Victory through God’s peace (Easter I sermon)
John 20: 19-23 1 John 5.4-12
“For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world.
And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.”
(1 John 5:4)
Closed doors and hearts
The gospel reading for today begins by carrying us away to a sad and discouraging situation, which shows defeat instead of victory. We read, "On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors were locked for fear of the Jews...”
The apostles were terrified for those Jewish leaders who had convinced the Roman authorities to crucify Jesus just two days before. The apostles now knew what they were capable of and feared they were their next target, so they locked themselves in.
The apostles, however, were not only in physical lockdown but in an emotional lockdown as well. The description of the barricaded and locked doors may well have been a description of their hearts, which had become almost impenetrable to the good news! I guess this is understandable after what they had been through. They felt utterly defeated and bereaved after Jesus had been crucified. To many, Jesus’ public humiliation and brutal death on the cross finally proved He was a fraud. With the crucifixion, the apostles were seen as a group of misguided and apostate Jews. They had also lost all credibility through their own actions because they had abandoned Jesus to be crucified and hadn’t done any effort to stand up for Him or defend Him.
They didn’t even help Him when He collapsed under the weight of the cross. I’m sure the apostles were deeply disappointed in themselves and were overtaken by guilt. For them, all was lost. It is, therefore, understandable that they closed not only their physical doors but also their hearts.
A wonderful day or not?
I suspect we all can sympathise with the apostles. Still, St John, who wrote this gospel, makes us aware of the strangeness of the situation because he wrote: “On the evening of THAT day, THE FIRST day of the week, the doors were locked for fear of the Jews...” The apostles' response would have been entirely understandable the day before, but much less so on THAT day! It was the first day of the week, and Jesus had risen! And it was not even the beginning of that day, but the evening!
And what a day it had been! It had been a day full of stories of people who had seen the empty grave; even some women had met and spoken with the Risen Christ!
The gospel of Matthew also mentions the resurrection of saints from the past and their appearance in Jerusalem! Many of these stories must have reached the apostles. Some of the apostles had even seen the empty grave themselves! This was the grave that soldiers had guarded but now was open, empty and abandoned. The disappearance of Jesus' body could never have been the work of the Jewish leaders, who wanted to ensure Jesus‘ body remained in the grave. Also, no one would likely dare to plunder the tomb while Roman soldiers guarded it. In other words, what happened was highly puzzling and exciting, and there was much to think about! So why were the minds of the apostles so preoccupied with the Jewish leaders? And isn’t it awkward that the apostles suddenly locked themselves in, while, during the day, several of them had gone out to visit the grave?
John’s gospel doesn’t explain this strange conduct of the apostles, but St Matthew may give us an explanation. He informs us that the empty grave and resurrection story had reached not only the apostles but also the Jewish leaders. In their case, it came from none other than the soldiers guarding the grave! Imagine what it must have meant for these Jewish leaders. Because they had been afraid something like this would happen, they had arranged for the guards to watch the grave. But what they feared most happened. The message of the soldiers signalled their defeat and proved that they had been on the wrong side. It must have made them desperate, perhaps even more than the apostles. Their response, however, was not to admit their fault but to continue with their efforts to undermine the truth. They decided to pay the guards to lie and proclaim that the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus. This was a serious accusation, which immediately placed the apostles under suspicion of fraud.
I suspect this accusation had reached the apostles during THAT day and caused their panic. They realised it wouldn’t be long before the soldiers would hunt them down for stealing the body of Jesus – which of course would certainly have occurred if they believed this to be the case.
So what the apostles experienced on THAT day was nothing singular, but they had two contradictory experiences: they heard the good news but also received terrible news.
I find it interesting to see how people respond when they receive good and bad news on the same day. I‘ve often noticed, even in myself, that a hint of bad news easily dominates our thoughts and enters deeper into the heart than the good news. Somehow a broken heart is a more fruitful ground for even more brokenness than hope and healing. So what could have been a day of joyful discovery for the apostles, a day of hope and healing, became a day of even more fear and dread.
On the evening of THAT mighty and wonderful day, the day their opponents learned of their defeat, the apostles decided to firmly lock the doors of their hearts to any ray of light. They chose to remain rightfully miserable, firmly convinced they were failures, unredeemable sinners and cowards, doomed and destined to die.
Christ gives His Peace
But while they were doing their best to keep everybody out, “Jesus (suddenly) came and stood among them”. Jesus walked right through their barricaded and locked doors and said to them, “Peace be with you.” Then, after showing His pierced hands and side to prove it was Him, He said again: “Peace be with you”.
For the apostles, these were the most comforting words ever uttered! Jesus precisely said what they needed most! They craved God's peace and assurance that He had not abandoned them. And above all: they needed forgiveness for the wrongs they had done to their Master.
But because they thought He was dead, this had seemed unreachable! But here Jesus was, fully Alive, not angry, hurt or insulted, but in their midst to give them His forgiveness and peace!
I always love the moment during our Services when we declare God's Peace to each other. It is not just an act of hospitality or kindness, but we are repeating the Words of the Risen Christ to His discouraged disciples. By greeting each other this way, we affirm that Christ’s offer of peace also extends to us. When we say these words, we express our faith and fulfil our calling to proclaim His peace to those around us.
The transformation of the Apostles to do God’s work
Jesus continued, saying, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” Then He breathed on His disciples and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Jesus' behaviour reminds us of Adam's creation, of how the Creator breathed in Adam's nostrils to make Him alive. Like Adam, the apostles physically felt His breath. By acting this way, Jesus showed who He is: our Creator and Redeemer! By giving the Holy Spirit, the disciples genuinely became alive; the Spirit anchored His peace firmly in their hearts. The Spirit would also enable them to proclaim Christ’s peace and forgiveness to the world and, at the same time, announce God's judgment and the defeat of evil. Jesus said: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness of any, it is withheld.”
These words can be misunderstood as if God’s forgiveness has become dependent on men’s arbitrary will and authority. However, we should look at the context to avoid misunderstanding.
When Christ gave His peace to the disciples, he had addressed their personal concerns about their relationship with God and their need of safety. But they still had another major concern. They thought God’s work had been defeated with Christ’s death. They realised that without Christ, God’s Kingdom would never come. They also knew from experience that they were nothing without Him, and nobody else could bring about God’s Kingdom. It had been their mission to proclaim the coming of His Kingdom; they had abandoned their jobs and former lives to prepare their fellow Israelites for this. Now they worried this work was brought to a full stop and what would be left for them to do?
But when Jesus said “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”, He made clear that God’s work had not been defeated at all. On the contrary! Like the bread was multiplied infinitely after it had been broken, God’s work would be multiplied infinitely through Christ’s death and resurrection. God’s work would succeed through His disciples. When Jesus said “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them”, He indicated that His work of bringing salvation would continue as if He still walked the earth! This was the assurance the apostles also desperately needed and Christ gave. And no, God’s salvation doesn’t depend on the arbitrary will or authority of men because Jesus made clear that God’s work is the work of the Holy Spirit, working through human beings. That’s why the disciples needed to receive Him.
But is it true that God’s work can continue through fragile human beings? Hadn’t those disciples clearly shown their incompetence? Does God dare to put His work in the hands of fallible men?
It is here that we see God’s grace and glory. Because Christ’s ultimate victory is not that He Himself was victorious, but that through Him we become victorious! When we observe the apostles' lives, we discover what amazing things Christ's peace can do! They were transformed! They became loving, wise and courageous persons. So despite their past failings, they became victorious! That we are here today is the result of their transformation! The gift of the Holy Spirit helped them appropriate everything Jesus had taught them during His earthly ministry. They received Him first in small measure on the evening of this wonderful first day of the week; they would receive Him fully at Pentecost.
So in today's gospel passage, we see Easter Season is not only about celebrating Christ’s resurrection. It is also about looking forward to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It is also about expecting God to reveal His plan for our life.
Today we have seen the very beginning of the transformation of the apostles. This transformation started small but became so powerful that it changed the world. In St John’s letter to the believers, he reminds us that we need not be afraid. He wrote, ”For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.”
Let us, like the apostles, prepare ourselves to eat the bread of life and join Him in holy communion so that we can be transformed into His image.
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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2