April 27, 2014 First Sunday After Easter
When last we looked in on the disciples of our Lord in St. John’s gospel, confusion reigned. When Mary Magdalene reported to them that the stone stopping the entrance to Jesus’ tomb was missing, Peter and John sprinted to the sepulcher and discovered it empty save for the cloths which had bound His body.
At that point, we learned, John believed . . . but he failed to connect the resurrected Jesus with the long-awaited Messiah the Hebrew Scriptures had promised. Clearly, clarity is needed.
The picture begins to lurch into focus today as we return to chapter 20. The disciples – presumably 10 of them, since Judas has betrayed his Lord and hanged himself and Thomas is missing – are huddled in a room. The time: Easter evening.
The place: We can’t be certain, but it is likely the upper room where they had shared the Last Supper with their Lord. The doors are shut – some translations read “locked” – “for fear of the Jews.”
“Fear” is one rendering of the Greek phobos, from which we get “phobia.” Another is “reverence,” as in the “fear of the Lord.” And still another – and I wonder if this word isn’t more appropriate here – is “terror.”
The leaders of Israel have contrived to get the Romans to execute Jesus, the leader of the apostolic band. It doesn’t take a hyperactive imagination to expect that they will target His followers next. It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.
But while the fear of the Jews is the reason for the sealed doors, it is not the theological purpose. That would be the revelation that the Lord Jesus passes through them in His resurrection body.
We should pause here to ponder the enormity of what God had done in the incarnation before we consider the enormity of what God has done in the resurrection. In the ancient world, spiritualizing matter was not regarded as a great feat. That world was full of conjurers and the conjurers were full of tricks.
In Moses’ time, frogs and flies and locusts were deployed as agents of spiritual warfare. Insects and toads put on spiritual garb, and Pharaoh’s wizards looked for a time as adept as Moses and Aaron in commanding them.
But in the incarnation this God Yahweh did something none other could even dream of. He materialized spirit. The eternal Son, a spirit being from everlasting, put on flesh that He might dwell among men.
And it is St. John’s purpose from the outset to establish that fact. He begins his gospel by directing us back to Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, was there at the creation of the world. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . .” (1:14).
Now that Spirit has robed Himself in flesh, He may represent His Father on high perfectly in the realm of men below. God is no disembodied idea, as the Greeks maintained, but a Person. And this God claims to be Lord of all.
In the resurrection we see spirit and matter resolved in some way we cannot grasp, for the eternal Son still has a body of flesh but this body passes through a closed door. But notwithstanding this mystery, the picture does begin to come into focus.
Jesus stands in the midst of His disciples. Easter glory has erupted in their presence; the world will never be the same. And the first words their resurrected Lord utters in their presence are “Peace be with you.” In the span of three verses He speaks peace upon them twice.
He is imparting shalom. And that’s a mouthful.
This is the standard greeting, and it is still used today. When I traveled in Central Asia I heard it a thousand times, for the Arabic is very close to the Hebrew: Salaam alaikum. But Jesus is saying a bit more than, “Nice to see you.”
St. John has already reported these words of the Lord in chapter 14: “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”
And in chapter 16: "These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world."
This is not the peace that prevails for as long as everyone stands around reloading but the reconciliation of God spilt out upon His creation. This is the gospel peace that swamps sin and death, that allows you and me the inestimable privilege of standing before a God who looks upon us as though we never sinned.
Jesus is slathering peace on their fear like ointment on a burn.
The Prince of Peace has overcome the world. In our epistle lesson from 1 John we read, “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world.” When we are born again we enter into His peace, this peace that came at such a terrible price.
Our Lord’s last words on the cross were “It is finished.” Because it is, He can say to His disciples – and to us – with no hint of a casual greeting, “Peace be with you.” We are now His Easter people, swaddled in the peace He purchased for us on the cross.
He shows them His hands, pierced by the nails, and His side, pierced by the soldier’s sword. And we read, “Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” They were glad? I’m glad when I flip my eggs without breaking the yolks.
The Greek chairo means “rejoice.” They rejoiced, they were overjoyed, when they saw the Lord. In that moment, they felt coursing through them the elation of seeing a loved one who had been given up for dead, a keenly personal reaction.
This joy, too, their Lord had promised them. From John 16: "Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy . . . you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you.”
In the days to come, they would rejoice on a higher plane than the purely personal: God has intruded on His creation and transformed it, making all things new.
Now Jesus repeats the pronouncement of peace and adds, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”
And so the rubber meets the road. When they have done with cowering in their room, they will have work to do. They will not begin a new work but will continue the work their Lord has begun. They will publish the gospel of peace that may now be proclaimed in every corner of the creation because His work is finished.
Theirs is about to begin.
And now it’s high time I told you about Beti. When Marjorie and I worked in overseas missions we had this remarkable young woman as a fellow laborer. Her father was Spanish and her mother French. They emigrated to Cuba, but Castro’s revolution was not theirs.
They found a way off the island and made their way to the Rio Grande Valley.
When Beti was of age, she went to Rice University, where she earned a degree in linguistics and learned Russian. By the time we met her she had served for a time in a crisis pregnancy center in Siberia.
You may recall the Blues Brothers, they who were on a “mission from God.” If Beti had used those words she would have done so without drollery. She was the sort who could stand in the checkout line at the supermarket and strike up a conversation about Jesus with the guy behind her.
One night, she went to a Houston suburb to help a girlfriend pack for a move. The hour grew late and her friend invited her to stay the night. A loud crash rattled them out of their slumber and they went outside to find Beti’s car, which was parked on the street, reconfigured.
A young man, stupid with drink, had plowed into it. He was still there in his car, bruised and dazed. Beti got his information and drove him home, with her girlfriend following, to pick her up. The lad’s name was Charlie.
Then commenced a long and tedious process for Beti to collect from the uninsured Charlie the price of fixing her car. Meanwhile, we drove her home after work on numerous occasions. One evening, I asked her how the collection effort was going.
“Oh, I’m not worried about that,” Beti said. “I’ll come up with the money somehow. Charlie and his mother and stepfather are all alcoholics and they need to know the Lord. When I go over there now it’s to tell ‘em about Jesus!”
Beti went on to earn a master of theology and, last I heard of her, was working as a fund-raiser for a ministry that operates orphanages in desperately poor places. Her life is a mission.
She understands the words, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” Jesus, who submitted to the Father’s will, commissioned His followers to submit to His will for our mission. This business of sending affords a good, concise illustration of roles and relationships in God’s kingdom.
Among the Persons of the Godhead, only the Father sends, only the Son and Spirit are sent. Our word “apostle” is from the Greek apostolos, one who is sent. Each of the gospels contains the Great Commission, best known from St. Matthew: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations . . .” (28:19).
We have before us John’s version. After commissioning them, we find, “He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
This sentence has set off holy wars among theologians for centuries. St. Luke reports in Acts that the Spirit appears in the world at Pentecost for the first time in the new covenant era. How can we resolve the discrepancy?
For our purposes, it’s enough to understand that John is continuing to develop his in-the-beginning motif. As the Father breathed life into Adam, the Son is breathing new life into the new man in the new creation.
The evangelist has developed the theme from the outset that Jesus Christ is the One sent to make all things new. Now in his first post-resurrection appearance to His disciples He sends them to carry on that work. He has “other sheep” – you and I – who have come to Him through the witness the apostles and their descendants have perpetuated.
And there are still more for you and I to gather and bring into the fold. An encounter with the living Christ should induce in us the desire to live in community with our fellow believers and to add worshipers to that community for the Father’s glory.
Then follows another troublesome statement: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
Again, we’ll leave it to the scholars to tease out the nuances. Suffice it to say that forgiveness of sins is a divine prerogative and God has not delegated it to any man.
In his letter, as we have seen, John is concerned to demonstrate that Jesus has overcome the world. As he and others use that term, the world is a human system that leaves God out. The world has a mission of its own and one of its strategies is to divert us from our mission.
It flings at us bright, shiny apples of all shapes and sizes, each one, it says, more dazzling than the gospel. Who needs Jesusmania when you have Broncomania? Who needs love that builds our enemies up when hate that tears them down feels so much warmer?
Here as elsewhere, our Lord is our model. What do you suppose Peter felt when the Lord he had just denied three times appeared in front of him? I wonder if he was more afraid of the Jews or Jesus.
But Jesus had no time for recriminations. If He could pardon His enemies on the cross – “Forgive them, Father; they know not what they do” – He could forgive a friend who betrayed Him. Love does not take offense.
Our mission is compromised when the world succeeds in diverting us from it, and we are diverted when we allow extraneous things to consume more of our hearts and minds and hours and dollars than the gospel of peace.
As the Father sent Him, Jesus sends His followers, but much of the church of our time and place is apostate. Obedience? Why, they submit daily – to the idol in the mirror.
That leaves the mission to us. If men and women, boys and girls, are to hear the good news of salvation in Christ, we must deliver it. If we are to be our Lord’s witnesses, we must be Easter people – those who take up His resurrection power and use it, for we have been raised with Him.
We are risen! We are risen indeed! If our Lord has conquered sin and death, if He has ascended, if He sits at the right hand of the Father on high, we are the church triumphant. His victory is ours, if only we will claim it. Amen.