The First Sunday after Easter: Prophets and Priests
April 16, 2023

The First Sunday after Easter: Prophets and Priests

Passage: 1 John 5:4-12, John 20:19-23
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The First Sunday after Easter: Prophets and Priests
1 St. John 5:4-12 & St. John 20:19-23
by William Klock

 

Jesus’ disciple were afraid.  They were huddled together in the dark, doors locked, talking—it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if there was some arguing going on—all in quiet whispers lest the authorities find them and crucify them just like they’d crucified Jesus.  That’s what St. John writes in his Gospel.

 

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…

 

This was the evening of that Sunday when Mary went to the tomb at first light and found it empty.  She ran as fast as she could through the empty streets of Jerusalem to find Peter and John.  She beat on their door and when the door was opened the frantic words spilled out with her sobs, “They’ve taken the Lord out of the tomb and I don’t know where they’ve laid him!”  So Peter and John ran and they saw for themselves the empty tomb with the linens used to wrap Jesus’ body lying there undisturbed.  It made no sense.  There was nothing they could do about it.  And the authorities were probably looking for them now that the sabbath was over, so they went back to their hiding place.

 

But, John says, Mary stayed behind at the tomb, weeping.  I expect it’s what they call an “ugly cry”—sobbing her heart out.  And that’s when two angels appeared to her, sitting right where Jesus body had been laid…sitting right there with the linen wrappings and they asked, “Why are you weeping?”  And, still holding her bottle of oil in one hand and a box with those precious spices in the other, Mary sobbed out her story to them.  “They’ve taken away my Lord and I don’t know where they’ve laid him.”  The oil and spices were useless unless she could find where he was, but still she held on to them.  But then, as John tells the story, another man approaches to ask, again, why she’s crying and who she’s looking for.  Mary thought he was a gardener and she blubbered it out all over again, “Sir, if it was you, tell me where you’ve laid him.”  And then the man simply spoke her name, “Mary,” and she knew him.  It was Jesus.  And now she was crying for joy, because he was alive.  It didn’t make any sense, but he was alive and she gasped out, “Rabbi!”  And she jump up to hug him, but instead he said, “No.  Now is not the time to cling to me.  You’ve got to go to my brothers—to the disciples—and tell them the good news.”  And so she ran to the house where they were hiding to tell them, “I have seen the Lord!”

 

But what did it mean?  John writes that when he saw the empty tomb and the linens lying there he believed.  But believed what?  Because he says immediately after that the disciples did not yet understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead.  And so even though John believed and even with Mary’s report that she had seen Jesus, there they sat, hunkered down behind shuttered windows and a locked door, talking in whispers.  There was no cooking fire lest the smoke give them away.  Maybe they had a small oil lamp lit so they could just see each other.  John tells his story so that it echoes the book of Genesis and the scene he give us of that evening of the first Easter day echoes Genesis: “Darkness was over the face of the deep.”

 

Brothers and Sisters, is that not a picture of too much of the Church today.  Jesus is risen.  We even proclaim it with joy on Easter, we’re reminded that his resurrection has changed everything, but we sit hunkered down at home afraid to go out and proclaim it?  We hide out light under a basket.

 

And then John writes that suddenly,

 

Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

 

John wrote about the Incarnation back in his prologue saying that in Jesus the light had come into the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it.  That was an echo of Genesis.  The first day of the week God called light into being, driving away the darkness.  And now the Light Incarnate appears in that dark, fear-filled house and I have to think that somehow and in some way it was filled with light—a light that drove away every last vestige of darkness.  And to these frightened men, Jesus announces, “Peace be with you!”

 

Imagine their surprise.  And there must have been some disbelief or some doubts.  Or maybe, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, they simply didn’t recognise him.  Something about his resurrection had brought a transformation.  Same Jesus, same body, but in some way just different enough in appearance that they didn’t recognise him.  Of course, it wouldn’t have helped that they simply didn’t expect to see him again either.  So Jesus holds out his hands for them to see.  One at a time he lifts a foot out so that they can see.  There were the marks left by the nails.  And he lifted his tunic to show them the wound left by the spear that had been plunged into his side, the wound that had gushed forth blood and water, evidence to the soldiers that he was genuinely dead.  And here he stood alive.  They were shocked.  How could it be?  As I said last Sunday, the reason resurrection wasn’t on anyone’s mind was because this wasn’t how it was supposed to happen.  This wasn’t a story Jews would have made up, because all the Jews who believed in the resurrection of the dead knew how it would work—and it wasn’t supposed to work this way.  At the end of the age the Lord would raise all the faithful at once.  There was plenty of disagreement about some of the specifics, but they all knew one thing for sure: It would be everybody all at once, not just one person, even if that one person was the Messiah.  This just wasn’t on their radar.  Not at all.  But now it is and they’re confused and, it seems, even though John says they were glad, they were still more than a little afraid.  And so Jesus says to them again, “Peace be with you!”

 

And Jesus doesn’t waste any time as John tells it.  “Peace be with you,” he says, calming their fears.  Jesus is alive.  And immediately he gets down to the very practical aspects, the real-world implications of his resurrection.  He says in verse 21:

 

“As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”

 

Last Sunday we read the Easter story from Mark’s Gospel, where we’re left with that sudden ending that leaves us hanging.  The resurrection of Jesus changes everything, but Mark leaves us to read the rest of the New Testament to understand what that means.  But John shows us right here.  “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”

 

Here they are, hunkered down for fear of being rounded up and executed themselves.  Here they are, afraid to even show their faces in Jerusalem.  Here they are, giving it a few days before they try to sneak out of town without being noticed.  And Jesus says to them, “I’m sending you.  As the Father sent me to you, I’m now sending you: to Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria…to the ends of the earth.”  In other words, “You’re not going to go slinking out of the city under cover of darkness.  No, you’re going out in Jerusalem with boldness—the same way I went out into Galilee, through Judea, and eventually to Jerusalem at the head of a parade, hailed by the people.  You’re going to go with the same boldness out into this city and you are going to declare what God has done.  Everyone is going to know who you are.  You’re going to declare to Jerusalem that this Jesus whom they crucified died and has been raised from the dead, that he really is the Messiah, God’s King, that his kingdom has come, and God’s new creation is breaking in.”

 

Think again of John, just beginning to wrap his head around the idea that Jesus had been raised from death—but still hiding with the others, still afraid.  John couldn’t even tell his friends what he thought had happened.  The last thing on his mind was telling it to Jerusalem—and Jesus isn’t talking about mere “telling”—you know, whispering it to a few people who might be safe to tell.  No, he’s talking about proclaiming this news—to everybody.  Brothers and Sisters, think about that for a minute.  Think about how most of us are so afraid or at least hesitant to proclaim the good news about Jesus.  We have no reason to fear for our lives like Jesus’ disciples did.  The worst thing that happens to us is we offend someone, make them think we’re weird.  They faced martyrdom—and all but John were, indeed, martyred for their proclamation.  We have so little to fear, but we’re afraid anyway.  We’ve even stopped speaking in terms of proclamation—the Bible’s way of speaking about evangelism.  Instead, these days we talk about “sharing” our faith—as if Jesus is something people might want to try—see if he works for you, but if not...  We’ve lost our confidence in the good news and in the God who raised Jesus from the dead who stands behind it.  No, Jesus calls us to declare the good news like royal heralds, sent out into the world to declare the mighty deeds of God, that he has raised Jesus from the dead, and made him Lord of all.

 

But, again, consider John.  Confused, afraid, just beginning to understand.  And then consider the confidence of his words, written decades later in our Epistle:

 

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God…. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.  Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?  (1 St. John 5:1, 4-5)

 

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ—that he is the Messiah—has been reborn as part of the people of God.  And that belief changes everything.  That belief transforms the fearful John hesitant to even tell his friends about the dawning realization that Jesus had been raised from death, it turns him into the courageous apostle, exiled for his proclamation of that truth, and writing boldly to the churches to stand firm in that same faith even though great tribulation was about to hit them like a storm.  There is everything to be feared out in the world: rejection, mockery, persecution, even martyrdom, but by faith the people of God overcome and stand firm in our witness.  It’s not because faith changes reality.  It’s because this faith recognizes the new reality born that first Easter when Jesus rose from the grave, the new reality that he is victor over sin and death, the new reality that new creation has begun in him, and the new reality that he is Lord of that creation.  By faith we are united with him.  By faith we share in his inheritance.  And by faith we share in his calling and ministry—his Church, taking up the mantle of prophet, priest, and king.

 

Like John, we are called to boldly testify about Jesus:

 

This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus the Messiah; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.  For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.  If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son.

 

John points back to Jesus’ ministry.  He came by water.  That was the start of it.  He went to John and was baptised in the Jordan and as he walked up out of the river, the heavens opened, the Spirit descended like a dove, and his Father spoke, “This is my Son in whom I am well-pleased.”  That was Jesus’ initiation into his messianic ministry.  And that ministry—at least in its earthly phase—ended in blood, at the cross, where he died to conquer death and to provide forgiveness of sins.  Jesus’ baptism testifies to his being the Messiah.  Jesus’ blood, shed on the cross, testifies to his being the Messiah.  And, too, John writes, so does the Spirit.  And, he says, consider all the things we believe, in which we trust, based on the testimony of mere men.  How much more, Brothers and Sisters, ought we to trust this testimony about Jesus backed up by God himself?  And not so much just receiving and believing ourselves, but in light of the fact that this is the truth, this is the good news that literally changes the world, is changing the world, oughtn’t we to be proclaiming it to that world?  Through Jesus and the Spirit God has given us the light.  The light that will transform the darkness that sin and death have cast on the world.  The light that the darkness cannot and will not ever overcome.  Dear Friends, don’t hide it under a basket.  Hold it high.  Proclaim it.  Show it to everyone.  Do not be afraid.  John says:

 

Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself.  (1 St. John 5:10)

 

But that’s not where John leaves us in the Gospel.  Jesus doesn’t just send his disciples out into the world.  That would be an impossible task.  Even the joy of knowing that Jesus has risen from the dead isn’t enough in itself to get this good news to the ends of the earth.  Jesus knew that we also need to be equipped to go out and do it.  Look at verses 22-23 of John 20:

 

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.”

 

As the Lord breathed life into Adam in the original creation, Jesus now breathes on his disciples.  “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he says.  Was the Spirit literally imparted by Jesus’ breath?  Luke tells this part differently in his Gospel and in Acts—that whole event with the dramatic coming of the Spirit at Pentecost as they gathered at the temple to hear Peter preach and to be baptised.  But notice there, too, that the Spirit comes with a wind—in both Hebrew and Greek, wind, breath, and spirit are all the same word.  Jesus was good at acted-out prophecy and I think that’s what he's doing in this case in John’s Gospel.  He is—or he soon will be—imparting God’s Spirit to this new people of God, to those who believe, and he illustrates just what this gift is by an act that they couldn’t help but connect to God’s giving life to Adam—another echo of Genesis.  But this is new life.  And this is what will equip them to go out, despite the threat of death, to proclaim with boldness the good news.  Brothers and Sisters, the Spirit does a lot for us, but here Jesus makes sure we know what his primary purpose is.  It’s not to give us radical experiences, although that certainly might happen.  It’s not to make us holy, although he certainly does that as he turns our hearts and our affections away from self and sin and points them towards God.  No, the primary purpose of the Spirit is to equip us to do the impossible: to do for the world, what Jesus did for Israel.  To go out in the world in his name and to proclaim what God has done through him.  “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”  Think of our study of Revelation and those seven churches John shows us in the beginning—small, poor, facing all sorts of challenges and opposition and soon to face great tribulation, but called by Jesus to stand firm in faith for the gospel—and not just that, but to take that gospel to the world.  How is that possible?  It starts with the joy of knowing Jesus risen from the dead, but continues through the life of the Spirit who equips us to do what we can never do on our own strength.

 

And then Jesus speaks those words that have so often been misunderstood and abused: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”  Remember I said that by faith we have a share in Jesus’ inheritance and ministry.  By faith the Father adopts us and makes us his sons and daughters, so we share in what belongs to Jesus.  And that means that as he is King and Prophet and Priest, so are we as his Church, his people.  And Jesus here gets at two of those things.  Here he reminds his friends and he reminds us that when we go out into the world to proclaim his Lordship, to proclaim the good news of his death and resurrection, to proclaim that new creation has come, we do so as both prophets and as priests.

 

Our message is two-fold.  I think the priestly role comes most naturally to us.  This is the part of our proclamation where we announce the forgiveness of sins.  Think of the priests of the Old Testament, offering sacrifices.  That was one of their primary duties: to facilitate and to mediate God’s forgiveness to the people.  Think of Jesus.  He is both priest and sacrificial lamb.  He offers and presents himself to the Father as a sacrifice for our sins.  And, as priests, we proclaim to the world the forgiveness he offers through that sacrifice.  But that is not our only role.  We also share in Jesus’ prophetic office—and that’s the part that doesn’t come as naturally to us, at least not as things currently are.  But consider what the prophets did.  Consider what Jesus did in his role as a prophet.  He called out the sins of his people, he summoned them to repentance, and he announced the judgement to come on those who remained unrepentant in their sin, unbelief, and faithlessness.  In contrast, much of the Church today is afraid to take on this prophetic role, to name sin, to even use the word.  Some parts of the Church have given up altogether and have embraced sin and called it virtue—leaving people nothing to repent of and with nothing for which they need forgiveness.  They’ve gutted the gospel.  But these two things, the priestly and the prophetic go hand in hand.  Our prophetic office, announcing judgement, is without hope if we do not also fulfil our priestly role of announcing forgiveness.  But our priestly office, our message of forgiveness lacks any real meaning if it is not also accompanied by the prophetic announcement that sin is sin and that God will judge it.  Brothers and Sisters, this is the good news: that we are sinners, that our holy God judges sin and that the penalty is death, but also that Jesus has died as a perfect sacrifice for sins, and has risen, victor over death, inaugurating God’s new creation and giving a sure and certain hope that what he has begun he will finish.  One day all things will be made new, every bit of sin and evil will be swept from creation, and all will be set to rights.  And by faith in Jesus we have a share in that new world.

 

Brothers and Sisters, do we believe that?  I trust that we do.  We affirm this belief every week as we come to the Lord’s Table.  We recall the story.  We confess our sins in repentance.  And we come to the Table in renewed faith to participate again in those events that set us free from sin and death, in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  But maybe we’ve forgotten the real power behind what we confess here at the Table.  Friends, think this morning on what the cross and the empty tomb mean.  Think on what the blood of Jesus means.  Think on what his gift of the Spirit means.  And then take seriously those words of dismissal we’ll hear later: “Go forth in peace to love and serve the Lord.”  Consider that in those words Jesus is saying to us, to you and to me, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”

 

Let’s pray: Almighty Father, you gave your only Son to die for our sins and to rise again for our justification: Grant that we may put away the leaven of malice and wickedness, and always serve you in purity and truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

 

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