The Evening of the First Day

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Easter Day is a day for celebration. But it is also a day for reminding ourselves of what Jesus is calling us to do in the light of the events of Good Friday and Easter Day – the cross and the resurrection.

Jesus sends his people out into the world to tell others about him and to bring them to him. This year over Easter we’re taking a look at the end of John’s Gospel. This evening our focus is on John 20.19-23, which tells us what happened on the evening of that first Easter Day, when the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples.

I have two simple headings. First, LIVING BETWEEN GOOD FRIDAY AND EASTER DAY. And secondly, LIVING AFTER EASTER DAY. So:

First, LIVING BETWEEN GOOD FRIDAY AND EASTER DAY

As believers, we’re given work to do by Jesus. That work is summed up here in verse 21, where Jesus says to the disciples:

‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’

If that’s not a daunting prospect, then it should be. If it is daunting, then it’s some comfort to remember how those first disciples were feeling and thinking between Good Friday and Easter Day – between the death of Jesus and the day they met the risen Lord.

To begin with, there’s Peter and the other disciple (presumably John) who ran to the tomb of Jesus to try and work out what was going on. They saw the tomb empty. They saw the grave clothes. Perhaps they even began to understand that Jesus was alive – 20.8 says the other disciple … ‘saw and believed’. But they did not begin to grasp the full significance of what had happened. Verse 9 says:

They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.

They just didn’t get it. Jesus had told them often enough before his death, but it hadn’t penetrated.

Maybe you’re like that this evening. You’ve heard over and over again that Jesus was raised from the dead. Perhaps you’ve been hearing that since you were knee high to a grasshopper. But you just don’t get that the resurrection is not just a clause in the creed but is the pivotal point of the whole of history and of God’s plan for the world. Like Peter and John, you don’t understand.

Or maybe we’re more like Mary. Before Jesus appeared to her she’s in despair. Three times her weeping is mentioned in the three verses 11-13. Mary said to the angels ‘they have taken my Lord away.’ She was wrong, of course – but that’s how things looked to her. Christ had gone. She was left alone, abandoned and grief-stricken.

That kind of hopeless sense that Christ has gone from our lives and that we’re useless without him can still inflict us. When it does, it drains us of energy for the Lord’s work. We’re left spiritually limp and lifeless. We lose heart and give up. I remember a period in my own life when my witness was crippled by just such feelings.

Anyone who has tried to help someone entrapped in the tentacles of spiritual depression and hopelessness will know how desperately difficult it can be to get through. And in the end it is not something that we can do. It needs a work of the Holy Spirit to bring us out of it. But thank God, the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, now as then.

Then in verse 19 the scene changes to that room where the disciples were meeting:

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews…

They had no confidence. They had no boldness. They were afraid. They felt their enemies had the upper hand, and the best thing they could do was nothing at all, in case they got noticed.

Now Satan is indeed prowling around like a roaring lion and we need a proper awareness of danger. But too many of us are like those disciples with the doors locked and bolted against a hostile world. We never venture out from the cosy security of our own patch, because fear has got the better of us.

Or maybe we just don’t believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead – as Thomas didn’t. Thomas, of course, missed out on seeing and hearing Jesus on this occasion. He was off elsewhere. But he was told all about it. And he wouldn’t believe. Verse 25:

‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.’

Hebrews 11.6 says:

… without faith it is impossible to please God…

The question for us is whether we’re stuck, as it were, between Good Friday and Easter Day. At the start of that evening, those disciples were not in any fit state to be sent out to turn the world upside down. They were living between Good Friday and Easter Day. They needed radical spiritual surgery. That’s what they get. And that brings me to my next heading:

Secondly, LIVING AFTER EASTER DAY

Look at verses 19 and 20:

19 came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Suddenly, Jesus is with them again.

Jesus came and stood among them …

How wonderful. Jesus is standing among them. When Jesus is with you, fear fades. Despair turns to hope.

This evening, he is with us. We don’t have his physical presence. But we do have his real presence by his Spirit. That is the promise also in the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel (28.20):

‘And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’

We can depend on that. Whenever we’re tempted to despair we need to turn to this promise. Jesus is with us. Knowing that puts an end to despair. In the same way, Mary’s misery vanished when she recognised Jesus’ voice speaking her name.

Through the Spirit Jesus opens our spiritual eyes to see again that he’s alive. He is with us. And he will never leave us.

The disciples had been told that Jesus would rise from the dead, and they didn’t grasp it. We have been told that Jesus has risen from the dead, and at times we don’t grasp it either. But it’s true. Jesus is alive. He is with us by his Spirit. He speaks your name. We can know, as those disciples knew, that Jesus is alive.

Then with the presence of Christ comes the peace of Christ.

Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’

What did he mean by that? On one level that was simply the conventional Jewish greeting. But in this context it meant so much more. Before his death Jesus had promised his peace (John 14.27):

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

This is not a negative peace. It is not the absence of nasty brown envelopes coming through the letterbox; it is not the absence of hassles at work, or of tantrums from the children. This peace is not the absence of trouble from our lives. It is the peace that flows from the cross - peace with God, and with one another, through the sacrificial, sin-bearing, substitutionary death of Jesus.

There can be no peace without the cross. That is why as soon as Jesus had said this first word of peace he showed them his hands and his side. He surely didn’t do that just as proof of identity, like a passport. He did it to point them to the cross as the fountain of peace. Paul says in Ephesians 2.13-14:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…

The wall is down between God and you, and between you and me, because of those wounds of Jesus.

Jesus is with us and he brings us the peace that flows from the cross. Without that peace and without him by our side we’re useless. But when we’ve found that peace with God, and when we know he’s with us, then we can do anything that the Lord calls us to do.

When we’ve experienced these things, then our lives can no longer be bleak and faithless like Thomas. Instead, we have a deep joy, like that of the disciples (verse 20):

The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

The light of Christ dispels the darkness. And now Jesus’ words turn the minds of the disciples to the work that he has planned for them. Verse 21:

Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you!’

It seems to me that isn’t just repetition for the sake of it. If the first time he was speaking peace to the disciples’ troubled hearts, then this time Jesus is saying, ‘This peace is not just for sitting on. It’s not just for you. It’s for sharing. It’s for the world.’

It is always the way that when Jesus sets us free from despair, he sends us out to serve him. I remember very clearly in my own experience a time when I was freed from an oppressive and debilitating burden of spiritual depression the like of which I have never know since. The first result was the deep joy of knowing that Jesus was indeed alive. The second result was that I was thrown into active Christian service as I had never been before.

As a church we help to support a range of people doing difficult long-term gospel work around the world. There are those, for instance, working among Muslims in North Africa. They are bringing up their family in intensely uncertain, and difficult conditions, in an alien culture a very long way from home. Why do they do that? Because they know the peace of Christ in their own hearts and they long that others would come to share in it.

And that longing chimes in with the work that we’ve been given to do by our risen Lord. So in verse 21 Jesus says:

‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’

In other words, ‘My work is now your work. Go and get on with it, in my name and with my authority behind you.’ God is a sending God. He sends us out together, to continue the mission of Jesus.

Jesus lived as a servant, in obedience to his Heavenly Father, proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Now that’s our task, and we’re sent out to tell the world that Jesus the King of the Kingdom has come, and to call people to turn back to him before it’s too late. Jesus commissions his disciples to go in his name. When we live out that commission, we’re acting on his authority.

What is more, we don’t go in our own strength, or just with our own resources. Those disciples were given God’s Spirit to live within them and empower them for service, and so are we. Verse 22:

And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’

In the account of creation in Genesis 2.7 we’re told how…

the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

Now Jesus has begun the new creation and he breathes the life of the Spirit into us. 2 Corinthians 5.17:

…if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

As disciples of Christ, we are part of the new creation, and our new life spreads through the world as we tell people about Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. Archbishop William Temple said:

This is the primary purpose for which the Spirit is given: that we may bear witness to Christ. We must not expect the gift while we ignore the purpose.

Then Jesus ends this commission by saying (verse 23):

‘If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’

He’s not talking there primarily about forgiveness within the church. He’s saying what the apostle Paul said later in another way: that we are ambassadors for Christ, that we’ve been given the ministry of reconciliation. As we offer forgiveness through the gospel, in God’s good time people around us will find forgiveness. That is what the gospel does.

One church leader I know says that his Christian experience was transformed when he saw for the first time that the gospel really works. It really does change lives. As we share the gospel faithfully – whether in North Africa or Newcastle – people will respond and find forgiveness and new life. It is estimated that every day over 60,000 new Christians join the church around the world. The gospel is powerful. As it is preached, the Holy Spirit convicts and converts, people find Christ, and their lives are transformed.

God’s great mission goes forward, and we’re called to join him in it. Jesus has given us what we need to keep on going whatever the obstacles that we find in our path. Jesus has equipped us and given us the power we need to get on with it. He has given us his peace to share; the authority of his commission; his Spirit within us; and a powerful, life-changing gospel.

Many years ago John Wesley, then a young man who was determined to serve Christ, went as a missionary to American Indians in Georgia. Two years later he returned to England profoundly disillusioned. On the journey home he wrote:

I went to America to convert Indians; but oh, who shall convert me?

He was deeply committed to Christ, and engaged in evangelism, but he was in despair. It’s as if he was living between Good Friday and Easter Day. He needed to meet the risen Jesus, and hear his voice. And soon afterwards, that’s what happened. He says:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where someone was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

True faith is a real meeting with the risen Jesus. That’s what John Wesley experienced. And so began a ministry that was to be instrumental in transforming this nation. Today we live in a nation that needs transforming again. Once Jesus has convinced us, he commissions us. None of us is John Wesley. But Jesus is sending each of us out to get on with fulfilling his purpose.

I think of the prophet Isaiah who heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And Isaiah replied, ‘Here am I. Send me!’ Jesus says to us, as he said to those first disciples: ‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’

How are we going to respond? Today is a new beginning. Will our lives be like the lives of those disciples between Good Friday and Easter Day? Or will we live in the light of the resurrection and in the power of the Spirit, as they did after that first Easter Day?

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