A friend of mine was born in a poor suburb of Atlanta, Georgia.
Her family composed a single mom and an older brother.
As a child, she didn’t have much, and was forced to — unfortunately like so many children in this world — grow up too fast.
The stress of being a single mother living in poverty was too much for my friend’s mother, and she watched helplessly as her mom began to slowly lose her mind.
First debilitating anxiety, then depression, and, ultimately, having to be institutionalized.
But a friend of the girl brought the concern to church one Sunday morning.
The church prayed.
The church discussed the situation.
Then the church acted.
My friend was invited to the church, and the pastor and Sunday school teachers took her under their wings.
They taught her about Jesus, yes, but they also showed her Jesus through all they began doing for her.
They helped her with homework.
They helped her and her brother with food and money.
They gave her clothes.
They kept her from being lured into a life of drugs, like so many of her friends were.
And they prayed hard together.
Last year, my friend — all grown up now — received her PhD in Divinity and is a full seminary professor.
Along the way, she became a pastor, she married a wonderful man and has two beautiful daughters.
And if you ask her how she made it against all these odds, she will tell you: “It was because of the church.”
Without the church, life surely would have been so different for her.
But there’s more, too.
Why did she have to go all the way through school — even to Princeton — to receive a PhD, study with the most prominent theologian, publish influential scholarly articles, and become one of the most prominent young scholars of our time?
She can’t tell you without tearing up.
But she says simply “To change the world.”
The Power of the Church
The church changed my friend’s life.
She doesn’t owe the church;
And surely, we can never repay God for God’s amazing and abundant grace,
But she will make no apologies for trying, so that no one else will have to experience what she did.
Sometimes, when I look at the number of people on this congregation’s rolls but who rarely make Sunday morning service, do not participate in this community and don’t raise their children in the church, I have to wonder if they know what they’re missing.
And it makes me sad.
Not just in this church, but everywhere.
I was talking with a friend just this week, and I commented that we’re up against so many odds in our consumer-driven, comfortable and inwardly focused lives.
That we fill our lives with so much other stuff — distractions — that we don’t see the need in others.
My friend agreed, and he asked “Why don’t people understand that the call of God is to be in community?”
Then he began listing a host of Bible verses that bolstered his argument, starting in Genesis with Adam and Eve and moving right through to the Trinity and ending today, in Pentecost.
And he’s absolutely right:
* The very Trinity itself — God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit — is a profound relationship.
* And that God breathed life into Adam and Eve and you and me just the same — to be in relationship with God and with one another.
* And with Pentecost — God breathed the Holy Spirit into the disciples.
For what? Jesus tells us in verse 21: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
If you’ve been here for the past few weeks, we’ve been talking a lot about our calling to be the church, our allegiance to God, and our commitment to community.
This is by design.
When Jesus rose from the dead, everything clicked for the disciples:
* There was nothing now they wouldn’t do to spread the Good News of Jesus’s resurrection.
* There was no way they wouldn’t love one another as Jesus loved them.
* There was no way they wouldn’t live in the community Jesus called them to.
They felt the breath of God — like Adam did in Genesis and like those dry bones of the Israelites in Ezekiel did — and everything changed.
They understood that they would walk and live and eat and share and teach and learn and worship in community.
Not in isolation.
And so today, we have throngs of people who believe their personal relationship with God is enough.
It’s not even halfway there.
We don’t live and work and worship in community for ourselves; we do it for others.
Catholic theologian and author Gerhard Lohfink writes that being a part of this community is not “a privilege or a preference over others, but existence for others.”
Jesus is leaving the disciples to be with God.
But Jesus needs the disciples to live in this community so others can experience the breath of God, too.
And, as we know, the disciples do not disappoint.
Jesus finds us
In our reading this morning of John 20.19-23, we see a similar passage to that which we looked at right after Easter Sunday.
Jesus enters into the Upper Room where the disciples are hunkered down for fear of persecution, they’re a bit despondent and feeling as if they’ve lost everything.
And Jesus comes to them and says “Peace be with you.”
Does this ever happen to you?
Something goes wrong in your life, and you hunker down.
You know, you’re depressed, maybe even a little fearful.
And in a sense, you’re locked away.
In your home. Your bedroom. Far away from others.
Far from community.
You don’t answer the phone or emails…
It’s this mindset in which we don’t allow Jesus to penetrate.
We stop listening for Jesus.
And instead we listen to what the world tells us.
We listen to our own selves.
What’s in our heads, not our hearts.
But isn’t Jesus showing us something here in this reading?
Because this is where the disciples are, too.
And Jesus is still able to find them there, isn’t he?
There is no place where Jesus can’t find you…
Then Jesus shows the disciples his scarred hands and side, in verse 20.
Jesus proves to them who he is and how he has risen from the dead. How he kept his promise.
And when they — and we — are able to see what Jesus is capable of doing, we are assured.
And in verse 21, he repeats the words “Peace be with you.”
He’s saying to be at peace. Rest your hearts. I AM WITH YOU.
And once the disciples are able to see Jesus and understand what he’s done, then they are ready to receive the Holy Spirit — the Breath of God that Jesus breathes on them.
Do you see that Jesus is telling us something so important here, too?
When we are open to Jesus’s love, mercy, grace, goodness and ability to move in our lives, then we can feel the Spirit move within us.
The disciples needed assurance.
And listen: Jesus didn’t visit them each one at a time.
He went to where they were gathered together in community.
So how are we assured if we don’t allow ourselves to see Jesus at work?
See, this is a two-part argument, isn’t it?
First, we know that the only hands and feet Jesus has here on earth is yours and mine.
Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 12:27 that “All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it.”
Can we witness Jesus working through the body — through the community — if we’re not a part of that community?
If we don’t worship in community?
If we don’t work in community?
If we don’t witness in community?
Absolutely, we can pray and meditate and study scripture on our own.
But there’s more.
If we want to see Christ, we need one another.
Not to simply receive, but — and this is the second part — to share.
As Father Lohfink puts it: Our existence is for others.
And it’s in our receiving and our sharing that we see the complete Christ.
Why? Because this is the shape of God, in whose image we are made and for whose purpose we are made.
Now, you might say, “Well, Pastor Chris, you’re simply preaching to the choir. After all, we’re here in community this morning.
You need to be telling this stuff to the people who aren’t!”
But what is Jesus telling the disciples here in our reading?
Again, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And the disciples, if they were standing here in front of us today, might say the same thing:
“As Jesus has sent me, so we send you…”
Pentecost isn’t only about receiving the Holy Spirit; it’s about sharing the Holy Spirit.
Don’t look at this Bible reading as simply some ancient history of how the Church began.
We see the historical context, yes, but we also see the edict from Christ to go out and spread the Good News.
And Jesus isn’t only speaking to the disciples in John 20; he’s talking directly to you and me.
I might be preaching to the choir, but what are you going to preach and to whom?
Jesus makes no distinction.
In fact, even if there are people who won’t receive you or even those who have hurt you, they need the message, too.
Jesus makes it a point to end his words with the following:
Verse 23: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
This is the community’s spirit-empowered mission.
And we, too, are spirit-empowered to do the same.
Change the World
The breath of God has been breathed into us:
* When we confess Jesus as our savior.
* When we share in the Body of Christ, like we will do during Communion in a few moments.
* When we come together in community in Christ’s name.
What can we do when we leave here today?
Who can we share God’s love with today?
We have so much clutter in our lives; take a moment today to make some space to believe that God can change the world through us.
Through this people we call the church.
See, the breath of God is the people receiving the Holy Spirit.
And so Pentecost is not only the Spirit in each of us, but in all of us together.
We are one in the body, and one with Christ.
As Christ is one with God and the Holy Spirit.
That’s why we say Pentecost is the birth of the church.
Substitute the word “community” for “church,” and we can now see a clearer picture of what it means to have received the Spirit.
When we do this, we cannot be self-centered.
And we can witness this any time, if we just give God the space in our hearts.
If we just reach out to others.
Like my friend, who as a little girl could have ended up with a dead-end life on the streets.
It took one hand to reach out, then another, and another.
It took a community.
And that’s absolutely what changed her world.
And how many lives has she now changed as a mother, a pastor and a professor?
This is how we change the world.
Trust Jesus to do this in our lives.
Share that love with others, everywhere, always.
That’s what we were created for.