Sunday, April 27, 2014

"Peace be with you" (a sermon for April 27th on John 20:19-23)

Who wants to be a failure? No one that I know! We’d all like to succeed, whether we’re talking about our work or our personal lives. Most people would like to have good marriages and strong families, with kids who grow up to be happy and successful as well. We’d like our businesses to succeed so that we can earn enough money to get by on, as well as having a sense of pride and satisfaction in what we do. Most clergy that I know want to be pastors of successful churches – churches that are growing in numbers and growing in the good effect they’re having in their communities.

And I suspect that all of us here today would like to be successful in our Christian lives as well. We’d like to get better at reading the Bible and praying; we’d like to be stronger in our faith, more resolute in turning away from our sins and learning new habits that help us follow Jesus. We’d like to be growing more like Jesus with every year that goes by. Who wouldn’t want to be a successful Christian?

No, we don’t want to be failures who find ourselves falling back into sinful habits that we thought we’d gotten the better of. We don’t want to be people who let the Lord down. We don’t want to be people who are too scared to speak up for him when all our friends are dissing the Christian faith. We don’t want to be people who run away and abandon Jesus when he is arrested and taken to trial before the high priest and the Roman governor.

And that, or course, is exactly what the disciples we read about this morning had done. On the night before Jesus died, when he was arrested in the garden, they had run away and abandoned him to his fate. Peter and John were a little braver; they had followed the guards to the high priest’s house, and Peter had even gone into the courtyard. But there he was recognized, and his courage failed him, and he denied three times that he even knew Jesus.

Imagine the feelings of these men and women on the first Easter Sunday when they begin to hear strange stories about the empty tomb and the appearances of the risen Jesus. No doubt they felt as we would have felt. No doubt they were caught between joy and skepticism, not knowing whether they dared believe it. No doubt they were also caught between excitement and fear. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if it was true? If we really did see him alive again, we’d know for sure that he was right, and that he really was the Messiah God sent. But wait – what’s he going to say to us? Is he going to remember that we all abandoned him and ran away? You know what he’s like: if he’s frustrated or angry with us, he’s never slow about expressing it! Do you think he’s going to have any time for the likes of us, after what we did to him on Thursday night?”

Let’s remind ourselves again of what happens. Look with me at John 20:19-20:
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said “Peace be with you”. After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

‘Peace be with you’ was a fairly common greeting in those days; the Hebrew word of course is ‘shalom’, and if you go to the Middle East today I’m told that you will often hear a similar greeting: ‘salaam!’ – also meaning ‘peace’. But the fact that John has Jesus saying it three times in the space of eleven verses must mean that there’s something more than convention going on here! A few hours earlier, the risen Jesus was walking on the road to Emmaus with two of his followers, who had not yet recognized him. They told him about all the things that had happened on Good Friday, and Jesus’ response to them was not ‘peace’ at all; it was “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared” (Luke 24:25). Now this is more like the Jesus they know and love! And surely the disciples in the upper room must have been expecting something similar.

But no, Jesus utters not one word of rebuke for all that happened on Thursday night; he says “Peace be with you”, and then, significantly, he shows them the wounds in his hands and his side. His resurrected body still carries the marks of his suffering. And why had he gone through that suffering? For them, of course, and for us too! The reason he had hung there on the cross was because of all the sin and rebellion and failure of the human race, from beginning to end - including the failure of his eleven frightened apostles who’d run away and left him to his fate. And you and I are included in that, too. Jesus has willingly given his life for all of our failures, so that we can be forgiven.

What does that mean for us? St. Paul says ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1). You and I have been brought into union with Jesus through faith and baptism. So there is no condemnation for us. We all fail the Lord, every day, but this need not disqualify us from ever being able to do anything for him again. We can bring our failures and sins to his cross, ask him to forgive us and to help us to do better, and then get up and try again in his strength. And just as he did for the disciples in this story, Jesus takes away our guilt and gives us peace in return. “Peace be with you”; that’s his first word to us today.

But it doesn’t end there. This was a very confused group of people. They’d expected that Jesus was going to set up the kingdom of God on earth, drive out the Romans and bring justice and peace for Israel. After all, he was the Messiah and that’s what the Messiah was supposed to do. But then he’d been arrested and crucified. That wasn’t in the script they had. As far as they could tell, God had abandoned Jesus to his fate, and that must have meant that Jesus had been wrong and they’d been wrong too. So they had been wasting the last three years of their lives; they’d built them all on a lie. What were they to do now? They had no clear plan about that. They were confused about the past and they were confused about the future as well.

In Luke’s version of this story, in chapter 24:44-47, he adds a detail that doesn’t appear here in John:
Then (Jesus) said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you - that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled”. Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem”.
‘He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures’. In other words, he helped them see that the death he’d suffered on the cross wasn’t just a tragic accident, but it was part of the plan from the very beginning. No doubt they remembered him foretelling that he had come to give his life to ransom many people. And suddenly the light went on in their minds; suddenly it all made sense for them. The only way they could think of later to explain their sudden understanding was to say that he had ‘opened their minds’.

But if the past had become clear, the future suddenly became very clear too. Look at John 20:21: ‘Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you”’. You thought you were going to quietly wander off and go back to fishing, did you? Boy, were you wrong! Your life from now on will have a completely different focus: you must go all over the world and tell everyone what you’ve seen and heard. You must call people to turn from their sins and their previous allegiances, and put their faith in the Living Jesus as their Saviour and Lord.

In a couple of weeks we’re going to be having a Vision Day here at our church. We’re going to be thinking about basic questions like, ‘Why is our church here? What is the Mission God has called us to?’ The word ‘mission’ comes from the Latin word for ‘sending’, and here we see Jesus ‘sending’ his followers out: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”.

You and I are sent out into the world with the good news of Easter. By his death and resurrection, Jesus has won the decisive victory over evil and made it possible for us to be God’s friends again. Now Jesus is calling everyone to turn away from their sins, put their faith in him and become his followers. You and I are called to spread that message everywhere. Most of us aren’t being called to leave our jobs and homes to do it. We don’t need to do that. We already have a circle of influence there: Our families, our friends, the people we work with and associate with every day. Our job is to be the best advertisement for Jesus that we can be, by our lives and by our words, so that through our witness they come to believe in Jesus.

I remember the first time I had the joy of seeing someone come to faith in Jesus as a result of my witness – at least, in part; it was Steve, my best friend in high school. We had been playing music together, and I had invited him to come to church and help us out in our music group. He and I had many conversations in which faith came up, and eventually, through a variety of circumstances, he ended up sitting in on a confirmation class. At the end of the class it turned out that he had never been baptized, so I had the joy of standing beside my best friend when at the age of sixteen he gave his life to Christ in baptism. And I have the joy of knowing today that he is still following Christ, forty years later, and has been active in sharing the good news with others too.

There’s nothing complicated about this, and it doesn’t need to be scary. I never saw Steve as an evangelism project; we were simply two friends talking about things that were important to us, and the Holy Spirit used that to lead him to faith in Christ. This is our call as Christians today. Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”. He calls us to take his message out to others and invite them to become his followers too.

So we’ve seen that Jesus comes to his disciples with a greeting of peace: the past is forgiven, and there’s an opportunity for a fresh start. He also gives them a new purpose in life: they are to continue his mission of taking the good news of the kingdom of God to all people everywhere.

Now at this point you may be thinking “That’s too much for me. I can’t talk to people about Jesus. My friends won’t want to know me. People will laugh at me. I’m going to fail again and let the Lord down and so I’ll be right back at the beginning of this passage all over again!”

These fears are natural, of course, and I’m sure the first Christians had them too. In fact, they probably had an even worse case of the jitters than we do! After all, Jesus isn’t asking most of us here to go very far with the message: just our part of Edmonton. And he’s not asking most of us to go up to strangers on the street and talk to them about the Gospel: just our friends and family. But look at what these men and women in our story today were asked to do: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The ends of the earth!

These men and women weren’t superhuman, you know. They weren’t saints in stained glass windows. They weren’t professional priests, and they’d never been to seminary. They had no special training in evangelism, and they’d conclusively demonstrated on the night that Jesus was arrested that they weren’t  especially strong or brave. My guess is that when Jesus told them to go into all the world and spread his message, they were every bit as terrified as you are.

Jesus knew that, of course, and he knew that by themselves they just weren’t up to the job. But look what happens next in the story, in verse 22: ‘When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit”’. In Acts, Jesus adds, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8). Jesus came to them in their weakness and gave them power, the power of the Holy Spirit. And he gives us that same power.

This means that we can relax, knowing that this witnessing business isn’t something we’re doing all by ourselves. It’s a partnership; we learn to walk in step with the Holy Spirit and take advantage of the opportunities he gives us. Personally, my experience is that the opportunities that we didn’t plan for are sometimes way more effective than the ones we did! Sometimes we’re involved in conversations with friends, and something gets said, and suddenly there’s an opportunity for us to put in our little word of witness. We don’t need to get uptight about it; the Holy Spirit is well able to use whatever we offer. Once we start taking the risk of trusting him and taking those opportunities when they come our way, we’ll be amazed at how sometimes just a few words can make a lot of difference in a person’s life.

Are you intimidated by the fact that, just as the Father sent Jesus, so now Jesus is sending you? Of course you are! Who wouldn’t be? But here’s my suggestion: take Jesus up on this promise of the Holy Spirit. Every morning come to him in prayer: “Lord, please give me opportunities today to be a witness for you, and also, please fill me with your Holy Spirit so that I can recognize those opportunities and make the best possible use of them”. That is a prayer that God will never fail to honour.

Let’s go round this one last time. This isn’t just a story of something that happened a long time ago. In a sense, you and I are in that upper room with the first disciples too. Just as the risen Jesus came to them, so he has come to us with his words of peace: not reproach for our failures, but forgiveness and restoration. He has come to give us a new purpose in our lives: carrying on the mission the Father gave to him, sharing the good news of the Kingdom of God by our actions and by our words. And because this isn’t something that’s humanly possible, he’s come to give us a new power as the Holy Spirit fills us and equips us to do this work together.

These gifts are all possible because Jesus is alive. A dead Jesus, of course, would be much less demanding, and maybe sometimes we’d prefer that! But the real Jesus is not dead; he’s alive, and he’s at work in the world spreading the love of the Father, just as he always was. You and I are called to be more than just churchgoers; we’re called to be missionaries, joining Jesus in this work of spreading the Father’s love and inviting people to be reconciled to God. This is not a burden: it’s an adventure, made possible by the joy of the resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit. Personally, I’m excited about it. I hope you are too!

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