Peace be with you
Sermon preached at Enmore, Second Sunday of Easter, 23rd. April 2017
In Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables, the protagonist, Jean Valjean, recently released from prison is taken in by the kindly local bishop, but he abuses the bishop’s hospitality by making off with some of his silver. He is quickly arrested and brought back to face the Bishop. He expects to face condemnation but the bishop in an act of mercy explains to the police that what Valjean has taken was in fact a gift. Furthermore he explains to the police that in his haste in leaving, Valjean forgot to take the silver candlesticks which the bishop then gives to him. Not used to receiving such kindness Valjean finds it hard to comprehend but in the end determines not to waste the opportunity for a new life now on offer.
The story has some parallels with today’s Gospel reading. John tells us that on the evening of that day- the day of resurrection, Jesus appears to his disciples who have gathered behind locked doors to discuss the day’s events and the extraordinary news carried by Mary Magdalene that she had seen the Lord. We can imagine their consternation when Jesus first appears. How do you face the man you have effectively denied? Peter had publicly denied Jesus three times declaring that he did not know him. Didn’t know him? Peter had been Jesus’ close companion for three years as they travelled around Galilee and then journeyed together to Jerusalem. He had shared with Jesus the wonder and excitement of that mountain top experience where Jesus had appeared in the company of Moses and Elijah and his face and garments had shone with a bright light. Yet, despite all he had seen and heard over those years, in the hour of crisis, when it really mattered, Peter had said three times, ‘I never knew him’. But Peter was not the only one- Mark tells us that after Jesus was arrested in the garden, all the male disciples fled and only one of them had the courage to actually be with Jesus at his crucifixion. What did they expect Jesus to say when he saw them for the first time after his resurrection? They were expecting condemnation.
But instead of condemnation Jesus speaks words of acceptance and forgiveness: “Peace be with you.” It is true that this was a common form of greeting in the Middle East but in this context it had a special significance. It meant much more than ‘may you be spared trouble or strife’ it meant ‘May God give you every good thing’. It was a sign that despite their failure to remain loyal to Jesus they were not rejected or condemned, they were reinstated as his followers and friends. God’s intention for his people is peace-a fact that is worth remembering on this Sunday before Anzac Day when we remember those who gave their lives in the service of their country. The peace we enjoy today was won at a cost. The peace that Jesus brings was also costly- he carried our sins and suffered death so that we might enjoy peace with God and peace with each other. His heart’s desire is that we might know peace, in a world that constantly flirts with war.
Having greeted them with words of peace Jesus then showed his disciples his hands and his side. He wanted them to know beyond doubt that the Jesus who had been crucified and buried was the Jesus who stood before them. But the scars were more than that. Archbishop William Temple wrote that “the wounds of Christ are his credentials to the suffering race of humanity.” Only Christianity offers us the God who carries scars and is sympathetic to the wounds we all carry. No wonder the disciples rejoiced when they had the witness of their ears and eyes that Jesus was really alive. But then John describes Jesus doing something even more extraordinary. He gives them another greeting of peace and then declares that “as the Father has sent me so I send you.” He commissions them to go out and continue the work that he has begun. Extraordinary. Who would have thought that this little group of rather fearful, timid followers of Jesus would ever amount to anything. Jesus did. He had no other plan, no other strategy except to send out his followers to preach the good news of God’s Kingdom. But fortunately the plan included the Holy Spirit. They were not going out in their own strength or with their own pitiful resources. John tells us that Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” We are transported back to the Book of Genesis where we remember that God’s spirit or breath moved over the face of the waters bringing light to a world in chaos. We are also reminded of God’s breath being breathed into Adam’s nostrils so he became a living being. Into these rather bewildered disciples is breathed God’s life giving spirit. In John’s Gospel, there is an irresistible, seamless movement from the death and resurrection of Jesus to his ascension and the giving of the Holy Spirit. We are more used to the timetable given by Luke in his Gospel and the Book of Acts but John chooses to compress everything together. In the upper room the disciples receive the gift of the Spirit and are commissioned for their ministry.
Not only do Jesus’ followers receive the gift of the Spirit but they are given authority to forgive sins. Not surprisingly these verses have been the source of much controversy. What did Jesus actually mean? Surely only God can forgive sins? The context of the occasion may help us to understand these words. The disciples expected condemnation from Jesus but found they were forgiven. Forgiveness is at the heart of the Gospel message. But Jesus taught that forgiveness carries an obligation: if we are forgiven then we must forgive as well. To receive Christ’s forgiveness and then to refuse to forgive others is to fail to understand the Gospel. Yes, forgiveness is hard and only God’s grace makes it possible but it is at the core of what Jesus taught: “forgive us our sins, we pray, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
The second episode in our Gospel today centres around Thomas. Thomas has carried the name ‘doubting Thomas’ through the centuries, a little unfairly in my view. He gets a few mentions in John’s Gospel. In chapter 14 when Jesus tells his disciples, ‘You know the way to the place where I am going’, Thomas rather bluntly says, ‘No we don’t- how can we possibly know the way?’ Then in Chapter 11 when Jesus announces that he has decided to go to Jerusalem, some of the disciples protest and tell Jesus it is too dangerous to go there but Thomas says, ‘Let us also go and die with him.’ Thomas is a realist who likes things to be spelt out clearly- he is not there when Jesus appears to his disciples in the locked room on Easter evening. Perhaps he wanted time by himself to think through things – we all have different ways of coping with grief and Thomas may have felt the need to be alone. Later when he heard what the other disciples had witnessed, he reacted with his characteristic realism- ‘unless I see the mark of the nails and feel them for myself I will not believe.’ Yes, he found it hard to believe and he was honest about it but all the disciples had trouble believing. Thomas was merely asking to see and feel what the others had seen. A week later, Thomas gets his chance: Jesus appears again and this time, Jesus knowing Thomas’ heart invites him to make the test he had demanded. Thomas needs no further proof but instead exclaims, “My Lord and my God.” It was a personal and intimate response.
In the end faith is not about a belief in certain propositions, it’s about a relationship. It’s learning to trust the risen Christ and to be able to call him, ‘My Lord and my God.’ Thomas is the first person in John’s Gospel to look at Jesus and to call him God. But this is where the author of the fourth Gospel has been taking us from the very beginning. Remember how John started, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” And then at the end of his prologue, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son who is close to the Father’s heart who has made him known.” T.S. Eliot’s words are relevant here, “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started” We have explored John’s Gospel and in case we might have missed the point, John spells it out for us one more time, This book is written he tells us “so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and that through believing you may have life through his name.”