Easter I (One-Year Historic)
The gospels give us very few direct looks into the inner life of the disciples. We do not hear their unspoken thoughts except the couple of times Christ speaks of them or the evangelists share them. They give us plenty of hints though. Details are shared that help us know what happened inside these men and women who first met our Lord.
For instance Peter’s despair and guilt for his sins is palpable when he first met Jesus and cried, “Away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8) The great draught of fish woke him up to the holiness of the man who stood before him. We can relate to the women’s fear and desperation as they were bewildered by the empty tomb of their Lord (Mark 16:8). Mary Magadalene at first thought someone had taken Jesus’ body (John 20:1ff.). We can relate to her weeping. Just think of how scary and upsetting it would be if you came to a loved one’s grave to find the body exhumed by who knows who.
The gospel lesson for the 2nd week of Easter summarizes the disciple’s inner-life with a single word, “fear”. John recounts that they locked themselves away “for fear of the Jews.” Peter and John had seen the empty tomb for themselves. Mary had likely told them she had seen the Lord. Still, they were afraid. They were afraid they’d meet the same demise as Jesus. They were afraid because of the confusing and impossible news of the empty tomb and the resurrected Lord. So, they shut the doors tight and locked themselves away. John should know how things went since he was there. He says these “heroes of the faith” were panicked yellow cowards full of unbelief, insecurity, and fear of what the future held.
The locked doors are a literal reality, but they also point out something. These men had locked themselves into a spiritual prison as well. They were being controlled by fear; fear of judgment, fear of enemies, and fear of death. If they had feared God things would be very different.
It’s into this pitiful scene that Jesus enters. The reader is bound to wonder how Jesus will behave. What will he say? Will he tell them to stop their sniveling and be men! Will he condemn them for their unbelief and cowardice? Imagine what they must have expected. Peter had denied the Lord three times, the rest, save John, had absented themselves from his crucifixion. They were guilty sinners.
Our Lord though sees them as they are: bruised reeds and smoldering wicks tossed about by sin, death, and the devil (Isaiah 42:3; Matthew 12:20). Rather than reproving them Jesus restores them. Rather than receiving judgment they are absolved. “Peace be with you.” “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Jesus does not turn their fear to bravery and their unbelief to faith by lecturing them. He does not harangue them with the Law to get them to behave. Rather, he heals their wounds with words of forgiveness and mercy. He applies the forgiveness and mercy that he had won by dying for sin and rising again in victory. In short, Jesus loved them.
This moment left such an indelible mark on John the beloved disciple that he chose to write it down. In theological reflection later he would write, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” (1 John 4:18) Jesus’ perfect love casts out fear. Fear comes from the threat of punishment, but Jesus’ love has everything to do with forgiveness that our fears will be cast out. There Jesus stood with the disciples showing the nail and spear wounds that bought them their peace and all he has to speak of is forgiveness. He institutes the sacrament of Holy Absolution and gives the apostles (the first pastors) the responsibility of proclaiming this forgiveness to the all the world that is trapped and locked behind doors of sin, suffering, fear, and death.
The ESV and other translations make a difficult call with our Lord’s words here. The more literal translation is, “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven. If you bind forgiveness, it is bound.” Grammatically this binding could mean a kind of withholding forgiveness from someone, but the plainer meaning of “to bind” is to attach something. In this case many theologians conclude the better translation is that the disciples are called to “bind” forgiveness to people, to wrap them in it, and restore them to peace with God. This is just what Jesus was doing with the disciples at that moment—binding them with his forgiveness!
That is what Christ is constantly doing for you. He is wrapping you with forgiveness. Every time you hear his Word, every time you eat his body, and drink his blood, every time your pastor absolves you, Jesus is binding his forgiveness to you. He’s giving you the peace that he won for you upon the cross and in his resurrection again and again.
Do you fear? I do, not always, but sometimes I do. If I think deeply on the future, my concerns for my children, my niece, and family, and so many other things, I can become worried. What casts out this fear? Only the perfect love of the savior who forgives our sins and by his resurrection promises us that nothing in our past, nothing in our present, or future can separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39). At times we are smoldering wicks and bruised reeds like the disciples were. Yet, when time came the Holy Spirit lead them to bravely confess Christ in the face of opposition and even death. The thing which made them bold was the very same thing that came to them when they were afraid—perfect love, Jesus the Savior himself. Wrapped with forgiveness Jesus’ love will make us brave too.
“Cast your burdens upon the Lord and he will sustain you. He will not suffer the righteous to fall.” (Psalm 55:22; cf. 1 Peter 5:7)
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.
SDG-Rev. Eric M. Estes