Sermon for Sunday April 23rd, 2017, the First Sunday after Easter
The Lessons: Acts 2:14a, 22-32; John 20:19-31
Text: John 20:19-31
Topic: The peace of the risen Lord Jesus Christ through the forgiveness of sins.
In his oral history of World War II, The Good War, author/historian Studs Terkel related the experience of David Milton, who was an eighteen-year old merchant seaman aboard ship in 1942. Milton told of one time when his ship was transporting Sherman tanks across to Europe. In the middle of the Atlantic,these tanks broke loose in a big storm. They were Sherman tanks, twenty, thirty tons. As the ship would roll, these tanks would just slide across the hold and bang up against the bulkhead. Then they’d roll the other way, just shaking the ship apart. So we pulled out of the convoy. We headed into the sea, while the deck seamen went down below to secure those tanks. They were riding them like cowboys, trying to hook cables through. Finally, they got the tanks lashed down….
The great danger to Milton’s ship came, not from the storm on the outside, but from the disturbance inside. How necessary it is that we be calm and peaceful within!
JOHN 20:19-23 – THE PEACE OF CHRIST
The first day of the week, the first Easter, was drawing to a close. Far from being at peace, the eleven disciples were assembled behind closed doors. In the early morning, Mary Magdalene had told Peter and John about the empty tomb. Peter and John had run to the tomb and seen for themselves that it was empty and the grave-clothes left there. As a result of the evidence, John had believed that Jesus had risen from the dead. Mary Magdalene had seen two angels at the tomb, and then the risen Lord Jesus himself, who had told her to tell the disciples that he would ascend to their God and Father.
All of a sudden, the Lord Jesus comes and stands among these troubled, fear-stricken disciples, saying, “Peace be unto you.” Then, at once, he shows them his hands and his side. Though the words “Peace be unto you” are a standard Jewish greeting conveying peace, joy, and the fullness of God’s blessings, we must recognize that they are the remedy for fear as well. Not only our Lord’s blessing of peace, but also the sight of him, brings peace to the disciples. The nail marks of crucifixion are still visible on Jesus’ hands, and the wound in his side, made by the soldier who wanted to ensure that he had already died on the cross. For the disciples, these wounds, or their scars proved the genuineness of Christ’s resurrection beyond all doubt.
A second time the Lord assures them of his peace. The first blessing of peace removes fear from their hearts, and gives them peace through both his words and his showing of his wounds. The second blessing of peace carries with it mission to the world. Just as God the Father sent the Son into the world to fulfill his unique mission, so the Lord Jesus Christ sends the Apostles, and the Church on a unique mission to the world. No one can fulfill this mission without being at peace with God, knowing that he stands fully reconciled with God.
Then, to empower the disciples to fulfill their mission to proclaim the Gospel, the Lord Jesus breathes on them, saying, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost.” To this he adds the words, “Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.” Traditionally, the Church understood these last verses to commit to the Apostles, and to the bishops, who succeeded them, the right and power to confer the Holy Spirit in Ordination, and in Baptism, and later in history, Confirmation and to commit to priests the authority to proclaim absolution from sins committed.
But if these verses are to have meaning outside of churches with episcopal government, then it must be understood that our Lord Jesus is really committing to the Apostles, and hence to the whole Church and its leaders, the power and authority to assure believers of God’s forgiveness when they repent of sin, and to regard unrepentant believers as not forgiven of their sins by God. This is not a justification for holding personal grudges against those who have wronged Christians, since we are all required to forgive everyone. Rather it is a call to the Church to spread the good news of God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ to all who turn away from sin, but to warn believers who have refused to repent, that their sins are retained, that is, not forgiven by God. The Holy Spirit is now abiding in all the members of the Church to empower them for their mission of reconciling the world to God without compromising on sin.
Though the experience of the Holy Spirit’s baptism only came upon the disciples at Pentecost, we do sense from this passage a distinct commissioning of the Apostles, and the gift of the Holy Spirit to them. Our Lord’s breathing upon the disciples reminds us of Genesis 2:7, when God breathed the breath of life into man, and he became a living soul, and of Ezekiel 37:9, when the Spirit is commanded to breathe “into these corpses, that they may live.” The impression is distinctly conveyed that our Lord Jesus Christ was creating the Church by the Holy Spirit, and giving to these fearful disciples a newness of life and peace, in giving them the gift of the Holy Spirit. Here, indeed, a remnant of Israel was receiving the breath of life, as Ezekiel had prophesied.
God calls us to a new dimension of life lived under the guidance of his indwelling Holy Spirit, by whom we are given the grace of sharing the Gospel of peace with God through repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. The Holy Spirit is given to empower us for this witness and service.
Will you be faithful in sharing the Good News of the risen Christ’s gift of peace through your witness and service?