A Sermon Preached by Lay Reader Eleanor Childs on 28 April 2019
So here we are a week after Easter Day. And what a joyful day it was, as those who were here last Sunday remember. Easter is considered the climax of the Christian calendar, but the word climax implies the highest point, after which things wind down. And that is not how it is for Christians. For us Easter is not only the climax of salvation history but also the beginning of a new era, the era of the Spirit, of the kingdom of God. Jesus’ offering of himself on the cross has won our salvation. If we have come to him, we have been freely forgiven and reconciled to God. We have been gifted with His Spirit to enable us to follow Him and carry on his mission of proclaiming the kingdom of God. Easter is the gateway to all this.
But that is not how it looked to the disciples on Easter Day. They are huddled together in a room with the doors locked. The Jewish authorities have done away with their leader. Will the Temple police be coming to get them next? They are frightened and confused. They’d anticipated Jesus setting up his kingdom, not getting himself crucified like a common criminal. Also, there is word out that Jesus has been spotted – alive, after dying a gruesome death which was witnessed by many. One of the womenfolk swears she spoke to him outside the tomb, but that was just a woman’s report. Yet Peter and John have visited the tomb and found it was empty and the grave clothes neatly folded. John certainly believes he is alive. And 2 disciples who were on the road to Emmaus have returned with the news that Jesus had met them on the road. What are they to make of all this? Can you imagine the turmoil of mind they are in after the weekend’s horrific events which have executed their beloved leader and overthrown all their hopes and dreams? Can they dare to hope again and believe in the impossible?
Then suddenly Jesus comes and stands among them. What a heart-stopping moment! He greets them with the traditional Jewish greeting, ‘Peace be with you.’ And after he has reassured them it is really he and not a ghost, by showing them his wounds, he repeats the greeting, ‘Peace be with you.’ The word used is ‘shalom’. It’s a much richer word than our word ‘peace’ which can mean simply the absence or cessation of conflict. In its OT context ‘shalom’ means ‘well-being’ in its fullest sense. ‘Shalom’ is life at its best under the rule of God. Jesus’ repeated use of the word must have reminded his disciples of his final words before his arrest: ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.’ The world’s peace is often the peace of escape or avoidance of trouble or refusing to face things, but the peace Christ brings is of a different order. It is not dependent on circumstances. It is the inner peace of being forgiven, accepted and reconciled to God, and to one another. At Christ’s birth the angels sang, ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.’ Because Jesus has inaugurated the kingdom of God by his death and rising now shalom in all its fullness is possible for the first time in human history. Because of Easter, true ‘shalom’ has become a reality. Nearly every epistle from St Paul begins with the greeting ‘Grace and peace (shalom)’ to his readers.
Obviously the disciples in their churning minds needed to hear the greeting of ‘shalom’ from their Lord. After all, they had deserted Jesus, betrayed him, forgotten what he had said and fled. They might well have expected rebuke or condemnation or at least correction, but, no, what they got was commission: ‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ How had Jesus been sent? Out of the love of the Father – John 3:16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world through Him.’ Jesus had been sent out of the love of the Father and with His authority to proclaim the kingdom of God, the good news of forgiveness of sin and acceptance by God through his atoning death. And we too are called out of love for the Father and the world to carry this message wherever we go. This is the core message of the gospel. And Jesus responded to this commission from his Father with perfect obedience and perfect love. This is the task he hands on to his followers; it is our commission. The heart of the gospel we are to communicate to the world is the love of God, the forgiveness of sin and new life in Christ. Our lent course was designed to encourage all of us (not just preachers!)to find ways to convey this message. And we can only do this when we too respond to Jesus with similar obedience and love.
It is the message we hear the disciples preach in our lectionary passage from Acts, and what John celebrates in our passage from Revelation. But it cannot be done without the empowering of the Holy Spirit. For 3 years the disciples have accompanied Jesus and fumbled and failed. They have doubted, they have squabbled, they have fought for first place, they have wanted to blast their opponents. They cannot carry out his commission in their own strength. And they are not meant to. They need the empowering of the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus to do so. Which is why Jesus commands them to receive the Holy Spirit. It is the gift of the Spirit of Jesus which will enable them to proclaim the gospel with power and authority.
The Holy Spirit is given in its fullness at Pentecost and we see the results of that in our Acts passage. The disciples had been arrested for preaching the gospel but the doors of the jail had been miraculously opened during the night and they went straight back to the temple courts and began preaching again. They are re-arrested and brought before the authorities – and remember these are the authorities who had Jesus crucified – and they boldly proclaim the gospel: “We must obey God rather than human beings! ” says Peter. ” The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead – whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Saviour that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
This is a new Peter, fearless, joyful. His authority, like that of Jesus, springs from his obedience and love, and is empowered by the Holy Spirit. But his message of repentance falls on deaf ears so he cannot pronounce forgiveness of sins on his hearers. The gospel is a message of life and of death. Only those who repent and turn to God receive forgiveness and new life. There will always be those who prefer their own way and thus choose death rather than life. The Sanhedrin ordered the disciples to be flogged and gave them strict orders not to preach the gospel, which of course they ignored for their first obedience was to God.
What is the message for us in our readings today? Jesus has entrusted us, his disciples, with the good news of forgiveness and reconciliation to God and gifted us with the power of his risen life within us to share this good news with the world. And that doesn’t mean just preachers but all of us. It’s said the first Christians ‘gossiped the gospel’ as they spread out round the world. And doesn’t our torn and divided and violent world need the message of forgiveness and reconciliation and ‘ shalom’? All the committees of justice and reconciliation and humanitarian aid in the world fall short of their goal because they cannot touch the root problem of the human heart, which is sin. Sin – the wilfulness of the human heart to selfishly pursue its own interests at the expense of others and in disregard of God’s will and purposes for humanity.
To Christians alone belongs the secret of the transformation of the human heart. How can we NOT share it? How can we not wish to see people set free from bondage to all that enslaves them, whether it is fear, unforgiveness, addiction, anger, greed or a multitude of things? Unless perhaps, like Thomas, we have been disappointed by events we don’t understand and fail to see God at work and are reluctant to trust again or to even to truly believe the good news, let alone share it. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of Thomas in all of us. He was devastated and disillusioned by the turn of events. He didn’t understand what God was up to or even where He was. He kept away from the other disciples after Good Friday. He could have written off the whole Jesus thing. Perhaps we, like him, have been devastated by events in our own lives which we don’t understand and seem to contradict all that we have believed or thought we understood. If so, we too need a new encounter with Jesus Christ, who is always ready to share his risen life with us. Thomas at least was willing to join the other disciples again and because he did so he met the risen Lord and heard Jesus’ gracious words and his faith was restored.
‘Shalom!’ is Jesus’ greeting not just to Thomas, but to all of us who want to follow him.