God has saved us for a purpose. That purpose can be summed up in the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. Love God. Make disciples. Love others. That's what lies behind our mission here at JPC, which we define as 'Godly Living (that's loving God), Church Growth (that's making disciples), and Changing Britain (that's loving others). That's what we are here for. That's why we're using up perfectly good oxygen and taking up valuable space. Over these last few weeks the Lord has miraculously given us a fine new building. Why? Because he has great plans for us - and they're all about obeying the Great Commandment and the Great Commission in our generation.
I remember during my first week at University meeting an older student who became a friend. I was very struck by what he said as he chatted with a small group of us. He was deeply committed to his vocation to be a doctor, but he said that one thing above all others excited him. He said that a while back he had seen one of his friends find Christ and surrender his life to him. And ever since then he had been 'hooked' - and his chief passion was to do all he could to lead his friends to Christ if they did not know him. We too need that kind of focus in our lives. And we'll get it by paying attention to the risen Jesus.
Let's do that tonight by looking together at John 20.19-23, which you'll find on p1089 in the Bibles in the pews. Do please have that open. As we heard earlier, this is a passage that recounts what took place on the evening of Resurrection day.
Jesus says to the disciples:
'As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.'
And if the thought of that makes your heart sink, then it's worth being aware of the state of mind of those disciples to whom Jesus appeared after his death and resurrection.
If you look at them, you can see four negative conditions of mind and heart. When we suffer from these same conditions, they become obstacles that hinder us from getting on with the mission that we've been given by Jesus. So that gives me my first heading - the first of three questions:
First, WHAT PREVENTS US FROM FULFILLING OUR PURPOSE?
To begin with, there's Peter and the other disciple (presumably John) who ran to the tomb of Jesus to try and work out what was going on. They saw the tomb empty. They saw the graveclothes. Perhaps they even began to understand that Jesus was alive - 20.8 says the other disciple … 'saw and believed'. But they did not begin to grasp the full significance of what had happened. Verse 9 says:
They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.
In other words they were ignorant. Ignorant of the true meaning of Scripture. Jesus had told them often enough before his death, but it had not penetrated. I wonder if that's us this evening. Maybe you accept that Jesus was raised from the dead, but to put it bluntly you are ignorant of the Scriptures - you have not begun to see that the death and resurrection of Christ are not just clauses in the creed but are the pivotal point of the whole of history and of God's plan for the world.
Or maybe we're more like Mary. Before Jesus appeared to her she is a picture of hopelessness and despair. Three times her weeping is mentioned in three verses (11-13). Mary said to the angels 'they have taken my Lord away.' She was wrong, of course - but that's how things looked to her. Christ had gone. She was left alone, purposeless and useless.
That kind of hopeless sense that Christ has gone from our lives and that we are useless without him can still afflict us. When it does, it drains us of energy for the Lord's work. We are left spiritually limp and lifeless. We lose heart and give up. I remember a period in my own life when my witness was crippled by just such feelings.
Anyone who has tried to help someone entrapped in the tentacles of spiritual depression and hopelessness will know how desperately difficult it can be to get through. And in the end It's not something that we can do. It needs a work of the Holy Spirit to bring us back to life. Hopelessness prevents us from fulfilling God's purpose for our lives.
In verse 19 the scene changes to that room where the disciples were meeting. The one thing said about them is that they were fearful:
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews…
They had no confidence. They had no boldness. They felt their enemies had the upper hand, and the best thing they could do was nothing at all, in case they got noticed.
Now Satan is indeed prowling around like a roaring lion and we need a proper awareness of danger. But too many churches, and too many of us as individuals are like old ladies on a dark evening with the doors locked and bolted against a hostile world. We never venture out from the cosy security of our own patch, because fear has got the better of us.
Or maybe we just suffer from faithlessness, like Thomas. Thomas, of course, missed out on seeing and hearing Jesus on this occasion. He was off elsewhere. But he was told all about it. And he wouldn't believe. Verse 25:
'Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.'
Hebrews 11.6 says:
… without faith it is impossible to please God …
I remember hearing an Australian pastor who built up a mission amongst the members of biker gangs. He said he had been challenged to ask himself whether he really believed the gospel would work among such people. Without faith, he would never have got started. He had to be convinced of Christ's living presence and power.
Ignorance, hopelessness, fear and faithlessness are all great barriers to us fulfilling our God-given purpose. So how are they overcome? What do we need if we are to be effective? And where does the power come from for us to accomplish our task?
The fact is that when Jesus appeared to those disciples and spoke his words to them, he was giving them what they needed, and he was giving them power.
My second heading, then, is …
Secondly, WHAT DO WE NEED TO FULFIL OUR PURPOSE?
What the disciples need is provided in verses 19 and 20:
Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you!' After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
First of all there is quite simply the presence of Jesus.
Jesus came and stood among them …
When Jesus is with you, hopelessness and fear fade. And he is with us. That is the promise also in the Great Commission at the end of Matthew's Gospel (28.20):
'And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.'
We can depend on that . Whenever I am tempted to despair I turn to this promise. Jesus is with me. Despair cannot survive that, anymore than Mary's misery could survive when she recognised Jesus's voice speaking her name.
Through the Spirit he opens our spiritual eyes to see again that he is alive. He is with us. And he will never leave us.
The disciples had been told that Jesus would rise from the dead, and they didn't grasp it. We have been told that Jesus has risen from the dead, and at times we don't grasp it either. But It's true. Jesus is alive. He is with us by his Spirit. He speaks your name. And this isn't merely a matter of weighing the evidence for the resurrection of Christ and deciding on the balance of probabilities, important as the evidence is. This a matter of meeting the risen Christ. It's being convinced. It's knowing, as those disciples discovered, that Jesus is alive.
Then with the presence of Christ comes the peace of Christ.
Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you!'
What did he mean by that? On one level that was simply the conventional Jewish greeting. But in this context it meant so much more. Before his death Jesus had promised his peace (John 14.27):
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
This isn't a negative peace. It's not the absence of nasty brown envelopes coming through the letterbox; It's not the absence of hassles at work, or of tantrums from the children. It's the peace that flows from the cross - peace with God, and with one another, through the sacrificial death of Jesus.
We cannot know the peace of Christ without the cross of Christ. That is why as soon as Jesus had said this first word of peace he showed them his hands and his side. He surely did not do that just as proof of identity, like a driver's licence. He did it to point them to the cross as the fountain of peace. Paul says in Ephesians 2.13-14:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…
The wall is down between God and you, and between you and me, because of those wounds of Jesus.
So we know the presence of Jesus, the peace of Jesus and the cross of Jesus. Without those we couldn't even begin mission to our pet cat let alone to the ends of the earth. With them we can do anything that the Lord calls us to do. And when we know these things, then in place of faithlessness, our response is a deep joy, like that of the disciples (verse 20):
The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
The light that the risen Jesus brings into our lives blots out the darkness of ignorance, despair, fear and faithlessness.
Then all we need is power. So my third heading - and my third question - is:
Thirdly, WHERE DOES THE POWER COME FROM FOR FULFILLING OUR PURPOSE?
The obstacles in the way of the disciples have been swept away. Their own needs are met. Now Jesus's words turn the minds of the disciples to the task. In verses 21-23 I see four power sources for fulfilling our purpose.
For a start, Jesus speaks again his word of peace:
'Peace be with you!'
It seems to me that isn't just repetition for the sake of it. If the first word was speaking peace to the disciples' troubled hearts, then this one is saying, 'This peace is not just for sitting on. It's not just for you. It's for sharing. It's for the world.'
It's always the way that when Jesus sets us free from despair, he sends us out to serve him. I remember very clearly in my own experience a time when I was freed from an oppressive and debilitating burden of spiritual depression the like of which I have never know since. The first result was the deep joy of knowing that Jesus was indeed alive. The second result was that I was thrown into active Christian service as I had never been before.
As a church we help to support a range of people doing difficult long-term gospel work around the world. For instance, think of Peter and Elspeth Gray, working among Muslims in North Africa. They are bringing up their family in uncertain, sometimes difficult conditions, in an alien culture a very long way from home. Why do that? They do that because they know true peace in their own hearts and they long that others would come to share in it. That is the power that drives them.
The second power source is the commission we have from Christ to do the Father's work. Verse 21:
'As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.'
In other words, 'My work is now your work. Go and get on with it, in my name and with my authority behind you.' God is a sending God. He sends us out together, to continue the misson of Jesus.
Jesus lived as a servant, in obedience to his Heavenly Father, proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Now that is our task, and we are sent out to tell the world that Jesus the King of the Kingdom has come, and to call people to turn back to him before it's too late. Jesus commissions his disciples to go in his name.
The third power source is the Holy Spirit. Verse 22:
And with that he breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.'
In the account of creation in Genesis 2.7 we're told how…
the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
Now Jesus has begun the new creation and he breathes the life of the Spirit into us. 2 Corinthians 5.17:
… if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!
This new life is a bit like a computer virus that spreads to thousands of systems. As disciples of Christ, we are part of the new creation, and our new life spreads through the world as we tell people about Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. Archbishop William Temple said:
This is the primary purpose for which the Spirit is given: that we may bear witness to Christ. We must not expect the gift while we ignore the purpose.
Then finally the last power source is the gospel. Jesus ends this commission by saying (verse 23):
'If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.'
He's not talking there primarily about forgiveness within the church. He's saying what Paul said later: that we are ambassadors for Christ, that we have been given the ministry of reconciliation. As we offer forgiveness through the gospel, in God's good time people around us will find forgiveness. That is what the gospel does.
One church leader I know says that his Christian experience was transformed when he realised for the first time that the gospel really is powerful. It changes lives. As we share the gospel faithfully - whether in North Africa or China or Newcastle - people will respond and find forgiveness and new life. It's estimated that every day over 60,000 new Christians join the church around the world. That is a measure of the power of the gospel.
God's great mission goes forward, and we are called to join him in it. Jesus has given us what we need to overcome all that hinders us. Jesus has equipped us and given us power to get on with it. He has given us his peace to share; the authority of his commission; his Spirit within us; and a powerful, life-changing gospel.
250 years ago, John Wesley as a young man, determined to serve Christ, went as a missionary to American Indians in Georgia. Two years later he returned to England profoundly disillusioned. On the journey home he wrote: "I went to America to convert Indians; but oh, who shall convert me? "
He was deeply committed to Christ, and engaged in evangelism, but in despair. He needed to meet the risen Jesus, and hear his voice. And soon afterwards, that is what happened. He says:
"In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where someone was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."
True faith is an encounter with the risen Jesus. That's what happened to John Wesley. And so began a ministry that was to be instrumental in transforming this nation. Today we live in a nation that needs transforming again. Once Jesus has convinced us, he commissions us. None of us is John Wesley. But Jesus is sending each of us out to get on with fulfilling his purpose.
I think of my student friend who was committed to serve the world in whatever way he could, but whose passion in life was to lead people to Christ. I think of the prophet Isaiah who heard the voice of the Lord saying, 'Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?' And Isaiah replied, 'Here am I. Send me!' Jesus says to us, as he said to those first disciples:
'As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.'
He says that to you. He says that to me. What is our response going to be?