On this Easter Day evening we're looking at John's eyewitness account of that dramatic first Easter Day evening.
What's your greatest fear? Perhaps you fear the effects of climate change following record temperatures in February and today? Maybe you share some of the top ten fears of the wider population, such as public speaking, the NHS's or your children's future. Or perhaps it's suffering and dying? Tragically that's what happened to many church goers in Sri Lanka this morning. 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 suffering and death.
"On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews..."
And it's been observed that there's one thing that both Christians and non-Christians fear about Christianity and that's evangelism. But the word evangelism simply means telling the good news. Human beings can find it easier to pass on bad news, rather like TV News. But Christians have the best news ever to tell. Even better than telling someone they're now cancer free. Easter Day was the day death died and through faith in Jesus' death on the cross in our place and his resurrection from the dead we can share in his victory over our greatest enemies: sin, death and the devil and have eternal life. Yet we're often fearful about sharing that. We're fearful of what some might think of us or do to us. I'm always encouraged by this admission of John Chapman, the Aussie evangelist, who once preached at a Tyneside nightclub:
"For years I wasn't able to admit… how 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 asked, 'How many people have you led to Christ?' It was a long time before I discovered that almost all Christians… are tempted to be ashamed of the gospel."
But we don't go on our own. We're sent as the church, as the body of Christ as the first disciples were here in John 20. And we're sent and accompanied by the sender. Jesus promises to be with us always as we go in his name. And he's sent the Holy Spirit to empower us for the task. You often hear the word 'empowerment' used today – people need to be empowered if they're going to be able to do this or that. Well if you're trusting in Christ then you have the Holy Spirit and he empowers us to witness to and speak about the crucified and risen Christ. It's he who gives us the words we need, who convicts people of their sin and need of Jesus and who brings them to new birth in Christ. So we needn't be paralysed by fear of evangelism. God is with us and it's his work. Yes, today we need to be courageous for Christ as the culture is hostile. And that can be costly. Last week Israel Folau, an Australian rugby star, was sacked for posting what he intended to be a loving warning about the reality of hell from the Bible, 1 Corinthians 6.9-10, and asking people to repent and trust Christ, the only Saviour, before it's too late. Intended loving warnings may offend Rugby Australia but there are signs that U25s want to engage with gospel truths as they ask honest questions about true identity, purpose, meaning, relationships and marriage at a time when talk of gender confusion and image on social media have left some anxious, perplexed and empty.
You say OK but Jonathan how do I even begin to strike up a conversation about the gospel today or even invite people to services or events? It's so hard even to find some common ground. Well what I've discovered is that one way in to talking about the gospel, is showing Christ's love through hospitality, listening to people as Jesus did and through the church's mercy ministries, such as CAP, BSO, SFFC and AID. People are then willing to engage and listen to more, such as your testimony and the evidence for Jesus' resurrection from John and Acts 10. And, like God, let's not show partiality but take the gospel to people from all backgrounds and nations in this city. So let's not be ashamed of the gospel but rather with prayer, wisdom, humility and love, be unashamed and people of courage in the power of the Holy Spirit. Do you remember a book called Being a Contagious Christian? Well, today it's also about 'Being a Courageous Christian'. We're far too timid. Maybe that frightens you. Well, what's the most frequent command in the Bible? It's "fear not" or "don't be afraid". Jesus is with us. All of which brings me to the first of four brief points.
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 (Luke 24.34) but the disciples are still rather bewildered and fearful. Verse 19 again: "the doors being locked where the disciples were 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's 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 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's 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 eventually into courage too, their confusion into conviction and gave them 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 true peace. Who needs to come to the risen Jesus today? He'll give you rest, his perfect love will cast out your fear and he'll be with you. So secondly
2. As the Father Has Sent Me, Even So 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. 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, even so I am sending you." What a commission! And this commissioning or sending by Jesus tells us four things about the church's mission.
First, it says 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 six times and the Father is described as the Sender twelve times. So the Godhead's 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're 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? I don't need to tell you the need – it's on the news every day – teenagers stabbing and being stabbed – to death. There's so much confusion today even without Brexit. People are lost. But a survey by 'Tearfund' reveals that three million people are waiting for the right invitation to attend church. Do we spend time with non-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 received Christ. The next Sunday he went to a church he occasionally attended. He walked up to one of the elders and said, "I was at the Billy Graham meeting. 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 answered. "Have you known Christ all that time?" the businessman asked. "Yes, I have." "Well, I don't remember you ever speaking to me about Christ 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 are we clear about what's central to mission and what's central to the Son's mission? – that repentant sinners might not perish but have eternal life, that they might experience new life as adopted children of God and freedom from the slavery of sin through faith in Jesus Christ, being salt and light in the world – centralities that we're reminded of in verse 23.
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's 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's with us when we go and we partake of his authority. As his sent ones we speak with his authority.
Thirdly, Jesus here tells us the cost of mission. Look at verse 21 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 planting 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. So thirdly
3. Receive the Holy Spirit (v22)
"And… he breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.'"
Encouragingly for us despite 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 three 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 and witness effectively. Here in verse 22, the receiving of the Spirit at Pentecost is anticipated. The words 'on them' aren't 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 trusting in Christ 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 the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld."
This verse doesn't mean that Jesus gave the right to his disciples to forgive sins and let people into heaven. Literally this verse says: "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 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're not the ones who provide the forgiveness. Now some of you might be thinking that the second half of verse 23 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're left in their sins facing eternal death. Is someone here or watching ready to respond this Easter by turning to the crucified and risen Christ and trusting in him?