Sermon on John 20:19-31, 2nd Sunday of Easter 2020, "The Presence of Peace"

  • Grace, mercy, and shalom to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. 
  • It still feels somewhat bizarre for me to be doing this online form of worship, which we are all hoping is temporary, until things hopefully can return somewhat to normal. Many of us may struggle with the feeling that so many things are out of our control. But really that’s always a reality, and a really good faith lesson--to put our trust completely in Jesus. At every moment of our lives, we are always completely dependent on God, who holds all things together--even when we often have the illusion that we are largely in control. But anyway, it’s good to be back with you, and beginning to reconnect with the congregation here at Emmanuel. I hope in the coming weeks to at least make phone contact with all of you, and please feel free to give me a call. I hope that one of the big takeaways we will all learn from this experience is a greater appreciation for human community, “in the flesh.  However convenient it is to have technology to link us together, I hope you feel as I do that worshipping together in person is far better. But even so, we are joined together, not so much by the power of technology--which does let us see and hear each other--but much more so by the power of the Holy Spirit and Jesus’ promise that wherever two or three are gathered in His Name, He is here with us. 
  • Speaking of gathering with Jesus in our presence...the disciples in our reading today were gathered together out of FEAR of the Jews, and had voluntarily locked themselves up and “socially distanced” themselves out of fear of catching “arrest” and it’s deadly consequences. They had some good earthly reason to be afraid. But they were not yet living in the joy and the knowledge of Jesus’ resurrection, because it still was such an uncertainty for them, until they saw Jesus alive, face to face, in the very body they saw nailed to the cross and speared by the centurion. It took those physical scars to witness to Thomas that it was the very same Jesus he had seen die. As a twin, was Thomas suspicious of a look-a-like? Whatever his reason, he had in the nail-scarred hands and feet and the flesh, blood, and voice of Jesus, the living proof that the Savior had defeated death. “My Lord and my God!” he cried! What a sudden and brilliant testimony of faith! From this day forward, the disciples would live with that joy and knowledge of Jesus’ resurrection. They would be fearless witnesses in the face of arrest, persecution, and death. 
  • Today I want especially to focus on the peace that Jesus brings in the reading, and the forgiveness of sins. 
  • Jesus says “Peace to you” three times in this reading, a flashing light for its importance. I recommend you watch the Bible Project video on Shalom on YouTube, which touches on several of the ideas I am going to develop here. The video talks about how we commonly talk about peace as the ABSENCE of conflict--but how the Biblical concept of peace is much more about the PRESENCE of something. Shalom in Hebrew, Eirene in Greek (here), and Peace in English. The PRESENCE of Jesus brings peace. He is the order in the midst of our chaos, the Life that conquers over death, the Light in the darkness, and the forgiveness of sins in the face of our guilt. All that is broken and not whole, Jesus begins to heal and restore through His victory over sin. Today we will reflect on how the PRESENCE of Jesus brings peace.  
  • How does forgiveness relate to this peace? When we talk about forgiveness we first need to understand what needs forgiving, namely sin. We hear a lot about forgiveness, even in the secular world. But sometimes you hear things said like “I will forgive, but never forget!” Which sounds like you are invalidating your forgiveness by making it your purpose to hold onto your grudge against the person! Now, I know that as humans, we don’t have an “erase” or “delete” button to clear our memories of the wrongs done against us. But forgiveness means we commit to not holding a sin or wrong against a person anymore. Not allowing that sin to come between us. When we forgive, we say, “I will not let this stand between us or divide us.” 
  • Or sometimes forgiveness is treated as just therapeutic. It certainly is healing to forgive--but we don’t forgive merely for what we get out of it, but because it is Jesus’ command and it’s an act of love for our neighbor--not just love for ourselves. And because it is the right and the Christ-like thing to do! Forgiveness is letting Christ take up the poison of sin into His death on the cross, so that we are not continually poisoned by it. 
  • But what about when people talk about forgiveness like: “Oh that was no big deal.” It can seem like forgiveness is just the ability to brush things under the rug, or look the other way, or just letting things pile up on you. But no, forgiveness is not treating sin as a “nothingburger” or ignoring the hurt. We should be able to speak frankly with our neighbor or brother or sister and explain in a kind, not bitter way, that what they have said or done was hurtful. We hope to gain their understanding of wrongdoing. To receive an apology. Again, we can go about this in a way that can be self-defeating. Fueled by anger or resentment, maybe we’ve tried to demand apologies in a way that only made things worse. We let our bitterness and anger boil over, and suddenly an attempt at reconciliation becomes an attempt to get the last word in or sting someone with our anger. 
  •  But look to Christ as an example. He did not lash back at others with anger, but showed compassion and love, even when His tormentors failed to understand. And when a person is repentant, then forgiveness is our response, as Christ commands. We cannot hold back their forgiveness out of spite, but must follow Christ’s example. And when it is hard, because sometimes it really is hard, we call on His love and strength to forgive and fill us with His peace. 
  • But what about the person who doesn’t repent? Here is what Jesus is talking about withholding forgiveness. For those who do not repent, or intend to stay in their sinning, or feel no remorse toward God for what they have done, they do not yet have God’s forgiveness because they are still unwilling to have it. In the context of what Jesus is sending His apostles to do--this is speaking about the corporate action and message of the church--not that we as individuals store up unforgiveness in our hearts. Rather, it is that the church is to teach sinners that we must repent before we have God’s forgiveness. Continual, willful defiance of God is not forgiven.  This is not something the church can take lightly, or act however we wish. It is strictly according to Christ’s guidance--if a person  repents, they must be forgiven, because Christ has done so.  If they are not repentant, they are not forgiven, as long as they don’t repent, just as Chist said. The church therefore can only act as the authorized messenger of Jesus, and only as He authorizes--not varying to the left or the right of what He allows.  As messengers or ambassadors of His forgiveness, the church must only speak as He has spoken, not however we wish. We represent the King and His authority, not our own. 
  • It’s also important to notice that the authority to forgive or not forgive is not given to us as individuals, but it’s given to the Church of Christ. Three main Gospel passages contain this teaching, sometimes called “The Office of the Keys”: Matthew 16 & 18, where Jesus talks about the church “binding and loosing” (like keys locking and unlocking doors or chains) and John 20 here, where He substitutes the words forgiving and withholding forgiveness. Matthew 18 is an entire chapter about forgiveness in the church, which clarifies what the binding and loosing means. And as an action of the church, withholding forgiveness is a call and reminder to repent of sins--it’s not holding onto a personal grudge or resentment. That would clearly be spiritually harmful for individuals, and it is not what this is talking about. But the church cannot “bless off” on sins that a person does not repent of. This gives every one of us a solemn reminder of why we are to confess our sins with true sincerity of heart, and to consciously strive to turn away from our sins. Not only when we come to worship should we study our heart and our actions, for evidence of sin that needs confessing, but we should daily confess our sins in prayer to God. 
  • But how does confessing our sins, and receiving the word of Absolution or forgiveness, from the church, relate to peace or shalom? Sin is the cause of disorder and the reason why we are missing wholeness  or shalom in so many aspects of our lives. As complex as our lives are, so complex are the causes and effects of sin in our lives. Partly through our own sin, partly through the sin of others, and partly through the negative effects of simply living in a sinful world, our lives are affected by disorder, disharmony, disease, and death. 
  • Perhaps because we have a temper that is easily set off, we continually sow discord or resentment in our relationships, and so are missing peace or shalom. Perhaps we were mistreated in various ways in our past, and we carry scars of mistrustfulness, fear, or unhealthy coping. Perhaps we were born with a genetic condition, or suffered an accident through no fault of our own, and suffer physical or health challenges. In many different facets of our complex lives, a sinful and disordered world is tearing at our wholeness or our peace. And a worldwide epidemic is endangering the health of the vulnerable, and endangering the jobs and financial security of almost everyone. There’s no shortage of ways that sin undermines our shalom, our peace, or wholeness in this life. If our life is a complex puzzle, we may feel like pieces are being plucked away and scattered, even as we are trying to piece together the bigger picture of our lives. We need God’s shalom because we are constantly facing the disorder of the sinful world. We need God’s shalom because we can actually thrive in the face of that disorder, when Christ is present with us. We need God’s shalom because our hearts need healing when we wrestle with the hurtful effects of sin in this life. 
  • But remember how I began by speaking about how the world usually thinks of peace as the ABSENCE of conflict? But contrast that to how shalom, or God’s peace, means the positive PRESENCE of something. Jesus doesn’t promise us the absence of difficulty, disease, suffering, or death. In fact we are promised that we WILL have crosses to bear, persecution to face, death before our resurrection, and even strife or lack of peace over the fact that we are Christians, and many are not. Those realities will all be present in this sinful world, until Jesus returns and brings His final redemption. So how can we have Jesus’ peace when disorder and chaos are still present? 
  • Because of the presence of Jesus. Just as He was born in the flesh, so also He rose to new life again in the flesh. God physically present with His people. Jesus physically appears with His disciples, and repeats these words of wholeness--”Peace to you.” Shalom. He brings the Shalom. As Ephesians 2:14 says, “He Himself is our peace.” When Jesus enters a situation, He is Shalom in the chaos. When a frantic, crying infant is pulled close to her mother’s chest, and hears the soothing, familiar heartbeat of mom, it finds shalom. When a storm is raging around a fishing boat adrift in the Sea of Galilee, and suddenly the disciples pay attention to Jesus, who is there with them, there is shalom. When the disciple Stephen gave witness to Jesus’ resurrection, in the midst of a hail storm of rocks thrown at him, and spoke dying words of forgiveness for his enemies, he had shalom. When crisis hits and everything seems thrown off balance and out of your control, reach out for the hand of Jesus, He Himself is our shalom. He is the presence of shalom in our fear, our sin-guilt, our uncertainty, and in our death. Jesus is in control! Jesus is our Shalom! We don’t have to have every piece of our life in unity and harmony to know and experience His shalom. It is enough to begin with the knowledge that He is present with us. 
  • But it's not just that He’s nearby, watching, or uninvolved. When we surrender our lives over to Jesus, He begins to work in the midst of our chaos, working restoration, healing, and shalom.  When our sins are declared forgiven by the appointed servants of Christ’s church, we are assured that our sins are forgiven before God in heaven. Our relationship with God is shalom---restored and at peace. God promises His protecting love to us. And from that base of order and stability, God’s forgiveness works its way through other dimensions of our lives. Which relationship is strained because of sin in your life? Lovingly seek repentance and forgiveness--whether on the giving or receiving end. But be the person who initiates reconciliation, rather than waiting on the other person. As Paul says, “If possible, as far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18). Be at shalom with others, as much as it depends on you. If a person has wronged you, forgiveness is one of the biggest ways that Jesus actively restores shalom in our lives. 
  • If there is a situation in your life that is giving you distress, ask for Jesus’ shalom to enter your life, so that with the presence of His peace, you may cast aside your worries and anxieties on Him, because He cares for you. 
  • And the resurrection of Jesus from the dead brings us shalom by knowing that nothing, not even death can separate us from the love of God. From that foundational rock we can face all of our fears and uncertainties with the knowledge of Jesus’ presence and His final victory. We can begin to know and experience why His peace is the greatest shalom we can have--a peace not as the world gives, but a peace that rests in our hearts and is bigger than any troubles we may face. We begin to learn and experience why His is the shalom that passes all understanding. The world can’t begin to understand this peace until it understands who Jesus is, and what He has done for us. He is risen from the dead, and He Himself is our Shalom! Our Peace! Alleluia!

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