Sermon: The Post-Easter Church and the Mission of God
Fabric conditioner and orange juice: what’s the connection? Apart from being regulars on the Faulkner family shopping list, they have one thing in common: concentrate. It’s hard now to find any fabric conditioner that isn’t of the concentrated variety. And if you are watching your budget carefully, as more of us are in these straitened times, then you may well buy fruit juice concentrate, where the water has been removed before transportation and later added again, rather than the original juice, that is so much more expensive.
What does all this have to do with the second half of John 20, and this account of early post-Easter Resurrection appearances? It’s that word ‘concentrate’. John has so much to say, that he concentrates it into a brief summary. Remember, he will not go on to report Pentecost and the explosion of the early church. So before he concludes his Gospel, he has to communicate briefly some strong hints of the big themes to come as the People of God take on a new shape in response to Jesus. How does he do it? Concentrate. He concentrates down the major themes that will shape the mission of God’s Church.
And because we have a concentrated account here of big themes in the mission of God’s Church, it seems to me that this passage – which is the Lectionary Gospel for today – is also a fitting one for this church anniversary.
What concentrated major themes are there here that shape the Church and her mission? I’ve picked out three. They come from the first half of this story, that is, before Thomas turns up.
The first concentrated theme is Easter. Surprise, surprise! Easter shapes the mission of the Church. It’s there when Jesus says, ‘Peace be with you’ (verses 19 and 21).
Where is Easter in ‘Peace be with you’? Remember the context. The disciples are behind locked doors out of fear that the Jewish authorities will be coming after them next (verse 19). And of course when their mission gets underway a few weeks later, they will soon encounter opposition from the religious establishment. They will be hauled before the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling Council), they will be imprisoned, some will be executed and a man named Saul will volunteer for a murderous campaign against the new movement. So to a group of people who are feeling the threat of death now, and who will again in the future, Jesus says, ‘Peace be with you.’
How can he say that? Because of Easter. He shows them his hands and his side (verse 20). Here is the one who was betrayed, who suffered and died, yet whom God raised from the dead. He had faced head-on what this group of his followers now feared, and would indeed encounter soon. But God had raised him from the dead, and so all the forces of evil arrayed against him could not prevail. Neither will they be able to prevail against the Church.
So ‘Peace be with you’ indeed – no wonder Jesus says it twice. Whatever evil, injustice and suffering is thrown the way of Christian disciples, the Resurrection means ‘peace’. The forces of sin and destruction do not get the last word, God does. For he promises to vindicate his people in raising them from the dead to a resurrection body and eternal life in his new creation, just as he did his Son.
‘Peace be with you’ – the Easter message of hope in the face of opposition – therefore becomes something to strengthen God’s People in their mission. To engage in God’s mission risks conflict with the world. Some will ridicule our beliefs. Others will want to silence us, accusing us of indoctrination. Some Christians will pay a price in their work environment. In parts of the world, there will be organised persecution, and even the BBC recently covered that when it reported the mass arrests of Christians from unregistered churches in China on Easter Day. In the face of all that, whether we think we will merely face mockery, or whether we risk physical and material consequences, Jesus says, ‘Peace be with you. Whatever happens to you now, resurrection awaits you, and eternity with God in a new creation where sorrow and pain will be banished.
So when we are nervous to do something that is part of God’s mission – whether it is to speak up for Christ in witness to his love, to show that love to those our culture despises, or something else – let us remember the Easter message. ‘Peace be with you.’ Nothing the world does in response to that mission can outrank the resurrection hope in which we live.
The second concentrated theme is Christmas. At the end of the Knaphill Easter Day service last week, I introduced the final hymn by saying it was the one that you could never omit on Easter Day – ‘O come, all ye faithful’. Then I announced it was actually ‘Thine be the glory’.
But Christmas – at this time of year? Yes! Jesus saw it that way. Not only does Christmas link forward to Easter – he who was born was born to die and be raised – Easter links back to Christmas. And that’s what we have here. Jesus describes the mission of the Church like this in verse 21:
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.
That links Easter back to Christmas. How? Like this: if the way Jesus sends us into the world is modelled on the way the Father sent Jesus, then you’re back to Christmas, when Jesus was sent. So Christmas becomes the model for our mission. We go back from John 20 to John 1, to that description of how Jesus was sent:
The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. (John 1:5)
As you get to know me, you’ll realise this is one of my favourite Bible verses. The mission of Jesus was not in terms of “I’m here, come to me” but in terms of “I come to you.” And this is one of our greatest mistakes in Christian mission: we set up so much in the church on the basis of getting ‘them’ to come to ‘us’. We want it all to happen in our comfort zone of the church: how can we get more people in? Well, ultimately that’s a reasonable question if it means, how can we bring more people into the fellowship of Christ’s followers? But when it means that we want to stay on our safe territory and just put on events here or tweak what we do on a Sunday in the hope that people who have not previously been attracted to us will suddenly come through the doors, then it is badly wrong. It is dangerous.
The Risen Christ calls us to go to the world with his love. We go to where others feel secure, not vice versa. We mingle in the community, rather than seeing church life as the centre and circumference of our social life. That’s why in our last circuit Debbie and I got stuck into the networks of people around our children’s school. That’s why here we’re starting to develop strong links with uniformed organisations. Christians need to be active in these places, as bearers of God’s love in Christ. For some it will be a group in their neighbourhood. For others it will be a sports or a social club. If we are in paid employment, then that will certainly be part of it. Where might it be for you?
What is clear is that the Risen Christ wants his disciples to break out of holy buildings and contagiously spread his love in the world. All that is implied in the concentrated sentence, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’
The third concentrated theme is Pentecost. Jesus breathes on the disciples – breath being to do with the Holy Spirit – and says, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ (verse 22). Then he gives them the message of the Gospel about the forgiveness of sins (verse 23).
And you might say, wait, hold on! We’ve got Pentecost coming in six weeks’ time! Can’t we just hang on until then? But remember, John is concentrating all this into a brief account. And furthermore, isn’t there something wrong with us if we only want to think about the Holy Spirit on one Sunday out of fifty-two in the year?
But no: receiving the Holy Spirit is essential to the church’s mission. We have no mission from God unless we reach out in the power of the Holy Spirit, who emboldens us with the message of sins forgiven. Thinking about the Holy Spirit on one Sunday out of fifty-two is approximately fifty-one Sundays too few. The Risen Jesus will return to his Father, and he will send the Holy Spirit in his place. Jesus himself only entered upon his public mission after the Spirit descended upon him at his baptism; how much more do we need to reach out in the power of the Spirit?
And right now part of me doesn’t care what experiences we’ve had of the Spirit in the past, what matters is whether we are living in vital relationship with the Spirit now. Why, even only two chapters after Pentecost the early Church was filled with the Holy Spirit again. What about us?
I am sure of this: that we cannot afford to be complacent about our living in vital dependence upon the Holy Spirit. It is not enough to say, I received the Holy Spirit in the past. It is not enough to have our doctrine of the Spirit in neat order. Some Christians argue about terminology: receiving the Spirit, being filled with the Spirit, being baptised in the Spirit. Who cares? As one preacher I heard many years ago said: “I don’t care what you call it, just get it!”
There can be no doubt about the connection between the empowering of the Holy Spirit and the proclamation of the Gospel of reconciliation. When the Spirit fell at Pentecost, the outcome was preaching. Whenever the Spirit comes in power in the Book of Acts, the result always seems to be some kind of bold speech. John Wesley is reputed to have said that if you are on fire for God, people will come for miles around to watch you burn.
So what might we do? Would it not be good for us to seek God seriously and persistently for the empowering of the Spirit so that we might speak courageously for Christ? That is, the same Spirit by whom God raised Jesus from the dead, so that we might have peace in the face of whatever the world throws at us when we proclaim or show the Good News? And is it not the same Spirit through whom Mary conceived the infant Christ who showed us the model for mission, not in waiting for people to come to him but in going to where they were?
Yes, the Spirit of God is a critical presence through all these episodes that define the Church’s participation in the Mission of God. If God the Father and God the Son relied so much on the Holy Spirit in order to accomplish the central acts of salvation and mission, then is it not doubly important to us that we call upon God so that we, the Church, are filled with that same Holy Spirit and consequently take part effectively in the Mission of God?
What could be more important on a Church Anniversary than that?