On this Easter Day evening we’re looking at John’s eyewitness account of that very first and very dramatic Easter Day evening and beyond.
What is your greatest fear? Perhaps your greatest fear is dying? For Jesus’ disciples on that first Easter evening it was a fear of the Jews and what the Jews might do to them. They too feared death. V19:
On the evening of that first day of the week, the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews. (v19)
It’s been observed that there’s one thing that both Christians and non-Christians often fear about Christianity and that is evangelism. But the word evangelism simply means telling good news. And we have the best news to tell, don’t we? Easter Day was the day death died and through faith in Jesus’ death on the cross in our place and in his bodily resurrection from the dead we can share in his victory over sin, death and the devil, and have eternal life. Yet many of us are fearful about passing on that good news. We’re fearful of what some might think of us or of what others might do to us. I'm always encouraged by this admission of John Chapman, the Australian evangelist, who once preached to the clubbing masses on board ‘The Boat’, when that was berthed here on the Tyne. He says: “For many years I was not able to admit to anyone how really difficult I found it to try to speak to people about Jesus. I thought there must be something wrong with me and sometimes I even doubted whether I was a Christian because of this fear. This spark of doubt would flare up into a flame whenever I was challenged with a question like, 'How many people have you led to Christ?' It was a long time before I discovered that almost all Christians were like I was. All Christians are tempted to be ashamed of the gospel.”
But we don't go on our own. We are sent as the church, as the body of Christ as the first disciples were here in John 20. And we are sent and accompanied by the sender. Jesus promises to be with us always as we go in his name. And he has sent the Holy Spirit to empower us for the task. It is he who gives us the words we need, who convicts people of their sin and need of Christ and who brings them to new birth in Christ. So we need not be paralysed by fear of evangelism. God is with us and it’s his work, which brings me to the first of five brief points from these verses.
1. PEACE BE WITH YOU v19-21
"Peace be with you", says Jesus as he came and stood among the disciples in v19 and as he commissioned them in v.21. Why? Jesus had already appeared to Simon Peter (Lk 24v34) but the disciples are still rather bewildered and fearful. V19 again: “the disciples were together with the doors locked for fear of the Jews.” They feared for their lives. Then suddenly and significantly through the locked doors Jesus came and stood among them - the risen Lord was with them. Just imagine the reaction. It really is true. He is alive. He has risen. Yes the reason the doors were locked was for fear of the Jews, but the function of the locked doors here is to stress the miraculous nature of Jesus' appearance. He is risen! He stood among them and calmed their fears with a word of greeting – ‘Shalom!’ or ‘Peace be with you!’ Who here tonight needs to hear and know those words of the risen Jesus? Peace be with you. Don’t be full of anxiety; rather be full of faith in Christ. You see shalom means more than an absence of stress. It means well being. It means life at its best under the gracious hand of God. So here, after the death and resurrection of Jesus, is the first true use of that word as the victory over sin and death has been won. So the risen Jesus' ‘Shalom’ is the complement of his ‘It is finished’ on the cross. For the peace of reconciliation and life from God is now imparted.
And look at v20. Jesus further reassures his disciples then and now that it really is him - risen and alive and not a ghost by showing them his hands and his side, where the nails and the spear had been. There is no doubt. How important it is for our needy and hurting generation that Jesus is recognised by his scars. How important it is that we preach Christ crucified and risen.
And the disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Joy should be the basic mood of Easter! He turned their fear into joy and began to transform their fear into courage, their confusion into conviction and bestow true peace. And because of the resurrection we can meet Jesus today through his Spirit and by faith. He can transform our fear into joy and courage and give us peace. Who needs to turn to the risen Jesus for the first time, put your faith in him and know true peace and joy? Jesus is alive and with us as we go in his name, we need not fear, which brings us to v21 and my second point.
2. AS THE FATHER HAS SENT ME, I AM SENDING YOU v21
Jesus sends his disciples out into the world with the authority to tell the world. Now of course we don’t have the same unique privileges as the first disciples of Jesus. But that authority to tell the world of Jesus is something the church continues to have. So Jesus says to his disciples then and today, to you and me: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” What an amazing commission! And this commissioning or sending by Jesus tells us four things about the mission of the church.
First it tells us that mission is of vital importance. If Jesus sends us as the Father has sent him, then mission must have the same importance for us and for the church as it had for Jesus. So exactly how important was and is mission to the Godhead? In John's Gospel Jesus describes himself as the sent one 6 times and the Father is described as the Sender 12 times. So the Godhead is defined in terms of mission. The challenge for us is evident. As Jesus is defined by the mission of the Father, so the church is defined by its mission to the world. And if God is a missionary God and we are to be like him then the extent to which we and the church are committed to proclaiming the whole gospel will be a measure of how godly we are. So how godly are we? Do we see the crowds as Jesus does - harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd? Unbelievers are dead in their sin and are in need of the gospel, in need of Christ. And there’s also so much confusion today whether over marriage or Easter. One supermarket chain recently encouraged its customers to buy Easter eggs to celebrate Christ’s birth! The Prime Minister, David Cameron, says that Christianity gives us the values we need and yet he supports a redefinition of marriage! People are confused. People are lost. But a recent survey suggested that 3 million people are just waiting for the right invitation to attend church. So who are you going to invite? Do we spend meaningful time with those who are not believers? Or are we ‘rabbit-hole’ Christians? Many believers can be ‘rabbit-hole’ Christians. In the morning they pop out of their safe Christian homes, hold their breath at work, scurry home to their families and then off to their Bible studies, and finally end the day praying for the unbelievers they safely avoided all day!
Now I’ve been getting nostalgic as today is my 50th birthday! Thank you for your kind greetings, especially those which say I don’t look 50 at all! They say 50 is the new 40 and therefore life begins at 50. Well real life for me began 34 years ago when I put my trust in Jesus Christ, in his death and resurrection. But as I look back I also remember counselling at the Billy Graham mission in Sunderland 28 years ago. One night a businessman came forward and received Christ as his Saviour. The next Sunday he went to church. After the service, he walked up to one of the leading elders in this church and said, “I was at them Billy Graham meeting last week. I went forward and received Christ.” “I heard about it,” the elder replied, “and I’m delighted.” Then the businessman said, “How long have you and I been associated in business?” “About 23 years,” the elder replied. “Have you known Christ as your Saviour all that time?” the businessman asked. “Yes, I have,” he answered. “Well, I don't remember you ever speaking to me about Christ during those years,” the businessman said, “and I thought so highly of you. In fact, I thought so highly of you that I felt if anyone could be as fine a man as you and not be a Christian, then I didn't have to be a Christian either.” You see - both actions and words are vital. And Jesus has sent us to go and make disciples of all nations, to be salt and light and not to hide our light.
Secondly, this statement of Jesus helps us understand the character of mission. The tenses of the two verbs in the sending are different. The second verb is present - I am sending you. The first verb is a past action continuing in the present - the Father has sent me. So there is no double mission here. It's not Jesus’ mission first and then our mission afterwards. No. Rather the one mission of God has two phases - that of the Son on earth and that of the Son in his risen life through his people, through us. He’s with us when we go and we partake of his authority. As the sent ones of Jesus we speak with his authority.
Thirdly, Jesus here tells us the cost of mission. Look at the second half of v21 again: ‘As the Father has sent me’. For Jesus this meant complete obedience to the will of his Father, self-sacrifice to the hell of Calvary, to death on a cross for you and for me. In principle it means the same for us. Church growth is costly.
Fourthly, Jesus here also points to the resources of mission. One is Jesus himself. He’ll continue to be the leader of his disciples. We go out under his leadership, with the inspiration of his living presence and the support of his prayers. The other major resource of mission is the Holy Spirit. So to point three,
3. RECEIVE THE HOLY SPIRIT v22
And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (v22)
Encouragingly for us, in spite of their denial and desertion of Jesus, the disciples were being entrusted with his Word and work. He was sending them out to represent him, to be his ambassadors. Peter had denied him 3 times and yet in a few days Peter would preach the Word and thousands would be saved. The reason? He met the resurrected Christ and was empowered by receiving the Holy Spirit. Without the filling of the Spirit they couldn’t go out and witness effectively. Here in v22 the receiving of the Spirit at Pentecost is anticipated. The words ‘on them’ are not there in the original. The Spirit had dwelt with them in the person of Christ, but now the Spirit would be in them. If we're Christians then the Spirit is in us and he empowers us to reach out to others with the love of Christ. We need not fear.
4. THE RESULT OF THE PREACHING OF THE GOSPEL v23
“If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (v23)
This verse doesn’t mean that Jesus gave the right to his disciples to forgive sins and let people into heaven. Literally this verse reads: “Those whose sins you forgive have already been forgiven; those whose sins you do not forgive have not been forgiven.” I.e. the disciples did not provide forgiveness; they proclaimed forgiveness on the basis of the message of the gospel. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?”(Mark 2v7) All Christians can do is announce the message of forgiveness; God performs the miracle of forgiveness. If sinners will believe in Jesus Christ, we can then authoritatively declare to them that their sins have been forgiven; but we are not the ones who provide the forgiveness.
Now some of you might be thinking that the second half of v23 sounds stern and harsh. But it’s simply the result of the preaching of the gospel, which either brings people to repent as they hear of the ready and costly forgiveness of God, or leaves them unresponsive to the offer of forgiveness and so they are left in their sins facing eternal death. So fifthly and finally,
5. STOP DOUBTING AND BELIEVE! v24-31
Are you a doubter or a believer? At this point the disciple Thomas is a doubter.
Look at v24 and 25. Thomas hadn’t been with the other disciples when Jesus had appeared to them. So they told him ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But he wanted physical evidence to convince him that the risen Christ was the very Jesus he had known and who he knew had died. He thought they’d seen a ghost. ‘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.’ So at the close of the very first Easter Day one of the disciples still doubts that Jesus is raised. Maybe someone here at the end of Easter Day 2012 still doubts. Well look on to v26. A week later the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples again and for the first time to Thomas, even though the doors were locked. He said to Thomas, v27, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’ Thomas replied, ‘My Lord and My God.’
And Thomas went on to take the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus to places such as India. Last year I was on St Thomas’ Mount in Chennai in India where Thomas is supposed to have preached. Indeed Thomas was so convinced, convicted and changed that he was willing to die taking the gospel to India. It is thought that he was speared to death telling an Indian King to repent and believe in Jesus Christ, to have a mansion in heaven rather than another one on earth. Surely Thomas would not have been willing to die for a lie. Surely none of those frightened disciples, who we met back in v19, would have been willing to go and suffer and even die for Jesus Christ if they knew it was all a lie?
That was one piece of evidence that helped to convince me that the resurrection is true. We might not be able to physically see the risen Jesus but there’s a mass of evidence for the truth of the resurrection of Jesus. One US Supreme Court Judge said there’s more evidence for the resurrection of Jesus than there is to convict most criminals. And because Jesus is alive we can encounter him today even if not physically. Indeed an encounter with the risen and living Christ is where faith is born. That’s what happened to me through his Word and by his Spirit. He is here among us this evening. And the church of the living Christ is where faith grows and matures as we remain in Christ, rooted and built up in him. Now people won’t always believe in the risen Jesus immediately, as Thomas reminds us. But who needs to stop doubting and believe and trust Jesus as your Lord and God now? To see with the eyes of faith. Jesus says to Thomas (v29):
“Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (v29)
So you who have not seen and yet have believed – you are blessed. You have eternal life. God has blessed you with every spiritual blessing in Christ, as Paul puts it in Ephesians 1. Don’t forget that this Easter, whatever difficulties you might be facing. You are blessed. And if anyone stops doubting tonight and believes and trusts in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord then you too will be blessed. You will have new and eternal life in Christ. That’s why John wrote this Gospel. Look at v31:
These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (v31)
Will you continue to doubt or will you believe and have that life! Stop doubting and believe, be blessed and go and pass that news on to others and live it out being salt and light. Your work for the Lord will not be in vain.