Have you tried out something new lately? Or can you remember when you last started something different? It may be an interest or hobby, an exercise regime or a diet or the purchase of new car or piece of electronic equipment. There are often three stages to such new departures in our lives.
The first will be the discovery that something new is out there and it might be just what we have always needed. May be it was an advert that alerted your attention or something that somebody said or seeing the article you would like to purchase in someone’s sitting room or a shop window. Secondly, we want to grasp what it is for ourselves, to go and buy it, to join up or to get ourselves trained and equipped for what we would like to do. Finally, we will actually do whatever it is. We will drive the new car, try out the diet or get into our new interest.
It was a bit like that for the disciples of Jesus when Jesus rose from the dead. They had become used to sharing their lives with Jesus, helping him out and struggling to understand what it was all about. Then there was the betrayal by Judas, the trial and crucifixion. It seemed as if everything had come to an end and they would have to return to their day jobs but on Sunday morning something new and different. News began to trickle through from Mary Magdalene and others that the grave was empty and that Jesus had been seen alive. Could this really be true? The rumours no doubt made them more nervous and so John tells us at the beginning of our gospel reading today (John 20.19-31) that they had locked themselves away fearing that the Jewish leaders might come looking for them. If a story was circulating that Jesus was not dead it would mean they still had unfinished business.
But next we read that Jesus came and stood among them and said ‘Peace be with you’. He showed them his hands and his side and they rejoiced. This was for the disciples a moment of discovery. They had the evidence before their eyes. No longer was it just a report they had heard from the women but now they could see, even touch the risen Jesus. One of their number, Thomas, was not with them. He demands to see the evidence for himself and Jesus grants him the privilege. His response is to acknowledge Jesus as his Lord and his God. Jesus then challenges Thomas and indirectly the others. Have they believed because they have seen the risen Jesus; because they have seen the marks of the nails in his hands and feet? Yes…but blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe. We all fall into that category. We cannot see the risen Christ with our eyes; feel the scars in his hands and side. We do not walk with him on the Emmaus road or have him cook us breakfast. Yet, we will make our own less physical but none the less real discoveries of Jesus. Reading and reflecting on the accounts provided by eyewitnesses and near eyewitnesses of Jesus raised from the dead, we will form our opinions of whether we think they are coherent and believable. We will have observed the lives of those who profess faith in the risen Christ; listened to their testimony and observed the marks of Jesus in their lives. In genuine worship and in quiet prayer, we will have sensed the presence of Jesus in our hearts and minds. In all this, we find the rumour of Jesus to be true. We will have discovered that Jesus is not a dead man from history but the one though whom death is defeated; the one who can transform our lives today.
Next, John tells us that Jesus breathed on the disciples and they received the Holy Spirit. (John 20.22) Once we have discovered that a new product, hobby or relationship might be good for our lives, we will want to grasp hold of it. We will need to be prepared and equipped to make the best of what is on offer. Whether it is mountaineering or stamp collecting, we cannot do it without some support. Now that he was alive again, Jesus wanted his disciples to continue in relationship with him and to be involved in his mission. Yet he knew that they would need to be prepared and kitted up for what lay ahead. This is why he gives them the Holy Spirit.
In John’s gospel, Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as the comforter, the advocate, who will come…because I am going ‘away’. (John 16.7) Jesus had already made it clear to Mary Magdalene that even though he was alive again, he would not remain in a body of flesh and bones which she could hold on to. He would instead inhabit heavenly places with his father. He bequeaths, gifts the Holy Spirit, his own Spirit, the Spirit of the Father to the disciples. He does this by breathing upon them. Just as in the stories of creation, God had breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life, (Genesis 2.7) so Jesus breaths his Holy Spirit on the frightened disciples to give them strength to live out the new life demanded of them by his resurrection. This account of a blessing of the Holy Spirit is unique to John but does not preclude what Luke tells us happened later on the day of Pentecost. What is important for us to grasp is that the discovery of Jesus back from the dead is followed by the acquisition, the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Thirdly, there is a commission from Jesus. Following their discovery that Jesus is alive and the receiving of the Spirit, the disciples are given instructions: they are sent. Jesus says: ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you.’ (John 20.21) What should this ‘sending’ mean for them? Jesus tells them: ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ (John 20.23) This verse has been the cause of much debate over the years. It has been said that Jesus is giving a kind of ordination to the disciples, offering them the priestly authority to absolve sin. It is because of this and related verses that only one in priests orders may officially pray the prayer of absolution following confession in worship in many church traditions.
But this understanding may be too narrow. In a similar conversation with the disciples in Luke’s gospel, the risen Jesus talks of ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins being preached in my name to all nations.’ (Luke 24.47) While many television documentaries and the like portray Jesus as a failed political leader or a mystic preacher, any serious reading of the gospel accounts will conclude that Jesus’ mission was about the kingdom of God, or the light coming into the world. This Kingdom or the light as John describes it is all about overcoming the darkness of sin. This is political in that it effects the institutions of the day, but above all it is the response of individuals to the forgiveness and transforming new life that Jesus offers. It is about the forgiveness of individual sin. The Church, as represented by the frightened disciples locked in the house is charged with taking forward a message which has forgiveness of sin at its heart.
The examples we set out with, deciding on a new hobby or to buy a new product are trivial when compared with the seriousness of the commission Jesus leaves with his disciples but the processes involved are the same. We will discover something new and have to decide whether it is for us or not. If we do go for it, we must get equipped, and go and do it, get it use it. Have you discovered the risen Jesus? Are you accepting of his gift of his Holy Spirit? Are you playing your part in fulfilling the commission Jesus has left us in sharing his work of the kingdom, the forgiveness of sins?
Easter 2 23.04.2017