April 05, 2021
The Easter 2B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 20:19-31 from the Lectionary Gospel; Acts 4:32-35 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 133 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 John1:1-2:2 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 84 (Lord’s Day 31)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Don’t you hate it when you make one mistake and it defines you from then on out?! One little mistake and Thomas becomes a morality lesson, a byword, a counter-example of anything we’d ever want to be. In truth, however, there is more than a little of Thomas in all of us.
When Thomas was first told about the meeting with Jesus that he had missed, he was understandably guarded. The notion that a dead man was back alive again was not exactly something you grabbed hold of and easily believed in a minute or two, not today and not 2,000 years ago, either. Modern scholars sometimes peg the disciples as such naïve bumpkins that they’d believe anything.
They knew the dead stayed dead and this was not a fact you revised on a whim. So Thomas plays it safe but also then speculates aloud as to what it might take for him to believe this after all. As he talks, his rhetoric gets more and more exaggerated. “My friends, I’d have to see with my own eyes the nail holes in his hands. No, tell you what, I’d need to touch those holes with my own finger. Better yet, I’d want to stick my whole hand right into his side where the sword pierced him!” One more sentence and Thomas would have been offering to stick his whole head into Jesus’ allegedly raised body. His words seemed calculated to induce some eye-rolling. Call him “Cheeky Thomas” at this point perhaps!
Of course, once he does meet Jesus, all that evaporates. Kind of quickly!
It reminds me of when I met Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign. In our house we always referred to him as “Barack” and I was sure that if I met him, I’d want to call him by name. Well, when I did meet him, that went away in an instant and I fumbled even to get out the words “Senator” and “Sir” every time I addressed him in my fairly brief encounter. When you’re face to face with the real deal, things feel different.
Things felt different for Thomas, too. No way was he going to do—or even ask to do—what he said he was going to do. But he did believe. The evidence was right in front of him in ways the rest of us now don’t have. But it’s still faith that leads the way to the truth of it all.
To paraphrase a traditional aphorism, if you don’t have faith, then there will never be evidence enough to convince you, and if you do have faith, no evidence is needed.
Without faith, no evidence is sufficient; with faith, no evidence is necessary.
And although most of us probably agree with that in principle, we can perhaps admit that sometimes we are still hungry for a little evidence, or a little more evidence than we usually have.
Jesus himself knows that faith is both a blessing and a miracle. That’s why he says in verse 29 that while it was one thing for Thomas to believe with Jesus standing right in front of him, it would one day be quite another thing to believe without such undeniable physical proof standing in the same room.
But John at least seems confident that he has given us enough for just such faith to be born. And just to be sure we get it, John breaks down what in theater and movies is called “the fourth wall.” One of the most difficult disciplines that film actors need to learn is to resist the temptation to look directly at the camera (or in a play to cut their eyes in the direction of the audience, which they are supposed to pretend is not there). If they do this, the gig is up. They break the magic spell of this being “real” in some sense—they remove the fourth wall by acknowledging there are only three actual walls and the other one is missing so viewers can peer in. If you’ve ever watched amateur video productions, then you know that one of the main things that distinguishes amateur work from professional films is that you can often spy one of the people in the scene cutting their eyes in the direction of the camera. It’s hard to resist!
Occasionally, of course, having an actor intentionally look at the camera is done for humorous effect. It becomes like an inside joke between the actor and the audience. (Here is a classic example from the movie Trading Places where Eddie Murphy looks at the camera to indicate his incredulity at being condescended to by another character in the film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emvySA1-3t8 ).
But at the end of John 20 (and he will reprise it at the end of John 21) John steps out of the drama he is narrating to look his readers straight in the eye. “Now listen, friends: I have left out a ton. Jesus said and did lots of other really amazing things that I just have not gotten around to even mentioning. But what I have given you is enough. Read it and believe!”
Sometimes we may find ourselves wanting more, but by faith we need to be satisfied with enough, which is exactly what our God in Christ gives us. Thanks be to God for enough.
There is a curious textual dispute concerning the tense of the verb “to believe” in John 20:31. Textual critics seem to be divided between those who think this is an aorist subjective (which would mean “so that you may believe”) or a present subjunctive (which would have the sense of “so that you may keep on believing”). Obviously the choice one makes has something to say about the audience one envisions here. If John is writing to a missionary context in which the potential readers of this gospel are not yet believers, then the aorist would make sense: John is trying to generate faith.
But if John is writing to an established Christian community, then the present tense makes sense in that he is furthering and bolstering a faith already present. If you consult the critical apparatus of the text, you see that the present subjunctive may well be the better attested in early manuscripts, including Codex Vaticanus and Parchment 66 but the aorist version can call some heavy early manuscript hitters to its side, too, including Alexandrinus and certain versions of Sinaiticus. Most translations skirt the issue by translating it “that you may believe” which could go either way. This may be similar to how in an Assurance of Pardon we pastors may say to the congregation, “Believe the Gospel—your sins are forgiven!” knowing that some who hear those words have believed that for a long time already and are now re-celebrating that belief even as some who maybe have not believed before could be called to faith via that same expression. Maybe that ambiguity works in also John 20:31. Those who believe find their faith deepened each time they read this gospel but those who have not known Jesus as Messiah before may well come to belief via that same gospel witness.
When I was a kid, my father read the end of John 20 at the dinner table one night for our family devotions. After he read the part about Jesus’ telling Thomas that there would be lots of people who would not see him but who would still believe in him anyway, my mother commented, “Jesus means us. He’s talking about us. We’ve never seen him the way the disciples did, but he is our Savior and we believe in him. Jesus is talking about us.”
All these years later, I can still remember marveling a bit over a thought that tantalized my young heart: I am in the Bible! Little Scott Hoezee of Ada, Michigan, is in the Bible!
A few years later when I ran across that same passage in high school, I realized that my mom might have been guilty of a little rhetorical excess. No, I am not in the Bible. Not specifically, not personally, not really. That’s the kind of thing a naïve kid thinks. And when I was a child, I thought like a child and reasoned like a child but now . . .
Then a few more years passed. I entered Seminary and began to understand a few things about the divine inspiration of Scripture, about how the Word of God is alive, living, vibrant, sharper than a two-edged sword and cutting clean to the bone of those who read that Word. I began to understand that the living God really can and does encounter his people through his Word and that he’d been doing just that to countless millions of people across the millennia. And so when the evangelist John turns to the reader to say, “These are written that you may believe,” by the Holy Spirit, that is a direct and living address to me as the reader. Maybe all of us are, maybe each of us is, really in the Bible after all. I am in the Bible. This is my story.
And all God’s people said, “Cool.”
Author: Stan Mast
Very early in my preaching ministry, I was producing one theological/exegetical masterpiece after another (in my own mind). My wife wasn’t so convinced. She put up with it for about a month, when she nailed me with this simple question. “So what? What difference does all that make?”
In the Old Testament (?) readings for the Easter season, the RCL answers that question about Christ’s resurrection by taking us through the post-Easter story as told in the book of Acts. So, one man dies and allegedly rises from the dead. So what? What difference does that make? Was it a one-off miraculous event, after which the world pretty much went on as before? Or did it make a difference that could be observed in the world?
Our reading for today shows us perhaps the most astonishing visible difference Easter made. In fact, were I to preach on it, I might entitle my sermon, “The Second Greatest Easter Miracle.” The first, of course, was the resurrection of Jesus. Others might argue that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was the second, but I think that Pentecost was a miracle in its own right. Still others might nominate the conversion of 3000 people in response to Peter’s preaching of the Risen Christ, or the healing of the crippled beggar in Christ’s name, or the apostles’ courage under fire and the subsequent conversion of 2000 more. All of those events were incredible events tied directly to Easter.
But they all issued into this impossible miracle in our reading. Because of Christ’s resurrection, the Holy Spirit created a radical community characterized by sacrificial giving. That community demonstrated and initiated what God was trying to accomplish in the person and work of the Resurrected One. Let’s consider it carefully.
The opening line seems ridiculous on its face. “All the believers were one in heart and mind.” Can you imagine such a thing in our splintered society or even in our equally conflicted churches? “All the believers!” See Acts 2:5-11 for the guest list. “All the believers” were people from all over the Roman empire—from Rome itself and all its subject nations, from Asia and Africa, from rough and tumble Crete and sophisticated Egypt, Jews and non-Jews, including Arabs, rich and poor—a virtual United Nations.
And that’s the point—they were united, “one in heart and mind.” Can you imagine that? They are from different countries, speak different languages, belong to different classes, come from different educational backgrounds, hold different political persuasions. And now, because of Christ’s resurrection and the work of the Holy Spirit they are one in heart and mind. How can that be? How could they all think the same?
Well, here the original language helps us a bit. They were “one in kardia (heart) and psyche (soul, not mind).” They did not think the same about everything; they did not leave all their previous ideas at the church door. But in spite of their social and political and national and language differences, they were one in heart and soul, in their inner beings, at the heart and soul of their lives. And that is remarkable. How can people hold different ideas about all those things and still be one in heart and soul?
And note that their unity was not merely internal. It was manifested in a marvelous external way—in their sacrificial generosity, a generosity that began with a revolutionary conviction about private property. “No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.” As a result, “there was no needy person among them.”
We need to read this carefully. Some have read this and called it “Christian communism.” Some have said that it proves that private property is an invention of Western capitalism. Be careful here. It says that people had possessions, but now as a result of the Resurrection, they didn’t see their private property as merely their own. Instead, they freely shared everything with each other.
This is not communism or even socialism, which are political systems involving state control of some or all property. This is Christian community, which is driven not by political power but by the Holy-Spirit-produced conviction that property belongs to the Lord Jesus and is given by him to be shared by us with others. This is not about politics; this is about sharing in a sacrificial, Christ-like way.
So much so, that there was not a “needy person among them.” Later in the life of the church, Paul says, “If someone will not work, let him not eat (II Thess. 3:10).” That work ethic is healthy and good, but here in the early life of the church, when so many could not work because they were pilgrims far from home (or tourists or refugees or immigrants), the church instantly saw its responsibility to take care of the needy.
We must be very careful not to let that work ethic dull our sensitivities to the poor. In the early church, there were no needy people, because those who had worked hard and earned their stuff saw that what they had was not their own, but Christ’s. So “from time to time those who owned (again, private property) lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sale and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” People weren’t asked to give up their private property. They still owned it, but from time to time, when there was need, they freely gave it up for the needy.
So, as a result of the Resurrection of Jesus, a new community was formed in the world, a radical community of hopelessly diverse people who were so united in heart and soul that they held their possessions loosely and gave freely so that everyone in the community had enough of everything. John Rottman, my colleague at Calvin Theological Seminary, has said that this reads like a kind of ecclesiastical Lake Wobegone (the fictional home town of comedian and writer Garrison Keillor), where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” It’s “so ideal, so fanciful, that some have suggested that Luke made it up.”
No, it wasn’t Luke who created it. It was created by the Risen Christ by the power of the Spirit. It was God doing what God had planned in the grand drama of redemption. As Paul said in Ephesians 1:9, 10, “God has made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfilment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.”
That’s why all of our readings for this Second Sunday of Easter are about fellowship: Psalm 133, where “brethren dwell in sweet accord;” John 20:19-31, where the disciples gather on Easter evening and encounter the Risen One; and I John 1:1-2:2 with its repeated mention of fellowship. Sin has fractured everything, separating us from God and from each other and from creation and even from our own selves. God’s gracious intention is to re-unite everything in and through Christ.
This second greatest Easter miracle shows us that the fulfillment of God’s plan has already begun. In a world filled with divisions, in a church divided over politics and pandemics and race and money, it ought to make us weep to see what the church can be in this world. Indeed, this is what the church must be in this world, if this world is ever going to believe in the Risen Christ. Recall how Jesus emphasized the importance of Christian unity in his prayer in John 17:20-23: “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one…. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you have sent me and have loved them, even as you have loved me.”
If the church is as divided as the world, why would anyone believe that Jesus came from God to save the world? When there is no difference between us and the world because we have adopted the world’s divisions, the world will simply say, “Why should we believe in the saving power of Jesus, when you are just like us.” Indeed, the world is saying that very thing right now.
For the sake of the world, for the sake of the church, for the sake of each and every one of us, we must become the kind of radical community we see here in Acts 4. But how is that possible? How can we overcome our divisions? Must we change our minds about everything, give up our convictions about politics and philosophies and possessions?
No, the only way to find unity among all our diversity is to unite around the Living Christ. That’s what our text says. In the middle of all the talk about giving and sharing is this powerful verse. “With great power the apostles continued to testify to the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus and much grace was upon them all.” Only when the Risen Jesus is Lord of all our ideas and our affiliations and our possessions will unity be possible. Only when Jesus is more important than anything else will unity happen. Only when we focus our hearts and souls on him will grace dominate our lives.
That’s what it will take to unite with people different from us—the grace that united us with God through Christ, in spite of our sins and rebellion and folly. Only when we look at each other through the eyes of Christ who has accepted us in his grace can we have the unity that will attract the world to Jesus.
But how can we focus on the Christ and how can we be dominated by grace, when we are so deeply divided? Only by the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s the power by which the apostles preached the Risen Christ. That’s the power that overcame the sin of separation. Just before this text, the church had experienced the first persecution. They gathered to pray for the strength to persevere in the face of threats. Here’s how God responded. “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.”
The very next thing we read is, “All the believers were one in heart and mind.” It’s possible today, where the Risen Christ is Lord and when the Spirit pours grace upon us all. May that be our prayer.
The kind of sacrificial giving that proved the church’s unity way back then is not just a distant memory. In my ministry, I have seen astonishing examples of giving that made my heart soar. I read about one just last night, and it wasn’t even in the church. MacKenzie Scott has given away $4 billion in the last four months, after giving away $1.7 billion in July. Ms. Scott is the divorced wife of Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame. In their divorce, she received ¼ of his net worth. Since that time, her wealth has grown by some $23.6 billion up to $60.7 billion, making her the 18th wealthiest person in the world. She has signed the “Giving Pledge” along with folks like Buffet and Gates, in which she has promised to give away all of her wealth before she dies. I could find no evidence that she is a Christian. But some kind of grace is upon a woman who would say this: “I have a disproportionate amount of money to share… I will keep at it until the safe is empty.”
I know that I have used this illustration before, as have my colleagues here at the Center for Excellence in Preaching, but it’s perfect for this text. In the movie, “Places in the Heart,” there is a wealth of violence and hatred and racism and cruelty and greed. But in the closing scene of the movie, we see a congregation assembled in a small brick church. It’s composed of all the characters in the movie—the villains and victims, the good and the evil, black and white, rich and poor. They are sitting next to each other, as they pass the elements of Communion to each other. After a lifetime of being separated by unbreakable barriers, they are united around the crucified and risen Christ (the choir is singing the ancient Easter song, “I Walk in the Garden”). You can find that scene on line. Watch it for the emotional wallop, and show it to your congregation if you are able.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Would it be sacrilegious if we added a couple words to the first verse of Psalm 133? “How good and pleasant (and rare) it is when God’s people live together in unity.” Maybe I have been a pastor too long or maybe it’s being 13 months on the other side of the start of a pandemic during which—to riff on a line I read once from Kathleen Norris—a whole lot of people in the church behaved about as badly as grownups know how to do. Signs of unity of late have been rare indeed. The wreckage and the carnage of souls and spirits that resulted from profound disunity are everywhere. Burned-out pastors, pastors who quit, friendships within congregations that got shipwrecked on the shoals of arguments over masks and distancing . . . the list goes on and on.
Yes, it is good and pleasant to spy unity among God’s people. So why is this unity frequently so difficult to achieve? Well, perhaps we can chalk it up to the devil’s work. The more precious something is to God or to God’s people, the harder the devil and his hosts will work to corrupt it, disrupt it, make people fly off the handles over the silliest things. I am reminded of C.S. Lewis and his classic work The Screwtape Letters: whatever “the Enemy” (that is God in Christ) values, Screwtape advises the apprentice demon Wormwood to work extra hard to blow things up in that area.
Even Psalm 133 shows why unity is so vital. The imagery of anointing with oil and the promise of life forevermore demonstrate how vitally important this good and pleasant prospect of unity is. In the New Testament Jesus also tells the disciples in no uncertain terms that the world will continue to see Jesus even after he is physically gone from this earth IF the disciples are one as Jesus and the Father are one. But as we know only too well, that has turned out to be a very big “if” indeed.
Still, the lyric promises of Psalm 133 are striking. Below are some observations by my colleague Stan Mast in his last sermon starter reflection here on the CEP website.
What does Psalm 133 mean by “life forevermore?” One scholar is sure that this is not a reference to individual eternal life, as such a thing seems foreign to Jewish hopes. Rather, Psalm 133 is promising that unity will bring the “ever continuing vitality of the community.” Unity brings the blessing of communal longevity to the people of Israel. That makes sense, and we can make a nice application to the church without too much of a stretch.
But let’s not give up too quickly on the other, individual interpretation of “life forevermore.” If it means eternal life, how can it be that unity brings that blessing? What about John 3:16 and so many other passages that link everlasting life to faith in Jesus? When we think of God’s plan of salvation, we don’t usually think of unity as being central to that plan. In church circles, we talk about God blessing churches that have great biblical preaching; I recently read an online piece about America’s mega-churches; all of them are led by a scintillating preacher. God commands his blessing where folks hear the Word preached in the power of Spirit. Or we focus on fervency of prayer, or a passion for outreach, or a commitment to social justice. Rarely do we talk about the importance of unity in the church.
But what about the prayer of Jesus in John 17:23? “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Unity is central to God’s plan, because his plan, according to Ephesians 1:10 is “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” Unity brings God’s blessing because it anticipates and participates in God’s great plan to re-unite a creation fragmented by sin. The church is the beginning of what God is doing in the world; it is the first fruit of Easter. Unity does not save us; only Jesus and faith in him can do that. But unity is a crucial part of God’s saving plan. So of course he commands his blessing on a unified church where brother and sisters walk and worship and work together. Such a church brings the blessing of life forevermore to the world.
Psalm 133 doesn’t tell us how such unity can be achieved. That’s where the other readings for this second Sunday of Easter are helpful. John 20 shows us that it is an encounter with the risen Christ that brings fearful, doubting disciples together. Acts 4 displays the importance of meeting together for worship and fellowship, but not just happy worship and comfortable fellowship. The worship must be focused on the preaching of the Risen Christ (verse 33) and the fellowship must be characterized by sacrificial involvement in other people’s lives (verses 32 and 34-35). I John 1 and 2 continue the emphasis on the Gospel of the Incarnation and Atonement in an atmosphere of honesty about our flaws. We can’t be in unity if we’re always covering up, the way Adam and Eve did. Confession of sin and absolution through Christ are central to unity. “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin (I John 1:7).”
If Psalm 133 presents us with a daunting goal, the New Testament verses just referred to ratchet this up into the stratosphere of importance spiritually speaking. After a year of COVID and all the damage it has done to the reputation of the Church as well as to the wellbeing of individual congregations, the Church in general has so very much to repent of as we move into Eastertide 2021. But as we repent, we must also ask the Holy Spirit “revive us again.” Because after what we have been through and in many places what we are still going through, it would be beyond just “good and pleasant” if the world—if we ourselves—could see more unity in Christ’s Church, in that gathering so precious to Jesus he calls it his very Body.
If Psalm 133 sings the blessings of familial, ecclesiastical, and national unity, the current divisions in the United States show the curse of disunity. This country is under more danger from disunity than it is from North Korea and Russia and China put together. They might bluster and plot, but if we don’t come together, we’ll destroy ourselves. As Lincoln so trenchantly put it, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” He was, of course, quoting Jesus in Mark 3:25. How can God bless American or your church when we don’t live in unity?
I John 1:1-2:2
Author: Doug Bratt
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers might lead into their presentation of it with a story of how they needed an intercessor. A number of years ago I traveled to sit with members of our church during their family member’s major surgery.
Using an inaccurate map, I became lost in a maze of one-way streets. After searching for signs for the street on which the hospital is located, I finally found the right street. So without looking carefully enough for oncoming traffic, I tried to make a left-hand turn onto that street. However, I turned right into an oncoming car.
When the policeman arrived, he interviewed a witness, the other driver and me. Each claimed that I was, in fact, guilty. I did make a left-hand turn into an oncoming car whose driver clearly had the right of way. I paid the appropriate fine and lost a few points on my driver’s license.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened, however, if a prosecuting attorney had wanted to make an example out of me. What if she’d decided to charge me with reckless driving? What if the attorney persuaded the state to try me for my carelessness?
If I were brought to trial, I might have had to plead guilty to vehicular recklessness. Then while awaiting the judge’s sentence, I would have dreaded time in jail and away from my family and friends. Yet because I was guilty, I would also know that I would have to be punished.
What would happen, then, if during the sentencing hearing, someone stood up and volunteered to take my punishment? What if the judge agreed to punish that other person instead of me? She might send my substitute to jail.
As far-fetched as the scenario sounds, the Bible says that Jesus Christ did something remarkably similar for his adopted brothers and sisters. Romans 8 says he accepted our punishment and earned our salvation by dying and rising from the dead on our behalf.
However, we also profess that the ascended Christ continues to work for his friends. After all, now, as John 1 and 2 celebrates, he “speaks to the Father in our defense” (2). Reformed Christians profess that Christ is now the “Intercessor … whom the Father has appointed between himself and us.”
Our Intercessor’s earthly name, “Jesus,” anchors him firmly in history as a real person. However, his name also reminds of the reason for his earthly work. After all, an angel told Joseph to name his preborn son “Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
Jesus Christ the Righteous was both fully human and fully divine. He was “righteous” because he was fully God. However, his friends also confess that he’s righteous because while he lived on earth, he lived fully righteously. Since Jesus Christ resisted every temptation to disobey to his Father in heaven, 1 John 2 insists that he earned the right to speak “to the Father in our defense” (2).
John begins his first letter by assuring God’s dearly beloved children that we have fellowship with both God the Father and our adopted Christian brothers and sisters. However, the apostle also notes that we sometimes break that fellowship by sinning. So even God’s dearly beloved children naturally endanger our right to approach God because we sin against him.
Where, then, can Christians turn with and in our sins against both God and our neighbors? Who loves this Lesson’s proclaimers and hearers more than the One who gave his life for us? Who has as much power as Jesus Christ who is seated at the right hand of God the Father and has all power in heaven and on earth? And, perhaps even more compellingly, to whom will God more readily listen than to God’s own “dearly beloved Son?”
When God’s adopted sons and daughters sin, we can turn to Jesus Christ the Righteous who “speaks to the Father in our defense.” To help our hearers better understand this work, 1 John 1 & 2’s proclaimers might point out that older Bible translations use the word “advocate” to describe it.
People know what it means to have a human advocate. The father of a friend was the president of the church council of a rural Iowa Christian Reformed church. When our friend learned that her parents’ church was looking for a pastor, she recommended us to him. Renee was our advocate; she put in a good word for us.
However, people don’t just need any advocate. Guilty people like both this Lesson’s proclaimers and hearers need an advocate who will also have influence at just the right time with just the right people. Renee recommended us to her parents who love her just when their church was looking for a new pastor.
Sadly, however, people all too often look to such human advocates first. Yet those who pin our hopes on people are often disappointed. However, by doing that, God’s dearly beloved children also in some ways belittle God.
Christians confess that our best Advocate is Jesus Christ. He, after all, has all the influence, both in heaven, with his Father, as well as on earth. Jesus Christ is also his friends’ best Advocate because he is so well-qualified.
He, after all, became one of us. Christ felt the tug of our temptations. He lost friends, popularity and even life itself. No one, then, is in a better position to understand his adopted sibling’s struggles to be faithful than Jesus Christ the Righteous.
What’s more, unlike the freed butler who forgot Joseph, Jesus Christ doesn’t forget those whom he left behind. Christians confess that he constantly remembers us and speaks to the Father in our defense.
So when for the thousandth time we stumble, are unfaithful and anger God, we can imagine Jesus Christ stepping before the Father. He says, “Father, don’t be angry with Jamar or Maria, with Vladimir or Aisha. You forgave their sins when you became angry with me.”
So when Christians remember how Christ ascended to the heavenly realm, we don’t assume he went in order to somehow add to the work of salvation that he’d already finished here on earth. He went there, instead, to reap the benefits of his saving sacrifice. The risen Christ now stands before the Father to somehow announce, “Here I am, and the children you gave me.”
Such advocacy is certainly highly mysterious. After all, God the Father and God the Son are two members of the One, triune God. So we don’t know just how Jesus Christ the Righteous pleads our cause before the Father. Christians simply confess that in some way beyond our understanding, Christ’s advocacy overcomes the dark testimony of Satan who is our adversary and accuser.
According to Zechariah 3, Satan stood at Joshua’s right side to “accuse him.” God, however, we read there, scolded Satan. In light of the New Testament, we might even say that the risen and ascended Christ now scolds and overrules Satan.
Perhaps, however, Christ doesn’t even have to say anything to the Father. After all, his very presence in the heavenly realm is a form of our defense before his Father. It’s a constant reminder to Christians’ adopted heavenly Father that Christ has fulfilled everything needed for our salvation.
Since God’s dearly beloved people, despite John’s warnings, still sin, even God’s adopted sons and daughters still need mercy, grace and help. That’s why we never approach God casually or too familiarly.
Yet for Jesus’ sake God gives Jesus’ friends a measure of boldness in our approach to God. Hebrews 4:16 invites us to “approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
Of course, such an invitation may seem irrelevant today. After all, at least some modern people may need less, not more, boldness in their approach to God. However, there’s still both a valuable warning and a reminder here. After all, Hebrews warns Jesus’ friends not to trust any creature to do for us what only Christ can do.
So Christians don’t let anything distract us from Christ. We don’t gradually become more fascinated with someone or something else. After all, no formal worship or man-made creed can plead our cause before the Father.
Among the things that divide Roman Catholic Christians from Protestant Christians is whether those who rest in God’s immediate eternal presence can intercede on behalf of Jesus’ friends here on earth. The best and shortest answer is that we don’t know. Yet Christians do know that since Christ and his Spirit intercede for us, the most reliable and direct route to the Father is through the risen and ascended Jesus Christ.
Christians always pray “in Jesus’ name” and “for Jesus’ sake” and “through Jesus Christ, our Lord.” After all, the One who prayed for Peter, for children and for all his disciples somehow still intercedes for his Father for his adopted brothers and sisters.
Someone has compared Christ’s presence as our defense before our Father to the trial of the ancient Greek poet Aeschylus. He so angered the Athenian population that its tribunal was ready to condemn him.
However, Aeschylus’ brother had lost an arm in the Battle of Salamis. When he defended his brother in court, he didn’t make a dramatic verbal plea. Aeschylus’ brother simply let his robe fall, revealing the stump of the arm that he had lost in battle. There he stood until the angry Athenians relented and allowed his brother to go free.
Christians may suspect that the gap between heaven and earth is so great that God can’t speak our language, understand our pain or sympathize with our weakness. That’s why we look to the scarred Jesus Christ the Righteous.
After all, in him we don’t have to deal with a God who is far removed from us. In Christ the same God who made the heavens and earth by the power of God’s Word has pitched God’s tent among us. The Lord has become a servant. A wounded member of the Holy Trinity has been, and, in some senses, remains one of us.