Sermon: The Gathered Church

I invite you to turn with me in your Bibles to John, chapter 20, verses 19 through 31. John is the four gospel account in the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We have been spending this Eastertide – this Easter season – listen to the resurrection appearances of Jesus. Last week, Mary Magdalene saw Jesus beside the tomb and heard him call her name. She ran and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord. We pick up the story that same day in the evening. It’s John 20, beginning in verse 19. But before we hear God’s word, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may your Word be our rule,

Your Holy Spirit our teacher,

and the glory of Christ our single concern. Amen.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” When he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 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 retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later, the disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God.” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believe you may have life in his name.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

The last time I stood before you in the sanctuary at Bethel and saw your beautiful faces was March 8. It has been a long two months. I continue to miss you all. I still know where each of you sits every single week, even though there are no names written on the pews. I still know who comes an hour early and who comes thirty seconds before worship begins. I miss us being together gathered in the house of God.

However, in this absence, my eyes and ears have been more attuned to the language of gathering, the language of together, the language of meeting in Scripture. It’s everywhere. God gathers Israel out of Egypt and leads them to the promised land, he gathers the exiles and brings them home. In the New Testament, Christ gathers twelve disciples and a whole company more. The church gathers in the temple, then gathers in the synagogue, then gathers in people’s homes in every city where Paul plants a church. At the end of all things, there will be a gathering of all the saints before the throne of God and at the marriage feast of the lamb.

In a world of social distancing, we begin to notice just how important gathering is to the way God works out his plan of salvation in the world. And in our passage this morning, we see the church gathering. The disciples are gathered in a house – a house with the doors shut, but still gathered in a house. A week later, they are again gathered in the house. This is a picture of the Church – disciples gathered in the house.

I hope you have been nourished and strengthened by God through your worship at home these last two months. I am incredibly grateful for the technology that enables me to share God’s word with you in your homes when we cannot gather. Thank the Lord for communication technology. Yet, Christ’s Church is a gathered people. We are the church when we are scattered in our homes and workplaces. But we are also, crucially and profoundly, the church when we are disciples gathered in the house of God.

This morning, we are going to look and listen to what the Lord is teaching us through this picture of the gathered disciples in John 20. Together, we will see what Christ does in the gathered church, who Christ gathers in his Church, and then, finally, why Christ gathers his church. What, Who, and then Why.

What does Christ do in the gathered Church? Note: Not, ‘What does the Church do?’ When it comes to the people of God, when it comes to the church, the most important questions is never first what we do, what kind of activity and program and purpose we have, but what God is doing. The church is not defined by its work, but by Christ’s work. The most important question is first what Christ does in, for, and through his church. There is a time and place for our activity, and we will get there. But the priority is always to the work of Christ. 

So what does Christ do in the gathered church? He brings his peace, then he sends and equips his church.

Christ brings his peace to his gathered Church. It’s verses 19 and 20: When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” When he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord

Jesus’ first words to his gathered church were the words, “Peace be with you.” This was far more than a greeting. Jesus speaks “Peace,” then shows them the wounds that brought them peace with God. It was a declaration of what Christ had accomplished for them.

In a few short weeks, Lord willing, I will have the joy and privilege of participating in the wedding of Charlene Vellenga and John Renkema. Now, there are a lot of words in a wedding. But there is one point in every wedding, where the minister stands and, having heard the vows, makes a proclamation, “I now pronounced you man and wife.” This is not just a statement of fact, but these words change something. Before those two will be John Renkema and Charlene Vellenga, then they will be John & Charlene Renkema. The words have power, they make something happen.

When Jesus comes near to the gathered disciples and says to them, “Peace be with you.” These words have power. Jesus is declaring what he has accomplished in his cross and resurrection – Peace. He speaks the words of peace, then shows them the wounds in his hands and his side, the marks of his cross. Because of the cross, Christ brings peace to his church. Peace with God.

The heart of salvation is peace with God. As sinners, we are war with God, cut off and embattled, until Christ’s cross and resurrection overcomes the hostility and reconciles us to God. This is why Paul can say of Christ, he himself is our peace – for Jew and Gentile – and  in one body [he has] reconcile[d] both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. (Ephesians 2:14,16) When Christ comes and says, “Peace be with you,” he is declaring the heart of salvation, where through his cross and resurrection the lost are found, and enemies reconciled, and the scattered gathered into the Father’s house.

Do you need peace? Do you have a burden of sin that you cannot unload? Are you sinking down underneath its weight, cut off and distant from God? Come to the church. For it is there that Christ speaks his peace and shows himself marked by the nails of his cross. It is in the church that the declaration of peace is read out week after week, read out with the authority of Christ, “Peace be with you.” It is in the church that the salvation message rings every week to the weary and wounded in need of the peace of the Saviour. What does Christ do in the gathered Church? He brings his peace.

But he also sends his church. It’s verse 21: Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Christ gathers and scatters his church. He calls us into the house and sends us out into the world. But we go at his direction. We go where he calls. And the sending of the church echoes and mirrors the sending of Christ by the Father. Christ was sent into the world to bring peace and walk in obedience to the Father. Christians are sent into the world to proclaim Christ’s peace and walk in obedience to Christ.

This is the state of the church right now. We cannot gather in person. We gather in the name of Christ this Lord’s Day, trusting in the Holy Spirit to unite us as one body even as we are separated. But most of our days and most of our life, we live as those sent and scattered to the world. We live as those whom Christ has sent into homes and school, factories and grocery stores.

If you weary of being separated, I am with you in this. But even as we groan to gather as disciples in the house of God, this season is also a time to hear again Jesus’ words to his gathered church. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” You are sent by Christ himself. Your home filled with people sometimes difficult to love, Christ sent you there. Your work with everyone two meters apart and anxious, Christ sent you there. Your neighborhood, your empty home, your endless zoom calls, Christ sent you there. This season of separation should awaken us to the truth that Christ sends his gathered church.

But he does not send us alone and unaided. Christ brings his peace to his church, Christ sends his church, and Christ equips his gathered church. It’s verses 22-23: 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 retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Christ sends his church equipped with the Holy Spirit and forgiveness. The power that sustains the church, the strength that enables us to go where Christ sends us and to proclaim his peace is not found in ourselves. It is not a matter of doubling down on commitment or mustering up enough passion or ingenuity. It is found in the Holy Spirit.

Jesus breaths on his disciples and they receive the very Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, God himself the third person of the Trinity. When Christ sends his church he sends them filled with the Holy Spirit, indwelled by God himself. Even if the Christian must go alone, they are never alone. God himself goes with them.

And having been filled with the Holy Spirit, the Christian goes with the power of forgiveness. To give or withhold forgiveness is the only power given to the church here by Christ. It is a spiritual power. That does not mean it is weaker or less real. Christ sends his church filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered to proclaim and hold forth the forgiveness found in Jesus Christ. We do not face the powers of this world with bombs and battering rams, but with the forgiveness of sins. We are not called to take up the sword and conquer for Christ, but to lift high the cross.

It might not seem like much. In a world changed by COVID, in a world of wealth and power, of virus and violence, the Holy Spirit and forgiveness might not seem like worthy weapons for the struggle. Yet this is how Christ equips his church. He gives her peace and sends her out equipped with just such weapons as she will need: the Holy Spirit and forgiveness.

The spiritual power of forgiveness is far greater than any weapons of violence. The strength of the Holy Spirit is greater than any army. When Christ first spoke these words to his gathered church, they were a few dozen hiding locked in a room out of fear. They were a few dozen in a world of Roman strength, Roman violence, Roman butchery. Eventually, as this gathered church was sent out into the Roman world, Rome would exert her might to crush the church, to persecute and stamp out the church, but it was not those filled with Spirit and sent with forgiveness who would ultimately be conquered. Though many of our brothers and sisters died for the sake of the name of Jesus, in a few centuries, it was the might of Rome that was broken, not the church. Those equipped with only the weapons of Spirit and forgiveness were given a spiritual power that overthrew and converted the strongest empire the world had known.

Christ sends his church equipped with the same weapons today. We go filled and strengthened by the Holy Spirit and we go with forgiveness. We go proclaiming that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. In doing so, we have been given more than enough for the struggle.

John 20 is a picture of the gathered Church – the disciples gathered in the house. At the center of this picture is the activity of Jesus. What does Christ do in this gathered church? Then, as now, Christ comes and brings peace to his church. We who were enemies of God have been brought near through the blood of Christ. The church is where the presence of Christ and proclamation of the cross are made known.

Then, as now, Christ sends his church and sends her equipped with the Holy Spirit and forgiveness, the very power of God for the salvation of sinners.

But who exactly is this gathered church? Jesus came and spoke to the gathered disciples, comes and speaks to us, but who were these people? Who are the people Christ gathers into his church?

Christ gathers witnesses, doubters, and worshippers in his church. First, he gathers witnesses. In this first appearance to the disciples, it turns out not everyone was there. Thomas was not. We don’t know where he was or what he was doing, only that he was not gathered with the church when Christ came to speak with them. So, in verse 25, we see the response of the other disciples. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” Thomas had not seen, had not been there, so the rest of the disciples tell him. Their excitement over encountering the risen Jesus is contagious. They cannot help but tell him. They want Thomas to know too. They want Thomas to believe as well. They witness to Christ.

When Christ gathers his church, he gathers witnesses. He gathers people who have seen and heard, who have come to know the risen Christ and who share him with others. He gathers people who have tasted and seen that the Lord is good and invite others to do the same. He gathers people who follow Christ, belong to Christ, have faith in Christ, and are so overjoyed by this and filled with such compassion for their neighbors that they cannot help but share. In short, when Jesus gathers his church, he gathered witnesses.

But that’s not the whole story. Thomas doesn’t believe their story. He doubts. He claims to need first-hand proof – to see the holes in Jesus’ hands and even put his fingers in it before he would believe it was true.

Thomas doubts, and yet Thomas was gathered into the church. When Christ gathers his church, he gathers doubters as well. As far as we know, no one makes fun of Thomas for his questions. No one tells him that it was foolish or inappropriate to struggle. No one tried to kick him out. Instead, he simply stays with the rest of the disciples. They have patience with him in his doubts. We are told that A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. A full week before Jesus shows up again and Thomas is still with them.

Christ has room for doubters in his church. He has patience and space for those who struggle and question. Even as we clearly teach the truths of Scripture and proclaim the gospel of Christ, we should not seek to remove the questions or crush the doubters. Instead, like those first disciples, we should bear patiently as we wait for the risen Christ to do his work.

For Thomas, Christ shows up and speaks peace again. He invites Thomas to do just as he desired – to see his hands and side, touch him and see his resurrection for truth. Yet, Thomas doesn’t. At seeing the face of the risen Christ, he simply says, “My Lord and my God.” He worships.

This is the last group Christ gathers in his church – the worshippers. Thomas’ response is the right one to beholding the risen Jesus: Worship. When we come to know Christ, our proper response is to worship. “My Lord and my God!” When Thomas finally comes to believe, Jesus proclaims “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Those who do not see the marks of the nails and yet come to believe – that is the church. Following Christ’s ascension all Christians are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. It is the church, believing in the risen Christ, who gathers to worship. It is we who proclaim with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” without having seen, and whom Christ calls blessed.

When Christ gathers his church, he gathers witnesses like the other disciples, doubters like Thomas, and worshippers like all of them. Maybe you identify really closely with one of these types of people Christ chooses to gather. You have always felt a joy to tell of Christ, or you consistently struggle with doubts and questions, or you center your life around worship. Or perhaps you aren’t sure because you feel a bit like all three from time to time. You feel a bit jumbled and mixed up on where exactly you fit in the church. If you are hearing this message and a fire burns within you for the lost in your family, in your neighborhood, in your community, come to the church. It is here where you are sent, equipped, and empowered by the risen Christ to share his name. If you are hearing this message and long to sing the praises of our almighty God, sing and come. Come to the church, where the gathered people praise the name of the one true God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If you are hearing this message and aren’t sure if any of this is true, Christ is patient. Come to the church, come with your questions and our hope and prayer is that you will hear the voice of the risen Christ. If you are any or all three, come to the church, for it is here where Christ gathers his people, even you.

In the short time we have left, I want us to look briefly at verses 30 and 31 to hear why Christ gathers his church. We have touched on it a bit throughout as we saw what Christ does in the church and who he gathers in the church, but it is so clear and beautiful here that it is good for us to see it.

Christ gathers his church so that what is written is proclaimed, what is proclaimed is believed, and what is believed gives life. Verses 30 and 31: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believe you may have life in his name.

After recording the words of Jesus to the disciples, John – the gospel writer – turns toward us, toward those hearing the message. He tells us there was so much more he could have written, but these were written for a reason. They were written to be known, to be proclaimed. Why does Christ gather his church? So that this book, not just the gospel of John, but the whole of Scripture, would be read and proclaimed. Very simply, these stories were written down so that they would be read aloud in the church. They were written for us – for those who were not there, but who would come to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.

But there is a specific reason for these stories: But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. That is why the gospels were written. Not so that we would know more information about Jesus, learn about first century Judaism, or have interesting philosophical discussions. They were written so that we might hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and believe the truth – that he is the Messiah, the Son of God.

and that through believe you may have life in his name. This is the result of faith in Jesus Christ. When we believe in him, we have life in his name. Not just a transformed life here and now, but eternal life with God in Christ by the Spirit.

As a result of this virus and some of the tragic events in the life of the church, Riah has been talking a lot about what she is going to happen when she dies. She told me the other night that she would stop talking when she died, but when she was alive again, she would call for her mommy. I didn’t exactly know what she was talking about, but I sensed the Spirit nudging me. So I asked her, “When you die, do you want to be with Jesus?” “Yes” “Do you know how to know that you will be with Jesus when you die?” “No.” “If you believe in Jesus, believe that he died on the cross for your sins and trust him to save you, you will be with Jesus when you die.”

But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. As Olga and I went to bed, we prayed that the seeds planted that night would grow into true faith in Christ.

John 20 is a picture of the gathered Church. Christ gathers his church in order to do something. He proclaims peace through his cross. He sends his church and he equips her with the Holy Spirit and forgiveness. The same thing he has been doing down through the ages and does to this day. Christ gathers his church, including in it the witnesses, the doubters, and the worshippers – and all of us in between. Christ gathers his church for a purpose – so that what is written would be proclaimed, what is proclaimed would be believed, and what is believed would give life.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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