Sermon: The Church and Its Mission
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked 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 am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:19-23, ESV)
Theme: The mission of the church is grounded in the person of Christ, accomplished through the presence of Christ, and pursued for the glory of Christ.
The disciples had been huddled together in secret behind closed doors because they still feared the Jewish religious authorities. John usually simply calls them “the Jews” but he did not mean all the Jews in the world, for all of the disciples were Jews, as Christ was a Jew. He specifically meant the religious leaders who had had Christ crucified. This was the day of the resurrection. They had already heard that Christ was risen and several, two unnamed disciples on the road to Emmaus, Mary Magdalene, and Peter, in fact, had already seen him (Luke 24:33-35). John says that he had not yet seen Christ but that he had already believed that he was risen, emphasizing the mystery of faith that embraced and trusted even when the mind could hardly follow the details of the story (John 20:8).
Luke’s account helps us to lock the time as Easter Sunday evening (Luke 24:36-43). John used the Gentile reckoning of time here, with the day beginning in morning, rather than the Jewish perspective that would have considered this already the evening of the second day of the week. His gospel is particularly targeted for the Gentiles. Following this passage is the account of Thomas, who was not there on that evening, who questioned the resurrection, but we are too hard on him – calling him Doubting Thomas. They all felt something similar, the cruel crucifixion of Jesus still imprinted on their minds, and knowing too well that they could be next. Under these circumstances, their meeting together affirms their commitment and determination to remain faithful to Jesus, even though they had not grasped the necessity of the resurrection.
“Peace be with you!” Christ suddenly stood in their midst, passing through the locked doors without any problem whatsoever. We are told that Christ’s resurrection body was a “spiritual body” and it did not have the same physical limitations that our physical bodies have (1 Cor. 15:20, 42-43,53-54). The new spiritual body which we will receive will be glorious, powerful, imperishable, and immortal. Yet his body was still able to be touched and felt, and he ate food for them, giving many convincing proof that he was not a ghost, but really and genuinely resurrected (Luke 24:39-43).
He said, “Peace be with you,” again. The double emphasis on peace shows both the sensitivity of his heart to their fears as well as the continuation of his sinless character. He was still the same divine Person, loving, sensitive, patient, and compassionate. He did not chastise them for their fear, rather he spoke peace to them, giving them assurance.
This was not a time for detailed instruction. They were not ready for it, indeed their minds were overwhelmed with the realization that Christ had risen from the dead. There has been quite a bit of discussion over the centuries as to why God waited for fifty days after the resurrection until the Spirit came upon the church at Pentecost. But for our purposes this morning we might simply say that the disciples minds alone would give sufficient reason for this delay. They had a great deal to absorb and to contemplate. In fact, if we think about it, we come to the conclusion that even after 50 days their behavior can only be understood as the result of the Spirit working in and through them.
But Christ did say something. It was brief and to the point. He told them three things actually. First, he let them see that he was truly resurrected and they touched him and handled him and were convinced that he was alive. Then he said just three things and that summarized the mission his followers would have. He taught on their mission several other times that we are told about, but this is the first post-resurrection teaching: What did Christ tell them on the night of that first Easter about their mission and our mission as his followers? The sermon is built around three words: Person, Presence, and Potential
• Their mission would be grounded in the reality of Christ as a Person
• Their mission would be empowered and enabled by his Spirit’s presence
• Their mission would be to free mankind from the chains of the curse of sin
1. Our mission is grounded in the Person of Christ
“Peace be unto you” – He repeated again these words to teach that our peace comes through Christ. He had died on the cross and rose from the grave on that very day, and now our peace with God has been purchased. This was not a mere greeting, rather it was the announcement of a new age in salvation history. He is our peace and he will be peace to all in the world who will trust in him. Peace with God, peace with ourselves, through his Spirit peace with others, and peace for all eternity.
His Divinity: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” We need to work our way backward through John 17 to understand what Christ meant. This statement was a repeat of something he said to the Father the night before his crucifixion. “As you have sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). The context of the earlier statement helps us to understand what it was that Christ meant and how we are sent like Christ.
We are sent with the same understanding as Christ had of who he was: “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name – the name you gave me – so that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11). The power of the name of God is not some magical incantation, rather it is the knowledge that Christ has come from the Father. “For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me” (John 17:8). This is the meaning attached to being protected “by the power of his name.” Christ Jesus carried the name of God upon him. He was God in human form, so he came with this knowledge and assurance of who he was, and we also go with this assurance.
His work on Calvary: So what is the protection he spoke of? In the understanding of Christ as carrying the name of God, is our salvation secure. What he has purchased for us through his death – our forgiveness and adoption as God’s sons and daughters – is affirmed because of who he was and who he is. This revelation and confidence protects us from deceptions from the devil and from his accusations.
His character and example: The Son was sent into the world with to bear witness to the love and holiness of God. Albert Barnes wrote:
“As God sent me to preach, to be persecuted, and to suffer; to make known his will, and to offer pardon to men, so I send you.” This is the design and the extent of the commission of the ministers of the Lord Jesus. He is their model; and they will be successful only as they study HIS character and imitate his example.
There is only one standard for Christians – that is Jesus Christ himself. To be a Christian means to be a Christ-follower. Christ when he was on earth said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow after me.” In this phrase, Puritan scholar Adam Clarke saw a reference from Christ to the Jewish custom of rabbis taking and making disciples.
“If any man would come after me” – The disciple must voluntarily decide to follow his teacher (rabbi) by his own free will, not by coercion, other than the coercion of conscience.
“Let him deny himself” – The disciple must renounce all false things – idolatry, false loyalties, old religions, prejudices, errors, sins – and must separate himself from his intimate friends and acquaintances. He must consider himself dead to these things, and this is the idea the Lord referred to when he said, “let him deny himself.” The Jews would use the phrase “re-born” and Christ said that we must be born of the Holy Spirit to follow him (John 3:5). The decision to become a disciple of Christ is not something added to all of the other matters of life, rather we must choose him to the exclusion of all other things.
“And take up his cross” – The Jewish disciple must bear the yoke of the Jewish Law, and the Christian disciple must bear the yoke of the cross of Christ, that is “easy” in its grace (Matt. 11:29). This means the bold profession of Christ crucified, “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23-24). The believer takes up his cross, meaning that he assigns himself over to death, so that he might live in Christ. Taking up the cross means to admit your own failure, not to pay for our own sins, but to trust that Christ paid for them in his death.
“And follow after me” – The disciple must be faithful to death, and the one who follows Christ must not turn back, but loyally follow despite persecutions, rejections, and even martyrdom.
2. Our mission is enabled by the Spirit’s presence in us
He breathed on them symbolizing the coming of the Holy Spirit – not by touch but by the gospel the Spirit comes into people’s lives. To use symbolic gestures was common for prophets. It was also symbolic of God’s breathing in Adam to make him a living soul – the Greek word for “breathed” is used only here in the New Testament, but it was also used for the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, that was the Apostles’ Old Testament, for God breathing into the nostrils of Adam the breath of life. Just as God’s breath in Adam made his body come alive, so the Spirit’s breath in us makes us spirits come alive.
There are different ways that people have tried to understand the Spirit’s indwelling. Many of these are not really biblical in their concept. For example, some have the idea of the Spirit of God is only “among us” and not “within us.” Some think of the Spirit like some nice presence among us – not a person, but a feeling or an atmosphere. Some cling to the Old Testament understanding of the Spirit coming upon us for brief periods and then leaving us. Some think of the Spirit merely in terms of power, not in terms of his presence. But the biblical idea is that the Spirit of God indwells the church, each believer. He seals us in security, fills us with himself, and shares the heart of God, the love of God, the guidance of God, as well as the presence and power of God.
There these men, still hiding behind locked doors in fear, would find a new reality in their lives that would change every thing about them. They had tried to be faithful disciples of Jesus, but at the cross they all fled in fear. For a brief period Peter stood to fight, but eventually on that evening he was cursing insisting that he was not a disciple of Christ. When the Spirit came this changed. They who were cowardly would be filled with courage. Those who were divided and quarrelsome would find unity. Those who were weak and doubtful would experience inner strength and conviction. Those who were impatient and often confused would find knowledge and peace. And in this new reality of life in the Spirit they would go forth.
All that we do must first be supported by becoming new in him. We are not to go out and achieve things in any other means. We are first to be something new, some ones who are made new in him. We cannot go out and just act like him without him living within us.
Whenever we find ourselves exhausted, tired of acting like a Christian, tired of putting up with others, we are trying to do in ourselves what we need to learn how to do in the Spirit. The purpose of the church is to bring glory to God, and we cannot do that without him doing it in us and through us. There are five functions of the church: evangelism, worship, discipleship, service, and fellowship. We need him to work in us and through us to do all of these.
Evangelism: we cannot share the gospel in the world without the Spirit enabling us – not just to bring conviction to the heart of the lost, but also to guide us to say the right words in the right way. To be led by the Spirit in who and when and how we share.
Worship: we need the Spirit to inspire our worship otherwise we’re just going through the motions singing songs. Someone may like Christian music but still not worship God. The Spirit is the one who “tunes our hearts to sing his praise.”
Discipleship: our teaching needs the guidance and inspiration of the Spirit.
Service: it is never enough just to do work sincerely, rather even as we help those who are hurting, we need to do so in the name of Christ and by the Spirit of Christ.
Fellowship: our fellowship is more than just earthly friendship, more than people just doing things together that they enjoy. It is the leadership of the Spirit that unites us together.
None of these things can we do unless the Spirit is within us, guiding us, empowering us, changing us, transforming us.
3. Our mission makes people free from the curse of sin
Christ is our message: He said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” He did not say that only one of them, or only a few of them could forgive sins. He did not center this in Peter, rather he spoke to all of them of a unique position they held as apostles. Ephesians speaks of the church when it says, “the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19-20).
They forgave the sins of others by preaching the gospel, not by any power that they had in and of themselves, nor by any power given by God. God only can forgive sins (Isaiah 43:25; Psalm 51:4). The apostles were in a unique position in that they were there at the founding of the church and their message would shape for all times the church’s message. What was the meaning of Christ’s ministry, what has he entrusted to us, what terms and under what conditions will he forgive men their sins. All of these things were laid down by the apostles.
They could not have done this if they had not first received the Spirit, so the order in which the Lord spoke these words is instructive. In and of themselves the apostles were as much subject to fits of rage and anger as any other person, perhaps even more so. James and John Christ called the Sons of Thunder because they wanted to call down curses upon cities that rejected Christ. Peter tried to take off the head of a servant of the high priest at the arrest of Jesus. Paul was a persecutor of the church, giving approval to the stoning of Stephen, describing himself as a violent man. That was who they were in themselves. Would you trust these men to set the parameters of the gospel, to set the boundaries of the gospel for all times, until the return of Christ? They could not do this in themselves – they could only do this by the power of the spirit. So Christ stressed repeatedly to them to wait until they are clothed with power from on high.
What have we humans done with the gospel over the centuries? The Roman Catholic Church for centuries said that they and they alone can grant forgiveness. They have taught that you don’t need to believe in Jesus, just so long as you believe in the Church. They have added sacraments and confusing conditions that even the priests cannot explain. They have sought to limit the gospel’s boundaries and moved it from whoever believes, to only those who join us.
But others have done as much – the false cults that say that they and they alone are the saved and forgive ones. And what about those who teach that you can lose your salvation by the simplest sin? They teach that you are saved by faith but kept saved by works, which means that you are really saved by works. One sin and you are lost. And all of this is added to the gospel. What about those churches that have gone the other way and polluted the observance of the Lord’s Supper? I have heard recently of some churches in Germany that have included pre-schoolers in the Lord’s Supper. They have removed any standard what so ever – now you just have to be alive – no repentance, no faith, no Christ.
Christ wrote no books and he entrusted all of this into the hands of the apostles. Through the Spirit through the apostles came the Christian message: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me though he were dead, yet shall he live, and anyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21).
What this means for us: As we seek to follow Christ today, as we the church fulfills its mission, we must keep Christ first. We proclaim him, trust him, live him, worship him, and follow him. We seek to know him intimately through his Spirit, we listen to him and obey him. And as he fills us with himself then we take his love and share it with others, sharing the wonderful news that in him we have life, peace, forgiveness, and purpose.