Sunday’s Sermon, The Bequest Of The Risen Christ
Well, here is my attempt for this Sunday. This same Lectionary Gospel reading occurred on the Sunday after Easter last year, and I preached on it then. Don’t expect this to be terribly original, then: there are some considerable similarities with that sermon, Resurrection Mission. One favourite story appeared in that sermon; another has appeared in other sermons. But I’m still tired after Easter, and tomorrow is our daughter’s belated birthday party (postponed largely because of Easter), and this is the best I can do.
The other day, I attended the first meeting of a committee my Chair of District
had asked me to join. Having found my way to the venue, and then to the room
where the meeting was being held, I found a seat around the table. The minister
who was chairing said he would get everybody to introduce themselves once
everyone was present.
Silence ensued. Eventually, the same minister broke the silence.
‘We look just like the family gathered at the solicitor’s to hear the reading
of the will,’ he said.
I wonder what the gathering of the disciples on the evening
of the first Easter Day looked like. Behind locked doors out of fear, they
await not the benefits of Jesus’ death, but the consequences. They expect the
authorities to round them up. They fear the worst.
Yet in a sense, they do hear the reading of the will. They do
receive their bequest. Strangest of all, the deceased himself reads the will to
them – that is, the deceased who has been raised from the dead. Jesus turns up
to give away his own inheritance.
So what is inheritance? Fundamentally, it is to carry on his
work. To that end, Jesus bequeaths these things to his disciples.
As I said, the disciples are fearful. They have locked the doors to protect themselves.
Suddenly, Jesus is in their midst. I think if that had happened to me, I would
have been even more afraid! I’m in fear for my life, and now this!
To people feeling like that, Jesus says, ‘Peace be with you.’
A moment later, when he commissions them to continue his work, he repeats these
words: ‘Peace be with you.’ Fearful disciples will not be in a state to carry
on God’s mission in the world. Therefore, the first bequest is peace.
Surely, this is relevant to us. When we consider the fact
that Jesus has called us too to be his witnesses, one common reaction is fear. We
have discussed this in our Alpha Course. We have talked about being in
professions where admitting to Christian faith is a career disadvantage. We have
mentioned friends and relatives who do not share our faith, and we wonder what
they think of us. We have wondered whether there are ways of sharing our faith
whereby people will still respect us. All of these threads, I suggest, reflect
an underlying fear about mission in general and evangelism in particular.
But Jesus says, ‘Peace be with you.’ He promises his peace
to fearful disciples who want to be faithful. He doesn’t always promise a
positive response to our witness, but he does promise peace in the storm.
In fact, isn’t that just what our non-Christian friends
expect? In recent months, I have been treated for raised blood pressure by one
of the nurses at our GP practice. She freely admits she doesn’t believe in God.
She can’t understand why not only my blood pressure has been up, but my pulse
also. One time she said, “I don’t understand why someone like you who believes
in an afterlife can get worried about things.” At the last appointment she
said, “Surely someone like you believes that God has got a purpose for things
when something goes wrong?” Although I gave her an answer that talked about how
I was like certain biblical characters who got mad with God before finding an
equilibrium, I have to admit she had a point. I don’t simply need the
beta-blockers that are reducing my pulse; I need the peace of God. It is the
risen Christ’s bequest to me. Others expect to see it in my life.
Jesus shows the disciples his hands and side, and then the disciples
rejoiced when they saw him – now they knew it really was him (verse 20).
I preached on this passage a year ago at Hatfield Peverel,
and told a story then, which I’d like to repeat now. When I was at Trinity College,
Bristol, one of the visiting preachers was the Bishop of the Arctic. He came on
a recruitment drive. I didn’t succumb. But he did tell a story about the first
Christian missionaries to the Inuit people. They decided to translate the New
Testament into the local language, but came to a halt when they reached this
passage. There was no word for ‘joy’.
However, one day, one of the missionaries accompanied the
Eskimo hunters. When they returned, they fed the huskies. As the dogs tucked
into their food, the missionary thought, there is a picture of joy. So he asked
the hunters what the word was for the dogs’ evident pleasure. As a result, the
first Inuit translation of the New Testament read at this point, ‘Then the
disciples wagged their tails when they saw the Lord’!
No word for joy. But we have words for joy: Christ is risen –
he is risen indeed! In the face of death, we have hope. When despair comes, we
have hope. In the midst of our sorrow … we have joy. Jesus is alive.
There is a story of a little girl who asked, “Mummy, do all
fairy tales end with, ‘and they all lived happily ever after’?” “No,” replied
Mum, “some end with, ‘When I became a Christian, all my problems disappeared’.”
The joy of the risen Christ is not fairy story joy. It is
joy that sustains us through thick and thin. The happy and the clappy are
intermittent features of the Christian life: whether they are present or
absent, the joy of knowing that Christ is risen and that everything is
different is what keeps our heads above water when our strength would not
prevent us from sinking. This becomes a powerful witness in a world that has no
reason for hope, and seeks joy in a bottle, a syringe or a shopping mall.
After the peace and the joy that fortify us for the work of Christ comes the model to do it: ‘As the Father has sent
me, so I send you’ (verse 21).
The problem is we have a faulty model for mission. We work
on a ‘Come to us’ model. We expect people to come to us as we are (or with a
little tweaking). We also say, ‘Why won’t they come to us?’ and don’t make the
connection that our model is faulty. It may have done service in a society
where there was a more common understanding of the Christian message, but it is
a broken model, because it is not the Jesus model. His model is that the Father
sent him – and thus we are sent, too.
In other words, by the Incarnation Jesus was sent into the
world to live and minister in the world. Mostly he conducted his mission not in
the synagogue but in the street. The risen Christ models our mission on his. It
requires faithful testimony in the world, not raids from the Christian castle,
followed by retreats across the drawbridge, which is then pulled up tight. Our model
is not about seeking a decision for Christ and then expecting people to conform
to our way of doing things in the church. The Jesus model requires that we call
people to follow him in the world, that we draw people into a new community,
and that we then form church within their culture. It will probably look very
different from what we are used to – but that is the Jesus model. He bequeaths
the model us. We are fools to discard his gift in favour of a discredited
Next, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’
(verse 22). It’s a bit of a mystery to some how this account relates to the
waiting for the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost in Luke’s Gospel and the Acts
of the Apostles. I don’t propose to spend time on that today, just to highlight
that whatever explanation we opt for, Jesus bequeaths his own Spirit as the
essential gift for sharing in his mission. Without his power, Christian mission
will not happen. With the Spirit’s power, the Church will break out with
unstoppable love from Pentecost onwards. Jesus himself didn’t begin his public
ministry until after the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove at his
baptism: so too must all Christian disciples be dependent upon the Spirit.
That’s why the Easter season leads to Pentecost. The two are
linked. Every disciple needs to make that journey. Some are fearful, but God
never gives bad gifts, only good ones.
Others are sceptical: if they received the Holy Spirit when
they found Christ, why keep banging on about receiving the Spirit? The
evangelist D L Moody made my favourite reply to this. At a meeting, he pointed
out that Ephesians 5 verse 18, commonly translated, ‘Be filled with the Spirit’,
might better be rendered, ‘Continue to be filled with the Spirit.’ Afterwards,
a vicar complained to him. Why say this? Had we all not received the Holy Spirit
in all fullness when we became disciples of Christ? Why insist that we continue
to be filled with the Spirit? “Because,” replied Moody, “I leak.”
Whatever our history of faith and spiritual experience, most
likely we all leak. We need to hear the summons of the Spirit regularly.
Finally, another puzzling verse from Jesus: ‘If you forgive the sins of any,
they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
Different Christian traditions have interpreted this
differently. I do not believe this is something that Christ hands down only to
those ordained priest who may pronounce the forgiveness of sins. I believe this
is about the missionary call to proclaim and demonstrate forgiveness. We have
received the bequest of forgiveness from the risen Christ himself, who has
forgiven those who failed him at his time of greatest need. Now what failing disciples
have received, they – and we – share with others. We share by telling people
just how forgiving God is in Christ. We share by living it out, as people
witness us forgiving those who hurt us. In a society increasingly of the
persuasion that says, ‘If it moves, sue it,’ the Christian lifestyle of
forgiveness is a powerful witness.
More troublesome, perhaps, is Jesus’ comment that ‘if you
retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ It is not that we may vindictively
refuse to forgive and that we may thus deny someone the blessings of God. I find
these words from Richard Burridge helpful:
The … word, ‘retain’ … appears only here in John – but throughout
Jesus has warned that the coming of light into darkness produces shadows, the ‘critical
moment’ when some prefer to remain in their sin and blindness. To be sent into
the world as Jesus was sent inevitably brings the possibility of acceptance or
Ours is the responsibility to share the bequest of
forgiveness. Ours is not the responsibility to determine the outcome.
I haven’t had time to touch on the story of ‘doubting Thomas’ (or ‘depressed
Thomas’, as Richard Burridge calls him). In that story are more missionary
keys: the patience Jesus has while Thomas makes his journey of faith, and the inclusiveness
that keeps Thomas in the group of disciples until his moment of revelation.
But in the meantime, I hope you will have found with me that
in this story (which is a favourite of mine) there are plenty of implications
for the mission of God. Jesus embraced that mission, and with him now risen and
ascended, it is our privilege in partnership with the Holy Spirit to follow the
model of being his witnesses in the world. And in dependence upon the Spirit,
we have the peace and joy of believing in the risen Lord that trumps the fears
of our world. We also have his authority to proclaim the forgiveness of sins.
May we – the Easter People who are also the Pentecost People
– join in with what God is already doing in the world, to the praise of his