St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Peace be with you

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.”

Philip Brad­ford