More Than Words

Delivered April 7, 2002 by Rev. Jerome D. Cooper.

Sermon Text:
John 20:19-23

… John, Chapter20, Verses 19-23. And now remember these verses follow directly on last week’s verses, which if you weren’t here, last week was Easter and we talked about the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and this takes place on that same day, the first day when Jesus was raised from the dead.

Verse 19: “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” May the Lord add his blessing to this reading from his Word.

Please join me as we pray. Lord, we thank you for these words from scripture through the Apostle John and Lord we pray now that these would be more than just words to us, but that by the power of your Holy Spirit, Lord that you would teach us, that you would deepen us, that you would change us, that we might be more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ in all that we do. For we ask it in his name, Amen.

The situation we find here with the disciples is that they are locked up in a room because of fear, and that fear probably comes from a couple of different things. One, you’ve got to remember that three days before, their leader was arrested. Two days before their leader Jesus was crucified as a rebel, a revolutionary. At the instigation of the Jewish authorities, but crucified by the Roman authorities, and generally if your leader has been crucified, as a follower, you probably ought to watch your back. Not only that, but now Jesus’ body has turned up missing and the Jewish authorities certainly did not do anything with it, the Roman authority didn’t, so guess who is left with the eye on them? The disciples. So they feared what might happen. So they locked the door and barricaded themselves in this room, probably not quite knowing what else to do. But, certainly hoping something would happen, good this time. It was into that situation, the disciples full of fear, trying to barricade out the world, and then Jesus comes in and says, “Hey guys relax, everything is okay.” I mean that’s really what He says. “Peace be with you”. Peace be with you sounds like something high and mighty to us but actually that was just a normal Jewish greeting. Shalom, alechem. Peace be with you. So, Jesus comes in with these normal words. Hey guys, peace, relax, good to see you. If it were only that though, that would have been very discouraging, most likely. But Jesus adds three components to his greeting that deepen them and make all the difference in the world so that they are not merely words, but they are something much more. He adds a confirmation, he adds a commission and he adds a companion.

See, for Jesus, peace is not the absence of something, but the presence of something. We often think of peace as the absence of conflict, the absence of struggle, the absence of things in general, and so, in general when we seek peace, we try to keep the world out just like those disciples were. Locked in their room, trying to keep the world out, hoping that they might find their happy place in that room, but it wasn’t working. But Jesus knew that peace wasn’t the absence of something, but the presence of something. The presence of fullness, of wholeness. The presence of Christ himself. In the midst of the circumstances we may find ourselves in. But, Jesus begins the first component of his peace we find is his confirmation. We find that in Verse 20 where after it says, “Peace be with”, after he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. His hands actually, being most likely his wrists where the nails had been driven through when he was crucified. His side where the Roman spear had pierced him to make sure he was dead and the reason he showed them his hands and his side was so they could get a touch of reality into their lives. Now, they had heard from Mary that Christ was risen, but they even knew from Peter, because Peter had appeared to them earlier in the day. Lets get serious,we are use to resurrection, at least Jesus’ resurrection. i somebody came up to you today and said, “Hey, somebody is raised from the dead” most of us are going to check that story out pretty carefully before we actually believe it. So Jesus shows them his hands and his side in order that they might see that this really is Jesus. He really is alive. And it says that they were overjoyed to see the Lord. But not just that.

There is an additional element that they are just beginning to grasp. And that is, not only is it really Jesus and he’s actually alive, but the suffering, the nail marks, the spear mark signifies something more. That Christ suffering in some way has accomplished something new for us. Our forgiveness and our redemption. Now for the many days, weeks and even years after that they grew into an even fuller understanding of that, but they were just beginning to grasp it here. And, so the first thing that Jesus does to give meat to his blessing of peace is the confirmation that I truly am with you. It is me and my suffering is accomplishing something for you. Now that’s great news. That is great news, that Jesus is alive, that we are forgiven, that we are redeemed. In fact, most Christians would almost prefer things stop right there. Things are good, Jesus and me. But Jesus goes on. He goes on, he doesn’t just give them confirmation but he now gives them a commission. He repeats his blessing in Verse 21. It says, “Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! as the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” As the Father sent me, I am sending you. A commission. Now at first glance this may be good news, but you’ve got to remember that here is Jesus standing before them, raised from the dead for less than a day, nail marks, spear mark in his side that is fresh, there is no longer any illusion what it means that Jesus was sent by the Father. And for Jesus to say, “Hey, just as I was sent, I am sending you.” Things are getting a little hairy here. Because what it meant for Jesus to be ascended meant sacrifice, it actually meant death. I imagine that some of the disciples might have been recalling some of the words that Jesus had spoken to them that last night he was with them at the Lord’s Supper. Let me read for you just a couple of verses.

First, John 14:27. They might have remembered this.

“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.”

Jesus’ peace is different than the world gives. The world often thinks of peace as the absence of something. Jesus gives peace as the presence of something. But he goes on to say then in Chapter 16, Verse 33. They might have remembered this one.

“I’ve told you these things, so that in me and you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Notice here, peace does not mean absence of trouble. It’s the opposite. Peace actually takes on more power when it is in the midst of trouble. I give you my peace. In the world, you are going to have trouble. But, peace and trouble exists side by side, and it is the peace of Christ that he gives us that allows us to live within the midst of that trouble without walling ourselves off in fear, the way the disciples had up to this point.

But before you get too discouraged, Christ gives us one more thing. Not just confirmation, not just a commission, but he does not leave us alone. He doesn’t say, “Okay, now go do it. Good luck.” In Verse 22 it tells us:

“And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Christ does not leave us alone. He gives us the Holy Spirit as a companion, as a guide, as one to empower us as we fulfill our mission, as we fulfill our purpose.

But you know it’s interesting here, it’s more than just a companion to keep us company, notice that strange phrase in there “and Jesus breathed on them”. Have you ever wondered what that was all about? To me, picturing it always seems just a little bit strange. What was Jesus actually doing? Now, to get the point of this unfortunately it’s helpful to know Greek, which I know most of you have studied it many years. It’s a very simple thing. This word breathe is only used one time in the whole New Testament. One time in the whole New Testament. It’s also used a couple of times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. And the first use, one of the few uses in the Old Testament was in Genesis, Chapter 2, Verse 7, which you may remember says, “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. And the man became a living being.” The Lord God breathed into the nostrils of the man and he became a living being. In other words, our commission by God is actually a re-commissioning by God. When Jesus breathes out and gives the Holy Spirit, he is actually giving us a new creation.

In the first creation, God breathed into us, we became living beings with a purpose to serve God, to be his representatives, his ambassadors in the world, and now Jesus again breathes into us the breath of life. He breathes into us the Holy Spirit, that we might be recreated, that we might be restored to our original dignity, to his original intention for us, we are now restored. We are Christ’s ambassadors to the world. We are given the privilege of exercising Gods authority in the world. And it tells us in Verse 23, a part of what that exercise of authority means is, “if you forgive anyone sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” I mean that is an amazing responsibility and privilege, isn’t it? That we have the opportunity through Christ’s commissioning and in the power of the Holy Spirit; we have the privilege of forgiving peoples sins. Now, of course remember we are being sent as Christ sent us. Christ was not hesitant with his forgiveness. Christ loved to forgive people. Christ was far more willing to forgive the average person than most of us are. We need to be released and freed to do that. To be his ambassadors. I can’t say, “Well, Mike your sins are not forgiven, but Bob, lucky youyours are.” Really, what this is all about, is that we have the privilege, okay, I’m sorry Mike, they really are forgiven. You were really worried there for just a minute. But we have the privilege of proclaiming Christ’s forgiveness. For claiming his death and resurrection on our behalf. Proclaiming that Christ really is here, he is alive and his suffering has paid the price that we might be forgiven and restored and redeemed. You see most of us in this world live in a prison of our own making. Most people live with a lot of fear in their lives. Based on past sins and failures and the guilt that arises from that. We also often fear even the future and what that might hold, what that might bring to take away what little joy and peace we might think we have. Most people in this world are like the disciples. In the room trying to lock out those things that might hurt them. And what Jesus does, he does exactly what he did to those first disciples. It says that they locked the doors, but Jesus appeared in their midst. Doesn’t tell us how. It doesn’t say he walked through the wall. It doesn’t matter how. Christ can get through any barrier that we might set up against the world, and he comes into that room to free us, to release us so that we will unlock the door and walk out into the world, into a world with all of its troubles, all of its struggles, and all of its anxieties, but this time with a purpose. A purpose, a commission and a companion. Knowing why we are going out in the world full of Jesus Christ as we go. That we might be Gods instruments for releasing others.

You know it was just two days ago, I happen to come across a prayer letter that was a few months old and actually I hadn’t read it yet. Its from Love and Action, one of the organizations that we support. And it tells a story of Karen Hoag, and if she is not a good illustration of the peace of Christ coming into a person’s life, I don’t know what is. Let me read for you what it says.

“After a life on the run, eventually ending in prostitution on the block in Baltimore, Maryland, Karen’s near lifeless body was found in a dumpster. Her pimp had disposed of her body the night before believing that she had overdosed on heroin. But God had other plans for Karen. After recovering in a nearby hospital, she was led to Christ by a member of Central Presbyterian Church. I don’t know who that was, but the Lord was using someone. Soon after she was introduced to Barbara Ellingson, another member of Central by the way, who directs Love and Action’s Baltimore Outreach. Karen’s life has dynamically changed. Off heroin and other drugs, she is now residing in a hospice. She recently wrote, the time you came into my life I was just finding Jesus, and it was the best thing that I have ever found in my life. Karen said she was greatly encouraged by the volunteers. You encouraged me to fight and to not let go, that Jesus could handle anything. And you were right. However, Karen’s outward body is slowly shutting down because of AIDS and the physical consequences of a past life on heroin. She wrote again recently, “I don’t know how much time I have left. I am sick some days and can’t move and then some days I am okay. On these good days I want to do the Lord’s work until the end.” She weeps as she prays for the needs of others, as a part of her service to Christ, Karen now prays for 55 people everyday. She considers her own sufferings, a means to grace in her life to bring her closer to God, she longs to be face to face with her Lord.”

Now there is a person who has not escaped the troubles of the world, but who has found the peace of Jesus Christ. She knows that Christ is there with her, that he is alive, that through his suffering he has provided for her forgiveness, for everything else in life, she is freed from her past. She is free to move into the future with a new purpose, a new commissioning because she is forgiven, she is redeemed, and she knows that she has a companion who will never leave her, that the Holy Spirit is within her, empowering her to pray for these 55 people everyday. Now this person who the world I am sure has written off, I imagine has a more powerful ministry than most of us in this room, because she has given herself completely to Christ, to be used by him. She has been set free and she is now his ambassador to set others free. Do you know the truth? That Jesus Christ has risen. That he has died for your sins. That he wants not to just get rid of bad things in life; he wants to fill you a new with purpose and meaning,not to escape the world, but to live in the world with courage. Do you realize that God does not want to leave you alone? He wants to live inside of you and he wants to put his Holy Spirit in you. That you and I together that we might even do greater things than Christ has done and those aren’t my words, that’s Christ’s promise to his disciples, that as we are faithful we will do even greater things than he has done. I want that for my life, do you?

Let’s pray together. Lord, we do thank you. We thank you that you have given yourself to us and for us. Lord, we thank you that you desire to release us from the walls that we have built around ourselves. Lord, release us that we might be your instruments in releasing others. Lord, we thank you above all that you’d give us your very self, that we might never be alone no matter what we face, that you are always with us. For Lord, we ask this, and we pray this in Jesus’ name and for his sake. Amen.