Reports of Jesus’ resurrection, in and of themselves, did not change much for the disciples. They had heard about Mary’s encounter with Him in the garden (John 20:18). They had learned about His visit with the Emmaus disciples (Luke 24:33-35). They had even (presumably) heard from Peter and John about their race to the empty tomb (John 20:3-10). But there they were, on the evening of the first Easter Sunday, hiding behind locked doors. Why? They were afraid.
Fear is a powerful force. In their case it was understandable, too. Jesus had been subjected to a disgraceful death at the hands of an angry mob. He had warned them the night before to expect the same. “A servant is not greater than his master,” He told them. “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). Lest they thought they could slip by unnoticed, Peter learned laying low would not be easy (John 18:15-18, 25-27).
They could not hide from Jesus, of course. Reports became reality as the crucified Lord came and stood among them with words of peace. This made them rejoice (ἐχάρησαν), which fulfilled another promise from Jesus: “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy” (John 16:20). Then, having turned their sorrow and fear into joy, Jesus sent them with His Spirit to continue His mission. “As the Father sent me...”
The movement from fear, to joy, to sending could provide direction for your sermon on this second Sunday of Easter.
But you cannot simply tell people to be afraid. Fear does not work that way (try telling a high school boy to be afraid of getting a speeding ticket), neither should you try to scare your hearers. The old adage that you must preach them into Hell before you can preach them into Heaven requires they forget the promise of their baptism, which you presumably proclaimed with power last Sunday. Such attempts can verge on emotional manipulation, especially if you hope to resolve in the same sermon the fear you tried to create.
The old adage that you must preach them into Hell before you can preach them into Heaven requires they forget the promise of their baptism.
Fear is still the right starting point, however. Rather than trying to scare them (which Jesus did not need to do in our text), it would be more helpful to name and, in some cases, affirm the fears they already experience. Their fear will be different than the fears of the disciples on Easter evening. No matter how many times they have read John 15:20, most of them have not faced threatening questions like Peter. In the West at least, very few Christians have reason to fear physical harm. Which is to say their fears are less related to their association with Jesus and more a result of their individual circumstances.
What are those circumstances? Depending on your context, your hearers will be afraid for a variety of reasons. A doctor friend recently told me that anxiety prescriptions are off the charts this year—and it is not just the pandemic. The sources are many. Uncertainty regarding the future is a frequent culprit. So is the potential for being shamed or letting others down. Others fear repercussions from past mistakes and habitual sin. There are certainly other causes which are more local. You might spend a few minutes in the sermon helping them reflect on and name their own personal fears.
After exposing their fear (and concomitant lack of faith), the next task is to help them rejoice.
You are not Jesus, so simply standing among them will probably not do the job. That work belongs to your message, which is nothing less that the promise of the risen Christ. In his homiletical lectures, Bonhoeffer emphasizes the connection between the promise of Christ and His presence: “The proclaimed Word is the incarnate Christ Himself... The preached Christ is both the Historical One and the Present One... He is the access to the historical Jesus. Therefore, the proclaimed word is not a medium of expression for something else, something which lies behind it, but rather it is Christ Himself walking through His congregation as the Word” (Worldly Preaching, 123).
The proclaimed Word is the incarnate Christ Himself... The preached Christ is both the Historical One and the Present One... He is the access to the historical Jesus.-Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The promise you will make, which brings about the presence of Christ and creates rejoicing, is the peace Jesus brought to the disciples that night behind locked doors. This shalom (BDAG notes the correspondence between εἰρήνη and שָׁלוֹם) is the way things should be. Grounded in the resurrection of the Son of God, it bursts forth through trumpet and timpani even when the special music is past. Resurrection shalom arises from the delight of genuine forgiveness, the adventure of an abundant life, and the thrill of eternal salvation. It celebrates the promise of Jesus’ return to reconcile, restore, and revive. It is the kind of joy which led the Psalmist to sing: “I sought the Lord, and He answered me and delivered me from all my fears” (Psalm 34:4). He delivered the disciples from their fears, and through your proclamation of His promises, He delivers your hearers, too.
After the rejoicing comes the sending. As the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sent His disciples—of every age. He sent them to do many things: To care for the sick, to teach the young, to warn those who err, to share with those in need, and to bring back those who wander. If you want to stick with the text, you can keep it simple and send your hearers to forgive. As we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, send them to continue their celebration of Easter by finding someone to forgive as they have been forgiven. Invite them to forgive people in their lives who are living under the burden of guilt. Invite them to forgive those who have sinned against them. Invite them to follow their Lord into the courageous practice of gracious generosity.
In other words, invite them to live as if Jesus really did rise from the dead.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching John 20:19-31.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach John 20:19-31.
Lectionary Podcast- Dr. Charles Gieschen of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through John 20:19-31.