Saturday, 10 April 2010

Second Sunday of Easter: "Peace be with you" Really?

John 20:19-23

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.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

There’s something rather interesting about this short passage from John’s Gospel. Twice in short order it has Jesus saying, ‘Peace be with you’ and I wonder why. Wasn’t once enough? No, I suspect not because the two ‘Peace be with you’‘s seem to me to refer to two different things. The first one is what you might call reactive whereas the second is preparatory. Let me see if I can explain what I think is going on.

John makes it clear that the disciples are a pretty terrified bunch, and probably with good reason. They are in a state of fear, confusion and hope, all mixed together. The fear side is pretty understandable. A few days earlier their leader had been crucified. They had all staked the last three years of their lives on him.

He was a Rabbi, a religious teacher, who had chosen them, a bunch of ordinary men, to be his disciples. This in itself was nigh on miraculous because they were a motley bunch of men from different backgrounds, none of whom would have been classified as bright enough to study under any Rabbi. Yet he had chosen them.

Over the last three years he had trained them and educated them in the ways of the kingdom of heaven, and they had come to recognise him as the One whom God had anointed as the Saviour. At this point in time it’s not clear whether they were still under the misapprehension that he was some kind of political messiah sent to free them from the fetters of Roman occupation, although Peter’s recognition of him as God’s Son suggests that they were able to understand that he was something beyond what the people of Judah had been expecting.

However the religious authorities had decided that he was a threat to their power and to the uneasy status quo with the Romans, and so had executed him. The reason for the disciples fear, therefore, was that the next move by the authorities was likely to have been to round up all the followers and execute them too. The disciples were therefore behind locked doors in fear of their lives. So that accounts for the fear.

The hope and confusion stems from what happened in the verse before today’s reading began, which was that Mary Magdalene had come to report to them that Jesus had risen from the dead and that she had seen him. That was a cause for hope, but also for confusion. Why had Jesus appeared first to her and not to one of them? Was it just the delusions of a woman struck with grief at the loss of her closest friend and mentor?

So they were in a pretty rough state. Those of you, and I expect it’s most of us, who have lost someone close to us, or even sat with them as they were dying, will know that the first few days after their death is a period that could be likened to insanity. Nothing makes sense and every nerve is on edge. Imagine that being compounded by witnessing the loved one being publicly and slowly executed by crucifixion and we might get somewhere towards the very fragile mental and emotional state of the disciples.

That is why I say that the first thing Jesus says to them is reacting to that mental state. Someone who they saw executed appears in a locked room, and I suspect we can barely imagine the effect that would have on them in the state they were in. So he tries to calm them down, offers them his peace, and then proves it is him by showing them his wounds. Now they are filled with joy.

But then he says ‘Peace be with you’ again. Now was this reacting to their over-excited state at having him amongst them again? Possibly, but I suspect that instead he was preparing the ground for what he was going to say next: ‘As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.’

Now why would they need to receive peace before hearing those words? Think for a moment about what Jesus has just told them. In the same way that the Father sent him, now he is sending them. Why would that be a cause of needing to be put at peace? Well think about the implications of what Jesus has just said.

The Father sent him and what happened? He was continually misunderstood and eventually crucified by the very people he came to save. Now what is he saying to the disciples? ‘As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.’ Considering what they have recently witnessed in terms of his public torture and execution, does that sound like good news?

The Father sent him and now he was sending them. What kind of long term plans had they had for their lives? Children? Old age in the company of friends? ‘As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.’ You might imagine their brains going ‘click, click, click...’ as they realised that the future suddenly looked rather shorter than perhaps they had hoped for.

And with the exception of the apostle John they were indeed all executed for what they believed. As the Father had sent Jesus, and it had resulted in his death, so he was sending them, and the same future awaited almost all of them. It’s no wonder that he said ‘Peace be with you’, before breaking the news to them.

But note that he didn’t leave them with that jolly note. John tells, in a different way from Luke writing Acts, of how Jesus then breathed the Holy Spirit on them. And that’s the important point that holds it all together. If he had just left them with that worrying note that they were being sent by him in the same way that the Father had sent he himself, then they would probably have been in quite a state, but he then breathed into them the Holy Spirit - the One who enables us.

This is key to the whole narrative, because I believe that the Lord says the same thing to each of us. ‘As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.’ This is the resurrection life. Too often we get to Easter day and then we forget what comes next, but here is the great commissioning of Jesus, sending the disciples out to continue what he has started, and to live with the consequences as he did.

So, are we prepared to be sent out as disciples? Are we willing to lay down our claims to what we want? This is where those with a great deal of influence and possessions can take a big gulp and wonder whether they’re up to the task because of how much it may cost them. And this is why the Holy Spirit was breathed on to us, to help us with the difficulties that will come.

‘As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.’ Do we want that, with all the implications? In our own strength it would be madness. Thank God he sent the Holy Spirit, and for more on that, watch this space. Amen

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