I remember during my first week at University meeting an older student who became a friend. I was very struck by what he said as he chatted with a small group of us. He was deeply committed to his vocation to be a doctor, but he said that one thing above all others excited him. He said that a while back he had seen one of his friends find Christ and surrender his life to him. And ever since then he had been 'hooked' – and his chief passion was to do all he could to lead his friends to Christ if they did not know him.
His life impressed me as an example of mission – God at work sending his people out into the world he loves to meet its needs, above all by leading people to Christ through the Gospel. The Mission of God is our subject this morning – and I want us to look at John 20.19-23. Do please have that open. As we heard earlier, this is a passage that recounts what took place on one of the occasions when the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples.
Have you seen the latest 'Mission Impossible' film? You really shouldn't worry about it if you haven't. But if you have, you'll remember that in the opening scene after some astoundingly far-fetched rock climbing, Tom Cruise puts on a rather fancy pair of glasses. These glasses relay to him a message from his boss in the Intelligence Service telling him what his next mission impossible is to be. Such is the secrecy and importance of this mission (though I can't for the life of me remember what it was) that the glasses then self-destruct by exploding. Tom Cruise has, of course, thrown them away in the nick of time.
The lifetime mission of the first disciples was relayed to them, not by a virtual reality image, but by a flesh and blood living Jesus, risen from the dead. It was relayed by them to all of us who are disciples of Jesus today. It was a far more difficult mission than Tom Cruise was ever given. In fact it would be completely impossible for us but for the fact that we are given power from God to accomplish it. It is a mission summed up here in verse 21, where Jesus says to the disciples:
'As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.'
Now I'm aware that at one time the mention of 'mission' used to cause my heart to sink: 'Oh no, I'm about to be got at again!' If you feel that being invited to be involved in mission is about as appealing as being offered a trip to Tynemouth for a swim in mid-March – then it's worth thinking about the state of mind of those disciples to whom Jesus appeared after his death and resurrection.
As we do that, we can see four negative conditions of mind and heart. When we suffer from these same conditions, they become obstacles that hinder us from getting on with the mission that we've been given by Jesus. So that gives me my first heading:
First, HINDRANCES TO MISSION
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 graveclothes. 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.
In other words they were ignorant. Ignorant of the true meaning of Scripture. Jesus had told them often enough before his death, but it had not penetrated. I wonder if that's us this morning. Maybe you accept that Jesus was raised from the dead, but to put it bluntly you are ignorant of the Scriptures – you have not begun to see that the death and resurrection of Christ are not just clauses in the creed but are the pivotal point of the whole of history and of God's plan for the world.
Or maybe we're more like Mary. Before Jesus appeared to her she is a picture of hopelessness and despair. Three times her weeping is mentioned in 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, purposeless and useless.
That kind of hopeless sense that Christ has gone from our lives and that we are useless without him can still inflict us. When it does, it drains us of energy for the Lord's work. We are left spiritually limp and lifeless. I remember a period in my own life when my witness was crippled by just such feelings.
In verse 19 the scene changes to that room where the disciples were meeting. The one thing said about them is that they were fearful:
One 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 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 churches, and too many of us as individuals are like old ladies on a dark evening 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 suffer from faithlessness, like Thomas. 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 …
I remember hearing an Australian pastor who built up a mission amongst the members of biker gangs. He said he had been challenged to ask himself whether her really believed the gospel would work among such people. Without faith, he would never have got started. He had to be convinced of Christ's living presence and power.
Ignorance, hopelessness, fear and faithlessness are all tremendous hindrances to our mission. So how are they overcome? What do we need if we are to be effective? And where does the power come from for us to accomplish our task?
The fact is that when Jesus appeared to those disciples and spoke his words to them, he was giving them what they needed, and he was giving them power.
My second heading, then, is …
Secondly, PREREQUISITES FOR MISSION
What the disciples need is provided in verses 19 and 20:
Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you!' After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
First of all there is quite simply the presence of Jesus.
Jesus came and stood among them …
When Jesus is with you, hopelessness and fear fade. And he is with us. 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 I am tempted to despair I turn to this promise. Jesus is with me. Despair cannot survive that, anymore than Mary's misery could survive when she recognised Jesus's voice speaking her name.
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. It is the peace that flows from the cross - peace with God, and with one another, through the sacrificial death of Jesus.
We cannot know the peace of Christ without the cross of Christ. That is why as soon as Jesus had said this first word of peace he showed them his hands and his side. He surely did not do that just as proof of identity, like a driver's licence. He did it to point them to the cross as the fountain of peace. Pauls 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 was of hostility…
The wall is down between God and you, and between you and me, because of those wounds of Jesus.
So we know the presence of Jesus, the peace of Jesus and the cross of Jesus. Without those we couldn't even begin mission to our pet cat let alone to the ends of the earth. With them we can do anything that the Lord calls us to do. And when we know these things, then in place of faithlessness, our response is a deep joy, like that of the disciples (verse 20):
The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
It's rather like watching fireworks on a winter's night. The wait might seem long. The night might be very black and cold. But as soon as the overwhelming noise and spectacle of the fireworks begins you forget all that. So it is with Christ. His light blots out the darkness of ignorance, despair, fear and faithlessness.
Then all we need is power. So my third heading is:
Thirdly, POWER FOR MISSION
The barriers to mission are down. Our own needs are met. Now Jesus's words turn the minds of the disciples to the task. In verses 21-23 I see four power sources for mission.
For a start, Jesus speaks again his word of peace: 'Peace be with you!' It seems to me that isn't just repetition for the sake of it. If the first word was speaking peace to the disciples' troubled hearts, then this one 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.'
As a church we help to support a range of people doing difficult long-term gospel work around the world. For instance, we support one couple who do Bible Translation work in South East Asia. For years now they have lived, and brought up their family, in uncertain, sometimes primitive, sometimes dangerous conditions, in an alien culture on the other side of the world from their original home. Why do that? They do that because they know true peace in their own hearts and they long that others would come to share in it. That is the power that drives them.
The second power source is the commission we have from Christ to do the Father's work. Verse 21:
'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 misson of Jesus.
Jesus lived as a servant, in obedience to his Heavenly Father, proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Now that is our task, and we are 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. The third power source is the Holy Spirit. Verse 22:
And with that he breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.'
In the creation story 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!
This new life is a bit like a computer virus that spreads to thousands of systems. 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."
The finally the last power source is the gospel. 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 Paul said later: that we are ambassadors for Christ, that we have been given the ministry of reconciliation. 2 Corinthians 5.18-20:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.
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 realised for the first time that the gospel really is powerful. It changes lives. As we share the gospel faithfully – whether in Indonesia or Australia or Jesmond – 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. That is a measure of the power of the gospel.
God's great mission goes forward, and we are called to join him in it. Jesus has given us what we need to overcome all that hinders us. Jesus has equipped us and given us power 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.
I think of my student friend who was committed to serve the world in whatever way he could, but whose passion in life was to lead people to Christ. 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.'
What do we reply?