Enable us through the power of your Spirit to share effectively the good news of salvation in Christ, in word and deed, with the people around us who need to know your saving love. In the name of Christ we pray. Amen.
Luther, M. (1527). Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague. Luther’s Works, Vol. 43: Devotional Writings II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 43 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 119–38. Retrieved April 11, 2020 from https:// blogs.lcms.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Plague-blogLW.pdf
Stark, R. (1996). The rise of Christianity: A sociologist reconsiders history. San
Francisco: Princeton University Press & Harper.
Stone, L. (March 13, 2020). The Church Has Been Handling Epidemics for 2000 Years. Foreign Policy. Retrieved April 11, 2020 from https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/13/christianity-epidemics-2000-y ears-should-i-still-go-to-church-coronavirus/
Sunshine, G. (March 22, 2020). Christians in Time of Plague. Breakpoint Podcast. Retrieved April 11, 2020 from https://www.breakpoint.org/christians-in-time-of-plague/
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, the disciples were together. They had locked the doors because they were afraid of the Jews. Jesus came in and stood among them. He said, "May peace be with you!"
20 Then he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples were very happy when they saw the Lord.
21 Again Jesus said, "May peace be with you! The Father has sent me. So now I am sending you."
22 He then breathed on them. He said, "Receive the Holy Spirit.
23 If you forgive anyone's sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."