A Strange Church

By Paul Koch

I have realized that there are many texts from the Word of God that I call my favorite. But this one from John 20 is without a doubt my all time favorite text in Scripture. Okay, it’s at least in the top five. You see, it is an honest and powerful story that gives incredible comfort and encouragement to the church today. On the evening of that very first Easter day, the disciples of our Lord were locked away in hiding because they were afraid, and rightly so. Their teacher, their Lord, had just been unjustly tried and brutally beaten and crucified for all to see. Now sure, Peter and John had seen the empty tomb and Mary had proclaimed the incredible news that she had seen the risen Lord, but they were still processing it all. They were still trying to figure out what it all meant and what they were supposed to do next. Huddling together, locked away, seemed like a good idea.

And yet, into their fears and worries and confusion our Lord makes his appearance. He shows up in that locked room and he does something that appears to be both radical and irresponsible. This only begotten Son of God who had just taken up the sins of the world in his flesh, suffered and died for them all, who is now risen from the dead having justified his Father’s love, he turns the keys to the kingdom over to a bunch of confused and cowering disciples. This would be like giving the keys of a brand-new sports car to your 16-year-old son who just got his license for a night of fun with his friends. You can almost predict the wreck. You can see it’s inevitable arrival.

What Jesus does in that locked room is hand his mission over to his disciples. He has done all the hard work. He came and lived the perfect life and suffered the sinner’s death and rose from the dead, and now he tells his disciples what is to come. He says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” Now this is not a very comforting word. These disciples hiding away are to be sent out; not just sent in any old way but sent as the Father sent the Son. That sending took the shape of a cross. It was a way of suffering and weakness and sacrifice. So immediately they knew that the way they are going to go isn’t exactly the easy way. Then Jesus tells them the plan. He breaths on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; If you withhold forgiveness from any it is withheld.”

Now that is insane. Sure, he gives them the Holy Spirit, but these are still broken vessels, these are still faulty human beings that he sends out as he was sent. The plan that he tells them is that they are going to do the work. They are going to further the kingdom by proclaiming the forgiveness of sins that he has secured on Calvary’s cross. It is as St. Paul says elsewhere, “Faith comes by hearing.” By hearing the good news, by hearing the Word of forgiveness spoken into your sin and tragedy, you are forgiven. This is how the merits of the cross are going to be applied to the lives of the people. He says that if they forgive, then they are forgiven. If they do not forgive, if they remain in hiding, if they do not go forth, then forgiveness doesn’t go forth. If they do not forgive, then there is no forgiveness.

But doesn’t this seem a bit strange? Isn’t this a bizarre way to go forward? After all, these are the same guys that ran scared when he was arrested in the garden. They are the ones that denied him and left him to die alone on that cross. But this is how God works. This is how he begins his new church. He uses this group of disciples to speak his Word to others. And it works. The church grows. It isn’t the character or quality of the spokesman that does the trick but the power of the Word that brings forth faith and forgiveness in others.

This then has ramifications for us gathered together today. If this is how God is going to do his work, if this is the plan, then you are part of it. For you are his disciples and you too have been sent to proclaim the forgiveness of sins. This is when the church just gets stranger and stranger. For it may begin with disciples locked away in a room because they were afraid, but now it is extended to you: to your mouths, your words, your actions in this world. And consider for a moment who you are. Consider your station in life, what makes you qualified to proclaim the Gospel? Or better yet, I imagine you could come up with a whole list of things that would make you unqualified to be proclaimers of the Good News. There are the visible outward sins that might disqualify you. There are the personal issues that might keep you from being effective. There are the deep and secretive sins that would only make you feel like a fraud to be sent out as a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. Or perhaps, you might say that you don’t know enough or are not clever enough in your speech or a whole host of other excuses. And yet, it seems as if this is still the plan. Unless I missed something, he hasn’t given us another option.

Take a moment and look around. Look at those who sit beside you and in front of you today. Look at these crazy, flawed and beautiful people. This is the church. These people are the means by which the mission goes forward. I know, it’s insane, dangerous, even irresponsible. You may want to trade in your neighbor for something better. Perhaps someone who is a little more motivated, one who is eager to get out there and make a difference. Or perhaps you would like to be surrounded by someone a little less motivated. You know they want to lend a hand but just at a slower, less committed speed. Or maybe you don’t like the looks of the church or the way they dress or how they communicate. But this is it. This is the team assembled at this moment in time and at this place to proclaim the forgiveness of sins to a dying and lost world.

St. Paul gets the radical nature of this when he writes to the church in Corinth and says, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” (1 Cor. 1:20-21) Our God is not restricted to the powerful and the wise of the world. He isn’t limited by those who appear to have all the right boxes checked off the list, that things that make them the perfect candidates to be messengers of forgiveness. No, he sends his disciples, scared and confused. He sends his church, full of sinners one and all. He sends you, whom he calls sisters and brothers. And he sends you with all that you need, for he sends you with his Word.

See, this gathering here today is a testimony to the power of the Word. You are a people gathered and bound together by a common Word. That Word has delivered to you the gifts of Christ your Lord. The Word has been bound to the waters of your baptism washing you with the power of the Holy Spirit declaring you to be the children of God. That Word receives your confession of sins, when you confess that you have sinned in thought word and deed. That same Word of Christ declares to you that you are forgiven, forgiven in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. And if that wasn’t enough, that Word then binds itself to bread and wine and gathers you for a meal in which you eat and drink the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of all your sins. See, this Word is saturated in forgiveness and it has saturated you. Without your earning it, without your perfect life, without your own righteousness the Word of Christ has been richly given to you.

You then are called into service today. Fueled by the Spirit which you have been given, you are to go and carry on the mission. Everything that we do here as a church, everything we are about, is to speak that Word to others, to speak boldly and recklessly that you are forgiven in Christ alone. The church is a strange thing, to be sure. It is made up of strange people, but it is strong. And there is no need to remain hiding away. There is no need to fear the world about you. For you follow one who has risen, one who is victorious, one who has done the works so that you might now speak the Word. For just as you are forgiven, so now you can forgive others.