Video - Second Sunday of Easter
Rev. Charles Westby, Pastor
John 20:19-23, Acts 5:27-31
April 19, 2020

The Apostles in Contrast

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

We see quite a contrast in the Apostles this morning. In our Gospel reading, they are afraid. In the readings from Acts chapter 5, they are bold and courageous. Nothing can stop them from believing the good news of Jesus, that God has raised Him from the dead. Nothing can stop them from proclaiming it and practicing the Christian faith.

In the Gospel reading, it is the evening of the Third Day, the Third Day after Jesus died on the cross and was put in the tomb. The Apostles are in the place where they had eaten the last supper with Jesus. They have the place locked up tight. They were afraid.

What were they afraid of? They were afraid that their rulers and governing authorities were going to take them away and condemn them to death for being followers of Jesus. Fear had gripped them and determined their action: Fear of public humiliation; fear of the loss of liberty; fear of being physically beaten; fear of being put to death like Jesus was.

Fear is an immensely powerful feeling and motivator. It can undermine faith. They lock themselves in for protection.

It is interesting how they thought they were safe. If the authorities really wanted to, however, I think they could have easily broken down the locked and barricaded doors. Fear is not a particularly good guide to sound action.

Now I am not trying to unduly criticize the Apostles. We are here simply identifying the facts. We cannot be too critical of them for we do not yet know how we will react if the day comes in our beloved country when we come under government sanction for practicing our faith just for practicing it. In our context, in our situation, such government sanction would probably not come directly. It is not difficult to imagine how it could come in the name of public safety as a pretext, where Christian practice is deemed a threat to public health and safety and singled out as such. Maybe this will never happen here. The events of the last few weeks, however, may caution us.

The only legal protection we have are the doctrines of “disparate treatment” and “least restrictive means” in constitutional law. Disparate treatment means being treated differently than other similarly situation entities and people. “Least restrictive means” requires that government’s imposition on our First Amendment rights must be the least restrictive possible in accomplishing a compelling government interest. Are these legal doctrines enough to protect us?

At any rate, the Apostles are afraid for their lives. What happens? Jesus suddenly appears among them. “See my hands and my side,” He said (John 20:20). They bear the scars of the crucifixion. I think His body still bore these scars in His resurrected state so that He could identify Himself to them. It looks like until some point in glory our Lord Jesus will bear the scars of the wounds by which we are healed, even through He rose in indestructible life, not subject to death.

Jesus appears. Everything changes in a moment; in a heartbeat; in a twinkling of an eye. Notice that what changed was not the external circumstances. This change will come for us when Jesus returns, but it is not yet. The Jewish authorities were still there, posing the same threat. The disciples were still flesh and blood human beings beset by the weakness of the flesh. And the association with Jesus had not changed. The physical facts of this association could not change.

So what changed? The disciples changed inside. John says that they rejoiced when they saw the Lord alive (John 20:20).

First fear. Now joy. There was fear in the outward circumstances because of the threat out there. But the power of the fear was in their souls, in their hearts. Now joy. There was joy in their outward circumstances because Jesus is alive in His person and standing right in front of them. They can see Him and touch Him. Life conquered death and the injustice of His death. Life conquered the tyranny behind His death. But the power of the joy is not just in the outward circumstances of Jesus’s resurrection; it is in their souls and in their hearts. Now where is the fear? They see Jesus. Their hearts rejoice. They have changed on the inside.

Now what could they do? They could themselves burst out of that locked room and proclaim to anyone who would hear. Jesus is risen! God has accomplished redemption for anyone. There is forgiveness of sins and peace with God, now and forever. Whoever calls upon the Name of the One Name given, the Name of Jesus (Acts 4:12), will be saved.

Jesus did a couple of other important things when He met them that Day. First, He explicitly sends them: “As the Father has sent Me, I send you” (John 20: 21). Whose command to go is this? It is the command of the risen Jesus. It is the command of the One whom God the Father has made Lord and Christ. He is Lord of all, over all things. He is risen. They can now go in the power and the authority of the Risen One, who has over come death and the world. The command of the Risen One dispels the fear of the governing authorities. As Lord and Christ by virtue of resurrection from the dead, His command is supreme.

Second, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on them. Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit from His own person into their hearts. Now within their hearts, the Holy Spirit gives a faith and courage rooted in Jesus that cannot be overcome. May Jesus always breath this Sprit of faith and courage into our hearts.

Now we can switch to Acts 5 and see the contrast. They have burst out of their self-imposed prison; the prison imposed by fear. They proclaim Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem. They preach that God has appointed Jesus as Lord and Christ, that is, Messiah, by raising Him from the dead. And God has therefore appointed that repentance for the forgiveness of sins shall be found in Jesus. Here is the One in whom we find reconciliation with God. Here is the one in whom all our ultimate hopes and dreams for being human are fulfilled.

Many people believed in this good news of Jesus, crucified and risen. The Jewish authorities were enraged. They seized the Apostles. They issued orders. “Do not speak or teach any more to anyone in the Name of Jesus” (Acts 4:17).

What did the Apostles do in response? They kept on preaching. They did so in Solomon’s portico, or porch, in the Temple.

The governing authorities arrested them again. They hauled the apostles before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. This was the same Sanhedrin that had tried and condemned Jesus. “Did we not order you not to teach in this name?,” they said. “Yet, you have disobeyed our order and filled Jerusalem with your teaching about Jesus” (Acts 5:28).

How did the Apostles respond again? “It is necessary to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). It is necessary to obey God rather than any human authority when that authority sets out to silence the Gospel. When human authority does this, “it is necessary to obey God.”

This is absolute.

The only question then is whether this absolute must result in the defiance of civil authority by Christians on the facts of particular circumstances. The facts of particular circumstances are an especially important consideration. The Apostles had no choice in their circumstances. It was a no-choice situation that was not created by them but by the authorities; a no-choice situation that they did not want nor seek. The authorities in their case ordered them not to preach and teach Jesus.

But the risen Jesus had issued His own orders. Go. I am sending you. Preach repentance and forgiveness in my Name (Luke 24:47). He is risen. He is Lord and Christ. Make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-19).

The joy of His resurrection filled their hearts. The joy of the Lord is my strength became reality. They could not help but preach in defiance of the order that commanded them not to preach. They kept on preaching and teaching.

The situation the Apostles were in could cause us to wonder if we are in the same situation right now in relation to the government order relating to mass gatherings as a response to the COVID-19 virus. This order by its terms prevents us from gathering as we normally would as a Christian congregation, thus preventing us from practicing our Christian faith as we normally would.

I don’t think we are in quite the same situation. The Governor of the State of Colorado has not ordered us Christians and our churches not to teach and preach the Gospel. The orders that have impacted us as Christians have been posed in the name of public health. To determine whether such orders really are not directed at Christianity per se, however, the linchpins of the analysis in our setting are disparate treatment and least restrictive means, an important consideration of which is how long the orders that impact us are kept in place. The point of these linchpins is to provide a way of analyzing under the circumstances of our bureaucratic and secular state whether the aim of the government action is to destroy and silence the churches. This could happen. I don’t think it has happened yet, here in Colorado. I can only speak about the situation in Colorado.

Nevertheless, there is a deeper point. Just how exactly do we Christians see ourselves in relation to the broader culture and in relation to the state? Do we see only being compatible so that our values are the same as the culture’s values; so that we could never envision a time when we would not comply with a government order that impacts our freedom to practice our Christian faith?

The problem we face is secularism. In our culture, the danger is that religion and faith, Christianity included, is relegated to some private sphere. It is tolerated by society and government so long as its practice does not interfere with public policy. Secularism poses the danger of dictating to us what we can and cannot do with respect to those aspects of our faith that are public and non-negotiable. By public I mean not just faith in our hearts but an external physical practice. One aspect is gathering according to the Lord’s promise: “Where two or three are gathered in My Name, I am there” (Matthew 18:20). Another aspect is having Holy Communion according to Christ’s mandate: “Do this in remembrance of Me” (1 Corinthians 11:24-25). Christ meets us in His mandate with His own Body and Blood. This is a very physical thing, which requires gathering. It is also the New Covenant. These things are not negotiable for us. We can only suffer the depredation of these things by government for a while. Secularism in our own hearts, however, poses the danger of our willing sacrifice of our Christianity’s non-negotiable practices for purposes of public policy. Luther did not have to deal with this kind of problem in his day. But we deal with it today.

So what are we prepared to do if the time should come? The soul searching we need to do is just how far secularism has influenced us, such that culture, government, and being Christian are just all one for us, with the affect that we will go along with public policy without question no matter its impact on the practice of our Christian faith. They are not one when Jesus is Lord, but government action imposes on our being faithful to Jesus with respect to Christian practice.

In any event, let us not be afraid. Jesus is risen. He is Lord. The good news of grace and mercy and peace from God in Jesus has come from death into life. The forgiveness of sins is accomplished. He is the source of the strength of faith within even when the external circumstances around us are crumbling, even when our lives are giving way. We have meaning purpose and joy from God that dispels fear and despair and meaninglessness. It is difficult to put this meaning, purpose, and joy into words. You know it, however, when Jesus comes into your ears and into your soul, just as the Apostles knew it.

Rejoice today O Christian and anyone who does not yet know Christ but is looking for His joy: rejoice, and hear His peace cast out fear. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia. He has overcome the world. Eternal life is yours in Him.



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