On 12th April 2015, the second of Easter, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 133, Acts 4:32-35 and John 20:19-31.
There are various occasions in the year when we might receive a gift from friends or family, even from our place of work. Christmas is a big opportunity for gift giving for many, particularly to children. Presents of all shapes and sizes often sparkle under the Christmas tree or bulge in sacks and stockings. Birthdays too provide a similar opportunity for all ages (though the older we get the less we may want to remember our increasing age!). Then there are wedding anniversaries, Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day, even Grandparents’ Day for those who qualify. At work people may get an annual bonus (particularly those in the banking world it seems) or a gift on retirement. Some may have received Easter eggs in the last couple of weeks. Sometimes we simply get a gift to say ‘Thank you’.
Once you receive a gift, what do you do with it? You might find it’s something you really don’t want, in which case if you can’t exchange it, you might give it away or sell it on ebay – not entirely what the giver intended! You might be really pleased to receive just what you wanted, and use it regularly. You might receive something that you could use for yourself or that you could share. It might be a box of chocolates, some fancy bubble bath, or cash. The choice is yours – keep it to yourself or share it with those around you. If you keep it to yourself, you can enjoy all of it. If you share it, other people benefit and you yourself benefit by seeing the pleasure of others.
On the evening of Easter Sunday, Jesus visited his disciples bearing gifts. He certainly wasn’t taking Easter eggs to them! He had no reason to give them a thank you present – a few days before, they had slept when he needed companionship, run away and left him and denied they even knew him. There was no reason for gratitude at all. Jesus came with gifts simply because of the love he had for the disciples, regardless of their behaviour.
The first gift Jesus brought to his fearful disciples who were cowering behind locked doors was peace, ‘Shalom’. It’s the sort of peace that is more than lack of noise or lack of war. It’s a wholesomeness, a completeness, a good will to all (including self) type of peace. This was not a gift that anyone would want to exchange or sell on ebay! Can you imagine how much self-condemnation the disciples were feeling? Can you imagine how bereft and lost they felt without Jesus? How confused must they have been about how to relate to God? They thought they had been following his Son and now, apart from some wild rumours, he had died as a common criminal and was no more. Hope was dead, fear and dread were their companions. Shalom was exactly what they needed.
The next gift was faith. He showed them his hands and his side. The wounds of death were there still, plain to see, not on someone who was dead but on someone who was gloriously alive. We can tell how important this evidence was from the reaction of Thomas. ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’ Basically he needed evidence, solid evidence, that Jesus had conquered death. It’s hard to blame him. Jesus gave that evidence to those gathered on the first Sunday evening, and he did the same for Thomas a week later. Having seen Jesus with their own eyes the disciples rejoiced, their faith was secure. We know from the later history of the church that they were certain of what they had seen and what it meant.
Then came the third gift: ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ He was giving them the gift of a commission, a purpose in life. Far from losing their purpose because Jesus had died, they had gained a purpose for life.
In order that they could use that gift they needed a fourth: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.’ Jesus put his Spirit within his disciples to give them the strength to continue his work. Jesus came to reconcile the world to God, completing his work by dying for the sins of all. The disciples were to go and offer God’s forgiveness and peace to all who would receive them.
Although Jesus gave his gifts initially to his first disciples, they didn’t keep them to themselves. These were gifts that they shared. They testified to the resurrection of Jesus, as we read in the book of Acts. No one could stop them doing this, no threats or violence from the authorities. They had that inner peace, that Shalom, which continued regardless of outward circumstances. They had faith that nothing could shatter. They carried out their commission of building community by bringing love, harmony and unity to the group that gathered around them. So much so that people willingly gave up their possessions to share with others. That kind of community could only be built by everyone offering forgiveness to one another for the inevitable misunderstandings that would arise from time to time.
We are here today, gathered for worship, because the disciples shared the gifts Jesus gave them on that first Easter Sunday evening. In sharing their gifts they have also shared their commission with us. We have a purpose in life. We too have been sent to continue Jesus’ work of reconciliation.
We may look around the world and see more war and distress each passing day. We could easily despair. However, if we work to make peace and forgiveness a daily reality in our area of influence, among those we encounter, we really are moving the world forward towards God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven. Praying that every week in the Lord’s Prayer is not enough. We are commissioned to work towards that reality and we have the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us.
Today and every day Jesus says to us as he said to his first disciples: ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’