A woman goes into a shop and says to the shopkeeper, 'I would like five euro worth of religion please.'
'What? Five euro of religion! How much religion is that?'
'Well,' she answers, 'I would like enough religion to easy my sense of guilt, but not so much that it would demand me to forgive other people. I would like enough religion to make me a part of a church, but not so much that I would have to love the awkward people in that church. I would like enough religion to convince my friends that I am respectable, but not so much that they would think I am a religious-freak. I want comfort, but not challenge. I want heaven when I die, but I do not want to die to myself in this life. Oh, and I like some of the things Jesus says. Could you throw him into the mix?'
So the shop-keeper flicks through his catalogue. ‘Under the heading of Jesus it says that you are not meant to pick and mix. There seems to be no part-time option. I can't even see any retirement date or time off. Sorry, with Jesus it's seems to be all or nothing.'
In this morning’s passage we see comfort (‘peace be with you’) and challenge (‘I am sending you’). They go hand-in-hand.
Jesus brings people peace
The atmosphere in the room must have been tense. The doors were locked for fear of the Jewish authorities. There is shame—‘we deserted Jesus’. There is confusion—‘Peter and John found the tomb empty’. There is bewilderment—‘Mary Magdalene claims that she has seen Jesus.’
Then, amazingly, Jesus stands amongst them. He greets them with the traditional 'Shalom!' His first words could have been accusation, ‘where were you when I needed you most?’ Instead he offers these guilty failures a word of comfort.
Jesus would have used this greeting many times, but this is the first time John records its use. John wants us to see the special significance here. In the Old Testament ‘Shalom’ is associated with the blessing of God, and especially with the salvation that God would bring through his Messiah. John records ‘peace be with you’ twice, and in between Jesus shows them his hands and side. It is because the lamb was slain that we can experience piece with God.
This is more than the peace we feel when we walk in the woods or have the house to ourselves. This is more like a declaration that war is over. For without the death of Christ we would be condemned, the objects of God’s holy anger and awaiting the final judgement. But Christ died for the ungodly, and not those who see themselves as good. He declared, ‘it is finished’ as he took the full punishment for all the evil that is in us. This is why he can declare, ‘peace be with you.’ This should delight our heart!
The telephone rang at about three in the morning. It was the local hospital ringing about a man who was very ill and wanted to speak to a minister. The minister had never met this man before, and the man wasn’t a churchgoer. But this man knew that he was seriously ill and he was feeling troubled. So the minister asked if he could help and the man’s eyes welled up with tears. Seeing that the man didn’t know what to say the minister prompted him: ‘Do you want to make your peace with God?’ The man responded that he did. So in the dead of night, in the quiet of a hospital ward, with everyone around sleeping, the minister explained that although we all have rejected God, and although we deserve to be punished by him, Jesus took that punishment on the cross for us, so that we can have peace with God. The minister then prayed a simple prayer with that man, who prayed along with him. The next morning the minister called into the hospital but was told that the man had died in the night. The nurse told the minister that he had gone to sleep after he’d left and that he had died, ‘peacefully in his sleep.’ As that minister latter explained, ‘He was troubled; he met the Lord Jesus; he understood the cross ... Peace with God. That’s what Jesus’ death achieved, and his resurrection was that guarantee of that.’
Jesus sends us out to share this peace
With the comfort (‘peace be with you’) comes the challenge (‘I am sending you’). Stepping out can be difficult!
During my first term in college I was going to a Christian Union meeting when someone from my class came up and asked where I was going. I panicked. So I simply pointed in the direction of the building to which we were going and replied, ‘that way.’ I wouldn’t tell him that I was going to a Christian meeting because I was embarrassed about my faith.
But Christ sends us for God’s glory and our good. One Christian leader said, ‘nothing can wholly satisfy the life of Christ within his followers except the adoption of Christ’s purpose toward the world he came to redeem. Fame, pleasure and riches are not but husks and ashes in contrast with the boundless and abiding joy of working with God for the fulfilment of his eternal plans. The men [people] who are putting everything into Christ’s undertaking are getting out of life its sweetest and most precious rewards’ (J. Campbell Morgan, 1909).
The Holy Spirit equips us to share the message of peace
A couple of weeks ago Chris Harper-Mercer went into a classroom of Umpqua College in Oregon. He secured the room and got the attention of the students. He took his handgun and shot the professor dead at point blank range. He then got the students to stand up and state their religion. He was targeting the Christians. Before shooting them he would declare, ‘because you are a Christian, you’re going to see God in just about a second.’
I don’t think that it makes you less spiritual that you find the thought of sharing your faith difficult. Some people are wired to more outgoing than others. If sharing you faith seems daunting I have two words of comfort for you—you are not alone and you are not alone.
You are not alone in being scared. I assume that many of those disciples felt scared when they realised that they were being sent back into the very world that lay beyond those locked doors. True courage is not the absence of nerves but the willingness to step out and overcome them.
You are not alone because God goes with you. ‘In this world you will have trouble’ (it won’t be easy) ‘but take heart. I have overcome the world.’ Then he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit…’ I think this giving of the person of the Holy Spirit as a little taster of what will happen more fully when the Day of Pentecost arrives. Since the Day of Pentecost God’s Holy Spirit has been given to all God’s people. He will enable us to stand firm. He will open up opportunities. He will take of inadequate words and use them. Read the book of Acts and see how the person of the Holy Spirit transformed these fearful disciples.
Before we finish we need to ask what Jesus means when he says, ‘if you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’ I don’t think he is giving these individuals the authority to forgive people their sins or withhold God’s forgiveness from them. I think that he is saying that as we share the good news of Jesus we are declaring that those who trust in him can be assured of being forgiven and we warn those who refuse him that there is no forgiveness apart from him.
‘I’d like five euro worth of religion please.’ I would like peace with God without having to hear him say to me, ‘I send you.’ Happily it doesn’t work like that!
You see, God is not inviting you to join his mission because he is in desperate need of your help. He invites you to join him in mission so that you can share his joy. One group of missionaries were known for ‘glad obedience’. Another missionary was described as living the most ‘joyfully sacrificial’ life. Do you remember the miners who were trapped underground for sixty-nine days? One of them wrote, ‘I do not serve God out of duty but a heart full of gratitude.’ It is for your joy that Christ says both ‘peace be with you’ and ‘I am sending you.’