Revelation 1:4-18 / Easter 2C / 07 April 2013 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
“Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”
Fear not. That’s the theme of the Revelation in two simple words. Fear not. When everything is going to hell in a hand basket; when the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh seem to have the upper hand; when Christianity seems to be a lost cause and the world is stepping on the church’s neck; when Christ has all but been driven from the public square and culture and life and the message of the Gospel seems to have been drowned out by the siren songs of the world; when beasts roam and dragons threaten, and Christians are being martyred for their faith, Christ appears in His glory with two simple words: Fear not.
The disciples were huddled in fear that first Easter evening, afraid of the Jews, the religious authorities, the Romans, their own shadows. Their leader had been crucified. His body was missing. The tomb was empty. Rumors were flying. Who wouldn’t be afraid?
And into the midst of the fearful group of disillusioned and confused followers comes Jesus. Right into the midst of their fear. And what does He say? “Peace be with you.” That’s the positive side of “Do not fear.” Peace be with you. His peace quiets our fear. His peace, which surpasses our understanding, calms our anxious hearts and troubled minds. His peace is His gift to you in your fear.
Peace be with you. He shows them His wounded hands, His side, the marks of His sacrifice. That’s how He’s recognized for who He is: His wounds. That’s what Thomas wanted so badly to see and would not believe unless he saw them with his own eyes and touched them: the wounds. He was wounded for our transgressions; by His wounds we are healed. There is your peace and the end of your fear.
Fear not. John was likely afraid. He was in exile on the island of Patmos. Banished from his home and congregation on account of the Word. Persecuted for righteousness’ sake on account of the Name of Jesus. When he saw the risen and glorified Lord with His blazing hair and fiery eyes and burnished feet and that sharp two-edged sword coming out of His mouth and His face shining like the sun, John fell down as dead.
But the Lord reaches out and lays His hand. He raises the dead and comforts the fearful. Fear not. I am the first and the last, the Living One. He is the Beginning and the Ending, the Lord of Life who gives life to all things. He is the one who died but lives forever. He is the One who has gone the way through Death before us like a good shepherd walking ahead of the sheep through the dark valley. “Follow me,” He says. “Fear not, for I am with you always.”
He died and is alive forevermore. Death has lost its sting. The Grave has lost its grip. It could not hold Jesus, and it cannot hold you. The greatest fear we have is the fear of Death. All other fears are derivative of this big one. We can’t see into Death; we can’t see beyond the Grave. And so we are afraid.
And the Lord emerges from the Grave alive, the “living One.” Death can’t hold Him; the Grave can’t keep Him. And He’s holding in His right hand a set of keys – the keys of Death and Hades. Not only did He conquer Death and the Grave, but He’s got the keys to the prison. That’s the picture of the resurrection that you see in eastern icons where the risen Jesus is standing over the grave of Adam and Eve and reaching down and pulling them up to life.
There’s a similar picture in the Gospel where Peter steps out onto the water and begins to walk on it until he is frightened by the wind and the waves and begins to sink. And the Lord reaches out and grabs hold of him and pulls him up out of the depths into the safety of the boat.
Jesus holds the keys to Death and the Grave. What He looses no one can bind, what He binds no one can loose. He breathed on His disciples and apostled them. Sent them with His word and authority and breath. “The sins you forgive are forgiven; the sins you retain are retained.” Loosing and binding. This is the keys in action. The “office of the keys.” Holy Ministry, Holy Absolution.
The power of the keys is Jesus’ death and resurrection. He was crucified for our sins and raised for our justification. His death answered the Law’s accusation. His death paid the price for our liberty. His death conquered Sin by becoming Sin and conquered Death by submitting to Death. His resurrection is our justification, indeed the world’s justification. Humanity has died and risen in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The fight is over, the battle won.
Last week, I mentioned briefly those Japanese soldiers on remote Pacific islands who were still fighting World War II long after it was ended. Peace had been declared. The war was over. The fighting had ceased. And yet in the minds of these soldiers, the war was still going on and they were still fighting an enemy that was no longer an enemy. Someone had to go to these soldiers and tell them that peace had broken out, that enemies had laid down their arms, that the war was finally over.
That’s what the post-Easter phase of Christ’s work is all about. His work of redemption is done. “It is finished.” Humanity, the world, is reconciled to God in the death of His Son. But the news has to travel from the open tomb to ears. Faith comes by hearing. Peace and the Spirit and forgiveness all come through the Word, that sharp two-edged sword from the mouth of Christ through the mouth of His apostles and His church’s ministry to the ears of the world.
Jesus never made a grand world appearance upon rising from the dead. That’s how you and I would have orchestrated it. That’s how the world operates. The basketball or football team wins the championship and they have a big public parade in front of all the television cameras and thousands of adoring fans. The victorious army marches through the streets with bands and flags and confetti. But Jesus simply appears to a handful of eyewitnesses – to Mary, to a couple of disciples on the road to Emmaus, to the eleven in the upper room, to Thomas, to seven disciples on the Sea of Tiberius. In 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle Paul states that Christ also appeared to James and all the apostles, to over 500 people at one time, and last of all to Paul himself on the Damascus road. Enough eyewitnesses to make a credible case but not much of a parade.
He could have appeared to the world in all His glory, as He did in this vision to John on the island of Patmos. But the Lord’s ways aren’t our ways. He has a different plan. You tell them. You proclaim the victory. That’s what the word “evangelize” originally meant – to tell the good news of victory in the battlefield to the king. That’s what Phidipedes reportedly did when he ran from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to tell the king, “You won! You’ve conquered!” And then he dropped dead.
The news of the king’s victory is always left to messengers. The angels first told the women the great good news of Jesus’ resurrection. “He’s not here! He is risen!” They told the disciples, who didn’t believe them at first. The disciples told Thomas who wasn’t with them that first evening of the resurrection. Jesus said His “I won” on the cross with His dying “it is finished,” and now the church and her ministry declare “He won!” by the Spirit-ed breath of Christ.
He holds the keys to Death and Hades. He frees the prisoners. He binds sin and death and the old Adam. He opens the kingdom of heaven, He forgives, He feeds, He renews, He strengthens the new You in Him. You may have your doubts, as Thomas did. You may be skeptical of what happened that fateful morning nearly 2000 years ago. You may question in your mind those eyewitnesses, five hundred plus. You may be fearful of Sin, Death, and the Law camped out at your door. Fear not. Peace be with you. See the wounds, the Body, the Blood. Hear the cleansing words, “I forgive you all of your sins.” Know that you’ve been died for, that you are dead to all that binds you, that your life is hidden with Christ in God. Stop disbelieving and believe. “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” That’s you. You are blessed not to see and yet to see by faith.
You too will see one day. You will see what John saw that Lord’s Day on the island of Patmos. But unlike John, you will not see through the eyes of a fearful sinner but through the resurrected eyes of a saint. And the vision will not be terrifying but glorious and beautiful.
“Fear not,” says your Lord. “I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”
In the name of Jesus,