There are so many directions a preacher can go with this text. Verse 23 alone could be a sermon about forgiveness and the mission of the church in declaring God’s forgiveness to repentant sinners. The problem of doubt is often a focal point when preaching this text as well. But I want to direct our attention to a phrase that Jesus used three times in this text: “Peace be with you!”
The first time he spoke it was the evening of his resurrection, when he suddenly stood amongst the disciples in a locked room. Notice their emotional state before he showed up and spoke to them. They were full of fear – fear of the very Jews who had crucified their Lord and Master three days earlier. The fear was justified. We would be afraid too, if we were in their sandals. But when he spoke these words, “Peace be with you!” and showed them his hands and side, their fear turned to intense joy!
This is a great word for us and our listeners! The risen Christ speaks peace into our lives yet today, in the midst of our fearful circumstances. Even though the cause of our fear may remain, he replaces the fear with joy!
The second time Jesus spoke this phrase was in the same setting. This time he spoke it to disciples who were overjoyed, when only moments earlier they were gripped with fear. “Peace be with you!” Perhaps this time it was spoken to bring them back down to earth from the heights of their joy, and most certainly to prepare them for what he was to say next.
Perhaps we have all prepared someone for big news we were going to tell them. We might say something like; “You might want to sit down for what I’m about to tell you.” Or “I’ve got something to tell you, but please don’t freak out on me, okay?”
Jesus spoke peace to them, for the next words out of his mouth were to send them out of the safety of this locked room and into the danger of a world that hated the name of Jesus. They were to be his witnesses. But to do so, they would need to be at peace. Therefore, he did something that otherwise might have caused them fear – he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
I don’t know if this was a temporary filling of the Spirit to hold them over for the big event on Pentecost, 50 days later, or what it was. I do believe it had to do with being at peace with what he had just told them to do. Four days earlier, Jesus had informed them that once he was gone, he would send the Holy Spirit to be their Comforter and Counselor to remind them of everything he had said to them. Those words didn’t give them much comfort at the moment they were spoken, but I think it is safe to say that, in this moment, those words suddenly took on a certain degree of meaning to them – words that would certainly find their ultimate fulfillment in their Pentecost experience and for all believers from that time on.
“Peace be with you!” can be great words of encouragement for our people as we send them forth from the safety of our sanctuaries out into a world that hates Jesus and his followers.
The third time Jesus spoke these words of peace was a week later. The setting was the same and the door was locked again (though this time John did not say whether it was due to fear), but this time Thomas was with them. Since he wasn’t with the other disciples the evening of the resurrection, he refused to believe what they told him about having seen the risen Christ. Here our Lord’s use of the phrase is spoken prior to dealing with unbelief. “Peace be with you! Stop doubting and believe.” Having one’s beliefs turned on their head, to suddenly believe what moments before we disbelieved, can be a frightening and mind-boggling experience for many. Rational types, who have convinced themselves that there is no God, or that Jesus was not the Son of God, or if he was, he certainly didn’t rise from the dead – he was merely unconscious and recovered – can find it a traumatic experience to suddenly believe, by faith, what previously they had disbelieved, by reason. They need the reassurance of the peace of God. They need to know it is not the end of the world to suddenly, and from that point on, believe something that before they had denied. And, of course, for those who do come to believe in Christ’s death and resurrection for them, and for the forgiveness of their sin, there is a sudden rush of peace that often accompanies that change in thinking and belief.
So let us preach the peace of God to those who don’t believe; not to give them a false sense of assurance, but rather the certain assurance that if they will allow the Holy Spirit to create faith in them, they will be recipients of God’s peace, and that is one of the many blessings that come from a saving-faith relationship with Jesus.
On this second Sunday of Easter, may we boldly preach the peace of Christ to our listeners. For some may be living in fear, others may be struggling with their call to go out with the gospel, and others may simply be struggling with doubts and unbelief.