A Sermon by The Rev’d Adrian Stephens, Locum Dean
21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” John 20.21-23
We are one week beyond the celebration of Easter. In the week leading up to Easter we lived the passion of Jesus and the confusion of the disciples. We witnessed the great sacrifice of our Lord, intermingled with the very human attitude of self-preservation displayed by the disciples. Peter stands out as the one who would deny Jesus three times. Judas Iscariot is the one who betrayed Jesus and handed him to the authorities. It was Thomas who declared that if Jesus was determined to travel to Jerusalem he might as well go along and die with him, and subsequently went off to do other things after Jesus died. These responses should not surprise us for we see them every day. They are called human failings.
One week after the death of Jesus we are recognising the fragility, and the confusion, of the disciples. In the gospel today we are in the upper room with them. They are terrified. All they can see before them is ongoing persecution from the authorities. Their leader is dead. There is no one person prepared to step up and take control. They are frozen with fear. They are sheep without a shepherd.
When Jesus entered the room, it was with a message of Peace; shalom; a greeting of complete good-will and affection. Shalom. This was more than a passing greeting. In that one word, Shalom, peace be with you, we find friendship, love, joy, and above all we will find a great sense of forgiveness emanating from our Lord to the disciples. When Jesus entered that room and greeted the disciples with a word of peace, he was revealing a new way to acknowledge our fragility and then to rise above it. There is no need to react fiercely to people who upset us, for it is in our power to forgive. Jesus offers us a new way to interact with each other and it is very much in keeping with the charge to love our enemies.
While there are many accounts of people not recognising the resurrected Jesus, on this occasion there can be no mistake. Jesus insisted that they see his hands and his side. His hands with the wounds from the nails and his side wounded by the spear thrust. There can be no mistake. This was Jesus raised from the dead. We can sense the joy rising in the hearts of the disciples. The cry now is not one of fear, it is a cry of joy and of confidence. It is a cry of, “We have seen the Lord!”
We can imagine that there would be great excitement. The leader is once again among them. Mary Magdalene is the first witness to the raised Jesus, and she is charged with the task to go and tell the other disciples that Jesus lives. Mary Magdalene is indeed the first disciple to announce the resurrection of Jesus. For this wonderful and precious task society has labelled her to be a prostitute. It is Peter who has received the glory for announcing the resurrection, while Mary Magdalene has been disparaged. Our human failings and prejudice will so often come to the fore when we feel threatened.
When Jesus arrived in the room a week later Thomas was present. Doubting Thomas, who will not believe anything unless he can see it and touch it. Once again, the greeting is one of peace, Shalom. Our Lord invites Thomas to see his wounds and to touch them. His response is immediate, “My Lord and my God.”
With every greeting from our risen Lord, we find that wonderful element of forgiveness. Later on, we will hear our Lord forgive Peter when he is asked three times whether he loves Jesus. “Peter, do you love me?” “Lord you know that I love you”. “Feed my sheep”. Peter betrayed Jesus three times and three times our Lord reinstates him. Three times he forgives him.
During that night when the risen Jesus stood among the disciples, he gave them a tremendous authority. He sent them out to continue to spread the word of salvation. He sent them out to be an extension of his charge from the Father. “As the Father has sent me, so do I send you.” The Father has sent Jesus to begin a great and wonderful ministry and he has passed that mission on to the disciples, and therefore on to us. We can be encouraged when we realise that Jesus both forgave his disciples and that he entrusted them with the mission that he had begun. The very same disciples who have betrayed him, denied him, and who have hidden themselves away are now entrusted to reveal this forgiving and loving God to the world.
As he sends them and us, out in mission, He promises that he will be always at their side, and therefore at our side. He promises that we will never be alone.
A tremendous responsibility of this mission entrusted to the church is that through Jesus, the disciples, the early church, and importantly, the church in our time, will have the authority to forgive or to retain sins. This is a tremendous and fearful authority. It is important that as we exercise that great responsibility, we remember that Jesus greeted the disciples with apparent forgiveness. When we allow our human nature to begin to distort this precious charge so that it better reflects our human prejudice, rather than the love of God, there would be chaos, hurt, and ongoing sin. When sin is committed in the name of the church, in the name of our Lord, that sin is magnified beyond comprehension.
The charge our Lord gave to His embryonic church is still valid, and it is a substantial, vibrant, and foundational role for the church in our time. Just as Jesus sent the disciples out into a very hostile world to teach salvation and hope, so it is for the church in our time.
All Jesus demanded of the disciples was that they believe in him and they were to teach others to do the same. When the church believes in our Lord it is a natural extension of that belief for the members of the church to speak to others and to encourage them to believe also.
The information that we have to share is fantastic and magnificent. We can assure people of the love of God; we can assure people that our Lord forgives the person who repents of sin; we can assure people that when our sins leave us with a great sense of guilt, our Lord can relieve us of that guilt. With the lifting of a sense of guilt from our soul we can begin the sometimes challenging process of forgiving ourselves.
When our Lord breathed on the disciples and said to them that they have received the Holy Spirit, it was a gift of life for the whole of the church. The breath of Jesus, the very being of our Lord, is breathed into the church. In this living breath we are given great authority and responsibility. We are the mission, and we become the vehicles of divine forgiveness. May we always strive to live our lives in obedience to our Lord, and to be bold enough to forgive as our Lord forgives. And I say to you, “Shalom.”