We spent the season of Lent learning about prayer and, hopefully, practicing prayer. Pastor Jim Cymbala talked about the prayer meetings that happen every week at the Brooklyn Tabernacle Church that he pastors; he talked about how powerfully the Holy Spirit shows up. We heard testimonies from people whose lives had been completely transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit—a power that they accessed through prayer.
Some of you who attended those Wednesday night services have shared with me about how meaningful they were to you, about how much you enjoyed them. I’d like all of you who were there to think about what it was that you liked about them. Was it the fellowship that we shared at our tables? Was it the messages on prayer that we heard from Pastor Jim Cymbala? Was it the opportunity to pray together with brothers and sisters in Christ? Was it the snacks?
In January I called for 2019 to be a year of prayer. A year in which we truly become a people of prayer. From all that I’ve heard or read about the Brooklyn Tabernacle Church, it is a house of prayer. And while we are perhaps growing in prayer, we are still far from truly being a house of prayer.
Sometimes when I’ve said this in the past, some of you tell me, “We know how to pray. We’ve always known how to pray.” Others of you say, “We don’t need to come to prayer meetings. We can pray at home. We do pray at home. And God answers our prayers.”
And this is good. Because of course you should pray at other times—the apostle Paul wrote in I Thessalonians 5:17 that we are to “pray without ceasing.”
But if you think that gathering together for prayer and worship isn’t important—really important—you’re missing something really important.
Last Sunday, we saw Mary Magdalene come early on Easter morning to the tomb where Jesus’ dead body had been laid. When she discovered that the tomb was empty, she ran to tell Peter and John, who then ran to the tomb. Peter looked, saw that the tomb was empty—and went home. And John (who’s the writer of this gospel) tells us that he, too, looked inside the tomb and that when he did, “he saw and believed” (John 20:8). And he went home.
Went home? What’s that all about? They discover that the tomb really is empty—and they just go home.
We don’t know why. We do know that by Easter evening they’re together with the other disciples in the upper room—with the doors locked because they’re so afraid of the Jews. The picture we get shows us that Peter and John and the others don’t know what to think. They’re afraid—we’d probably be afraid, too, if we buried someone and then came back a couple of days later and discovered that they weren’t buried anymore. For Peter and John, the grave clothes still lying in the tomb, apparently in the same position they would have been when they surrounded the body of Jesus, was evidence that something more than robbery had occurred.
Something had changed—Jesus had told them, more than once, that after He died He would rise from the dead. But He hadn’t really told them much about what would happen after that. He’d said some things about sending a Helper and about the Spirit of truth—but they didn’t understand. How could they? So maybe on that Easter morning Peter and John went home to try to make sense of it all. And then maybe they went back to join the others to share what they had seen as they continued to try to make sense of it.
And then suddenly Jesus was there in their midst—in a locked room where nobody had opened the door. Jesus appears saying, “Peace be with you.” He shows them His hands and His side because apparently He looked different enough that they might not have recognized Him otherwise. He tells them, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21). Then He breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). They still don’t understand. Because when Jesus returns a week later, they’re still in that room and the doors are still locked.
Maybe even more afraid than they were before. Because when Jesus appeared, He said, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21).
For three years, the disciples had followed Jesus. Followed Him, been amazed by His Words and by His power. They’d come to the conclusion that He was indeed the long-awaited Messiah. But they were still far from understanding who Jesus was and why He had come. They’re still expecting an earthly king who will restore the nation of Israel to the Jewish people. In Acts 1:6, forty days after Easter, as Jesus is preparing to ascend back up to heaven, they ask Him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”
No wonder they’re confused. No wonder at the tomb Peter and John don’t know what to think. Just days earlier, Jesus had raised His friend Lazarus from the tomb—but Lazarus came out still wrapped in the grave clothes. Came out with the same body that had gone into the tomb.
But the Jesus who stood in that locked room was not the same Jesus who’d been laid in the tomb. He still had holes in His hands and His feet and His side, but everything else was different. So different that no one immediately recognized Him.
And a week later when Jesus comes again, they’re still locked in that room. Still afraid. Could it be that a large part of their fear came from the fact that this isn’t at all what they were expecting? They were expecting Jesus to continue to lead them—and not only them, but the entire nation of Israel. To use His miraculous powers to defeat Rome the way that God worked through Moses to defeat Egypt so many years earlier.
Can’t you just picture them on that first Easter after Jesus disappeared from their midst. “Did He really say, ‘As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you’”? “Do you think He was serious?” “We don’t know how to do what He did.” “Remember when we tried to cast the demon out of that boy and we couldn’t do it? And then Jesus showed up and just did it?” “And remember that storm where we would have drowned if Jesus hadn’t showed up and made it just stop?” “And what about the time when He told us to get food for those 5000 people?”
Send them? To do the things that Jesus did? That would never work.
We shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that they found the idea of doing what Jesus did to be terrifying. We’re just like them. They were just ordinary men and women like you and me. Ordinary men and women whose lives had already been changed by Jesus—but who were now facing the prospect of even more change. Facing it without any idea of where Jesus would be or what He’d be doing.
Most of us don’t even like change—especially when the change is largely unknown. When I talk to you about going to Estonia, the response I almost always get is, “I don’t know what I’ll be expected to do.” Fear of the unknown.
But it’s not just that. It’s also that many of us look at what’s going on in our day-to-day lives right now: raising children, being a part of the lives of our grandchildren, going to work every day often with long hours and stressful circumstances; and then there’s spring yard work to be done and gardens to be planted—not to mention laundry to do and garages to clean groceries to buy and all those other things on our seemingly endless “to do” lists. And we get so caught up in the busyness of life that we think these are the things that matter, the reason for our lives. Some of us even think that we do all these things, we work our stressful jobs mainly to gather enough resources to not work—to retire.
Now of course we want God in our lives—we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t. But sometimes having a relationship with God can seem like just one more thing to try to fit into an already overscheduled life. Prayer, reading the Bible—these things take time. But there might also be fear—because if we start to really talk to God, He might talk back. He might tell us to do things we don’t want to do. He might say, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21).
Did you know that a study showed that the greatest fear Christians have of giving over control of their lives to God is that He’ll immediately send them to Africa?
So we’re afraid—we’re just like those disciples locked in that upper room. We’re locked in our own little boxes, afraid of what might happen if we really let God take control of our lives—who knows what crazy things He might expect us to do? We’re happy to know that He cares about the little things in our lives—that when we remember to pray, He’ll show us where we put our car keys. Maybe even heal our friend or family member who’s battling cancer or some other serious illness. But let Him be in charge?
Brothers and sisters in Christ, on that first Easter Peter and John and the rest of the disciples might have been confused about what the resurrection of Jesus Christ meant for them and for the world—but their confusion was temporary. Fifty days after Easter, they’d thrown away their fear and were boldly—and fearlessly—going out to change the world.
They watched Jesus ascend up into heaven and they knew that now it was up to them. They weren’t sure just exactly what that meant—so they did the only thing they could do. Acts 1:12-14 tells us that “They returned to … the upper room, where they were staying, … and devoted themselves to prayer.”
For ten days they prayed and then God sent the Holy Spirit. When that happened, they understood their mission: “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21). They went out and did all the things that Jesus Himself had done. They preached the gospel, they healed the sick, they cast out demons. And, as we heard in our reading from Acts, “more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (Acts 5:14).
Did they still have things to do? Families to care for, children to raise, food to grow or fish to catch, homes to maintain? Of course they did. But we don’t hear much about any of those things because they were no longer the primary focus of their lives. Because now they understood the purpose of the resurrection.
You and I, however, have forgotten the purpose of the resurrection—if we ever really knew it. We’re forgotten the purpose of prayer.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, It’s impossible to read and study the Bible without seeing that from the very beginning of the human experience, with its fall into sin, our Creator God planned for His Son to take on our human nature for the purpose of preparing us for an unimaginably glorious eternal future. This is what Jesus did in His life, His death and His resurrection. When He appeared in that locked room on that first Easter evening, it was to give His disciples His peace in order that they might then go out to do His work in the world. By definition, disciples of Jesus are people who are sent to fulfill the mission of Jesus. Mission is the activity of the church. The church doesn’t send out missionaries, the church is composed of missionaries.
The book of Revelation was written to remind us that the story isn’t over. Jesus is going to return. If the whole purpose of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ was about granting us forgiveness of our sins, the world could have ended then.
But it’s 2000 years later and Jesus hasn’t returned—why not? Do you ever wonder about that?
In His life here on earth, Jesus was limited to one place. He couldn’t be in Jerusalem and India and China and Russia and Iowa at the same time. But now, by putting His Spirit into men and women, beginning with the 120 who were praying together in that upper room. He could reach many more people to tell them the good news of the Gospel.
Jesus told His disciples in John 12:24 “Unless a grain of what falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Jesus died and was buried, in order that He might bear much fruit. He went on to say in John 12, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Jesus wasn’t saying that we literally have to hate our lives in this world. He is saying that we need to understand that we have been created for much more than just to go through life focused on earthly things—even when those things are good.
“As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”
We have been given the unimaginably great gift of being representatives of Jesus in the world—and according to Him, our mission involves both telling and caring. For Jesus, word and action went together. Jesus was both a preacher and a healer.
Our gospel reading tells us that “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.’”
Later, in Acts 1:8, Jesus says to them, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Both of these statements make it clear that the primary purpose for which the Spirit is given is for the purpose of fulfilling Jesus’ mission—that we be His witnesses to the ends of the earth.
Thomas isn’t there when Jesus appears the first time; he’s not there when Jesus breathes on them and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit—nevertheless he’s the first one to confess Jesus as Lord and God, a confession that no one can make without the help of the Holy Spirit. So it would appear that Jesus’ breathing of the Spirit on that first Easter wasn’t just for those present, but that it was instead being unleashed into the world in a new way that begins to bring life wherever faith exists.
And because the disciples continue to remain hidden behind locked doors, it’s clear that this breathing of the Holy Spirit isn’t the infilling that they’ll receive at Pentecost. Indeed it cannot be, because Jesus said that the Spirit could not come until He Himself returned to heaven. Rather, the picture that we see here reminds us of Ezekiel 37, where Ezekiel is called to breathe into the men of Israel in order that they might live. Jesus is mobilizing not just a new people, but a new army.
“As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”
Christians aren’t called to live just like everybody else, only a little bit better—adding in church on Sunday and maybe a Bible study during the week and perhaps some good deeds or a donation to mission now and then. The Christian life was never intended to be about the business of self-improvement—it has always been about the business of reaching out to others with the love of Christ.
Jesus’ vision was never of a multitude of inspired individuals each acting independently out of his or her independent encounter with the risen One. It was never about doing life like everybody else but just having some “God time” added in now and then. Jesus’ plan was a community bound together by their common participation in the Holy Spirit, a people sent forth to gather His “other sheep” from every corner of the world. A people living together in community, a people who have “all things in common.”
An encounter with the living God occurs in each one of us individually; this is where faith is born. The Church, the community, of the living Christ is where that faith grows and matures.
God sent His Son, in His incarnate life to show us what the mission looks like. Then the life of the risen Son was to continue through His people. Jesus was commissioning His disciples to carry on what He had started, not to begin something new.
More than 40 times in the Gospel, Jesus is said to have been sent by God and now this is to become the characteristic of His disciples also.
So how do you sit at home and pray and consider that being sent anywhere? How do you sit at home and worship God and consider yourself to be a part of a community? And how do you look different to the unsaved people of the world if you don’t go into the world? If you think that your relationship with God is primarily a private one, one that you don’t take with you into your world of work or social relationships, you don’t really know God. And you surely don’t understand the resurrection.
In Jesus’ lengthy prayer, recorded in John 17, Jesus says, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (17:20-21). And “that they may become perfectly one” (17:23).
How can God’s people “all be one” if we’re not connected to one another in the Body, the Church?
Certainly Jesus died that our sins might be forgiven, but nowhere does Scripture say that this is the only reason He died. Nowhere does it say that it’s even the primary reason why He died. You have only to read chapter 20 of John’s gospel to see that the emphasis is upon building a new community. It is entering into the community and maintaining the health of the community and its members that is a part of our mission. Because the life of the community is a major aspect of our witness to the world. Even the fact that your car is parked outside a church on Sunday morning is a witness to others. It is through unity with God and with one another that the world is confronted with the truth about the Father and the Son. It is the bond of the Holy Spirit in community that makes us different—that makes outsiders look on with amazement and begin, perhaps, to want to be a part of the community.
All of this only happens when we’re united in prayer—because prayer is the way we access the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s why prayer meetings matter. Jesus, when asked by His disciples to teach them to pray, began with the words, “Our Father.” Not “My Father”—but our Father. And on that Easter morning, when He sent Mary Magdalene to be the very first witness, He told her to tell His brothers, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Ascending to “our Father.”
The apostle Paul, when writing to Timothy to advise him as to how to protect his congregation from false teachings and all the other things that can tear them apart, writes, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life … This is good … and pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:1-4).
We are to pray for all people—we are to pray that all people be saved. And we are to do it first of all. Not as an add-in when we have time. First of all. And pray for “all people.” Not just for people we know, not just for our own families—but for all people.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, may we pray without ceasing. May we begin to come together regularly to pray together for all people. May we begin to truly access the power of the Holy Spirit to change the world wherever God has planted us. And may each one of us realize that being born into the world in this post-resurrection era is about the great gift of being invited to prepare others for an unimaginably glorious eternal future. Thanks be to God.