Posted on Apr 08, 2018 by Pastor Dave Whetter
“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you' ” (John 20:19). This verse always brings me comfort because in the midst of real fear, according to the writer of John’s Gospel, the first thing our Lord did for his disciples after his Resurrection was to offer them peace. He didn’t try to explain anything to them. He didn’t scold them for not being brave in the midst of his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. He didn’t do anything but comfort them, and I find that most comforting, even today.
Now before I go any further, I feel like I need to give a little background here. As you know the majority of the Gospel texts we will read this year will be from the Gospel of Mark, but during the Easter season most of our readings will be from the Gospel of John. And the reason for this is, as I mentioned on Easter, the writer of Mark ended that Gospel with that mysterious line “So they [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). The bottom line is, if we want to know more about the post-Resurrection experience of the disciples, then we need to spend time reading from the other Gospels, and so for the next eight weeks we will read from either John or Luke.
Now in John’s Gospel, John tells us that Mary Magdalene discovered the empty tomb, and when she did, she immediately ran and told Peter and “the disciple Jesus loved” that someone had taken Jesus’ body, at which time the two disciples ran to see the empty tomb for themselves and then returned home. But Mary hung around, and after talking to two angels who had appeared, the Resurrected Jesus appeared to her and it was then that John tells us, “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her” (John 20:18). And this is where our story begins today.
The disciples had locked themselves in a room because they were afraid of “the Jews.” Now remember, this is not a condemnation of the Jewish people, or the Jewish faith. The disciples were Jews. Jesus was a Jew. What John is telling us is that they were afraid of the leadership that had Jesus killed. They were afraid of the leadership that did not understand this new way of living, and they feared for their own lives. So they put walls around themselves and hoped everyone would leave them alone and forget about them. Have you ever been so afraid of something or someone that you try to lock yourself away? What a terrible way to have to live, but that way of living would not last long, because Jesus would not let that fear remain, and so John tells us, “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you.' ” In the midst of their fears, in the midst of their anguish and unbelief, Jesus came, offered his peace and then showed them his wounds and they rejoiced.
This is the good news of Easter. No matter what your fears are, no matter how much you doubt, no matter how difficult your future looks, Jesus took the wounds that should have been ours upon himself so we no longer need to fear the present or the future. Christ has overcome the one thing that we should have feared, and that is death, and if Christ can overcome death, then there is truly nothing to fear in this life. Now that is good news, and that is something in which we should all rejoice!
And so, with this news of the Resurrection and the promise that Jesus made to his disciples that first Easter night, which extends to you and I today, I stand before you filled with fear, angst, and confusion about our future, and yet, because Christ has Risen and gone before us to Galilee, I also stand here filled with great joy and excitement about our future.
But Jesus didn’t end this first visit with just his peace and his Spirit; no, he offered one more piece of encouragement that is critical for all faith communities. He offered a word of forgiveness. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (20:23). This is a critical verse, and one that I believe needs some explanation. First and foremost, Jesus isn’t saying that if we don’t forgive people that God won’t forgive them. God’s forgiveness is real, and God has promised it. No, Jesus is offering us words of forgiveness to help us remain in healthy community. Secondly, our translation is a little off. If we translate it literally, the first part is accurate: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them”. But in the Greek, the word “sins” does not appear in the second half. One scholar notes it should be translated as, “Of whomever you forgive the sins, their sins are forgiven to them; whomever you hold fast [or embrace], they are held fast." In other words, yes, you ought to forgive each other, but it is also important that we hold on to each other even in our differences, even though we have hurt each other. There are times within our community when we will be sinned against. There will be times when we are hurt and are wounded by these sins, and yet, we need to find the courage and faith in Christ to hold, or embrace, even those who hurt us so we might overcome our brokenness.
Now as hard as that is for us to think about doing, remember who stands before us today. Today before us stands Jesus, the one whose wounds should have been ours. The one who loved us so much that he willingly died for us even though it was our sin that needed forgiving. Standing before us is the one who came into this world to bring peace for everyone, and yet, daily we turn from him, and yet, no matter what, he loves us, he forgives us, and claims us as his.
This week as I focused on this story I realized that we are a community much like that first community of disciples: we too are wounded, we too have doubts, we too have sinned against each other and against Jesus, and we too are afraid of what might happen to us outside these walls in the future. But I also realized this week that we really have nothing to fear because today Christ offers us his peace, his Holy Spirit, and his forgiveness. Today he says to us “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” wounds and all. Today, we are reminded that in this peace Christ offers us the most important thing we have, this body that you and I are part of, the body of Christ, which is the community of faith here at Salem. As a faith community that has been forgiven, filled with the Holy Spirit, and the peace of Christ, we can move forward in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection, if only, like Thomas, we can come to say, “My Lord and my God!”. Amen.