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Sermon for Sunday 3 April 2016

FIRST READING Acts 5:12-32

12 Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. 13 None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high esteem. 14 Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women, 15 so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by. 16 A great number of people would also gather from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all cured. 17 Then the high priest took action; he and all who were with him (that is, the sect of the Sadducees), being filled with jealousy, 18 arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. 19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, brought them out, and said, 20 Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life. 21 When they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and went on with their teaching. When the high priest and those with him arrived, they called together the council and the whole body of the elders of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. 22 But when the temple police went there, they did not find them in the prison; so they returned and reported, 23 We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them, we found no one inside. 24 Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were perplexed about them, wondering what might be going on. 25 Then someone arrived and announced, “Look, the men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!” 26 Then the captain went with the temple police and brought them, but without violence, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people. 27 When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. 30 The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”


PSALM Psalm 148
1Hallelujah! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights. 2Praise him, all you angels of his; praise him, all his host. 3Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars. 4Praise him, heaven of heavens, and you waters above the heavens. 5Let them praise the name of the Lord; for he commanded, and they were created. 6He made them stand fast forever and ever; he gave them a law which shall not pass away. 7Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps; 8Fire and hail, snow and fog, tempestuous wind, doing his will; 9Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars; 10Wild beasts and all cattle, creeping things and winged birds; 11Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the world; 12Young men and maidens, old and young together. 13Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name only is exalted, his splendor is over earth and heaven. 14He has raised up strength for his people and praise for all his loyal servants, the children of Israel, a people who are near him. Hallelujah!

SECOND READING Revelation 1:4-18

4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. 8 I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. 9 I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.” 12 Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. 14 His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force. 17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.

GOSPEL John 20:19-31

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.


The good news for all faithful Christians is, that Easter has happened. God fulfilled His promise and raised Jesus on that first Easter morning. Sin, satan and all his empty promises was defeated on the cross and now by the power of the Father, Jesus was raised and death too has now been overcome and with it comes the promise of eternal life with God. But as we heard during the passion readings, it was more than simply a cruel death on a cross, Jesus was also abandoned, denied, beaten, mocked and a crown of thorns rammed down upon his brow. It’s enough to make you wonder about what He would do now that He has crushed hell under foot.
Jesus, crucified on Friday rose from the dead, and from that time-shattering event He set out. But to do what? What was the first item on His agenda? We don’t know what our Lord did between the early morning appearance to Mary Magdalene and the evening. The Bible doesn’t further explain what Jesus meant when He told Mary, “Do not hold on to Me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” However, what we do know is, that high on His list of priorities was to reveal Himself to the disciples. Which brings us to the question, knowing what we do about Jesus’ arrest, trial, sentencing, and the behavior of His followers, including Judas’ and Peter’s, what would you expect Jesus would say to them? And a similar question: Aware of the way in which the disciples abandoned their Lord, what do you suppose they expected to hear from their Master?
In our imagination, we can transport ourselves to Jerusalem on the evening of the day of resurrection. Ten of the 11 disciples move nervously about in the too small room. Their palms are wet with the sweat of anxiety and they’re caught up in a violent storm of emotions. For them, the death of Jesus had been a cruel blow. Not only did they lose the loving presence of the One who was, above all, an understanding friend, but they were also leaderless as well. To them, Jesus’ humiliating defeat, seemed to mean that all they had lived for and hoped for had crumbled beneath them. There in the dust lay their ruined goals, the ridiculous remains of their grand dreams. Oh, they had heard the rumors rumbling through the city streets, the story of some women that Jesus had risen from the dead, but “it seemed to them an idle tale.” John and Peter had verified that the tomb was empty, but that seemed to only unnerved them all the more. As remote as a resurrection would be, if Jesus had risen, He would have certainly contacted them by now. As it was, there was no evidence of Jesus’ body, dead or alive.
And to make matters worse, there were stories being spread throughout the land that the Jewish leaders had ordered the arrest and death of all the disciples, in order that this religious menace might be put to an end, once and for all. So each man in turn, as he paces the floor, mindlessly checks the lock on the door and the latches of the windows, just to be sure they were secure. It must have been an eerie atmosphere; no one speaks.
Each is imprisoned in their own private thoughts; each involved in an inner war. One part of them prays that the rumors are true, that the resurrection of Jesus is not just wishful thinking, that somehow He has survived the ordeal. Another part of them is filled with the fear that He might be risen. Fear, because they really didn’t look forward to meeting Him. Indeed, would they dare to look Him in the eyes again after they had failed Him so miserably? What would Jesus say? What would He do? They had shamefully abandoned Him. Would He return to them or would He go out and find other disciples, disciples who would believe in Him, who would stand by Him? They were filled with self-reproach and despair hung heavy in the room. What thoughts must have tormented them at that dreadful time?
Suddenly, without announcement, without fanfare, silently, forcefully, Jesus appears in the middle of the room, in spite of the locked doors. His initial greeting is but four words, “Peace be with you.” Considering the anxiety level of the disciples, the level of despair they must have felt, think about the affect those four words, Peace be with you, must have had. No words could have meant more to those disciples, they were words packed with power for healing, and wholeness. There were many reasons for the despondency and anxiety of the disciples, numerous reasons why they stood paralyzed in that moment. But Jesus’ invocation of peace was a word for all their reasons. Those four words went to the heart of the matter and ministered to their insecurity and loneliness, their overwhelming guilt, their sense of despair and the great fears which had immobilized them.
Indeed, the disciples had good cause to be frightened on that Easter evening. At that point in time they were unsure of many things, but they were absolutely convinced of one thing: Jesus had died. At least He had been dead. Then, as out of nowhere, a figure appears and immediately their sense of security is blown away and they realize how very vulnerable they are. Who is this specter and what does He want from them? Already they feared for their lives at the hands of the Hebrew soldiers and now this? That the disciples quaked with fear is a gross understatement. It was to that fear, that trepidation, that Jesus spoke His word of peace. It wasn’t just the fact that He spoke it; I believe it was the way in which He said it, that brought life back into the spirits of those disciples.
That powerful word of Christ spoke also to the enormous burden of guilt they bore. Not only had they deserted their Lord and Master, but they denied Him, failed Him. Not only had their faith proved inept and powerless and their resources of courage been woefully inadequate, but they had shown themselves to be utterly shameless. Consider. If it had not been for Joseph of Arimathea, what would have happened to the body of the crucified Christ?
Like the bodies of all criminals, it would have been violently torn from the cross and carelessly thrown on the garbage dump, fair prey for the creatures of carrion. By nightfall, the birds and the scavenger animals would have torn all the flesh from His bones. The thought is grotesque and repulsive, but that was the practice of the day. And that’s what made the disciples’ cowardice and inaction so scandalous, and their guilt so overwhelming. They had, in their faithless fear, abandoned the Lord’s body to possibly be mutilated, desecrated. And I believe Jesus took all this into account when He uttered those incredible words of grace and forgiveness, “Peace be with you.” It was for good reason that the disciples felt guilty and only Jesus’ word of peace could bring forgiveness and restoration. It’s a small wonder that the Bible says, “Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.”
Glad? My guess is that the reaction was more like ecstatic! Consider the incredible power that was at work here. Out of mourning comes rejoicing. Where once ambitions and visions lay crushed, now exciting new possibilities were born. Out of fear and depression sprang happiness and hope, creating an atmosphere of glory and joy. Guilt and remorse were forgotten in forgiveness and the disciples reveled in the warmth of reconciliation. With four simple words from the Master, stomachs which had been turned inside out were calmed, and minds which were raw with remorse were soothed. It happened because Jesus didn’t come with angry words of judgment or criticism, or disappointment (although the situation would certainly have warranted it). Indeed, there were many reasons why this initial meeting of Jesus and His disciples could have been disastrous, many reasons why they could have walked away demoralized and beaten. But Jesus came with a word of peace. A word for all reasons.
It’s amazing isn’t it, how, with a remarkable economy of words, Jesus was able to transform the situation and put His rag-tag corps of apostles back on the track again? The reconciliation had been successful and Jesus’ peace began to take control. That is for all, except Thomas, who had missed Jesus’ dramatic, post-resurrection appearance.
When the other disciples finally located Thomas, they tried to convince him that Jesus had risen and had met their pain with His balm of peace. Why Thomas had such difficulty in believing isn’t difficult to understand. Crucified and buried people just don’t get up and start living again. The other disciples may have been suckered in by some clever deception, but not Thomas. Oh no! He was a realist. And furthermore, if Jesus had returned, His words certainly wouldn’t have been kind, not after the way they had behaved. They deserved judgment and Thomas knew it. Perhaps that’s one reason why he remained unconvinced in spite of the united testimony of the other apostles.
In any case, Thomas also suffered from fear and a sense of failure. He knew the same guilt and shame which had plagued the other disciples, and his rejection of the so called “resurrection” only added to his anguish. His friends seemed to be living in a state of denial, refusing to accept the fact that Jesus was dead, that He no longer would be with them. But Thomas was still tormented by it. Something, however, stirred within Thomas.
Previously Thomas had been content to be off by himself. Since the day of the apparition of Jesus, however, the disciples seemed to be dramatically changed and Thomas sought their company more and more. Then, eight days later, when Thomas was with the disciples, Jesus once again appeared in the room without warning. There was a moment of shocked silence as the Lord turned, His eyes locked on those of Thomas. The “doubting disciple” must have cowered beneath Jesus’ piercing gaze, yet there radiated not condemnation but compassion, not judgment, but love. Then Jesus spoke those healing words of comfort again, “Peace be with you.” There’s little doubt that they were aimed directly at Thomas. These four words reached out to embrace him with an absolutely remarkable affection. At that moment, he experienced the wonder of forgiveness, just as the other disciples had a few days earlier.
All the shortcomings, the sins and the failures of Thomas put together were incapable of stemming the flood of God’s grace. All of the reasons why Jesus should reject him and condemn him came tumbling down. Even his persistent doubt wasn’t held against him. His faithlessness was more than conquered by Christ’s word of peace. Although he was faithless, God remained faithful for God cannot deny himself (2 Timothy 2:13). So it was true for Thomas as well, that Christ’s word of peace was a word for all reasons. And that’s the good news on this second Sunday of Easter.
It’s good news because Jesus still comes to us with His word of grace. He still comes to comfort us, to forgive us, to encircle us with His love. No matter how many reasons we may have for holding Him at arm’s length, for shutting Him out of our lives, they are as nothing when Jesus speaks His words for all reasons, “Peace be with you.” Those potent, piercing words slice through all our pretenses, surmount all our weaknesses, forgive all our sinfulness, abolish all our guilt, and overcome all our fears and our faithlessness. Not even our worst doubts can keep Him from claiming our hearts. And He won’t stop speaking His word until it can be said of us, as it was said of the disciples, “They were glad when they saw the Lord.”
“Peace be with you.” That’s God’s word, that is our Lord’s gift to us this morning, as we face this week, as we struggle with our daily problems and cope with the endless routines of everyday life. They are words which briefly, but eloquently, capture and express the hope of Easter, that Jesus is alive, that our Lord is with us, that the Spirit comes to bless us with this incredible, all-purpose word of grace. So great and vivid is it, that it radiates an atmosphere of Easter all our days; all our days and weeks and years. Even at the moment of our death, even then, that message is sufficient, as it’s spoken by someone who shares with you the word of the Lord, a word for all reasons, so “Peace be with you.”

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