The Perspective of Joy, John 20:19-23, 4/8/12

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Apr 082012
 

Rev. Jeff Chapman, Faith Presbyterian Church

19When 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.’ (John 20:19-23, NRSV)

It’s Sunday evening, the third day after Jesus was crucified and buried.  His closest friends, the disciples, are huddled together, hiding behind locked doors.  They are afraid.  They are ashamed.  They are confused.  They have no idea what tomorrow will bring.

As best as you can, try and see things from this perspective.  Three years beforehand these men left everything to follow Jesus.  After hearing him teach with unprecedented authority and watching him perform miraculous signs, the likes of which they had never seen before, they each gave their lives to follow this man.  They bet the farm that Jesus was the Messiah.  They were convinced that he was the one who would deliver them.

But now, all their hopes and dreams have come crashing down.  How could Jesus have allowed this to happen?  He let himself be arrested.  He walked right into it!  He let himself be beaten.  He let himself be nailed to the cross.  And we didn’t do a thing to try and stop it from happening.   He was our master.  We were his friends.  And we abandoned him in his hour of need.  Some of us denied that we even knew him.  And now he’s gone.  What’s worse, the people who killed him are likely coming after us next.

But now some of the women have come back with this wild story that Jesus is alive again.  They said they found his grave empty.  They said they saw him with their own eyes.  They said he wanted to come and meet with us.  What could this mean?  Could this be true?  And if it is, after all that has happened, how can we possibly face Jesus now?  He told us this would happen and we didn’t believe him.  If he really is alive, what must he think of us now?

Can you grasp some sense of the fear, the shame, the guilt, the confusion that must have overwhelmed these men as they hid together locked up in that house?

Now, trade places.  If you can, imagine the same scene from Jesus’ perspective.  Remember that all along Jesus knew he would suffer and die.  All along, Jesus knew his best friends would desert him.  From the day he asked them to follow him, Jesus knew these men would ultimately fail him.  All along, however, Jesus also knew that death or failure would not have the last word.  All along he knew that life would have the last word.  He knew he would rise again.  None of this came as a surprise to Jesus.  All of it was according to plan.

Jesus has long anticipated this moment, and so as he comes to meet his friends that day he knows that he has news to share with them that is so unbelievably good that, as soon as they hear it and see that it is true, this good news will literally change everything.

How much fun must it have been that day to be Jesus?

I have a friend who lost the diamond out of her engagement ring only months after it was given to her by her fiancé.  She was a teacher at the time and one day she was out on the playground doing yard duty and when recess was over she happened to notice that at some point the diamond had fallen out of its setting.  Somewhere on this huge expanse of asphalt and gravel was this priceless gift that her future husband had given her to wear for the rest of her life.

She was crushed.  At once, she knew the diamond was gone for good.  This tiny stone would never be found among the literally thousands and thousands of pebbles on that playground.  In tears, she wasn’t even going to try.

Not knowing what else to say, however, a fellow teacher convinced her that there was no harm in looking.  And so after school that day, dozens of teachers and children from the school fanned out across the acres of those school grounds searching for a needle in a haystack.  Most of them, to be honest, weren’t all that hopeful.

But wouldn’t you know it, it just so happened that the sun that afternoon was at just at the right angle at just the right time so that as one of the teachers walked past that particular part of the playground she noticed, out of the corner of her eye, enough of a twinkle to cause her to go over and investigate and to reach down and, to her surprise, pick up the lost diamond.

Now, at that point there was this moment.  At that particular moment my friend is one side of the playground, still devastated because she believes her diamond is lost for good.  At that same moment, however, this teacher is on the other side of the playround ecstatic because she knows the lost diamond is found.  At the same moment one person is filled with sorrow while the other person is filled with joy.  Why?  Because they each are looking at reality from a completely different perspectives.

Can you imagine how much fun it must have been for that teacher to run across the playground to my friend and open up her hand and show her the lost diamond?  Imagine the joy!

Can you imagine the joy a doctor must feel as she goes to tell her patient that the test results have indicated that the tumor, which was once thought to be untreatable and deadly, has miraculously and completely vanished?

Can you imagine the joy a police officer must feel as he calls the parents of a child once thought to be lost and given up for dead but who has now, after all this time, been found alive and well?

Imagine the joy Jesus must feel as he suddenly appears and stands among his friends in that room hung so heavy with fear, and shame, and guilt, and despair, and regret.  Jesus just appears in the middle of it all and says to them – the first words he says to them – “Peace be with you.”  Jesus comes and immediately he offers them peace.

The word he likely used was shalom.  It’s a Hebrew word that carries with it deep meaning.  Shalom is a peace that is much more than simply the absence of conflict or noise.  Shalom is that place in life where everything has been made right again.  Shalom is when every longing has been satisfied, every wrong has been righted and forgotten, every fear has been put to rest.

One writer translates Jesus’ greeting here, “May God give you every good thing.”[1]  I like that, because the reality these men know is fear and shame and regret.  But now Jesus is telling them that there is another reality, a much truer reality.  In reality, God has given them every good thing.  They now have God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s favor, God’s blessing.  Peace truly is with them.

This is what Jesus is telling them but I don’t think they believe it.  It’s too good to be true.  How could it be true?  Somebody found my diamond?  No way.  I won’t believe it till I see it.  You’re telling me the tumor is gone?  That can’t be right.  Show me the scans.  Let me see for myself.  My child has been found.  No, I won’t let myself believe it until I’m holding her in my arms.

Jesus sees the doubt and hesitation on the faces of his friends.  So immediately, he shows them his hands and his side.  He knows they need evidence.  They need to see the nail marks and the wound left by the spear to know he is not a ghost, or a dream, or worse.  He really is alive.  He really is back with them.  He really has risen to make things right.  He really is extending them peace.

I love that Jesus always gives us whatever it is we need to believe.  If we are willing to believe, Jesus will give us whatever it is we need to believe.  Seek and you will find, Jesus once said.  Ask and you will receive.  Knock and the door will be opened to you.[2]

I say this because even though we’re all sitting in a church on Easter Sunday morning, I know that there are some of us here who have a hard time believing this story.  At times in my own life, I have struggled to believe this story.

It’s harder for us, actually, than it was for the disciples.  We face the same things in life that they faced – guilt, and regret, and shame, and confusion, and fear.  Unlike them, however, we don’t have the benefit of having the Risen Jesus show up in the flesh and stand among us.  We don’t have the benefit of examining the scars in his hands for ourselves.

We have the witness of the scriptures, which is a lot.  We have the testimony of others, which also helps a great deal.  We have the Holy Spirit working in our hearts to open us to the truth.  And yet it can still be so very hard to believe.

Jesus, however, will give you whatever it is you need to believe.

Of course, if you’re not willing to believe, I don’t think Jesus will waste his time.  God doesn’t force people into faith who don’t want to have faith in the first place.  However, I’m convinced that the person who seeks after the truth, open to the possibility that Christ may have, in fact, risen from the dead, I’m convinced that person will eventually come to see that he actually did.

That’s what happens here.  In spite of all their doubts, the disciples are open to believing and so when Jesus shows them the scars in his hands and the wound in his side, they believe.  They believe, and they rejoice.  They rejoice the moment they realize that they are, in fact, looking at their Lord.  All at once, in a moment, the perspective of these men changes to one of utter joy.

You see, the disciples were given palpable, empirical, physical evidence that Jesus of Nazareth, who really was dead a few days earlier, now really was alive.  Not just spiritually alive, or mythically alive, but physically alive, historically alive.  Jesus really died, and then three days later he really rose from the dead.  That meant that this man who claimed to be the Messiah, claimed to be God himself, had back up his claims by doing what only God could do, he overcame death.

2000 years later you are faced with the same claim and you must decide whether this claim is true or false, authentic or incredible.  It is a vitally crucial decision.  For as somebody once said, “If the resurrection of Jesus actually happened, then nothing else really matters.  If the resurrection of Jesus did not actually happen, then nothing else really matters.”[3]  All hope, all life, all possibility of things ever being made right again, rests on the truth of this claim.

This is why the disciples are ecstatic when they realize the truth.  Just like my friend’s despair vanished the instant she looked down at the hands of her fellow teacher and saw there her once lost diamond, in the same way all sorrow and trouble that weighed so heavy on these men also vanished the instant they looked down at Jesus’ hands and, seeing the scars there, realized that death truly had been defeated, which meant that Jesus truly was God.  And when the God who has conquered comes offering you peace, all that is left to do is rejoice.

Many of you here today know the deep joy that is yours when you come to believe that Jesus really did rise from the dead to come and offer you peace.  For you, everything in life has changed.  Everything.

Some of us, however, do not yet live from that perspective of joy.  But we can.  You carry around with you fear, and disappointment, and doubt, and pain.  And the weight, at times, may be crushing.  But if you seek after him, Jesus will show up right in the middle of your life one day, perhaps when you least expect it, and when he does his first words to you will not be words of judgment, or anger, or condemnation, or disappointment.  Jesus’ first words to you will be, “Peace.  Peace be with you.  Peace, because all has been set right again.  Peace, because God is ready to give you every good thing.”

From the moment we trust Christ, everything changes.  It’s not that hardship and grief completely disappear all at once.  They don’t.  Christians face sadness and trouble just like everybody else.  Sometimes more so.  The difference is that trouble and hardship do not defeat us because we know they have already been defeated.  We know that the darkness, though it still lingers, is fading fast all around as the dawn approaches.  And before long, the darkness will vanish completely.

One of the early Christian leaders, a man named Paul, once put it this way.  In the New Testament letter of II Corinthians he wrote,

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.[4]

Paul was a man who, even after he became a Christian, faced tremendous pain and trouble in his life.  In fact, he was ultimately imprisoned and executed for his faith.  And yet, Paul calls all the trouble of life a “slight momentary affliction” which he considers nothing in light of the “eternal weight of glory beyond all measure” which he knows God has in store for him.

Paul has the perspective of the woman who holds the diamond in her hand which she knows will, in short order, end the despair of her friend.   He has the perspective of the doctor on her way to tell her patient that the disease which has sapped his will to live has vanished.  He has the perspective of Jesus going to meet his devastated friends to show them that he is not dead, but has risen from the grave.

This is Paul’s perspective, and it is the perspective of joy.  If only we could come to see life from that perspective.

I recently heard the story of a five-year-old child who, at one point, became very sick.  She got so sick, in fact, that her parents, who of course loved their little girl dearly, were afraid they might lose her.  Things looked so bleak that they were preparing for the worst.

After running some tests, however, the doctors determined that while their daughter did need an operation, it was, in fact, a very simply procedure which was almost completely risk-free.  Their daughter, in other words, was going to be fine.  Not only would she live, she would make a full recovery.

Can you imagine the joy of those parents on hearing this news?  Their joy knew no limits.

The five-year-old little girl, however, was scared to death.  She dreaded the operation.  She was frightened of the hospital, and of the surgeon, and of the pain that she felt inside.  And as much as her parents tried to reassure her that it all would be fine, she just couldn’t understand.  As much as they tried, she could not get her to see things from their perspective.[5]

There is that moment again.  Can you see it now?  That moment when one person is overwhelmed by sorrow and fear, and another person, at the very same moment, is overwhelmed by joy and delight.  If only the one overwhelmed by sorrow could see things from the perspective of the one overwhelmed by joy.

I imagine that your life can, at times, feel weighed down by sorrow and trouble, guilt and shame, doubt and despair.  And yet, the message of the Christian Gospel, the message of Easter, is that Jesus is alive, and in our midst, and wanting us to see life, to see reality, from a whole new perspective.

G.K. Chesterton once pointed out that most people have been forced to be happy about little things, but sad about the big ones.  Nevertheless, he said, it is not how we were meant to live.  Instead, he insisted, we are more ourselves when joy is the fundamental thing about us, and grief the superficial.

In his words, “Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul.  Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labor by which all things live.”[6]

This is the image which greeted many of you as you came in for worship this morning.  Perhaps you found it an odd choice for Easter.  Perhaps you don’t think that anymore.

I love this image of Jesus because even though we live in a world heavy with fear and despair, this image reminds me that the Risen Christ has appeared in our midst, is among us holding out his hands for us see, is hoping we will see that he has overcome everything, and in all of it is barely able to contain his laughter.

As he once said to his disciples, Jesus now says to us, “I have told you all these things so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”[7]

Amen.

 

The Next Step – A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application

Read John 20:19-23.  As you picture this whole scene in your mind, what stands out for you?

Why did Jesus show his hands and side to his disciples?  Shouldn’t his very presence have been enough to convince them?

Have you been convinced of the reality of the Risen Christ?  If so, what has convinced you?   If not, what would it take to convince you?

If Jesus came to meet you face to face today, what do you imagine would be the first words he would speak to you?  Would he say to you, “Peace be with you?”  If he did, what would that mean for you?

Read John 20:24-29.  Don’t you think Jesus would be frustrated with Thomas for not believing the testimony of his friends?  And yet, Jesus doesn’t seem to be upset.  Why?

Read Paul’s words again in II Corinthians 4:16-18.  Do you live with this perspective that all the troubles of your life are merely “slight momentary affliction” in light of a coming “eternal weight of glory beyond all measure”?  Are you able to live daily with this level of joy?

Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan is the one who said, “If the resurrection of Jesus actually happened, then nothing else really matters.  If the resurrection of Jesus did not actually happen, then nothing else really matters.”  What do you think he means?  Do you agree?

Who do you know that most needs to hear the good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ so that they can know the joy that Christ has for them?

 

Further Scripture Readings for the Week:  This Lenten season, in preparation for Easter, join others in the church setting aside at least 1% of their day each day to read through the Gospel of Luke.

Monday:              II Corinthians 4:1-18 – Weight of glory

Tuesday               Psalm 118 – Song of victory

Wednesday:         John 15:1-17 – Complete joy

Thursday:             Luke 24:13-35 – Hearts burning

Friday:                   I Peter 1:3-12 – Indescribable joy

Saturday :             In preparation for worship tomorrow, read John 4:43-54.

 


[1] William Barclay, The Daily Bible Study Series: John, Volume II, (Philadelphia:Westminster, c. 1975), p. 272.

[2] Matthew 7:7.

[3] Jaroslav Pelikan, cited by Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, c. 2012), p. 1163.  Italics mine.

[4] II Corinthians 4:16-18 (NRSV).

[5] Adapted by an illustration from John Ortberg in Faith and Doubt, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, c. 2008), p. 164.

[6] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (San Francisco: Ignatius, c. 1908), p. 166.  The paragraph before this is my paraphrase from his writings in this same place.

[7] John 15:11 (NRSV).