The Sunday after Easter is when things get real. The excitement of the past week has died down. Those who only came to church out of a sense of guilty obligation have done their penance for the year. All the fanfare, special music, and choreographed movement of holy week is now complete. What we have left is just church, plain old, normal, run-of-the-mill church. The celebration of the resurrection has come and gone, but it is precisely at this time that we get to really focus on the consequences of Easter. For there are ramifications which come with following a Lord who has defeated the grave. There are very real and powerful lessons for us all as we journey with the disciples and witness their engagement with the resurrection. There are direct implications for their lives as there are for your lives. Today is the day we get to remember not only what happened but come to a greater understanding of what it means for you, here and now.
John, in chapter 20 of his gospel account, tells us about the events that happened in an upper room, both on Easter and the Sunday after Easter. It recalls for us the tactile proof of the resurrection. Jesus had certainly died and was buried, but now they see Him alive again. Jesus appears in the upper room. He shows them His hands and side. When Thomas refuses to believe unless he himself sees, Jesus comes back the next week, the next Sunday, and provides what Thomas needs. Thomas goes from unbelief to belief, from skepticism and doubt to making the highest confession one can make. He calls Jesus, “My Lord and my God.” Yet, in the midst of all these incredible things, this whole text is ultimately about the peace of the Lord. It is, after all, the first thing Jesus says both times He shows up in the upper room. He says, “Peace be with you.” His victory over the grave is about peace. His revealing Himself to His disciples is about peace. His coming again to Thomas is all about peace. Of course, the text is not about keeping that peace locked away in the upper room. Rather, this is the beginning of the sending of peace out into the world so all might have life in the name of Christ.
Now, when Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” it is more than a simple greeting. Peace, or Shalom in Hebrew, has a rich, deep meaning. When we say peace, we think primarily of the opposite of war and strife. If you are not in conflict, then you have peace. But in our Lord’s day, this word meant well-being, security, completeness, order, tranquility, and even divine grace. When Jesus announces “peace,” He is announcing the fulfilment of His work. It is the continuation to His cry from the cross where He said, “It is finished.” The work needed to be done to overcome the curse. To reconcile man and God has been accomplished. It is all complete. There is no remainder left over, so there is peace. Peace be with you. God’s peace, His salvation of sinners, His restoration for a sin-torn world is what Jesus proclaims. It is what comes with the resurrection.
The words and actions of our Lord in the upper room are truly incredible. Jesus says to His disciples, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” A good friend of mine likes to say this is one of the scariest lines in the Bible. The notion that the disciples of our Lord are going to be sent as He himself was sent is terrifying, because this was no easy task. It was a sending marked by opposition, hatred, suffering, and a cross. They are literally locked away in hiding because they are afraid of those who just crucified their Lord. Now, He is going to send them out into that world. But they do not go unarmed. They do not go of their own strength and ability. No, the text says, “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.’”
What is so awesome about this, in fact is so shocking, is Jesus is sending His disciples out to hand over the blessings of His work to the world. He declares they are to forgive sins. If they forgive someone their sins, that person is actually forgiven. If they do not, if there is no proclamation of the forgiveness of sins, then that one remains bound in their sin. If you give it, it is given. If you withhold it, it is withheld. This is the plan. This is how the consequences of Easter will spread to the world. This is how the peace He proclaims will reach others. The disciples will do it, the Church will do it, which means you will do it.
What is so wonderful about this text is it helps us to define and focus our purpose. When we come to church, and not just on the big celebration of Easter but on the Sunday after and the one after that and so on, what is it we are doing? What is the point of all this? I have got to tell you, sometimes I really wonder. Sometimes we get confused. A church can easily begin to look and feel like some sort of self-help group on the one hand, or a country club on the other. We come for support, for guidance, to learn, and be challenged. But to what end? Well, the answer is right here in the text. As Jesus shows up to proclaim peace, He then sends His followers to proclaim the same peace to others. He sends them to forgive sins. So, at its core this is what our fellowship is about. Everything we do is to facilitate the proclamation of forgiveness. We see it clearly, I hope, in our worship and Bible studies. But this purpose is also behind the time you volunteer to take care of the facilities or the money you put in the offering plate. It is to have a place for the forgiveness of sins to be proclaimed, a place in the midst of this torn and distraught world where we can find peace; real, divine peace.
But just as that peace was not intended to stay sealed in the upper room, so the peace given in Christ is not to be locked away inside these walls, and it is certainly not to be confined within your own heart. Over and again, you come here to a place where your sins are forgiven. You come where the peace of Christ both exposes your failings and then delivers you from the condemnation you deserve. Here the peace of Christ is not just a nice greeting, but it is a gift given to you. It is washed over your head. It is placed in your mouth. It echoes in your ears as you hear once again, “I forgive you all of your sins, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” But as the Father sent the Son, so He now sends you. He does not send you empty handed though, but He gives you the Holy Spirit. He gives you the promise of peace. He gives you the power of forgiveness.
Remember in the Beatitudes when our Lord famously said, “Blessed are the peacemakers?” This is what He was talking about. You are blessed by God. You are called, therefore, to be peacemakers in this age. That is, you are blessed to be a blessing to others, forgiven to forgive others. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” He says, “for they shall be called the sons of God.” God’s children, God’s offspring, heirs of eternal life, this is who you are. So, you are called to be agents of His peace. You are to speak the Law and Gospel of our Lord. You are called to rightly condemn sin when it is exposed and boasted in but always ready, always desiring, always longing to speak a word of forgiveness the moment the Law breaks the stony heart. This is how peace is made, peace between brothers and sisters, peace between man and God.
Look, we know this is not easy. We know full-well that we can all come up with a million excuses not to forgive. Our own pride, a desire for justice, a very real anger, and pain can halt us in our tracks. But here is the thing, even in our hesitation, even in our fear of being peacemakers, your Lord never ceases to come to you. He arrives in your midst, and says quite simply, “Peace be with you.” You are forgiven. You are redeemed. You are loved. So, once again Jesus sends you with His blessing, with His promise, and with His love.