We misunderstand Jesus’ words to the disciples after his resurrection. We often think it’s about our mission, not about him mission, which we’re invited to be a part of. We’re also too hard on Thomas!
This was my attempt to get us thinking about those things in a different way. I shamelessly used most of the Church of England’s page on God’s mission in my sermon as well, as well as a couple of paragraphs from my sermon on Holiness. As so often, Tom Wright’s commentary John for Everyone was also helpful!
God’s mission. Reading: John 20:19-29
Imagine that you’re one of the disciples that first Easter Sunday. You’ve been through a deeply traumatic week. Jesus, the person that you’ve been following for the last three years, has been brutally executed. Crucified by the Romans, nailing your hopes and prayers of freedom to the cross as well. As well as your friend and master, Jesus. The person that you’ve been watching and learning from, the person that you were sure was the Messiah, God’s chosen one.
Imagine how you would feel that Friday. Would you be standing at the cross and weeping? Would you be making yourself scarce wondering if you would be next? You are scared and traumatised and have no idea what to do next. The Passover Sabbath comes and goes and you’re in no mood to celebrate.
But, then, the day after Sabbath has ended the rumours start. Rumours that somehow, somehow Jesus is alive! What does that mean? How is that possible?
Perhaps you even start to believe, start to understand some of what Jesus has spent the last three years saying. You’re still afraid though. Scared what might happen now the Sabbath is over and people can go back to work. Back to work plotting, back to work seeking the destruction of Jesus’ followers, perhaps? You meet in secret, you lock the doors behind you and plan quick getaways from the rooms you are hiding in.
And then Jesus appears to you, to you. He’s there in front of you, there with his wounds, there, alive! Your fear turns to joy. Joy and hope. And, as Jesus begins to speak, peace. The peace of knowing that God brings wholeness, the peace of knowing that no matter how dark, how bleak the situation that God will be with you through it. Transforming it. Not in the sense of “it’s going to be OK” but in the sense of even when it’s really not, even when it’s hard and painful and bleak then God is in the midst of it with you.
And then Jesus says “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
And it’s a good job that he has just said about giving you peace, a good job that you’re still on a high from having seen Jesus really and truly alive. Because that’s a scary thing to hear from someone who has just been nailed to a cross. It’s a scary thing to hear from someone who has been brutally executed. It’s the sort of thing that makes the lawyers want to reach for the small print. “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
We are sent. In the same way that Jesus was sent, for the same purpose that Jesus was sent, we are sent. Because of Jesus, we are sent. Which should perhaps get us to think a bit more carefully then we sometimes do about what that means. Not least because we can sometimes think that it’s our mission, that it’s the church’s mission. It’s not. The church of God doesn’t have a mission. The church of God doesn’t have a mission. The God of mission has a church.
The God of mission has a church whom he is calling to get involved in his mission. The God of mission has a church whom he is calling and equipping to get involved in his mission. The God of mission is sending us. The God of mission is sending us to get involved in his transformation of the whole of his creation.
So that means that as a church, as the body of Christ here in Hartshorne, we’re called to find out what God is calling us to do at this time. What plans does the God of mission have for us at the moment? That’s the question that we need to spend some time thinking and praying and working on at the moment. God’s mission is about transformation – transforming individual lives, transforming communities and transforming the world. But, what transformation at the moment? That’s what we need to work out. So, we’ll be spending some time doing just that, at PCC and as a congregation.
But Jesus hasn’t finished talking yet. He breathes on you and says “Receive the Holy Spirit”. And as he does so you think of how God himself breathed onto the man he had formed from the dust of the ground. How he only became a living being once God had done so. So you also think of how the Holy Spirit is restricted, is only given to priests, kings and prophets. But not even all of them. And you wonder whether this makes you a priest, or royalty, or a prophet.
The God of mission has a church whom he is sending and whom he is equipping through the power of the Holy Spirit. The God of mission has sent his Son, Jesus, to defeat sin and death and through Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to complete that transformation. So as Jesus says ‘Peace be with you’, as Jesus breathes on you, as Jesus says ‘receive the Holy Spirit’ you and the other disciples begin to be transformed, begin to be free from fear that has enveloped you from his arrest and crucifixion. Your lives begin to be transformed. And as they are the ripples of that transformation transform the people around them, transform society, transform creation, in ways that you’ll never see and would certainly not imagine were even possible.
Because there are some ways in which the transformation is always the same. The Holy Spirit gives us different gifts to help us work together for that transformation. The Holy Spirit helps us work out how God is calling us to be part of that transformation through us reading the Bible, together and individually, through the life of the church, the body of Christ as we seek God’s call together, and through our own listening, praying, thinking and sharing as we respond to the communities of which we’re a part.
But the Holy Spirit also helps the same fruit grow in all our lives. “The fruit of the Spirit” writes Paul “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Starting next week we’re going to be having a sermon series looking at the fruit of the Spirit. Looking at what they are and how we can cultivate their growth in our lives. And in the middle of that comes the celebration of Pentecost, when we remember how the full power of the Holy Spirit came down upon all the disciples and transformed them and many more people.
Jesus also says “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” And as he does so you remember all the arguments that Jesus had with the Pharisees and the others over who exactly could forgive sins, over who and when and why.
It’s a reminder and warning of the seriousness of sin, of the significance of the mess and destruction that we visit upon each other, the significance of the ways that our organisations are distorted and damaged, and cause damage in how they act. And this is also part of the transformation that we’re called to take part in.
Forgiveness is hard. We know that. But I think that we make it harder than we should be. I think that we make it harder because we think that it’s about feelings. We think that to forgive someone we have to be able to feel warm and fuzzy when we look at them. We really don’t.
Forgiveness isn’t about how we feel. The Bible tells us very little about people’s feelings and a lot about what they do. We don’t know why Judas decided to betray Jesus, but we know that he did. We know very little about what Jesus feels, and a lot about what he does. Forgiveness doesn’t start as something we feel. It starts as something we do, choices we make.
And that forgiveness includes forgiving ourselves. Guilt is a destructive emotion. The desire not to do whatever the sin is again is positive and healthy. Feeling trapped by guilt and shame isn’t. Sin needs to be sorted. And the message of the cross and resurrection is that sin has been and can be dealt with. That includes justice and reconciliation and reparation where necessary. But forgiveness is possible.
But there is one key person missing from this meeting, this encounter with Jesus. Thomas is not there. Thomas, who was brave enough to encourage the other disciples to go with Jesus when they were risking their lives. Thomas who was honest enough to question Jesus when he didn’t understand. Thomas who for some reason wasn’t there with the rest of his friends and fellow disciples. Thomas who gets a seriously bad press.
Which is unfair. The other disciples have physically seen Jesus, have seen him really and truly alive. Thomas is just asking the questions, wanting the answers that we would if we were in his position, if we had just seen someone close to us executed who was now claimed to be alive. Perhaps that’s why Thomas gets bad press. Because we see ourselves in him.
We don’t know if Thomas actually did do what Jesus told him he could do and touch the wounds in his hands and his side. We’re just told that he sees and believes. But once Thomas does see and believe he takes a massive leap beyond what the other disciples had understood.
“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” That is the call to prayer that Thomas and the other disciples would have been very familiar with. Jesus used it to introduce the two greatest commandments. But despite that, Thomas sees and believes and declares “My Lord and My God.” That was a huge leap, which took the greatest minds the next 400 years to really get a grip on that amazing truth.
And Jesus responds to Thomas with an encouragement to those who come after, to us “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We are blessed because we have not seen and yet believed.
And actually, it’s the last few chapters of the gospels that were really important for me becoming a Christian. I became convinced that the only thing that made sense of what had happened was that that Jesus’ resurrection really had happened. The disciples went from denying him, being scared and scattered, to people who were confident to talk to the rulers, to people who were transformed, who transformed those around them, who transformed the societies of which they were a part.
And this is the power of the resurrection at work. It is the healing and restoration of the world. It is the transformation into what it always should have been. That is what the God of mission is calling us to be a part of. That is what the God of mission created and equips his church for. Let us seek the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit, so that we can be part of God’s ongoing mission. Amen.