The gift of peace which overcomes fear
Jesus gives peace to people who are afraid
The disciples are in a house with a door that is locked because they are afraid of the authorities.
That is what fear does. It locks us in
We are so often paralysed by fear: by fear of other people, by fear of being shamed, by fear of failure, by fear of condemnation, by fear of losing something or someone that has become so precious to us that it is part of us, by fear of being hurt or pain, by fear of death.
It is because of the fear of being rejected that we do not invite someone out for even something as simple as a coffee or a drink
It is because of the fear of humiliation that we are not prepared to share our weaknesses and vulnerabilities
It is because of the fear of the consequences that we do not do what is right.
Many years ago I was going into one of the churches where I served, when I noticed two young men go up to an older drunk man who regularly used to sit on a bench in the park in which the church was situated. And they attacked him. It was completely unprovoked. They beat him, kicking and hitting him. And I – I did nothing. I thought if I step in, they will attack me. Even as I say this, I feel ashamed. And I feel even more ashamed because I am not sure whether, if it happened today, I would do anything different.
Fear traps and paralyses us. It locks us into ourselves.
And the disciples are locked in a room – fearful of being arrested; fearful of facing up to their failures – their abandonment of Jesus in his hour of need; fearful of being shamed in front of their families and communities - as they return like dogs with their tales between their legs.
And look at Thomas. Fear had also locked him in.
He would not believe, even though all the people he had lived with for three years, who he had trusted, were telling him that they had seen the risen Jesus.
‘I will not believe, unless .. I see the scars and put my fingers in them’
Why? I guess it was fear of being made to look foolish, of being let down again
But Jesus breaks into that locked room, not once but twice. And his first words on both occasions are: ‘Peace be with you’. In fact, on the first occasion, he says ‘Peace be with you’ twice.
And Jesus breaks into our locked rooms and he brings his peace.
1. He gives to people who are afraid evidence that he has risen from the dead.
Look at how John writes this chapter.
Mary sees the stone has been moved from the tomb (v1)
Peter sees the discarded strips of linen that had been used as grave clothes (v6)
John sees and believes (v8)
Then in v13, Mary sees the risen Jesus and in v18 she says to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’
In v20 the disciples see the Lord, and in v25 they say to Thomas, ‘We have seen the Lord’
And Thomas says, ‘Unless I see I will not believe’ (v25), and when he does see Jesus, Jesus says to him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’ (v29)
In other words, we are blessed – you and me – when we believe that Jesus has risen from the dead, not because we have seen the empty tomb or the discarded strips of linen, not because we have seen the risen Jesus – some of us may have had experiences or encounters with the risen Jesus, but they are rare - but because we have believed and trusted those who did see them.
We have, by the grace of God, believed the scriptures. Look again at v9 says: it implies that if those first disciples had understood their Old Testament, they would have realised that Jesus had to rise from the dead. The Old Testament which tells us that the Messiah will suffer but be raised, and with all its predictions, including the fact that the Messiah would be laid in the tomb or a rich man. And we also have the New Testament which tells us of the witness of the disciples.
So we have the evidence.
It is not in what we see or experience, but in what they saw
It is in the witness of scripture.
It is in the witness of the traditions that have been handed down from one generation to the next
And this is a truth which will change our lives. It can set us free from fear.
Wolfhart Pannenberg, a German theologian, writes ‘The evidence for Jesus' resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: First, it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live.’
I am not saying that if we believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead then we will never fear.
Of course, we will continue to fear loneliness, hurt and pain.
But our peace in our fear lies in this: we have a hope – hatred and death is not the end. Love and life do win. It really will be ‘happily ever after’. Jesus Christ has risen from the dead.
2. Jesus breaks into the locked room of our fear and gives us peace by reassuring us of his forgivingness and of his calling
It must have been a pretty sorry site that first Sunday evening: a group of people who had come together because there was nowhere else for them to go.
They were afraid of the authorities.
And they were ashamed. They had let Jesus down: they had denied him and abandoned him.
Maybe someone had prepared some food, but I guess few of them ate anything. It was an uncomfortable wake. Nobody could look anybody else in the face.
And suddenly Jesus appears and says, Peace be with you.
As they get over their shock and joy at what they saw, I guess they began to wonder, ‘now what?’ What would he say to them?
There is a storyline in the Archers - a radio soap opera which some of you will know - in which a lady who is a volunteer minister in the church has stopped coming to church. She has divorced her husband and she feels so guilty that she can’t face coming to church.
Well this next bit is for her, for the disciples, for anyone who knows that we have let Jesus down.
Jesus says to them a second time, ‘Peace be with you’. He doesn’t say, ‘What a bunch of losers; What a waste of space’.
He doesn’t condemn them.
Instead he gives them a task: ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’.
Continue to do what I have done, with my authority, and in my strength.
And the main thing that he focuses on is that they are to forgive sins.
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (V23)
Is this about preaching? We forgive sins by preaching the forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus. If people hear and put their trust in him, then they are forgiven. If people refuse to hear, then they remain condemned.
Or is this about the Church, in the person of an authorised individual, connected relationally with the men and women of God of the past – through a common faith and, some would say, by the laying on of hands - declaring absolution for sins (that your sins are forgiven), whether publicly in something like the absolution after the general confession, or in private confession? And, if that is the case, then the Church – in the person of the bishop or, through the bishop, the minister, can (must!) declare to anyone who has received Jesus that their sins are forgiven. And the Church also has the authority to say to those who persistently refuse to receive the forgiveness that Jesus offers, that their sins are not forgiven.
I don’t know. It could be both.
But what I do know is that the risen Jesus meets with the disciples who have badly let him down, and he says ‘Peace be with you’, and he gives them a job to do and he talks about the forgiveness of sins.
In other words Jesus breaks into the locked rooms of our fear that we are nothing because we sin and because we fail and because we let him down – and he reassures us of the forgiveness of sins, and he reassures us of his call.
3. Jesus breaks into the locked room of our fear and he gives us peace because he gives us himself.
This is probably the most precious of the three things that Jesus does for those who follow him.
Yes, we believe and trust that he rose from the dead, that death is defeated. But we still have to live in this world, with the hurts and pains of this world.
Last week we heard of people who lost entire families in the massacres in Sri Lanka. You are married with two children, you receive a phone call, and in a few seconds you realise that you are alone.
And yes, we have the promise that our sins have been forgiven, and we have a task to do: to do what he did in his authority, to live for him.
But that is so hard.
So now, as Jesus says, ‘Peace be with you’, he breathes on them and gives them his Holy Spirit. I know the Spirit doesn’t fully come till the first Pentecost, 50 days later, but Jesus gives them a sign, a glimpse of what is to come.
And the Spirit is the Spirit of the risen Jesus.
He gives us himself.
There is no room that is so locked that the Spirit of Jesus cannot get in. He can even get into the deepest darkest pit of someone who has no hope, and who is locked in depression. He comes to us and says to us, ‘Peace be with you’.
And if we are prepared to welcome and receive him, his Holy Spirit – his presence - will come and live in us. He will be with us and in us. He will guide us and teach us. He will change our heart and our desires.
And he will – it may not be immediate, it may take time – but he will not only reassure that he is alive, tell us that we are OK, forgiven, right with God – but he will begin to give us the knowledge, that inner knowledge, of that peace of God, which – as Paul later writes – transcends all understanding.