23 April 2017 – What Easter Means for Us

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Rev’d Dr Derek Tovey

Acts 2:14a, 22 – 32

1 Peter 1: 3 – 9

John 20: 19 – 31

Traditionally this Sunday is called “Low Sunday”. It has something to do with the fact that, after the “high” celebrations of Easter Sunday, normal service, as it were, is resumed. The term was introduced into the medieval English church, and it seems in some ways a very English thing: we cannot have too much excitement; let’s not overdo our celebration.

But it also seems rather ironic. Surely, so soon after Easter we should not be “low”? Surely, the week after Easter we should still be rejoicing in the joy of the resurrection? Well, so we are: and when we listen to our readings today, we cannot miss some of the energy of Peter preaching on the day of Pentecost about the fact that death could not keep Jesus dead, but God had raised him up, and they were witnesses of that.

And what about the joy, excitement and enthusiasm of the blessing in our epistle reading: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading…” (and so on). There is nothing “low” about that.

Admittedly, when we come to our Gospel reading, things are a little bit more mixed. We find the disciples gathering fearfully behind locked doors. We hear of Thomas, refusing to believe – despite the excited announcement of the others – that Jesus can possibly be alive again.

What is it that the fact of Jesus’ resurrection means for us? What is the message of Easter for us today: especially as we carry on with our ordinary, daily lives? And especially as we face a world that is often uncertain, and perhaps one which make us afraid of what the future may hold?

There is so much in our readings, but I wish to just pick out a couple of things that Jesus said to his disciples on the first Easter day, and focus on those for a few minutes.

The first thing Jesus says to the disciples, when he suddenly appears in their midst, is “Peace be with you.” On one level, this is simply a conventional greeting: Shalom aleykem (still used today, says one commentator)[1]. And, in fact, throughout the Muslim world you’ll hear a similar greeting: Salaam walaykum (to which the reply is walaykum salaam (“and to you, peace”).

But Jesus repeats it: and in the context of the resurrection this greeting takes on added meaning. What sort of “peace” does the resurrected Jesus bring?

  1. Peace with God. This is the burden of the blessing in 1 Peter. We have a “new birth” – we are brought into a new relationship with God through the death and resurrection of Christ. There’s an interesting progression in the way Jesus speaks about his disciples in the lead up to his death: he says his long talk with them on the night before his arrest that he now calls them “friends” because he has shared everything he knows about God with them. But when he meets Mary in the Garden on Easter morning, and gives her a message to take to the disciples, he says: “Go to my brothers and say to them: ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your ’” (20:17b). One of the themes that John’s Gospel wants to get across is that, by accepting what Jesus has done for us on the cross, by believing in his name, we become children of God. Right at the start of the Gospel, the writer says, “…to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…” (1: 12). Jesus speaks with Nicodemus about “new birth”, or birth “from above”, and says, “…just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness [so that all those who simply looked at that bronze snake on a pole were healed – they simply put their trust in doing that act], just so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whomever believes in him may have eternal life (3:14,15): life in relationship with God and with Jesus (17:3). So, when the risen Jesus stands among his disciples, and says, “Peace be with you”, he is bringing assurance of the fact that they are – and they can know they are – at peace with God.
  2. Peace with ourselves. Thomas was not with the disciples when Jesus first appeared to them. And no matter what they said to him, he could not overcome his sense of despair at Jesus’ death. And he needed proof; he needed to be able to convince himself that Jesus was alive. He needed to touch and feel Jesus, to see his wounds – even test to see that they were real (the other disciples had been shown these the week before, so maybe they had said, “Thomas, Jesus is alive, we even saw the wounds inflicted by the nails, and the wound in his side made by the spear thrust.”). But, no, for Thomas that was not enough; he needed to see with his own eyes, and feel with his own hands. His despair, his doubts, could not be taken away by the others: he needed an encounter with Jesus himself. And so, when Jesus turns up a week later, he meets Thomas right where he is; he takes up with Thomas at his point of need, if you will. “Ok, Thomas, you need physical proof: well, here I am, come on and take my hands and feel the wounds. Reach out and touch the wound in my side.”

Did Thomas need to do that in the end? I don’t think so: Jesus’ knowledge of him, and his situation, his need for reassurance in the face of his doubts and fears, his need for a real encounter to remove his despair: that was met by Jesus and that was enough.

When we are facing despair and doubt; when believing is a struggle; when we feel that God is absent, or we feel that we have missed an encounter with Jesus, know that God knows this, Jesus understands: and he will show up and say, “Peace be with you.” (Just hang in there).

The same applies when we face situations, and circumstances external to us that make us afraid. Notice that on both occasions the disciples were meeting behind locked doors, afraid of what the authorities might do with them. And on both occasions, Jesus turns up and says, “Peace be with you.” It took a while for the disciples to take hold of that peace, and it may not be something that we can quickly or easily get hold of. But again, hang in there: and keep meeting with your fellow disciples, and Jesus will turn up and bring you his peace.

  1. Peace with others; peace with our neighbours; peace with each other. Jesus says something rather strange to the disciples: it is not easy to understand, and it has occasioned a lot of discussion and debate over the centuries. He says to the disciples: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (20:23). Now, it might be, that as Jesus has said he is sending the disciples out, that they are to go out and share the news of the forgiveness of sins with others (and to some extent it’s in their hands how much, and to whom they take this message). But let’s assume that what Jesus is saying is that we, as Christians, now have the capacity and the mandate to bring reconciliation. When we are hurt and “sinned against”, we now can (and should) work to bring about reconciliation. We must be prepared to allow the power of forgiveness to be at work in our relationships with one another – Jesus’s command remember (his only one, it seems) is that we should love one another as he has loved us.

This is, perhaps, our most important calling as Christians, and as Christian communities: to be agents of reconciliation in our church fellowships, in our communities, in our neighbourhoods. The “Peace be with you” that we receive from Jesus, we must take and share with others. When we say, “The peace of Christ be with you”, it must be more than a polite greeting, a kind of liturgical “hello”. It needs to translate into real and meaningful effect in our relationships one with another, and then spill over into our relationships with others outside of the church fellowship.

How is this possible? How can we find peace for ourselves when we face difficult situations, when our doubts and fears threaten to overwhelm us? How can we find peace when our fears of the state of our world, or our nation, or our neighbourhood threaten to send us into despair, or fear, or disappointment? How can we find the capacity to bring reconciliation to those difficult circumstances of conflict, or alienation, or when relationships break down?

The answer lies in something Jesus does and says to the disciples on that first Easter evening. He breathes on them and says; “Receive the Holy Spirit”. It is in the power of the Spirit – the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit that empowered Jesus when he was on earth, the Spirit he promised to send as “another Helper” – that enables us.  By the Holy Spirit we can take hold of the peace that Jesus offers us. By the Holy Spirit we can go into the world as agents of reconciliation.

Even though this is “Low Sunday” – may we still find that the risen Christ stands among us and says: “Peace be with you.”

[1] Andreas J. Köstenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the NT), 572.