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.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
By Revd Daniel Walters
“Fear”, a wise spiritual teacher once said, “is the path to the dark side”.
Okay, it was a fictional green alien spiritual teacher from Star Wars, but the point still stands. We don’t generally think of fear as being a moral weakness, but as a legitimate emotional response to a dangerous situation. Indeed, if humans literally had no fear, then we would not have survived for as long as we have!
But, famously, the Biblical injunction to “not be afraid” is the most frequent instruction given to believers, in both the Old and New Testaments. It may not be spoken 365 times as is sometimes claimed, but we are certainly talking triple figures, especially if we include similar phrases.
In this case, however, when Jesus appears to the apostles for the first time after the resurrection – huddled as they were in a locked room, terrified of the religious authorities – Jesus does not tell them to “not be afraid”. Instead he says something far more profound: he says “peace be with you”.
Being at peace is something far deeper than a simple lack of fear. It is a lifetime’s work of being truly able to accept oneself and those around us. To see both ourselves and others, and the whole created order, as truly creatures of God, loved unconditionally by him.
I suspect that’s something few of us will ever fully achieve in this life (I know I certainly have a long way to go!), but the fleeting glimpses we may receive are precious gifts that stay with us.
Yet just as Jesus offers this gift of peace to his disciples, to his friends, he gives them something which perhaps should strike them with fear: he sends them out, just as he was sent by his heavenly Father. He compares their mission here on Earth, which is about to begin, to his own which is coming to an end.
And what is their mission? To forgive the sins of others. To make it known to all that the poor choices they have made, the destructive habits which they have adopted, are not what defines them. What does define them, what gives them value is the fact that they are beloved children of God.
What a responsibility for the disciples! To not be afraid of this awesome charge would suggest a big dose of humility is needed. And yet, this is the very mission of the community of God: the Church.
In John’s Gospel, it is perhaps here that the Church is born, formed around this mission of peace through forgiveness. A mission that is beyond any of us, but not beyond God’s Holy Spirit, working in us and through us – and sometimes, even despite us.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep all of our hearts and minds in the knowledge of his love and his forgiveness this Advent and Christmas. Amen.
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