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A Spirit of Peace

Sermon - 6/12/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

John 20:19-23

Pentecost is not one of the big Christian holidays. Most folk in the church, I hope, know a little bit about it, and are somewhat familiar with the story from Acts, and know that it is the birth of the church, when the Holy Spirit was given to those first disciples.

And so the rest of Acts tells that story of how all that played out. How the good news of Christ's resurrection spread throughout the world, concluding with Paul, the apostle Jesus never met, preaching in Rome, the city Jesus never saw.

Now, if you were to go back to Jerusalem when it all began, and ask those first disciples (cowering in fear after the crucifixion): is it conceivable that within two or three decades there will be followers of Jesus organizing in every major city of the empire? And even in Rome itself? They would have laughed at you. Are you crazy?

Then imagine yourself saying to this group of mostly blue-collar fisherman from rural Galilee, most likely none of whom could read or write, low income, with no discernable assets -- if you were to say to them: you are the ones who are going to make it happen, the ones who knew Jesus best. They would have really thought you were crazy.

It would be like going to Montgomery Alabama during that bus boycott, and saying within 50 years, an African-American who is not currently allowed to ride in the front of the bus or sit at your lunch counter, will become President of the United States. I mean, if they took you seriously, they probably would have lynched you, right?

Even after the resurrection, the idea that this rag-tag bunch of disciples who denied, betrayed, and abandoned Jesus could start a movement with global implications, was as conceivable as truthful ads during an election campaign :).

So how did they do it? And the answer, of course, is the Holy Spirit. Without the spirit, without Pentecost, the church would have been still-born, and we would all be pagans. There are some people who think we are anyway, but that's a different story :).

The global implications of the Pentecost story are made clear in that story we heard from Acts (Acts 2), by the naming of all those nations. All those places -- literally at that time, the 4 corners of the world. And even though those folks were Jews at this point in the story, who were gathered there in Jerusalem for one of the three major festivals, the Feast of Weeks, known as Pentecost in Greek, because it occurs 50 days after Passover, we get a glimpse through that story of the global language of this good news. That everyone hears it in their own tongue.

The Gospel of John gives us another Pentecost story. Only it comes not on Pentecost, but on Easter, and provides us with another story of how those first disciples of Jesus were given that gift of the Holy Spirit. It's found in the 20th chapter of John's gospel, verses 19 through 23::

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.’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

Now, at first glance, it doesn't sound like that familiar story from Acts, does it? This occurs on the evening of Easter, rather than the morning of Pentecost. There's no rush of the mighty wind, no flames, tongues of flame, no speaking in tongues, no great multitude of people from all corners of the earth.

But when you take a closer look, you see a number of similarities. The disciples are all gathered in one place, the Holy Spirit is given to them, there is the sending out of the disciples to go into the world, there is the central message of forgiveness that we also read in the sermon of Peter later on in Acts 2, it's pretty much the same message.

In other words, the Gospel of John in effect takes the two stories of Easter and Pentecost and combines them into one. Why?

Well, there's a couple theories. One is that since John's gospel is so different than the other three gospels, that it likely emerges from a community of believers who do not know some of those stores told in the other three gospels. May not know that story as told by Luke, who is also the author of Acts.

I don't by that. For one, the Gospel of John appears to be the last of the 4 written, a good decade or more than the others. So it seems unlikely that the Pentecost story would not have been known in most if not all Christian communities of that time. More importantly, John is very deliberate in the way that he writes this gospel. As he says in the very last verse of the gospel, that there are more things that Jesus did, if every one of them were written down I suppose the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. So the author clearly knows more stories that he chooses not to include.

My own favorite theory is that he looked at Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and said 'well, you know, those stories are covered pretty well, I'm going to throw in a bunch of stories that haven't been covered yet'. I haven't been able to convince any biblical scholars yet of that theory, but I think it's a good one :).

By the way, "John" is just the tradition by which we name this gospel, there's nothing in the gospel itself that identifies it as being written by someone named John, or a disciple of Jesus.

So here's my conclusion: John intentionally combines the Pentecost story with Easter to show that the identity and mission of the church is the continuation of the identity and mission of Jesus. And how better to convey that message than to show how on the very first day of the resurrection the spirit of Christ was passed from Jesus, from the risen Christ, to the Disciples. In other words, there was no pause, no break, no moment when Christ wasn't fully present in the world, from Easter until this very moment, and on into the future.

Just as Jesus was sent by God with a mission, so too these disciples are sent by Jesus. Just as the spirit of God descended upon Jesus at his baptism, so too it descends upon these disciples, in effect, at theirs. Just as Jesus forgave sins, so too now the disciples can forgive sins. In other words, the clear message is: just as Jesus and God are one, so now the disciples and Christ are one.

Followers of Jesus gathered here on Pentecost in the year 2011, we must never forget that identity. We are unlike any other human organization, social group, political group, labor group, education group, special interest. We are a community shaped by that identity, by that mission, by that gift of the Holy Spirit. That unity with the risen Christ is also ours.

Now, one more note. John not only combines Easter and Pentecost into one story, just for good measure, John throws in the creation as well. Did you catch that little reference? Jesus breathes on the disciples -- what the heck is that about? Do you want to be breathed on by somebody after they've been dead for 3 days?

Jesus is giving them the Holy Spirit. It's an allusion to the breath of God that gives life to the first human being. This literally is the birth of the Church -- that moment when the church receives the gift of the Holy Spirit. When the body of Christ takes its first breath. By literally, of course, I mean figuratively.

That is, it is a spiritual truth for all time. Regardless of historical fact for that moment. Which is to say, it is just as true for us now as it was for them then. This is our story. This is about who we are, not just who they were. Pentecost is when Christ breathes on us. Whew. Receive the Holy Spirit.

And so John wraps up Easter and Pentecost and creation and the birth of the church all in this one moment. This one simple story of the first appearance of the risen Christ to the disciples of Jesus. So I find it interesting that in these 5 short verses, two of them have reference to this greeting of Jesus, of the risen Christ: "Peace be with you".

Now, is that just his way of saying "Hi, how's it going?" "Yo, what'cha doin'?" "Long time, no see". Some translations treat it that way. The Contemporary English version, for instance (a translation that normally I like), says simply: "Jesus greeted them". And there's no reference to the content of the greeting, as if that were meaningless.

But why is it repeated? Are the disciples deaf? Read the gospel of John carefully -- I invite you to do that this week. Read it carefully, and note how many times Jesus repeats himself:

  • Chapter 10, verse 11: "I am the good shepherd". We love that verse. Jesus evidently thought it was a good one, because he repeats it three verses later.
  • Chapter 14, verse 10: "I am in the father and the father is in me". The very next verse, he repeats it!
  • Chapter 13, verse 34: "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I loved you, you also should love one another".
  • Chapter 15, verse 12 (speaking to the very same group of disciples), he says: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you". Yes Jesus, we heard that :)

And notice it's not just Jesus, in the story of the raising of Lazarus, both Mary and Martha, independently of each other, say to Jesus: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died". Verbatim, exactly the same words. Well, they're sisters, they talk a lot.

In the resurrection story, the angel says to Mary: "Woman, why are you weeping?". A little while later, guess who shows up and says to her: "Woman, why are you weeping?".

Is John so unoriginal that he can't come up with any other dialogue? Or, is it the case that this is a technique, this is part of John's style, a way of making an emphasis -- pay attention to this? I think the latter is clearly the case.

So what is that emphasis here in this story, in this double greeting "Peace be with you". Here's how I read the riddle: the giving of peace by Jesus to the disciples is synonymous with the giving of the Holy Spirit. The gift of the spirit, breathed into those first disciples, breathed into the church, is the spirit of peace.

And it is that spirit, in contrast and often opposition to the spirit of Rome that Peter and then Paul would carry to all those cities of the Empire, and which then accounts for part of its success. That here, in these communities of Jesus' followers was a spirit completely different than that of the Empire. A different way of being in the world. A different way of being community.

And this is the message of John to us: that the spirit of peace that we have in Christ is the spirit of Pentecost. It is what gives the church life and meaning and purpose in a world filled with violence and war, that we are a different kind of community. That we have a different way of being in the world.

Now, maybe we can't change the behavior of nations. But we can change our own. And we can give witness to what true peace from God looks like. Showing that love for one another as Christ showed us. Being an open and affirming congregation that welcomes and includes all kinds of folks, just as God created each of us. Being a global missions church, that is connected to our partners around the world, like Japan, demonstrating the importance of being a global community. Taking seriously those words of Jesus: "I was hungry and you fed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was homeless and you housed me". Not only doing those things, but in doing so, seeing in those people we serve, Christ himself.

Welcoming the resident alien in our midst, as scripture says, regardless of immigration status. Putting the Sermon on the Mount in practice by not only refusing to hate our enemies, but loving them. Praying for them. Seeking to build a world without war.

And who knows, maybe if we are faithful to that calling, trusting the Holy Spirit to be at work within us, it might even be conceivable that through that work of the spirit, what we cannot imagine today, just like those first disciples, may in fact, come to be.

I pray, and hope so.


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