On this Easter Day evening we’re looking at John’s eyewitness account of that dramatic first Easter Day evening. So do turn with me to John 20:19-31.
What is your greatest fear? Perhaps it’s a fear of the effects of global warming following record temperatures this Easter? Some don’t. One student I met here from Siberia said to me: “In Siberia we love global warming!” 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.”
And it’s been observed that there is one thing that both Christians and non-Christians 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 resurrection from the dead we can share in his victory over sin, death and the devil and have eternal life. But if truth be known many of us are quite 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’, here on the Tyne.
"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 24:34) 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.
The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. 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 tonight, 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 about Jesus is something the church continues to have. So Jesus says to his disciples today, to you and me: "As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." What a commission! Just listen to it again: "As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." 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 gospel will be a measure of how godly we are. How godly are we? Do we see the crowds as Jesus does - harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd? I don’t need to tell you the need – it’s on the news every day – teenagers stabbing and being stabbed – to death. A 22 year old pregnant woman murdered over a car parking space. Binge drinking is on the rise. Somerfield supermarkets recently encouraged its customers to buy Easter eggs to celebrate Christ’s birth! Blackburn Cathedral has just appointed a Muslim to its staff! There is so much confusion today. People are lost. But a survey out this week from ‘Tearfund’ reveals that 3 million people are just waiting for the right invitation to attend church. So who are you going to invite to the Christianity Explored Taster Session on May 3rd? Please be praying for 80 people to be there again. Do we spend time with those who are not Christians? 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!
Years ago when I was counselling at the Billy Graham mission in Sunderland, a businessman came forward one night and received Christ as his Saviour. The next Sunday he went to a church he sometimes attended. After the service, he walked up to one of the leading elders in this church and said, "I was at the 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, I think," the elder answered. "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 & words are vital. And if you want to start getting involved on the words front why not come along to the Christianity Explored training session on Tuesday 24 April, 7.30pm, 3 Osborne Rd. We still need more helpers for that taster session on May 3rd.
And are we clear about what is central to mission and what is central to the Son's mission? - that repentant sinners might not perish but have eternal life, that they might experience new life as the children of God and freedom from the slavery of sin through faith in Jesus Christ - centralities that we are reminded of in v23.
Secondly this key statement of Jesus helps us to 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 you and me. He is 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 self-sacrifice to the hell of Calvary, to death on a cross. In principle it means the same for us. Church growth and church launching are costly.
Fourthly Jesus here also points to the resources of mission. One is Jesus himself. He will continue to be the leader of the 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, which leads us on to my third point from John 20.
3. RECEIVE THE HOLY SPIRIT v22
V22: And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
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
V23: “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."
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 like this: "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 2:7) All Christians can do is announce the message of forgiveness; God performs the miracle of forgiveness. If sinners will believe on 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. Some of you might be thinking that the second half of v23 sounds stern and harsh. But it is 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
Not everyone will believe. And not everyone will believe immediately as we’re reminded here. Not everyone will immediately believe this eyewitness account of John’s of the risen Jesus. Even Thomas, one of the disciples, failed to trust John’s and the other disciples’ testimony when he first heard it. Look at v24&25. He hadn't been with the other disciples when Jesus came. 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. '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 the very first Easter Day ends with one of the disciples still doubting that Jesus is raised. Maybe someone here this evening at the end of Easter Day 2007 still doubts. Well look on to v26&27. 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, v.27, 'Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe'. Thomas said to Jesus, "My Lord and My God". Who here tonight needs to stop doubting and believe and trust Jesus as your Lord and God? Look at what Jesus says to Thomas in v.29:
'Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed'.
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.” I received an e mail this week which read like this: “Dear Jonathan, We thought you might be interested in the latest hit audio book 'The Secret' by Rhonda Byrne. Passed down through generations, discover the secret that will transform your life forever.” Well they thought wrongly! Whatever Rhonda’s secret is it won’t transform your life forever. However, reading John’s Gospel and believing in Jesus as your Lord and God will transform your life forever as you will then have life in his name. So stop doubting and believe! Get along to the Christianity Explored Taster Session to help you further. You see why would those frightened disciples, who we met back in v19, have been willing to go and die for Jesus Christ if it was all a lie?