2nd Sunday of Easter: Our Holy Protector
Scriptures: John 20:19-31; Acts 2:14, 22-32, 37-40; 1 Peter 1:3-9
Growing up, I remember hearing about the time my grandpa was flying across the country, and midway through his first leg of the journey, for reasons we’ll never know, he decided to take a different connecting flight than the one for which he was booked. Imagine his utter shock when later that day he learned that the plane he was originally supposed to get on crashed, leaving no survivors. Through the years our family has sometimes wondered why God protected my grandfather’s life but not that of the others.
In one of my churches, when a much-loved and faithful spouse of a staff member was diagnosed with cancer, the congregation immediately rallied around her. They earnestly put into practice the command/promise found James 5:14-15, which says, “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.” With this Scriptural promise in mind, they held frequent prayer vigils for her and fervently prayed for her physical cure. However, in the end, that kind of cure wasn’t to be.
On this side of heaven, I’m not sure we’ll ever be given a clear and reasonable answer to the age-old question about why in similar circumstances some live and some die. I truly think it’s ultimately a mystery. If there are reasons, they’re probably known only by God. Because the truth is, nowhere has God guaranteed that he’ll keep us out of harm’s way. In fact, if anything, Scripture assures us that on this side of heaven, life will be full of challenges and hardships and suffering. That’s a guarantee.
So, is there anything along the lines of protection that God has promised us? Listen to this statement from Psalm 91 which seem to promise divine protection: “If you say, ‘The Lord is my refuge,’ and you make the Most High your dwelling, no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone” (Psalm 91:9-12). On the surface, that certainly sounds like a kind of promise of divine protection from physical harm. But that flight right in the face of our common human experience which tells us otherwise, right?
So, what is God promising here if not protection from physical injury or impairment? This morning, I’m suggesting that while God may not always protect our bodies from accidents, diseases, and disasters, the Holy Spirit is the perfect protection against hopelessness, apathy and fear, which I think is far more impactful on our life experience.
Having said that, I think it’s incumbent upon us to pray for God’s protection – for us and for others. Doing so is certainly Scriptural if you will.
- Psalm 16:1 says, “Protect me, God, because I take refuge in you.”
- Psalm 64:1 says, “Protect my life from the enemy’s terror!”
- Psalm 140:1, 9 says, “Rescue me, LORD, from evildoers; protect me from the violent….Protect me from the trap they’ve set for me; protect me from the snares of the evildoers.”
Praying for God’s protection is clearly modeled by people in the Bible.
Admittedly, when you and I ask God to protect us, most of the time what we have in mind is protection from physical harm. For example, whenever we’re aware that our daughter is traveling out of town, I’m constantly asking God to protect her from all accidents. But I’ll be honest with you; I also ask God to protect my own emotional and spiritual well-being should we receive a call that she’s been in accident, or worse.
Seeking protection for our hearts and minds and spirits is rooted in the Lord’s Prayer. We say to God, “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” ‘Deliver’ is a protection word. Newer versions of the Lord’s prayer say “…deliver us from the evil one.” That is, protect us from the subterfuges of Satan, from the lies of Lucifer, from the deceits of the devil.
What are those lies and deceits from which we need God’s deliverance and protection? How about the ungodly belief that I’m not loved? Or that I’m not forgiven? How about a heart full of bitterness and anger? How about getting to the place where we’ve lost all hope? Or truly see no way out of our painful situation? Or a grief that simply crushes us under its heavy weight? Or debilitating fear? These are the things that I believe God can and will protect us from if we’re willing to receive it.
In today’s Gospel reading from John, we read that following Jesus’ crucifixion, the disciples secured themselves behind locked doors out of fear of the Jewish authorities. Common sense suggested that because they were Jesus’ followers, they were next in line to be rounded up and punished. Fear took root in their hearts, and it left them paralyzed. It doesn’t take a Bible scholar to figure out that this was a low point in their lives. Morale was low; fear was high.
But then Jesus made an unannounced visit. He showed up into their midst and began to speak his peace into their fear-filled hearts. According to John, twice he told them, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19). And then with his breath he bestowed upon them his Spirit, giving them the courage they needed in order move out in spite of their fears; to leave that locked room and head to Galilee where Jesus had previously told them to go following his death; where Jesus said he would meet up with them. Things were starting to look up! Their fear was fading.
Skip ahead 50 days or so. Jesus has since ascended back into his glory and these same men are back in Jerusalem where they’ve been told to wait for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. On the Jewish holy day of Pentecost, they’re gathered together, praying, when it happens. The Holy Spirit comes upon them and fills them. A crowd is attracted to that place. While they look on in confusion, Peter stands up and boldly preaches his first sermon, telling them that Jesus—the one they crucified 50 days earlier—had in fact been raised to life and that they, the disciples, were eyewitnesses to that fact. Luke tells us that at the end of his sermon, the people were “cut to the heart” and asked Peter what they should do in response? His counsel? “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). According to Luke, three thousand persons accepted his message and were baptized that day alone! And starting the next day, they grew in number every single day.
Things had turned around quickly for them. There was a quick and massive response on the part of the people. Receptivity to the gospel message was high. As followers of Jesus, this was definitely a high point in their ministry. All was going well; they were on top of the world! Nothing seemed impossible for them now.
Jump ahead thirty or so years. The church has long since been established all over that part of the world. But, as their numbers increased, albeit much slower than at the very beginning, so had their persecutions. Long gone were the days when their chief antagonists were the Jewish religious leaders, upset that they were breaking Sabbath laws. Now, it’s Rome. It’s the Emperor himself, and he has Christians in his crosshairs. Christians across the empire are specifically targeted for persecution. It’s bad. Really bad.
At this point in time, Peter is in Rome and, most likely, in prison. He’s nearing the end of his own life when he pens some letters to those Christians scattered throughout the land.
His purpose? To encourage them to keep going, to remain faithful, and to keep in mind the bigger picture. That is, to focus not on their present hardships but on their future glory. He writes, “On account of his vast mercy, he has given us new birth. You have been born anew into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. You have a pure and enduring inheritance that cannot perish—an inheritance that is presently kept safe in heaven for you. Through his faithfulness, you are guarded by God’s power so that you can receive the salvation he is ready to reveal in the last time” (1 Peter 1:3-5). You are born anew into a living hope. You have an enduring inheritance that cannot perish kept safe for you in heaven. You are guarded by God’s power. He’s reminding them of the deeper truth of their lives, that God has a better life waiting for them. And that God’s guarding them with his Holy Spirit.
He goes on. “You now rejoice in this hope, even if it’s necessary for you to be distressed for a short time by various trials. This is necessary so that your faith may be found genuine. Your genuine faith will result in praise, glory, and honor for you when Jesus Christ is revealed” (vv. 6-7). In other words, Yes, you’re being persecuted for your faith, but know that your faith is producing for you an eternity of glory and honor. Your persecutions will come to an end, and remaining faithful through them will be well worth in in the long run. Keep in mind the long run!
In many ways, this was a low point in the life of the church. Reality had set in. Persecution was their lot. Receptivity to the gospel had certainly slowed down. However — and this is a very important point to understand — their faith was stronger. It was actually strengthened by their persecutions. And now Christ-followers were being empowered by the Spirit to see beyond their current earthly reality (their physical sufferings) to their eternal reward. God was transforming their low point into a high point. Physically, they were enduring pain and suffering similar to that of Jesus. But spiritually and emotionally, they were whole and healthy. God wasn’t always protecting their bodies from the cruelty of their adversaries, but he was protecting their hearts and minds and spirits so that despite their physical sufferings, they could say, “Thanks be to God!”
So it is with us, today. God may not always protect our physical bodies from accidents, diseases, disasters, but the Holy Spirit is the perfect protection against the likes of hopelessness, apathy, and fear. I implore all of us to take to heart what the Apostle Paul said: “Even if our bodies are breaking down on the outside, the person that we are on the inside is being renewed every day. Our temporary minor problems are producing an eternal stockpile of glory for us that is beyond all comparison. We don’t focus on the things that can be seen but on the things that can’t be seen. The things that can be seen don’t last, but the things that can’t be seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
Friends, do seek God’s protection. Ask for it. And believe that it’s a prayer that God will answer. Know that despite our outward sufferings, the Holy Spirit can protect our hearts and minds and spirits so that we can say with all surety, “It is well with my soul.” Let’s pray.